Last year, I began a series of articles on the best games in League Championship Series history. The distinctive hook was that rather than look at all the games at once, I’d look at them in context of where they occurred in the LCS. Thus, I did an article on the best Game Ones, the best Game Twos, and so on and so forth through Game Six. Now for the finale: Game Seven.
Before getting to it, let’s note that this “hook” isn’t just a gimmick. As a general rule, where a game occurs in a series tells us a lot about the game. The latter games have more tension, after all, and also are the ones most likely to be remembered. It’s damn difficult for any Game One to be ranked among the most renowned games ever, no matter how good it was.
Game Sevens don’t have that problem. A great Game Seven is a game people will talk about for the ages. And sure enough, the ones near the end of the list here are rather well-known.
Now, there aren’t that many Game Sevens in LCS history. There have been just 54 best-of-seven LCS in history. However, only 15 of those 54 games have gone the distance to Game Seven. Heck, the AL went 17 years without a Game Seven in the ALCS. Also, it turns out that distressingly few of these games were really that memorable.
In terms of pure overall game quality, Game Seven is the weakest link in all LCS games. That’s a shame. It’s also different from World Series play. These columns on the best LCS games ever is based on a similar group of articles on the World Series years ago, and there it turned out that, while there aren’t that many World Series Game Sevens, baseball has been blessed with more than its share of closely fought ones. The state of LCS Game Sevens shows that this is not necessarily preordained.
That said, there are some great games on this list, and let’s work our way there, starting with No. 10 and moving up to the top.
10. Pure dominance: Oct. 17, 1996: NLCS: Braves 15, Cardinals 0
Actually, by any sensible measure, this is the worst Game Seven of them all. Not only is it the biggest blowout, but it was over early, with Atlanta scoring six times in the bottom of the first.
But the very nature of the blowout gives it a place here. This isn’t a great game, but the greatest one-team performance, as Atlanta destroyed the Cardinals every way possible. Also, it was part of any incredible streak of five straight postseason wins for Atlanta in which they outscored their opponents by the incomprehensible margin of 48-2. They won the last three games of the LCS 14-0, 3-1, and 15-0, and then beat the Yankees, 12-1 and 4-0, to kick off the World Series. (Then, incredibly, the Braves lost four straight to New York.)
Sure, this wasn’t a great game, but believe me, the ones left off the list aren’t much to talk about, either. Those games were decided by a combined score of 38-2. As long as a one-sided yawner has to make the list, may as well be a performance that drops your jaw before you can finish your yawn.
9. Great pitcher completes great upset: Oct. 15, 1988: Dodgers 6, Mets 0
This is another game making the list despite itself. The game itself was nothing memorable, as the Dodgers scored all six runs in the first two innings. But it deserves note for two reasons.
First, the 1988 NLCS is one of the great upsets in baseball history. Not only did the Mets have a better record overall, but during the regular season, they owned the Dodgers, beating them 10 times in 11 contests. Yet they somehow lost in seven games here.
Second, this featured Orel Hershiser having one of the greatest stretches by any pitcher ever. He famously ended the regular season by pitching 59 consecutive scoreless innings. He wasn’t quite as good in the postseason, but he wasn’t much worse, either. This Game Seven would be one of two complete-game shutouts Hershiser would twirl in the postseason. In all, he threw 42.2 innings in the LCS and World Series, allowing just five earned runs for a 1.01 ERA.
In other words, beginning with the sixth inning on Aug. 30, 1988 and lasting until the Dodgers won their stunning world championship, Hershiser pitched 101.2 innings with a 0.44 ERA, 56 hits allowed, 24 walks, and 70 strikeouts.
As the most important shutout in Hershiser’s streak, this game gets a mention.
8. The first LCS Game Seven: Oct. 16, 1985: Royals 6, Blue Jays 2
This wasn’t a bad game. It was close until the Royals posted four runs in the top of the sixth. It’s also a historic game. 1985 was the first year of the LCS, and with the NLCS decided in just six games, this became the first ever LCS Game Seven.
It also completed a nice comeback, as Kansas City rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit to win the series. They did the same thing in the World Series and are still the only team to pull of the neat trick of doing that twice in one October.
7. Finishing a great comeback: Oct. 20, 2004: Red Sox 10, Yankees 3.
Purely on its own terms, this game is an absolute snore. Boston took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first and made it 6-0 in the second. Some game.
Yeah, but 2004 makes this list … well, in part, it makes the list because of weak competition, but aside from that because of the overall series storyline. People tuned in to see if Boston was really going to become the first team to rally back from a three-games-to-none deficit to win in seven.
Yup, they did. The drama came in Games Four, Five, and Six. The first two had great extra-inning comebacks, and Game Six had the Bloody Sock. Boston pulled it off, albeit in easy fashion in this finale.
6. Deep in the heartbreak of Texas: Oct. 21, 2004: Cardinals 5, Astros 2
Some teams have famous postseason problems: the Red Sox went forever without winning it all, and the Cubs have gone even longer. But Houston has its own bad history.
