MLB's 25 Most Important Games of 2011

Josh BenjaminCorrespondent IDecember 13, 2011

MLB's 25 Most Important Games of 2011

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    Wow, folks. What a year it has been for the baseball world. The game's best player picked a new team last week, and another great hitter may soon follow suit.

    With all that's been going on the past month or so, I've seriously almost forgotten how great the 2011 campaign truly was. From some late-season magic to the St. Louis Cardinals taking home the World Series trophy, this past baseball season featured some epic games.

    Thus, let's take a look back at last season and the 25 most important games of 2011.

No. 25: The Brewers Clinch the Division

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    Prior to 2011, the last time the Milwaukee Brewers made the playoffs was in 2008 as the NL Wild Card team. Their last division title came in 1982, when they were in the American League. Last year, the team was primed to make another run.

    On September 23rd, playing the Florida Marlins, the team was tied 1-1 in the eighth inning. All that was needed was a Milwaukee win and a St. Louis loss, and the Brewers would be division champs.

    With two men on, outfielder Ryan Braun came up to bat and smacked a three-run home run to give the Brewers a 4-1 lead. The team won, St. Louis lost and the fans at Miller Park erupted in joy.

    Just over a month later, Braun was named NL MVP.

No. 24: Jim Thome Hits No. 600

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    Jim Thome is one of the classiest men in the game and watching him is always a pleasure.  He has never once been connected to steroids and always seems to do what he does on raw, physical ability. Thus, when he was approaching the 600 home run milestone, fans across the nation were cheering him on.

    On August 15, when his Minnesota Twins were playing the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park, he launched two home runs. The second was the milestone blast and even the Detroit fans were cheering him on. When he crossed home plate, his teammates embraced him.

    It may have been a small moment in one particular game, but in the annals of baseball history, this game will go down as one of the biggest. You see, Thome is one of six members of the 600 home run club.

No. 23: Giambi's Still Got It

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    I'm always one for honoring our elders, and Jason Giambi is no exception. Since leaving the Yankees in 2008 and being an admitted steroid user, the big lefty returned to Oakland and was an ineffective DH before being released and picked up by the Rockies as a backup first baseman.

    He may not be able to hit well for average anymore and only played in 64 games last year, but Giambi was the man of the hour on May 19, when his team played the talent-laden Philadelphia Phillies. The former MVP went 3-for-5 that day with three home runs and 7 RBI, becoming the second oldest player to hit three home runs in a game.

    The even crazier part: the Rockies won 7-1 that night.

No. 22: Braves Win in 19

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    The Atlanta Braves are slowly starting to look good again, despite an epic collapse in 2011.  One of the more memorable games on their schedule took place against the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 26th. 

    What was so great about this game? Well, it just happened to last 19 innings.

    Atlanta managed to get runners on second and third with nobody out in the bottom half of the 19th inning when pitcher Scott Proctor came up to bat against Daniel McCutchen. With the infield in, Proctor hit a bouncer to the left side that was fielded by Pittsburgh third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who threw the ball home.

    Catcher Michael McKenry appeared to lay the tag on Julio Lugo, setting up runners at the corners with one out. Instead, umpire Jerry Meals called Lugo safe and Atlanta won 2-1.

    This may seem like an insignificant game, but what happened in it is just ridiculous.

No. 21: Francisco Liriano Throws a No-No

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    Overall, 2011 was a season to forget for Francisco Liriano and the Minnesota Twins in general.  The team finished last place in the AL Central and Liriano finished the year with a 9-10 record and 5.09 ERA.

    Still, I'm one for focusing on the positive and Liriano was the man responsible for one of the Twins' best games of 2011, tossing a no-hitter against the rival Chicago White Sox on May 3rd.

    In the 1-0 victory, Liriano walked six hitters while striking out just two, but still held his own and finished the 123-pitch outing. It may have been a bad season as a whole, but at least this one shining moment was one the team could hang onto despite the tough times.

No. 20: Yankees Hit 3 Grand Slams

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    Wow. Where do I begin with this one? It was August 25 and the Yankees were playing the Oakland A's at home. At one point, the Bronx Bombers trailed 7-2.

    After the final out, the Yankees had won 22-9.

    The run-scoring barrage came courtesy of three grand slams hit that day off the bats of Robinson Cano, Russell Martin and Curtis Granderson. It was just a small part of the team's march to yet another AL East title.

    On paper, it's just another regular-season game. Still, considering how the Yankees are the only team to ever hit three grand slams in a game, it makes it pretty important.

No. 19: Vladimir Guerrero Makes His Nation Proud

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    For most of his career, Vladimir Guerrero has been one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. Last year, playing DH for the Baltimore Orioles, he had his lowest home run total since 1997 with 13.

    Still, despite playing for a last-place team, Guerrero had one moment of glory on September 26 against the Boston Red Sox. With a single up the middle, he notched his 2,587 hit and became the all-time leader among players born in the Dominican Republic.

    Again, it was a small moment on paper, but a big one for Guerrero.

