Lately I’ve engaged in an interesting little project here at THT: ranking the best games in the history of the League Championship Series. In particular, I’ve been taking them in order, looking at the best Game Ones, Games Twos, Game Threes, and now Game Fours.
The logic is simple: how well we remember a game and how good a game is depends on where it fits into the overall narrative of the series. It’s also based on a similar series of articles I did years ago for THT on the best games in World Series history.
This is an interesting point in the series because a Game Four can have a very different feel from one year to another. In particular, these contests tended to be a lot more meaningful in the pre-1985 LCSs, when it was just a best-of-five. Back then, a Game Four was always a possible elimination game. Since then, they’re never quite as tense, but they can still be great.
In fact, I’d say the overall quality of Game Fours is the best of any game in the history of the LCS. I had to cut out Roger Clemens’ one-hitter in the 2000 ALCS—one of the greatest postseason pitching performances ever—because there wasn’t room. Similarly, the 1999 NLCS between the Mets and Dodgers—a contest featuring two eighth-inning comebacks—just misses the cut, coming in 11th place.
What’s left over then? These games:
10. 1980 NLCS: Oct. 11, 1980: Phillies 5, Astros 3 (10).
Arguably the greatest LCS of them all kept people on the edges of their seat yet again in Game Four. The Phillies entered this game needing a win to keep their pennant hopes alive, and they came through, but it wasn’t easy.
Philadelphia entered the eighth trailing 2-0, but four straight singles to lead off the inning tied it up, and the Phillies threatened to blow the game wide open. It didn’t quite work out that, way, though.
After a strikeout, the Phillies scored a run on a weird double play that ended the inning. Manny Trillo flew out to right, and Pete Rose beat the throw home for the run, but trailing runner Mike Schmidt somehow stayed off first base, and Houston catcher Luis Pujols threw to first for the out. Philadelphia had the lead but no longer had a chance to blow the game open.
That came back to haunt them when Houston tied it in the bottom of the ninth on a Terry Puhl single, but the Phils had the last laugh. A single and two doubles in the 10th gave them the win anyway, and forced a classic series onto a fifth and final contest.
9. 1988 NLCS: Oct. 9, 1988: Dodgers 5, Mets 4 (12).
This wasn’t just a great game, but a weird and controversial one.
The visiting Dodgers desperately needed to win this one, as they’d already dropped two of the first three to the heavily favored Mets. Even worse, the Dodgers entered the game shorthanded, as ace reliever Jay Howell had been suspended for having pine tar on his glove in Game Three. (He was immediately ejected, and the Dodgers bullpen imploded, costing them that game).
Here, things looked bleak as the Mets overcame an early 2-0 lead to give New York a 4-2 advantage entering the ninth. Just three outs from a nasty three-games-to-one hole, the Dodgers clawed back into it, as a Mike Scioscia two-run homer tied it, 4-4, forcing extra frames.
In the 12th, a Kirk Gibson home run gave the Dodgers a 4-3 lead, but without their ace closer, the Dodgers would have trouble holding the lead. In the bottom of the 12th, the Mets led off with back-to-back singles, quickly forcing reliever Tim Leary from the game. In came lefty Jesse Orosco, who immediately walked Darryl Strawberry to load the bases. Though he coaxed a pop out to put the Dodgers one out from victory, Dodger manager didn’t think Orosco had his best stuff.
So he went back to his bullpen to get someone who hadn’t pitched in relief in quite some time: ace starting pitcher Orel Hershiser. Making a rare relief stint, the Dodgers ace got Kevin McReynolds to pop up to end the game and earn himself the save. The Dodgers had tied the series and would go on to win in seven games.
8. 1986 ALCS: Oct. 11, 1986: Angels 4, Red Sox 3 (11)
I’m sure Boston wishes that this was its toughest road loss in an extra-inning game in the 1986 postseason …
Entering the bottom of the ninth, the Red Sox led, 3-0. They sure could use a win, as they’d already lost two of the first three games to California.
However, Doug DeCinces led off the ninth with a home run, and the Red Sox just couldn’t get the outs fast enough. After two singles, a double, and an intentional walk, it was 3-2 Boston with the bases loaded and one out. Boston reliever Calvin Schiraldi dug down and fanned Bobby Grich to lessen the threat, but then he hit slugger Brian Downing, forcing home the tying run on the HBP.
Two innings later, Schiraldi still was pitching (it was a very different time) when Grich got his revenge for the strikeout by hitting a walk-off RBI single. California won the battle, but Boston would take the war, winning the rest of the ALCS games to claim the pennant.