The Astros lost the 1980 NLCS, still arguably the greatest NLCS ever, to the Phillies in five games. Had Houston won just one of the last two games, they’d have taken the pennant, but they lost both—in extra innings. If the 1980 NLCS wasn’t the best ever, then maybe 1986 was. Houston lost that one, too. In between, Houston lost the 1981 NLDS in five games after winning the first two contests. Then, under Larry Dierker, they lost 12 of their 14 postseason games. Thus, despite considerable regular-season success, after 40-plus seasons, Houston was still looking for its first pennant.
That background is vital to the importance of this game. In 2005, Houston again had a chance at its first pennant. A Jeff Kent walk-off homer in Game Five again put them one win from the Fall Classic, but then they lost Game Six on a walk-off homer by Jim Edmonds.
Here, Houston took an early 2-0 lead and kept it until the sixth inning. However, St. Louis rallied for three runs and its first lead of the game. Houston couldn’t stage any rallies, and thus came up short yet again. Their time came the next year, when the Astros finally brought the state of Texas its first pennant.
5. No comeback this time: Oct. 19, 2008: Rays 3, Red Sox 1.
This one has two layers of background. First, there’s what happened previously in the 2008 ALCS, and then there’s what happened in previous Boston ALCS appearances.
In 2008, the Rays won three of the first four games and appeared to be cruising to their franchise’s first pennant, but then the Red Sox began a historic comeback. Trailing 7-0 in the seventh-inning stretch in Game Four, Boston somehow rallied to win. Then the Sox won Game Six to even the series.
Could Boston come all the way back? Sure, and that’s where we look at their franchise history. In 1986, they dropped three of the first four to the Angels but won the next three, including a Game Seven laugher, to claim the pennant. In 2004, as already noted, Boston dug its way out of an even bigger hole. No team had a bigger history of LCS comebacks than the Boston Red Sox.
So you can forgive Tampa fans for being apprehensive when the visiting Red Sox drew first blood with an early first-inning run on a Dustin Pedroia solo shot. Uh-oh, was this 2004 all over again? Maybe not, as Tampa starter Matt Garza immediately calmed down, stymieing Boston’s offense after that. Meanwhile, Tampa began to fight back, tying the game in the fourth and taking the lead in the fifth.
Boston finally started to show signs of life late but couldn’t quite get across the plate. The Red Sox left a runner on third in the seventh and the bases loaded in the eighth. Despite a leadoff walk in the ninth, Boston couldn’t bring the runner in.
The great ALCS comeback kings had finally run up a deficit from which they couldn’t escape as Tampa took the game and the pennant.
4. Still cursed after all these years: Oct. 15, 2003: Marlins 9, Cubs 6
Several of these games rank where they do because of an overall storyline greater than the game itself (i.e. the 2004 ALCS comeback, Tampa overcoming Boston’s penchant for comebacks, Houston’s postseason follies). But no storyline is quite so long lasting as the Cubs’ October problems.
The North Siders haven’t won it all since 1908 and haven’t even been in the Fall Classic since 1945, but 2003 looked like the year they’d break that pennant-less streak, as the Cubs beat the Marlins in three of the first four games of the NLCS and had young stud pitchers Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior, and Kerry Wood slated to go in the rest of the games. Well, Zambrano had a terrible outing, and the Cubs got killed in Game Five. Prior’s start was the Bartman game that evened things up. So it came down to Wood in Game Seven.
Funny thing about Wood that season, either he had his stuff or he didn’t. When he was “on” he was great, but when he was off, he had no “B” game. In his 32 starts in 2003, the Cubs won 18 times and lost 14. In those Cub wins, Wood posted an ERA of 1.44. In Wood’s other starts, however, his ERA was 5.96. So either he was a young Dwight Gooden in his prime or Jose Lima at his worst.
Which would it be today? Well, he gave up three runs in the first. What does that tell you?
Actually, it looked like this might be one of those rare things, a day the Cubs won despite Wood being off his game. Marlins starter Mark Redman inspired no confidence, coughing up three runs in the second—two on a homer by Wood—and then blowing the lead by surrendering a pair of runs in the third.
Wood tried to gut it out, but while the spirit may have been strong, the control was lacking. In the fifth, he walked two of the first three batters to spark a rally. By the time the inning was over, Florida had a 6-5 lead. The Marlins added a couple insurance runs to complete the victory and keep Chicago from the forbidden land of the World Series.
3. An actual great game: Oct. 19, 2006: Cardinals 3, Mets 1
Finally, a game that belongs on this list solely on its own merits.
This game was a lot closer than its score. The Mets scored early in the bottom of the first, and the Cardinals tied it a half-inning later, and there things stood for quite some time. Both teams had their chances but couldn’t seem to bring home that go-ahead run. A tight game became a dramatic game in the sixth thanks to some clutch defense and pitching.
First, the defense. In the top of the sixth with a runner on first and one out, St. Louis’ star third baseman Scott Rolen hit an apparent home run just over the left-field fence. It was over the fence alright, but it wasn’t a homer. Instead, Endy Chavez made a tremendous leaping catch for an out and then threw the ball back to double up the runner and end the inning.
