A while back I made an offhanded comment that the game between the San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies on October 1st to decide the National League Wild Card was the greatest baseball game ever played. That was the kind of outrageous, provocative statement bloggers have to make to bring readers in, but I don't think I was that far off. In fact, I may have been right.
It was a winner-take-all game; one team was moving on, and the other was going home. The odd thing is that most of the games on the shortlist for greatest game ever aren't winner-take-all games: you've got Game Six of the 1975 World Series, Game Six of the 1986 NLCS between the Astros and Mets, Game Six of that selfsame World Series, between the Red Sox and Mets. One team had its back up against the wall in those games, but the other had some breathing room. That wasn't the case for the Rockies and Padres. It was the case for one of the other candidates, Game Seven of the 1960 World Series between the Pirates and Yankees.
Of course, this was merely a play-in game for the Wild Card, rather than a World Series or League Championship Series game, so that works against No. 163. On the other hand, the Rockies and Padres may well have been the best teams in the National League, as they each had won 89 games at that point, same as the Phillies in a weaker division, and one fewer than the Diamondbacks, who had won a fluky 90 games despite being outscored by 20 runs on the season.
That brings us to the game. Jake Peavy, who will probably win the NL Cy Young later this week, started for the Padres, facing the journeyman Josh Fogg. The Rocks drew first blood on Peavy, with three early runs, but the Padres came back with five of their own, four on a grand slam by Adrian Gonzalez, who struck me as the only hitter on the Padres worth fearing. Down 5-3, the Rockies chipped away with single runs in the third, fifth and sixth to retake the lead.
With one out in the seventh, Garrett Atkins hit a home run over the leftfield wall, with the ball bouncing off a seat in the front row and caroming directly back onto the field. The umpires stupidly called it a double, and the Rockies didn't score in the inning. The score remained 6-5, until the following inning, when with two outs and a man on first, the Padres' Brian Giles hit a catchable liner to deep left field, which the Rockies' MVP candidate, Matt Holliday, misplayed by taking a step forward before going back on the ball. It went for a double, and the Padres had tied the score. Had the umpires called Atkins' homer correctly, the Rockies would still have been winning.
The game went to extra innings at that point, and both teams struggled to score until the top of the 13th, when the Padres' Scott Hairston belted a two-run homer. The Rockies bullpen had gone eight innings up to that point and allowed only that one run on Giles' misplayed liner. Down 8-6, the Rockies then had to face Trevor Hoffman, the majors' all-time saves leader, in the bottom of the 13th. Hoffman had blown a save the previous Saturday in a game that would have given the Padres the Wild Card and eliminated the Rockies. Now he had a chance at redemption.
Kaz Matsui and Troy Tulowitzki greeted Hoffman with bookend doubles, and the Rockies were within one. Holliday was up next, with a chance to erase his misplay from the eighth inning. On the very first pitch, he nearly ended the game with a drive that almost went over the right-field wall; it bounded off the fence for a triple, and the game was tied. Holliday was now the potential winning run. Hoffman intentionally walked Todd Helton, bringing up Jamey Carroll, a light-hitting infielder who had pinch-run for Atkins after his luckless double. With runners on first and third and still no one out, Carroll drilled the first pitch -- every ball hit this inning was drilled -- to Giles in right field, who caught it on a line (he probably wouldn't have if the situation hadn't called for him playing very shallow) and fired the ball to the plate, where it arrived a quarter-second ahead of Matt Holliday.
I doubt if anyone really knows at this point if Holliday touched home plate, even Matt himself, who was knocked a bit silly in the midst of the play. What matters is that he was called safe as he lay in the dirt, dazed and bleeding, and the Rockies had won the game, 9-8.
So let's add it all up. The game had five lead changes, two screaming controversies -- both of which had a direct effect on the outcome -- and a superstar nearly costing his team the game, only to redeem himself by being the key figure in the winning rally, which took place in the bottom of the 13th inning against a probable Hall of Famer. Said superstar ended the game passed out in the dirt near home plate.
Looking back on that game, it was as great as I originally thought. But looking at the other games, I can't say it was better than, for instance, that 1986 Mets-Astros game, which featured the Mets scoring three in the ninth to tie it, both teams scoring in the 14th, and the Mets scoring three more in the 16th only to have the Astros come back with two in the bottom. But why do we need to anoint one game greater than the others anyway? They were all great. I love baseball.