No. 18 and No. 17: Ben Zobrist's Doubleheader of Destiny

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    On April 28, the Tampa Bay Rays were in second place in the AL East. Though they would be in third place most of the year, these games had me thinking that they would ultimately find a way into the playoffs.

    In a double header against the Minnesota Twins, Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist cemented his status as one of the most underrated players in baseball with great performances in both games.

    In the first game, he went 4-for-6 with eight RBI, hitting a home run and a pair of doubles as the Rays won 15-3.

    In the second game, he went 3-for-4 with another home run. On the day, he was 7-for-10 with two home runs and 10 RBI.

    After watching a fairly unknown player carry the team on his back, I had a feeling that the Rays would be just fine come playoff time.

No. 6: Justin Verlander's No-Hitter

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    2011 was just a great year for Justin Verlander. He went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and took home both the AL Cy Young Award and AL MVP Award.

    One of the more important games that could be seen as the start of his dominant run occurred on May 7, when he pitched his second career no-hitter.  Verlander and the Detroit Tigers won 9-0 as the big righty walked just one batter and struck out four, throwing just 108 pitches.

No. 15: Mo Passes Hoffman

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    Say what you want about Trever Hoffman, Elroy Face or anyone in the bullpen department.  Mariano Rivera is the greatest relief pitcher of all time and he proved it on September 19th against the Minnesota Twins.

    You see, in this game, Rivera passed Hoffman for the top spot on the all-time saves list, registering the 602nd of his career after striking out Jason Parmalee for the final out. In the small scheme, this is baseball history. In the big picture, it's just another moment of Rivera's Hall of Fame career.

No. 14 and No. 13: Pujols' Back-to-Back Walkoffs

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    Now that he is a member of the Los Angeles Angels, St. Louis Cardinals fans should care more about the positive memories they have of Albert Pujols and less about him leaving for another team. In this case, let's take a look at two games that the fans will surely remember forever.

    On June 4th, the Cardinals were facing their hated rivals, the Chicago Cubs. Tied 4-4 entering the bottom of the 12th inning, Pujols came to bat and launched a mammoth home run to left to win the game. Naturally, the crowd at Busch Stadium erupted.

    The very next day, Pujols hit another walk-off homer, this one in the 10th inning, to give his team a 3-2 lead. The man was so clutch for the Cardinals and did so much for the team.

    With memories like these, fans should wish him luck as he starts the next phase of his career.

No. 12: A.J. Burnett Has a Good Game

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    Game 4 of the ALDS was a must-win for the Yankees, who trailed the Detroit Tigers 2-1 in the series. Fans were nervous about this game, as a rainout forced manager Joe Girardi to turn to the unpredictable A.J. Burnett, who had gone 11-11 with a 5.15 ERA on the year.

    Instead, Burnett had one of his best games as a Yankee, giving up just one run over 5 2/3 innings while scattering four hits and striking out three. The Yankees won the game 10-1.

    I know that Burnett has mostly been dead weight in his time with the team, but I ask one thing of the haters. Look at this game along with Game 2 of the 2009 World Series, and tell me that Burnett hasn't earned his paycheck.

No. 11: Matt Moore's Playoff Debut

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    Given how the Tampa Bay Rays were rematched against the Texas Rangers in the ALDS this past season, it's almost shocking that they went with a rookie like Matt Moore to start Game 1. It was only his second career start in the majors, and he had to make it on the road against a dangerous Texas Rangers team.

    I don't know if this was baseball magic or C.J. Wilson just having a bad game, but Moore did phenomenally well in his postseason debut. The 22-year-old pitched seven shutout innings and gave up just two hits as his team took the opening game 9-0.

    Sure enough, team management saw this as enough reason to sign him to a five-year extension just a couple of days ago.

No. 10: Doug Fister Puts His Fist in the Yankees' Face

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    He may have been rocked in the continuation of Game 1, but Doug Fister redeemed himself and more in the deciding Game 5 of the ALDS. Capitalizing on an early 2-0 lead, Fister silenced the bats of the New York Yankees (in the Bronx, no less) and gave up just one run over five innings of work before letting the bullpen do the rest.

    The Yankees came close to victory, loading the bases with one out in the seventh inning when trailing just 3-2, but to no avail. The Tigers won and went on to the ALCS in what was truly one of the more underrated upsets in baseball history.

No. 9: Beltre's 3 Home Runs

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    Adrian Beltre came to the Texas Rangers to win and save for the World Series loss, he helped them do just that. Entering Game 4 of the ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays, Beltre flashed the bat as he helped his team reach their second straight American League Championship.

    The Rangers won the game 4-3, largely on the back of Beltre's three solo home runs.

No. 8: Nelson Cruz Makes History

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    Game 6 of the ALCS was important for a couple of reasons. First, the Texas Rangers won it and made the World Series for the second year in a row. However, it also saw outfielder Nelson Cruz make postseason history.

    You see, in this game, Cruz hit a two-run home run and thus set a record. It was his sixth home run of the series and he also drove in 13 RBI. That's pretty incredible if you ask me.