The Mets looked like they were going to make the Cardinals pay for their lost opportunity in the bottom half of the frame. New York loaded the bases with one out, but Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan dug down deep for a clutch strikeout and then got an inning-ending fly ball. All that, and it was still 1-1.
Finally, in the ninth, St. Louis broke through. In a near-repeat of the sixth inning, catcher Yadier Molina hit a ball over the wall in left with a runner on, but this time there would be no game-saving catch.
The Mets weren’t going to go down without a fight, though, as they led off the bottom of the ninth with back-to-back singles. After the next two batters made outs without advancing anyone, a walk to Paul Lo Duca loaded the bases. Now a single would tie the game, and an extra-base hit could win it.
t the plate was star center fielder Carlos Beltran, a player known for his postseason glory. Alas for the Mets, this time he struck out on three pitches, the last one looking. The Cardinals had done it.
2. Aaron F. Boone: Oct. 16, 2003: Yankees 6, Red Sox 5 (11)
There may not be too many famous LCS Game Sevens, but the ones that are famous, are very famous. In short, Boston was looking for its first pennant in 17 years in hopes of ending their 85-year-old world championship drought.
On the mound were a pair of all-time aces: Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens. Boston had the advantage, though, as Martinez was in his prime. Sure enough, Boston took an early 4-0 lead, and with Martinez pitching, that looked quite secure.
Still, by the seventh inning, Martinez was clearly losing steam. He allowed a run, and ended the inning at 100 pitches, which was typically around where he left games. Famously, he didn’t leave this game.
Much has been said over the years about the decision-making of Red Sox skipper Grady Little in this game. He is not the first nor the last manager to leave his ace starter in too long and have it burn him, but few ever have been burnt so badly. Making it even worse, he left Martinez in too long despite the fact that his bullpen had been great so far, allowing just two runs in over 15 innings.
Out came Pedro for the eighth, and after an exhausting seven-pitch plate appearance confrontation with Nick Johnson resulted in a pop-up, Martinez was completely gassed. Over the next 16 pitches, he allowed four straight batters to get hits—three of them doubles—and the game was tied, 5-5.
The contest then became a bullpen marathon. Lost in all the furor over Little’s handling of Martinez is how great New York’s bullpen pitched. Pressed into early service due to Clemens’ early departure, the Yankees pen allowed just one run on five hits over eight innings. Mike Mussina (in his first-ever relief appearance) and Mariano Rivera threw three scoreless innings each.
Eventually, someone had to score, and it turned out to be New York when third baseman Aaron Boone hit a leadoff long ball in the 11th for a walk-off Yankee pennant winner.
1. The clutchest postseason at-bat ever: Oct. 14, 1992: Braves 3, Pirates 2
Has there ever been at-bat like this? Not at this stage there hasn’t been.
What makes an at-bat a clutch one? First off, it should come in the bottom of the ninth. That’s when all the movies have their big moments, after all. And as long as you’re having it in the bottom of the ninth, you may as well have it come with two outs. That way, if the hero blows it, the game is over.
Well, hold that for one second. It’s only over if the batter’s team is trailing, right? Okay, so let’s say the ultimate clutch at-bat would come in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and the home team trailing … better make it a one-run deficit. That’s the tightest difference of all.
Since it’s a one-run gap, we’ll put the tying run on third and the would-be winning run on second. That way, there is that much more anticipation. Everyone knows even just a well-placed single can end the game. Just for fun, we’ll put another runner on first. His run isn’t necessary, but a bases-loaded situation in the bottom of the ninth with two outs just sounds more dramatic than anything else, now doesn’t it?
One last absolutely vital piece is needed: this has to be a Game Seven. It’s not just the game on the line, but an entire postseason series. That’s when you really get clutch.
Yeah, that’s as clutch a moment as you’ll ever see. A Game Seven bottom of the ninth with two outs, the bases loaded, and the home team trailing. A hit would win it all, and an out would lose it all. Now that’s clutch, and it’s only happened once in history: Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS.
Incredibly, it was a great game even without that moment. Early on, it looked like a tight pitchers’ duel as the Pirates scored a run in the top of the first and shut down Atlanta all day. Heading into the ninth, it was 2-0, Pittsburgh.
But Pirates manager Jim Leyland left ace starter Doug Drabek in too long, and the leadoff hitter doubled. Then an error let David Justice reach first. Finally, a walk loaded the bases. Leyland removed Drabek, but the situation was already dangerous. A line-out scored the first run, and a walk reloaded the bases. A pop-up set the stage for that most clutch of at-bats.
As it happens, the pitcher’s slot was due up, and Atlanta had no quality bats to pinch-hit with. So you make do with what you have, and up came Francisco Cabrera.
Bob Costas once highlighted this moment to note how baseball is different from other sports. In basketball, you give the ball to the big star. In football, the quarterback throws to his best wide receiver. In baseball? It’s who the batting order tells you to bring up.
So it was Cabrera, a man with 23 hits on the season and 66 over three years. But no matter, because he singled to left in this situation, and two runs came around, giving Atlanta the pennant.
References & Resources
Info comes from Baseball-Reference.com.