This offseason here at THT, I’ve been doing a series of articles on the best games in the history of the league championship series. The little extra hook to these articles is that they look at games in the context of the overall series. What I mean is that the first article was the 10 best Game Ones in LCS history, followed by subsequent articles on Games Two, Three, Four, and Five.
The notion is that how well we remember a game depends largely on when it comes in a series, so to get an appropriate appreciation for a game, you have to look at when it happens. I did a similar series of articles on the best World Series games years ago, and now it’s time to look at the LCS.
With Game Six, there is far less history than the previous games because the LCS was a best-of-five affair until 1985. Still, that means 54 LCS have been best-of-seven over the years, and 34 of them made it to Game Six.
All Game Sixes are possible elimination games. In fact, 19 of the LCS that went this far ended with Game Six, with just 15 advancing to Game Seven. Thus the stakes are always high, and these were the most dramatic and exciting of those tense Game Sixes.
10. Oct. 16, 1985: NLCS: Cardinals 7, Dodgers 5
The first year with a best-of-seven NLCS gave us our first memorable Game Six.
St. Louis needed a win to clinch its second pennant in four years, and that’s exactly what they got.
It was an uphill battle all the way. The Dodgers took an early 2-0 lead and were atop 4-1 heading into the seventh. In the top of the seventh, three St. Louis singles made it 4-3, and a triple by Ozzie Smith—who won Game Five with an unlikely walk-off home run—tied it up at 4-4.
LA quickly came back to take a 5-4 lead, and that’s where it stood heading into the ninth. St. Louis began a rally, but with two outs it looked like LA might pull it out. There were runners on second and third and at the plate was the only Cardinal longball threat, first baseman Jack Clark.
It seemed like a natural place for an intentional walk. After all, Clark’s run would’ve just been an insurance run. On deck was Andy Van Slyke, who would have a nice career but was just a decent hitter in 1985, nothing more.
Despite that, Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda elected to pitch to Clark and paid the price when Clark smacked a three-run homer that ended the Dodgers’ hopes for a Game Seven.
9. Oct. 13, 1987: NLCS: Cardinals 1, Giants 0.
Man, the Cardinals dominated Game Six of the NLCS back in the 1980s.
This was the first great pitchers’ duel any LCS Game Six ever had. St. Louis scored early when Tony Pena led off the second with a triple and scored on a sacrifice fly. Then they held on for the rest of the way.
Holding on wasn’t easy, though. John Tudor let a baserunner on in six of the next seven innings, until an eighth-inning walk caused Whitey Herzog to remove him. While Tudor wasn’t perfect, he also wasn’t that bad. He allowed six singles and three walks, but no extra-base hits. San Francisco had trouble making it to second base and never made it further.
The win was big for St. Louis as they needed it to stay alive. After winning this one, the Redbirds threw another shutout in Game Seven for the pennant.
8. Oct. 19, 2004: ALCS: Red Sox 4, Yankees 2
Purely in terms of game quality, this one shouldn’t rank so high and may not even earn a place on the list. The Red Sox scored four runs early and held on for a 4-2 lead. Yeah, but there was some extra drama that doesn’t show up in the game’s box score.
First, this Red Sox win evened up the series at three games each. As virtually everyone out there in reader-land probably already knows, the Yankees won the first three games of the ALCS only to have Boston become the first—and still only—team ever to overcome such a deficit.
Aside from the overall series-wide drama, there was some extra tension to this series. Boston’s Curt Schilling was able to start the game thanks to an experimental surgery on his ankle, a surgery that had only been tried once before—on a John Doe corpse in the Boston morgue. Since Schilling was the first live-bodied person to go through it, there was a big question on how he’d hold up. He held up but experienced some difficulties, and his ankle bled a bit through his wound. Thus, this became the famous Bloody Sock game.
7. Oct. 12, 1990: NLCS: Reds 2, Pirates 1
Cincinnati clinched its first pennant in 14 years behind a tremendous pitching performance against one of the best offenses in baseball.