No. 7: Cruz's Walk-off Slam

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    Move over, Reggie Jackson. We have found the next Mr. October. That man is Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers, and we have yet another playoff moment of his to honor.

    In this case, we go to Game 2 of the ALCS. It was the bottom of the 11th inning in Texas, with the score tied 3-3. The Rangers had the bases loaded and Cruz stepped up to hit against Ryan Perry.

    Sure enough, on a 1-2 pitch, the power-hitting Cruz launched a home run down the left field line to give the Rangers a 7-3 victory. It was the first walk-off grand slam in baseball history.

No. 6: Nyjer Morgan Works His Magic

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    I'm not sure if the man responsible for the importance of this game was Nyjer Morgan or his alter ego, Tony Plush, but it needs to be talked about. It was the deciding Game 5 of the NLDS and the Milwaukee Brewers were tied with the Arizona Diamondbacks 2-2 in the bottom of the 10th inning.

    With Carlos Gomez on second and one out, Morgan came up to bat against J.J. Putz. The scrappy outfielder hit a single up the middle to give his team a 3-2 victory and a spot in the NLCS.

    I think the rest of the importance can be said through Morgan's face in the picture, as his clutch performance throughout the year was instrumental in his team's success.

No. 5: The Rays Clinch on the Final Day of the Season

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    On the final day of the 2011 season, the Tampa Bay Rays needed just a couple of things to happen in order to make the playoffs. They needed to win against the tough New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox to lose.

    At first glance, it didn't look like either would happen. The Red Sox were up 3-2 entering the bottom of the ninth inning of their game against the Baltimore Orioles and the Rays trailed 7-0 entering the bottom of the eighth against the Yankees. Then, the magic happened.

    The Red Sox gave up two runs in the bottom of the ninth and lost 4-3. The Rays, on the other hand, refused to give up. They scored six runs in the eighth inning to pull within one, thanks to a three-run homer by Evan Longoria.

    Dan Johnson tied it up with a solo shot in the ninth inning and in the bottom of the 12th, Longoria came to bat again. The All-Star third baseman hit a deep drive to left field to give his team the AL Wild Card, capping off a month that saw the Rays nine games out of the wild-card spot.

No. 4: Albert Pujols Hits 3 HRs in Game 3

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    While Games 6 and 7 were the most memorable of the 2011 World Series, Game 3 was also one that saw history happen. The Cardinals won this game 16-7 and in the process, Albert Pujols joined an exclusive club.

    The power-hitting first baseman went 5-for-6 on the night with six RBI. How is that important?  Well, three of those five hits were home runs and Pujols became just the third player in baseball history to hit three home runs in a World Series game, the other two being Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson.

No. 3: Chris Carpenter Shuts Down the Phillies in Game 5

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    At the start of the season, with their "Four Aces" rotation, the Philadelphia Phillies were the odds-on favorite to win the World Series. Unfortunately, Chris Carpenter had other ideas in the deciding Game 5 of the NLDS.

    The game was in Philadelphia, so Carpenter and his Cardinals were already at a disadvantage being on the road. However, the veteran was cool and calm the whole game.

    In what can only be called a baseball miracle, Carpenter held the Phillies to three hits on the night as he threw a complete game 1-0 victory.  Even more impressive, he did not walk a single batter.

No. 2: David Freese Forces Game 7

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    In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series, Cardinals third baseman David Freese came up to bat with runners on first and second with two outs with his team down 7-5.  The count was 1-2 and Rangers closer Neftali Feliz came to the plate.

    Freese hit a high fly ball to right field and at first glance, it looked as though Nelson Cruz would catch the ball and the Rangers would be champs.  Instead, in a moment reminiscent of Bill Buckner, Cruz misjudged the ball and both runners scored as Freese ended up on third with a triple.

    The Cards would come back again the next inning on a single by Lance Berkman and in the bottom of the 12th inning, Freese came up to the plate again.  This time, he launched a home run to center field to force Game 7.

    His team won Game 7 and Freese was named MVP.  The fact that he was so clutch when it counted makes this game not only historical, but important.

No. 1: Jackie Robinson Day, April 15th

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    I can go on and on about games that featured great performances and deserve our recognition, or games that played a big role in the outcome of a certain team's season. Yet, and you can put me on the record in saying this, there is one game every year that is more important than the others, and that is Jackie Robinson Day on April 15. Even if my beloved New York Yankees won all 162 games, this one would still trump them all.

    April 15 is the day that Jackie Robinson made his major league debut, breaking the MLB color barrier in the process. To commemorate this historical day, some players, primarily those of African-American descent, will wear Robinson's No. 42 instead of their usual number.

    The fact is that Robinson was a pioneer of the game. Without him, there's no telling how long it would have been before the majors were integrated. So many players have him to thank for their success and even those who aren't African-American should salute him and his greatness.

    That being said, move over, All-Star Game. Move over, clinching playoff games. The head of the important games table is reserved for the spirit of Mr. Robinson and all he did for baseball.