10 greatest LCS Game Fives ever

Lately, I’ve started a series of articles here at THT on the greatest LCS games of all time. The wrinkle is that rather than just list the best games ever, I’m looking at them in context of their place in the overall series. Thus, we’ve had the best Games Ones in LCS history, as well as the top Game Twos, Game Threes, Game Fours, and now it’s time for the greatest Game Fives.

This series is inspired by a previous bunch of articles done on the greatest World Series games ever. Those went over well, so let’s look at the LCSs.

With Game Five, it’s very interesting. After all, through 1984, an LCS was a best-of-five, so all those games were inherently dramatic winner-takes-all affairs. For that reason, we’d expect older Game Fives to dominate.

In reality, though, the more recent Game Fives do very well in this list, as we’ll see. That’s partly because Game Five in a best-of-seven is still plenty dramatic. Mostly, though, it’s because it just so happens there have been a tremendous number of great Game Fives from 1985 onward. As it happens, many of the best games featured a team fighting back from possible elimination

Some games I assumed would make it had to be left out due to the fierce competition. The 1972 ALCS that saw the A’s win by one run and had Reggie Jackson break his leg while successfully stealing home (!) had to be left out. Also on the cutting room floor is a Mets walk-off win over Houston in 12 innings in the 1986 NLCS. Normally, those games would be locks, but like I said, this is a tough competition.

The prelude concluded, here are the best games in the history of Game Five in the LCS:

10. Oct. 19, 1981: Dodgers 2, Expos 1

It was the first time the Montreal Expos ever made the postseason, and here they were with home-field advantage, just one game from the pennant.

LA had the edge on the mound, as young super-stud Fernando Valenzuela took the bump. He allowed just three hits, but for a little bit it seemed like that was one too many. Specifically, a leadoff double by Tim Raines in the bottom of the fist looked like it would haunt Valenzuela, as Raines advanced to third on a groundout and then scored on another one to give Montreal an early 1-0 lead.

Expos pitcher Ray Burris was no one’s idea of an ace, but for one day he sure pitched like one. However, back-to-back singles leading off the fifth inning were too much, and a tying run came around to score thanks to a productive groundout by Valenzula.

The game stayed at a tense 1-1 until the top of the ninth inning. By this time, Montreal had pulled Burris for team ace Steve Rogers, but Rogers threw one bad pitch to Rick Monday, and he hit it out of the park for the pennant-winning blast. Thus, this game was forever known as the “Blue Monday” game.

To date, the Expos/Nationals franchise is still looking for that first pennant.

9. Oct. 17, 2005: Cardinals 5, Astros 4

The fact that this game is way down at ninth place is a testament to how many great Game Fives there have been.

Houston entered the game up three games to one, needing just one more win to claim the pennant. That was an especially big deal because they were a historically snakebit franchise. They’d played in three previous LCS and all were hard-fought losses. Heading into this game, Houston was 0-for-4 in games that could deliver them a pennant. Also, Games Six and Seven would be in St. Louis, so this was the last time to clinch the flag in front of the home crowd in Houston.

After eight back-and-forth innings, it looked like Houston was finally going to deliver for all their fans, as the Astros entered the ninth up, 4-2. On the mound to close it out was uber-closer Brad Lidge, who in the past two years had fanned 260 batters in 165.1 innings with a 2.07 ERA. True to form, he struck out the first two Cardinals, putting St. Louis down to its last out. WPA informs us that the Astros had a 98 percent chance of winning the game.

David Eckstein came up for St. Louis and soon fell behind one ball and two strikes. Just one whiff away from ending the series, Eckstein poked the next Lidge pitch into left for a single. The inning wasn’t over. Jim Edmonds came up next and worked Lidge for a walk.

That brought up the winning run to the plate, and if there was one man in franchise history the Cardinals wanted to be the possible winning run, it was the guy coming up: Albert Pujols.

After swinging and missing at the first Lidge offering, Pujols made contact with the second pitch. My God, did he ever make contact. I’d love to tell you how long he hit it, but that’s impossible as it hasn’t yet landed. Pujols hit a monstrous homer for the lead, and the Astros went down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the ninth to end the game.

Houston seemed cursed, but the Astros would win the next game to finally take home a pennant.

