Unsung heroes from the last five epics

There’s an excellent chance that when the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers meet a final time in Game 7 of the World Series on Wednesday night, the hero will be a marquee name such as George Springer, Jose Altuve, Corey Seager or Cody Bellinger.

Yet if Game 7s have taught us anything, it’s that it takes a veritable baseball village to win them. For every Edgar Renteria hoisted on the shoulders of his teammates after a walk-off, championship-winning hit, dozens of others toiled in the background to make that moment happen.

Tonight’s supporting heroes may be forgotten in time. Before that happens, however, here’s a look back at the unsung stars of the last five World Series Game 7s:

2016: David Ross

So, perhaps you’ve had enough of Ross? His Dancing With the Stars, his well-chronicled reputation as the game’s ultimate grit-n-glue guy, his seemingly inescapable presence on TV?

Sure, maybe all the attention seems out of proportion for a backup catcher who hit .229 over 10 seasons.

But here’s something David Ross can tell his grandkids: He hit a home run off Andrew Miller in Game 7 of the World Series.

Yes, the man who spent the waning years of his career mostly as Jon Lester’s consigliere – who entered Game 7 the same time the yips-prone lefty came on in relief – went yard off a guy enjoying perhaps the most legendary relief run in postseason history.

It’s easy to forget now, and who knows what happens if Ross doesn’t homer. But if he doesn’t, the Cubs take just a 5-3 lead into the late innings, and maybe the Indians’ three-run eighth inning rally – capped by Rajai Davis’s two-run homer – wins them the game rather than merely tying it. 

2014: Jeremy Affeldt

Of course, it was Madison Bumgarner who rode off as the legend after his stunning five-inning, two-hit relief performance on two days’ rest earned him MVP honors. And it put his name on everyone’s lips nowadays when starting pitchers can’t get out of the fourth inning of a playoff game, causing people to fret, “Why can’t they be more like MadBum?”

But Bumgarner might be a mere footnote to history were it not for Affeldt’s clutch pitching that preceded him in Game 7 at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium.

The consummate rubber-armed lefty, Affeldt was a crucial cog on all three Giants championship clubs. On this night, he’d inherit a mess from Tim Hudson, who in the 13th and final playoff start of his career would record just five outs.

Affeldt got out of a two-on, two-out jam in the bottom of the second and then spent the next two innings deftly navigating the Royals’ lineup of relentless grinders. He induced ground-ball double plays from Eric Hosmer in the third and Salvador Perez in the fourth, and handed a 3-2 lead to Bumgarner in the fifth.

MadBum famously took it from there. But Affeldt’s outing was typical for a decade-long career in which he appeared in 33 playoff games – and added to his team’s win probability in 31 of them.

2011: Chris Carpenter

Following the baseball hallucination that was Game 6 between the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers, it’s easy to forget the Cardinals needed to win one more game to bring home their 12th championship.

Thanks to a fortuitous rainout, Tony La Russa could start Carpenter on three days’ rest. And while Freese added to his World Series MVP resume with a game-tying two-run double in Game 7, it’s easy to overlook Carpenter’s role.

He’d pitched them here in the first place, with a stunning complete-game performance against the vaunted Philadelphia Phillies in Game 5 of the NL Division Series, and was in line to win World Series Game 5 until La Russa’s bullpen mismanagement cost him a win.

Beating the Rangers was no small task. Manager Ron Washington delivered an epic, profane speech before Game 7 to ensure there was no hangover from their Game 6 collapse. Those Rangers ranked in the top three in the major leagues in runs, OPS and home runs and boppers like Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli were at or near the peak of their careers.

And after they took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first inning, Freese’s heroics might have been forgotten had the Rangers made off with the trophy.

But Carpenter ensured that was all they’d get: He’d toss up zeroes over the next five innings as the game slowly tilted in the Cardinals favor. Carpenter’s final postseason line: 4-0, a 3.25 ERA and two series-clinching starts.

2002: Garret Anderson

It was John Lackey who history will record as the Texas cowboy who started Game 7 on three days’ rest and quieted a Barry Bonds-led San Francisco Giants lineup for five innings of one-run ball.

It’s Anderson, however, who unloaded the bases with a three-run, third-inning double that gave the Anaheim Angels a 4-1 lead, the final runs in a Game 7 that was far quieter than the previous six, during which the clubs combined for a record 21 home runs, four by Bonds.

That he’d be overshadowed in time by Lackey and fellow rookie Francisco Rodriguez’s mound heroics is typical Anderson. A career .293 hitter, he smacked 287 career homers and made three All-Star teams, yet managed to avoid widespread acclaim in a hitter-happy offensive era.

The Angels’ lone championship does not happen without him, however.

2001: Tony Womack

Any Yankee or Diamondback fan can probably recite the gut-wrenching bottom of the ninth by heart. Mark Grace’s single to start it, peerless closer Mariano Rivera’s stunning error on Damian Miller's sacrifice bunt, and Luis Gonzalez’s ducksnort single over a drawn-in infield to win it, ensuring him a lifetime of ribbon-cuttings and backslaps in the Valley of the Sun.

But let the record reflect this much: Tony Womack was the only Diamondback to make hard contact against Rivera in that ninth inning.

He turned on a Rivera fastball and sent it down the right-field line, doubling home the tying run and pushing Jay Bell to third. That forced the Yankees to play the infield in. And Gonzalez’s pop fly instead was a Series-winning, walk-off hit.

With a mere .317 career on-base percentage, Womack wouldn’t fulfill anyone’s modern ideal of a leadoff hitter. On this night, however, he did his job perfectly, with a pair of hits and perhaps most important, a team-high 27 pitches seen. The Diamondbacks finally rid themselves of a dominant Roger Clemens in the seventh, and Rivera was forced to record a four-out save.

That last out never came, due in large part to Womack.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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