7. 1997 ALCS: Oct. 12, 1997: Indians 8, Orioles 7.
This was the most back-and-forth Game Four of them all, and it came in perhaps the most underrated postseason series of all time.
Baltimore drew first blood in the top of the second, taking a 1-0 lead, but a half-inning later it was 2-1, Cleveland. Again there was a quick comeback as an impressive Orioles rally in the third gave them a 5-2 lead. That’s two lead changes by the middle of the third inning.
The O’s needed more than just a tying run, though, as in the bottom of the ninth Roberto’s brother, Sandy Alomar Jr., singled home the walk-off run for an 8-7 Indians victory.
6. 2001 ALCS: Oct. 21, 2001: Yankees 3, Mariners 1.
The Seattle Mariners won 116 games in 2001. Then they proceeded to drop the first pair of games to the Yankees in the ALCS. Though they won the third game, they sure would have liked a win here to even things up.
Through seven innings, neither side could score. Score a run? Heck, each team had just a sole hit through seven innings, a single in both cases.
Thus, when Bret Boone smacked a two-run homer in the eighth for Seattle, it looked like that easily could be the difference. Instead, Yankee center fielder Bernie Williams matched him with a homer in the bottom of the eighth.
The Yankees were now up three games to one, and they would win the next game to finish their ALCS upset for a fourth straight pennant.
5. 1974 ALCS: Oct. 9, 1974: A’s 2, Orioles 1
This is one of the more unusual and remarkable games in postseason history. What makes it really remarkable is not that there was a one-hitter thrown, but that the team throwing the one-hitter lost.
Mike Cuellar took the mound for Baltimore, and Oakland couldn’t get a hit off of him to save their lives. Then again, they didn’t always need to. Cuellar walked the bases loaded in the first but escaped without allowing a run. Then he walked another batter in the second and yet another in the third. In the fifth, Cuellar walked four straight batters to force in a run—and force himself out of the game. It’s an oddity, Cuellar leaving the game after throwing 4.2 hitless innings.
Relief pitcher Ross Grimsley had far better control and was nearly as good at avoiding hits. The only Oakland safety came in the seventh, when Reggie Jackson laced a double to left. Unfortunately for Baltimore, it came right after one of only two walks Grimsley allowed, and that runner scored.
Baltimore rallied to score a run in the ninth, but Oakland won, 2-1, to claim its third straight AL pennant.
4. 1992 ALCS: Oct. 11, 1992: Blue Jays 7, A’s 6 (11)
This game featured one of the greatest comebacks in postseason history. Heading into the top of the eighth, Oakland led easily, 6-1, over the visiting Blue Jays. Oakland, winners of three of the last four AL pennants, would tie up this ALCS at two games apiece with a win.
Instead, Roberto Alomar led off the eighth with a double and then stole third. That was enough to force starting pitcher Bob Welch from the game. Then the next batter singled, as did the next. That was it for reliever Jeff Parrott; time for the big gun, ace closer Dennis Eckersley. Eck couldn’t close it out tonight, though, and allowed two more singles. Five straight Jays had gotten hits, and the score was 6-4.
That was the score entering the ninth. Eckersley, apparently settled down after his rough start, was still in the game to get the save. Well, things didn’t work out like that. After a leadoff single by Devon White, Alomar crushed a two-run homer to tie it. In the space of 10 batters over two innings, Toronto had scored five runs.
Two innings later Toronto scored the go-ahead run to win it, just like they would win the pennant and World Series that year.
3. 2004 ALCS: Oct. 17, 2004: Red Sox 6, Yankees 4 (12).
Perhaps you’ve heard of this one. I do believe it’s gotten just a tad bit of media attention.
Yeah, it’s been talked about to death by ESPN et al, but there is a reason for it. This was a great game and part of an even greater storyline. Boston trailed three games to none, and no team in baseball history ever had come back from that kind of deficit in the postseason.
Making the storyline even more dramatic, Boston needed to come back within the game, too, as they entered the bottom of the ninth down, 4-3. And, of course, the pitcher they had to come back against was all-universe closer Mariano Rivera.
Into extras it went, with David Ortiz belting a walk-off, two-run homer in the 12th to keep Boston’s hopes alive and begin the incredible comeback.
2. 1972 ALCS: Oct. 11, 1972: Tigers 4, A’s 3 (10)
The 2004 playoffs had an incredible comeback during the overall ALCS, but they had no single game with as amazing a comeback as what Detroit did here.