8. Oct. 18, 2004: Astros 3, Cardinals 0

As it happens, the Pujols homer game was the second consecutive year the Astros-Cardinals met in a great Game Five in the NLCS. This time neither team was facing elimination, but in all other respects this is the more impressive game.

It was one of the greatest pitchers’ duels in postseason history. Heading into the bottom of the ninth, not only was it still a scoreless tie, but both teams were twirling dueling one-hitters. Against St. Louis veteran Woody Williams, the Astros had managed just one scratch single, a first-inning hit by Jeff Bagwell. Meanwhile, Astros arm Brandon Backe retired the first 13 batters he faced and kept a no-hitter going until the sixth inning when Tony Womack gashed a single against him.

That was it through eight-and-a-half innings. Then, in the bottom of the ninth, St. Louis reliever Jason Isringhausen proved to be the only mortal pitcher on the evening. He allowed a single to Carlos Beltran, and then after Beltran stole second to put himself in scoring position, the Cardinals issued an intentional walk to help set up the force play.

That proved to be pointless as second baseman and former NL MVP Jeff Kent took the most clutch swing of his career and belted a three-run homer for the walk-off win.

The Pujols game is more famous, but frankly, this game is more impressive. The three-run homer was a walk-off, and you had matching one-hitters for most of the game. If this game was a possible elimination contest, it would rank even higher. As is, this is the highest-ranked non-elimination game here.

7. Oct. 18, 2004: Red Sox 5, Yankees 4 (14)

When I began this project, I figured for sure that this game would make the top three or four best Games Fives ever, maybe even the top spot. After all, aside from being an incredibly famous game, it was also a legitimately great game that earned all its attention.

The Red Sox, of course, had dropped the first three games of this LCS against their longtime rivals and needed a win to stay alive. They’d had a comeback, extra-inning win in Game Four to force this one, and they did it again here. Entering the bottom of the eighth trailing, 4-2, the Red Sox managed to tie it with a pair of runs. Then the game went on for 14 innings, one of the longest LCS games ever, before ending with a win.

My personal favorite memory is something smaller on the side of the game. In the 13th inning, the Red Sox had veteran knuckler Tim Wakefield on the mound, and instead of Wakefield’s normal defensive-specialist catcher behind the plate, regular starting backstop Jason Varitek was in. The leadoff man got on base on a swinging strike-three passed ball then advanced to second on another passed ball, and then to third on still another. It looked like Boston could lose on passed balls, but the BoSox survived.

It was a great game, but again, competition is tough here. There are three winner-takes-all Game Fives ahead and three others that had a team facing possible elimination in a best-of-seven only to rally in even more improbable ways.

6. Oct. 11, 1972: Reds 4, Pirates 3

This is one of the most incredible walk-off, pennant-winning games of all time. Other games have had a walk-off run score to deliver a pennant, but none had the run score like this one.

Heading into the bottom of the ninth, Pittsburgh (the defending 1971 pennant winner) led the Reds (the 1970 NL champion), 3-2. Then Johnny Bench led off the inning with a homer to tie it. Two singles and two outs later, the Reds had the winning run just 90 feet from home plate. A young Hal McRae stood at the plate, but he didn’t hit a homer to win it. He didn’t get a deep double or even a squib single. He didn’t even have to move his bat. Instead, Pirates pitcher Bob Moose threw one away, allowing Cincinnati to win on baseball’s only pennant-winning postseason wild pitch.

5. Oct. 14, 1976: Yankees 7, Royals 6

Here’s another of the winner-takes-all Game Fives from back in the day. This game had special importance because it gave baseball’s Evil Empire, the Yankees, their first pennant in 12 years, one of their longest World Series droughts in franchise history.

It was a tense and exciting back-and-forth contest, with a score of 2-2 after one inning and 3-2 in favor of KC by the middle of the second. Then New York finally shut down the Royals offense and took a formidable 6-3 lead. However, superstar George Brett hit a three-run homer in the eighth inning to tie things up.

That set the stage for the moment everyone remembers. In the bottom of the ninth, Yankee first baseman Chris Chambliss led off with the game-ending, pennant-winning, walk-off homer. Yeah, it’s hard to top a pennant-winning homer.

The game is also remembered for what happened after Chambliss hit his homer. Fans immediatelymobbed the field. So many ran out so quickly that it was difficult for Chambliss to complete his circuit around the bases. In fact, fans stole third base and home plate before he could get there, but since he stepped on where the bags were supposed to be, he was given credit for touching them, anyway. That’s a pennant-winning homer, Bronx Zoo style.

