October is here, and that means it’s postseason time. With the League Championship Series beginning, I’d like to take a look at this round of the playoffs.
Several years ago here at the mighty THT, I did a series of articles on the World Series ranking the best games in the history of the Fall Classic. The hook that time was that rather than just come up with another “best games ever” article, I divided them up a bit. I wrote about the best Game Ones in World Series history.
The notion was simple: when people think of the greatest postseason games ever, they usually think of the ones that come near the end of the series, when the tension is at its greatest. Here, let’s look at the games in context of where they were in the overall series, the best Game Ones or Game Fours or whatever.
That series on World Series articles went well, and I’ve always wanted to do a follow up on LCS contests, and now is a great time for that.
There is one quirk of the LCS compared to the World Series. From the first LCS in 1969 until 1984 they were only best-of-five series. Since 1985, they’ve been best-of-seven. That shift will affect things later on in this series, but doesn’t make too much impact here when looking at the best Game Ones.
Without any more dilly-dallying, here are the best Game Ones in LCS history:
10. That’s all the Phillies pitchers need: 1983 NLCS: Phillies 1, Dodgers 0.
Things got off to a fast start for the Phillies in this game as Mike Schmidt belted a solo home run in the top of the first for a 1-0 lead. Little did anyone know that would be all the scoring in the contest.
The Dodgers had their chances, with seven hits and two walks, but they couldn’t sustain any rally. LA second baseman Steve Sax made it to third base with one out in the sixth, but a pop-up and strikeout stranded him. The Dodgers load the bases in the eighth, forcing Phillies ace Steve Carlton from the game. However, reliever Al Holland got a fly out to end the threat.
It was a tight game and never out of reach, but the Dodgers couldn’t grasp it.
9. The comeback that wasn’t: 2004 ALCS: Yankees 10, Red Sox 7.
For most of the day, this didn’t look like any kind of game. First, the Yankees scored two in the opening frame. Then they added four runs in the third, and then another pair the sixth. Heading into the top of the seventh, this was the ultimate snooze.
In the top of the seventh, however, Boston erupted, scoring five runs, all crossing the plate with two outs. The next inning, David Ortiz knocked in two runs with a two-out triple. Boston trailed, 8-7, with the tying run just 90 feet from home plate.
And that’s where the comeback stalled. The Yankees brought in super-closer Mariano Rivera, who coaxed a pop-up from Kevin Millar to end the eighth. Moments later, Bernie Williams doubled in a pair of suddenly needed insurance runs, and the Yankees scored a 10-7 win. But for a few moments there, it looked like an all-time great comeback.
8. The comeback that was: 2010 ALCS: Yankees 6, Rangers 5.
In 2004, the Yankees avoided blowing the biggest lead in any LCS Game One ever. Six years later, they achieved the greatest comeback in one.
Texas bolted out to an early lead and built it to a 5-0 advantage. Then came the top of the seventh when a Robinson Cano homer made it 5-1. No matter, that was all New York scored that frame, and Texas still led comfortably. Things changed rather dramatically in the eighth as the first seven Yankees reached base on one walk, four singles, and a double. By the time Texas finally got an out, the Yankees had a 6-5 lead, and that was how it ended.
7. Yes, the Jeffrey Maier game: 1996 ALCS: Yankees 5, Orioles 4 (11).
Are there any better Game Ones in LCS history? I think not. Are there any that are more controversial? Definitely not.
It isn’t quite the greatest of the bunch, though it doesn’t miss by much. This is famous as the win the Yankees didn’t really deserve. In the bottom of the eighth, with the Yankees trailing Baltimore, 4-3, Derek Jeter hit one to the top of the wall in right, but young Jeffrey Maier reached over the wall to haul it in. Right-field line umpire Richie Garcia blew the call, giving Jeter the game-tying solo home run. Three innings later, a Bernie Williams home run won it for New York, 5-4.
Looking at the gamelog, this reads like four hours and 23 minutes of frustration for Baltimore. They were 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position. They scored only four runs despite having just two 1-2-3 innings at the plate. Their 11 men left on base included six left in scoring position. They even walked in a run. Just brutal.
Then again, if the Yankees had lost, it would’ve been a brutal one for them. They were 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position, and the hit didn’t drive in the runner. They left even more men on base than Baltimore did, 13. Again, most of the runners left on were in scoring position (seven).
This was actually a really tightly fought game where the outcome was always in doubt because neither side could shut down the other. Then again, it was a vexing game because neither team could take advantage of the opportunities they had. I guess it’s fitting it’s remembered for a screw up.
6. There are two kinds of hitters in this world: those who have been blown away by Mike Scott and those who will be blown away by Mike Scott: 1986 NLCS: Astros 1, Mets 0.