Oakland had won the first two games of the best-of-five ALCS. With their season on life support, Detroit had won Game Three and needed to do it again here.
It was ace versus ace as Mickey Lolich squared off against Catfish Hunter, and early on Lolich had the better of it. He nursed a 1-0 lead into the seventh when a Mike Epstein solo homer tied it up. And it was still 1-1 after nine innings.
In the top of the 10th, Lolich was out of the game, and Oakland teed off against Detroit’s bullpen. Three singles and a double added up to two runs and a 3-1 A’s lead. Their first pennant in 41 years was within reach. All Oakland needed was just three more outs.
However, the Tigers, who’d had so much difficulty doing anything offensively through nine innings, went crazy in the 10th. Back-to-back singles by Dick McAuliffe and Al Kaline led off the inning and put the tying run on base. Then pinch-hitter Gates Brown drew a walk to put the winning run on base, as well.
Star Tigers catcher Bill Freehan then grounded one to third baseman Sal Bando for what looked like at least one out and maybe a double play, but the Achilles’ heel of the Oakland A’s reared its head at the worst possible time.
All year long, second base had been their worst position with no one there able to hit. In this game, manager Dick Williams already had pulled the starting second baseman for a pinch-hitter, and due to the oddities of the game and the limitations of his roster, he ended up putting catcher Gene Tenace at second base for this inning.
When Bando fielded Freehan’s grounder, he threw to Tenace at second, who promptly muffed it. Everyone was safe, including McAuliffe at the plate. It was 3-2 with the bases still loaded and nobody out.
Now fearsome Norm Cash came to the plate—and promptly drew a walk to force in the tying run. It was 3-3, with two-thirds of the game’s runs coming in the 10th. Jim Northrup came up next and smacked a single for the game-winning, 4-3 blow.
It was a great achievement, but it wouldn’t be enough as Oakland would win Game Five to claim the pennant.
1. 1984 NLCS: Oct. 7, 1984: Padres 7, Cubs 5
When it comes to the greatest Games Fours, the LCS from the best-of-five days have a big advantage. The stakes are so high. If one team wins, it claims the pennant. If that same team loses, it’s back down to even with the team that was trailing. Thus, what happens in this game has such a huge impact on the series.
The 1984 postseason was the last year with best-of-five LCSs. And the 1984 NLCS had a great storyline. The Cubs, a team that hadn’t won a pennant in 39 years, won the first two games to put themselves on the verge of victory. San Diego smashed them in Game Three, 7-1, but that’s okay. Chicago still had the lead and needed just one more win.
San Diego was going to fight to the death for that win, though. Well, it wasn’t so much all of San Diego as it was one man, star first baseman Steve Garvey. Seemingly every time he came to the plate, Garvey did something to give his team the win.
In the third inning, he doubled home Alan Wiggins to give the club a 2-0 early lead. That lead didn’t last long, as Chicago plated three in the top of the fourth.
It was still 3-2 in the fifth when Garvey again came to the plate. He singled home another run to tie it up, 3-3.
Two innings later, it was still 3-3 when Garvey again came to bat. With runners on the corners, he laced another RBI single to make it 4-3. His single also advanced Tony Gwynn to third, where he soon scored on a passed ball. San Diego now led 5-3, and it looked like the Padres would force that all-important Game Five.
Well, not so fast. In the eighth, the Cubs combined two singles and double to tie it up, 5-5. They weren’t going down so easily. In fact, in the ninth, the Cubs loaded the bases with a double, walk, and a hit-by-pitch but couldn’t bring home the go-ahead run when third baseman Ron Cey (formerly Garvey’s longtime teammate with the Dodgers) grounded out to end the inning. The Cubs soon would have reason to lament that lost opportunity.
In the bottom of the ninth, the batters due up for San Diego were Wiggins, Gwynn … and Garvey. This couldn’t be good news for the Cubs.
After Wiggins struck out to lead it off, Gwynn singled to set things up for Garvey. Given the way the game had gone so far, you didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what would happen next.
Yup, Garvey saved his best hit for the biggest situation, blasting a two-run, game-winning, walk-off home run. Padres 7, Cubs 5. The big edge the Cubs had in the series was no more; it was all evened up. And, with the Cubs being the Cubs, they lost Game Five, too.
But there never would have been a Game Five if it weren’t for Steve Garvey. The Padres scored seven runs in four different innings, and in every inning the key San Diego batter was Garvey. It’s one of the greatest clutch performances by anyone in any professional sport. And that helps make this the greatest Game Four of them all.
References & Resources
Baseball-Reference.com provides the information and play-by-play for these games.