4. Oct. 12, 1986: Red Sox 7, Angels 6 (11)

California was up three games to one in the ALCS, and a win would give the Halos the pennant. That would be the first pennant for both the franchise and the team’s veteran and well-respected manager, Gene Mauch.

For a while, it looked like the Angels had the game wrapped up as they entered the ninth leading, 5-2. The top of the ninth was a complete and utter disaster, though, as Boston belted a pair of two-run homers to take a stunning 6-5 lead. Rather than back down, the Angels manufactured a run in the bottom of the ninth to tie it, 6-6. Two innings later, though, Dave Henderson, the man who hit the lead-taking homer in the ninth, drove in the winning run.

Boston was still alive. They’d win the next two, also, to ruin what turned out to be Gene Mauch’s last chance for a pennant.

To compare this with Boston’s 2004 Game Five win, both featured a team down three games to one needing a win to stay alive. Both emerged victorious in extra innings, but the 2004 game featured “only” an eighth-inning comeback whereas this one had a pair of ninth-inning comebacks. The 2004 ALCS had a better overall story arc, but 1986 had the superior Game Five.

3. Oct. 12, 1980: Phillies 8, Astros 7 (10).

This is the greatest Game Five from the best-of-five era in LCS history. That’s fitting, because the 1980 NLCS was the best series from that period, with each game seemingly tighter and more dramatic than the one before.

It was a topsy-turvy game that ended up being the fourth consecutive one in the series to go into extra innings. At the seventh-inning stretch, it was actually a tightly played, low-scoring game, tied 2-2.

Then Houston exploded for three in the bottom of the seventh, only to see the Phillies storm back with five in the eighth. The Phils couldn’t enjoy their lead for long, either, as the Astros scored a pair in the bottom of the eighth. The previously low-scoring game was still tied, but now it was 7-7. Oh, and just to add to the tension, all three of those half-innings ended with a runner stranded on third.

The Phillies got a runner to third in the ninth but couldn’t drive him home, and extra innings loomed. It didn’t last long, as Garry Maddox doubled home a run with two outs in the 10th, and the Phillies hung on to win, capturing their first NL pennant in 30 years. Philadelphia would then claim its first World Series championship in franchise history about a week later.

2. Oct. 16, 2008: Red Sox 8, Rays 7

What is it about the Red Sox in Game Five of the ALCS? They just have the knack for making memorable moments. In particular, what is it about the Red Sox in Game Five when down three games to one? They had memorable comebacks under those circumstances in 1986 and 2004, but no comeback quite compares with this one.

At the seventh-inning stretch, Boston appeared doomed, as they trailed, 7-0. Only one team in postseason history had ever trailed from a deficit like this, and that was way back in 1929 when the Philadelphia A’s overcame an 8-0 deficit to top the Cubs, 10-8.

Yeah, but the odds didn’t scare the Red Sox. The same team had rallied from a three-games-to-none deficit—something no team had ever done—four years earlier and had come back from a three-games-to-one deficit in the 2007 ALCS.

So we shouldn’t be too surprised that they scored four runs in the seventh, all with two outs. Then Boston scored thrice more in the eighth to tie it. In the ninth, the first two Red Sox batters made outs, but of course, that just added to the tension. A single, an error, and an intentional walk set up the inevitable game-winning single by J.D. Drew for an amazing 8-7 Red Sox win.

Unlike 1986, 2004 (or 2007), this time Boston wouldn’t be able to rally to win the entire series, but this is still the best Game Five by Boston—and in all ALCS history for that matter.

1. Oct. 17, 1999: Mets 4, Braves 3 (15)

There has never been a game quite like this one. Like seemingly every game on this list, this was a potential elimination game, with the Braves up three games to one. In fact, Game Four also had been an elimination game, but the Mets rallied to win that one.

Here, the Mets took an early 2-0 lead in the first and then couldn’t score to save their lives after that. It wasn’t a lack of opportunities that killed them, either. They had a man on third with one out in the second but stranded him there. New York then loaded the bases with one out in the sixth, only to see weak-hitting shortstop Rey Ordonez hit into an inning-killing double play. Men reached base in several other innings, but the Mets ended the ninth with just two runs on the scoreboard.