The Mets ended the 1986 season looking like the best team of the decade. They’d won 108 games, which would be the most by any team between 1975 and 1998. They had a great pitching staff that topped baseball in ERA, but their offense was even better. The Mets led the league in hits, runs, batting average, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, total bases, and even sacrifice flies. Plus, they were third in homers and fourth in doubles. Yeah, they could hit a little.
But if there was nothing like the 1986 Mets, there was also nothing like Houston ace Mike Scott. He struck out over 300 batters that year, the first pitcher to do that since the 1970s. He did it with a pitch, the split-fingered fastball, that many said was really a spitter.
Scott peaked at the right time. In his next-to-last start in the regular season, he threw a no-hitter with 13 strikeouts. It was his third straight game with at least 11 whiffs. In his final start, Scott allowed just one run in seven innings.
It was the unstoppable force versus the unmovable object, and Scott stopped the Mets dead in their tracks.
Astros slugger Glenn Davis belted a homer to lead off the second, and that was all Scott needed. Forget scoring, the Mets didn’t even get a hit until the fourth, nor a man on second base until the sixth. They staged a real rally in the eighth with back-to-back singles, but Scott fanned the next two batters to end the threat. With two outs in the ninth, the Mets finally got a man to third, so Scott fanned the last batter to end the game.
It was a fitting end. In his complete-game shutout, Scott fanned 14, tying the LCS record and one shy of Sandy Koufax’s record for all postseason games. Not bad, especially given that Scott did it against one of the best teams and best offenses of the era.
5. All good things must end: 1988 NLCS: Mets 3, Dodgers 2.
Sure, Mike Scott pitched pretty well in late 1986, but no one has ever done what Orel Hershiser did in late 1988. The season ended with Dodgers ace Hershiser throwing a record 59 straight scoreless innings. Don Drysdale’s old record of 58 innings without allowing a run—considered one of the toughest records to break—was no more.
When Game One of the NLCS began, Hershiser hadn’t allowed a run in 39 days. Against the Mets (who again had the best offense in baseball), Hershiser looked to continue his dominance.
Hershiser wasn’t perfect, as the Mets got a runner on third in the third and again in the sixth, but Hershiser got the outs when he needed to.
Opposing Hershiser, Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden (the same man who squared off against Mike Scott in Game One of the 1986 NLCS) was in some ways more dominating, but not in the way that mattered most. Gooden struck out more batters, and allowed fewer hits but did allow a pair of Dodger runs. Though Gooden allowed just four hits, they came two per inning, each time driving in a run.
Heading into the ninth, Hershiser had a 2-0 lead, still impervious to runs scored. That streak then came to an end. After a leadoff single, Mets batter Darryl Strawberry doubled home a run to make it 2-1.
Okay, that was enough for Hershiser. Tiring and with no more scoreless streak, Dodger skipper Tommy Lasorda put reliever Jay Howell into the game. That was a mistake. Howell walked the first batter, and a few minutes later Mets catcher Gary Carter tagged him for a double. In a sudden reversal of fortune, the Mets led, 3-2. And that’s how it ended.
Though regular-season stats and postseason stats are kept separate, Hershiser had thrown 67 innings between them without allowing a run, and then a few minutes later saw the streak end. Finally, he watched from the bench as the lead and win disappeared.
4. The first great postseason game: 1969 ALCS: Orioles 4, Twins 3 (12).
The AL and NL played their first LCS games on Oct. 4, 1969, and the AL gave the baseball world a doozy.
The Orioles won 109 games on the season and entered this contest as heavy favorites. The Twins fought them gamely, leading 3-2 entering the bottom of the ninth. A Boog Powell leadoff homer tied it, though, sending the game into overtime.
In the top of the 12th, Minnesota threatened, loading the bases with just one out, but a strikeout and flyout ended the threat. And Minnesota sure wished they could’ve plated a run there because a few minutes later Baltimore scored a run in the most un-Earl Weaver-ian inning ever. After a leadoff single by Mark Belanger, a sacrifice bunt moved him to second, a productive out pushed him to third, and a bunt single by Paul Blair scored Belanger for the winning run. Weaver was sure willing to play for one run that time.
Random fact: this, the first LCS Game One ever, was the only one to last exactly 12 innings until Saturday night’s Tigers-Yankees contest—which will be remembered for more things than just its length (see below)—matched it.
3. Topsy-turvy: 2003 NLCS: Marlins 9, Cubs 8 (11).
This was a game with such extreme shifts and sudden surges that fans watching it probably came down with whiplash.
Florida starter Josh Beckett had a horrible first inning, allowing four runs. After throwing a temper tantrum in the dugout, he quickly settled down, shutting down the Cubs for the next several innings. Meanwhile, the Marlins erupted for five runs off Chicago’s Carlos Zambrano in the third inning and tacked on an insurance run in the sixth. However, the Cubs tied it in the bottom of the inning on a two-run dinger by shortstop Alex Gonzalez.
It was still 6-6 entering the ninth. In the top of the ninth, Florida turned a double, a single, a walk, and a bobbled ball by Cub second baseman Mark Grudzielanek into a pair of runs for an 8-6 lead. Now they just needed three outs to get the win. Instead, Sammy Sosa smashed a two-out, two-run homer to tie the score and send it into extra innings.
Sosa’s dramatic homer went for naught, though, as the Marlins scored on a Mike Lowell homer in the 11th, and Brandon Looper retired the Cubs in order for the save.
2. The latest comeback: 1972 ALCS: A’s 3, Tigers 2 (11).
A comeback win is always fun. But coming back in extra innings? That’s quite a bit more than just mere fun. That’s kinda awesome. It’s only happened once in all Game One-dom, and it happened here.
The Tigers and A’s played nine innings, tied 1-1. It was still 1-1 when longtime Tigers legend Al Kaline belted a solo homer for a 2-1 lead. You have to figure the lead is safe in such a low-scoring contest, right? Especially with Detroit ace Mickey Lolich on the mound. After all, not only had Lolich allowed just one run in 10 innings today, but in his last regular-season start, he fanned 15 batters.
Obviously, that isn’t what happened. Sal Bando led off the A’s inning with a single. After A’s manager Dick Williams pulled Bando for a pinch-runner, Mike Epstein smacked another single. Williams now inserted another pinch runner for the slow-footed Epstein while Tigers manager Billy Martin decided that Lolich was done.
Williams tried to have Gene Tenace bunt the winning run into scoring position, but it led to a force play that nailed the lead runner. With one out and runners on first and second, Williams dived into his bench yet again, this time for a pinch-hitter. (Quick side note: Williams had specifically constructed his roster to allow him this sort of flexibility. He carried just nine pitchers in the postseason, figuring he could do more with an extra bat on the bench).
Williams’ magic worked, as pinch-hitter Gonzalo Marquez singled to right. Pinch-runner Mike Hegan came around to score the tying run while Tenace went for third base. Tenace wasn’t as fast as the inning’s cavalcade of pinch-runners, and Tiger right fielder Al Kaline thought he had a chance to throw him out. Maybe he did, but the throw was wild. On the error by Kaline, Tenace came around to score the winning run. The A’s had done it, winning 3-2 in 11 innings. It was one of the first LCS Game Ones ever, but it’s still among the best.
1. Meanwhile, in more recent news … 2012 ALCS: Tigers 6, Yankees 4 (12).
If you’re wondering why this is a top 11 list instead of a more traditional top 10, well, this is your answer. I wrote the article on Saturday afternoon, only to see it become out of date immediately afterwards. (As a baseball fan, I can only hope that Sunday night’s NLCS Game One makes the article out of date before you read it.)
It seems silly to recap a game that happened so recently, so let’s just cut to the chase. The Tigers entered the bottom of the ninth leading, 4-0, only to blow it on a pair of homers by power-impaired Ichiro Suzuki and this month’s surprise baseball freakin’ demigod, Raul Ibanez. The Yankees tied it, but the Tigers won anyway, 6-4 in 12 innings. Oh, and apparently Derek Jeter broke his ankle, in case you hadn’t heard.
When trying to place this game on the list, I was initially very apprehensive about putting it in first place. There is a general trend of present-ism in sports stories (and in the culture as a whole). Anything great is deemed the greatest, and unless it’s a moment clearly imprinted in our memory, it doesn’t matter as much as what happened last week. It’s the ESPN approach to sports history.
Thus, initially I was disinclined to put this first. But, really, what would you put on top of it? Was the 1972 game really better than this one? Sure, that was a come-from-behind victory in extra innings, but this was a four-run lead lost in the bottom of the ninth. Which sounds more impressive to you?
Well, maybe I just ranked that 1972 game too high. (If I had to rank these games 10 times, I’d come up with 10 slightly different lists; ain’t nothing scientific about rating games, people). But would you take the 2003 game over this? That had a two-run comeback in the bottom of the ninth, only half of this game’s comeback. Yeah, 2003 was a back-and-forth game throughout, and that helps it a bit, but it’s still just half as big a comeback in the bottom of the ninth. And this game did last three extra innings, which helps. The 1969 game? Nah. And I can’t see putting the Orel Hershiser game or the Mike Scott game or the Jeffrey Maier game ahead this one.
The 2012 ALCS Game One isn’t just the most recently qualifier, it really is the best.
Oh, if you’re curious, the game that got bumped from the list is Game One of the 1998 NLCS.
References & Resources
Info comes from Baseball-Reference.com