Meanwhile, Atlanta had tied it way back in the fourth. Frankly, they had to be even more frustrated than the Mets about having only two runs. They loaded the bases in consecutive innings, in the sixth and seventh, and scored zero runs. The Braves left at least one runner in scoring position in seven of the first 10 innings.

Yet it was still 2-2, and the game went deeper into overtime. It looked like whomever could end the drought of clutch hitting first would win. But the game stretched on, becoming the longest Game Five in LCS history.

In the 15th, Walt Weiss led off with an Atlanta single. It was the 13th consecutive inning at least one Brave had reached base. This time, however, the team finally brought the runner home, thanks to a Keith Lockhart triple.

Now the Mets, a team that hadn’t scored in five hours, needed to make a rally pay off. Leadoff hitter Shawon Dunston did his part, singling to center and then stealing second base. After a walk, Mets manager Bobby Valentine had Edgardo Alfonzo sacrifice the runners over. Now the Mets had the tying run 90 feet from home plate and the winning run in scoring position. With just one out, the pressure suddenly was on Atlanta.

Manager Bobby Cox decided to issue an intentional walk to set up the force at every base. With luck, they could get the second inning-ending double play of the game, and if they did, it would give the Braves the pennant. That was Cox’s dream scenario, but instead the nightmare reality unfolded before his eyes. Braves pitcher Kevin McGlinchy couldn’t find the plate and walked Todd Pratt to force in the tying run. Atlanta couldn’t win it this inning.

But the Mets could, and they still had just one out, with the winning run on third, and at the plate was the last man the Braves wanted to see in this situation, veteran third baseman Robin Ventura. Others were better hitters than Ventura, but he was one of those guys who had the amazing knack for being at his best with the bases loaded. He’d once hit grand slams in both ends of a doubleheader. On another occasion, Ventura hit slams in two straight days. He was at his best with the bases loaded, and here he was with the sacks packed and the season on the line.

Officially, Ventura just singled. That’s all. But it was a single that went over the fence. He knocked one out of the park, and his teammates were so thrilled they didn’t wait for him to finish rounding the bases—they congratulated him at second. As a result, interference was called, so it was just a single and only one run scored. But that’s all the Mets needed. They had just won the greatest Game Five in LCS history.

As it turns out, they then played a fantastic Game Six, but you’ll have to tune in next time to see how that one ranks among the best Game Sixes in LCS history.

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference.com provided all the play-by-play accounts.

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Comments

  1. F. X. Flinn said...

    Chris, lot of fun reading this. As a fan since 1961, I recall all of these games and attended both #7 and #2. I have to say that you do need to flip those games. The ‘04 game between the Yanks and Red Sox was emotionally charged, contained any number of clutch moments (my favorite, as a Yankee fan, was Jeter’s bases-clearing triple on Pedro’s 100th pitch, which you can find on my YouTube site Kwichi), and kept every fan in the seat for nearly 6 hours. By contrast, the Rays-Red Sox game was marked by the exodus of 25,000 fans in the top of the 7th, a windblown pop fly home run by Big Papi (trust me on this, I was sitting on the roof at the Pesky pole, and the wind that had been blowing gently in my face for 6 innings shifted to come from my left, and much more strongly, as the Red Sox came to bat in the bottom of the 7th), and a kind of lethargy that seemed to overtake the Rays as the night got colder and colder. There was no contest to which was a better played and more dramatic game—2004 was “a 10” on both counts, the 2008 game was not well played and the outcome had more to do with the weather than anything else.

  2. Chris J. said...

    F.X. – Good counterargument.  Looking back, I wish I’d put 2004 up higher because there was so much later inning drama.  I’d still keep 2008 high up—it’s still the biggest postseason comeback w/in a game in the last 80 years. 

    Anon- Thanks.  Game Six of the World Series wouldn’t rank on this list because that was WS, not LCS.  I did rank best World Series games a few years ago.  It would rank near or at the top – either that or 1975 for #1.  Here’s the World Series Game Six article:
    http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/10-best-world-series-game-sixes-ever/

  3. Hurtya said...

    man – these are fun. For as few LCSs as the Astros have played in — it just occurred to me that EVERY ONE had amazingly memorable moments. (Of course, I wasn’t alive in ’80 and ’86, but it’s fun to read about).

    And they’d be on a LDS list, too. Best ever LDS game 4?

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