A fourth-inning double by Carmelo Martinez drove in the only Pirate run while also preventing this from being a no-hitter. Cincy pitchers did issue a half-dozen walks, but when you allow just one hit, walks don’t hurt as much.
6. Oct. 16, 1991: NLCS: Braves 1, Pirates 0.
For the second straight year, the Pirates lost a Game Six pitchers’ duel. This was also the third 1-0 game of the 1991 NLCS, coming right after a 1-0 Pittsburgh win in Game Five.
This was a much more intense 1-0 game than the 1987 Game Six because this one was scoreless entering the ninth. Neither team had scored, but Atlanta had come closer, stranding a runner on third base three times, including in back-to-back frames in the seventh and eighth innings.
Despite the evidence that ace pitcher Doug Drabek was tiring, Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland decided he was going to stick with his big arm, come what may. It turns “come what may” meant a loss. In the ninth inning, Ron Gant walked and stole second, scoring on a two-out double by catcher Gregg Olson.
Though Atlanta was ahead, Pittsburgh wasn’t about to give up. The Pirates knew that a win would give them the pennant, and they didn’t want that to slip through their fingers. Pinch hitter Gary Varsho led off the ninth with a single, advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt, and scampered to third on a two-out wild pitch.
At the plate stood veteran center fielder Andy Van Slyke, part of the best outfield in baseball. With a chance to be the hero, he fouled off five straight offerings from Dodger reliever Alejandro Pena. Then Van Slyke took a pitch, only to have the umpire call it strike three. Game over.
Pittsburgh would lose the next game, too, ruining the Pirates’ pennant hopes. (Makes you wonder what would’ve happened if Lasorda had walked Clark to face Van Slyke back in 1985, doesn’t it?)
5. Oct. 20, 2004: NLCS: Cardinals 6, Astros 4 (12).
Only two postseason series have had multiple games ending on walk-off home runs: the 1988 World Series and the 2004 NLCS. The 2004 NLCS had it happen in back-to-back games. In Game Five, Houston won, 3-0, on a Jeff Kent homer in the bottom of the ninth. One game later, St. Louis had its revenge on a two-run Jim Edmonds dinger.
It was a rough loss for Houston, a team with a history of rough postseason losses. Virtually all game long they’d trailed, but the Astros had fought hard and battled back. In the top of the ninth, they finally caught St. Louis, tying the score on a Jeff Bagwell single. A few seconds later, after Bagwell and Carlos Beltran combined for a double steal, Houston had runners on second and third with two outs. At the plate was fearsome slugger Lance Berkman.
That was pretty much the same circumstance Lasorda faced when he opted to pitch to Clark instead of facing Van Slyke. Here, St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa made the same decision, deciding to face Berkman. After all, on deck was the previous day’s hero, Kent. This time, it worked. Berkman struck out to kill the rally. Houston never threatened again. So it goes.
4. Oct. 15, 1997: ALCS: Indians 1, Orioles 0 (11)
Of all the Game Six pitchers duels, this is my pick for the best. Not only was it a 1-0 game, but it’s one that went into overtime. There is just something intrinsically cool about a game that ends nine frames all tied up 0-0.
What makes it especially interesting is that Baltimore played better throughout the game. Cleveland looked totally overmatched by Baltimore pitcher Mike Mussina. Not a single man reached base until David Justice doubled in the fifth. Until a Tony Fernandez single in the ninth, that was their only hit.
Meanwhile, Baltimore was constantly reaching base. In the first two innings, the Orioles had two doubles, a single, and two walks, but all at the wrong times and with a double play thrown in the mix, as well, so they didn’t score. They got a runner into scoring position in every inning until the sixth. It looked like it was only a matter of time until the O’s would break through, but they just couldn’t do it.
Finally, Fernandez homered for Cleveland in the 11th. Baltimore got a single in the bottom half of the inning but couldn’t score. They’d gotten a runner on base in 10 of the 11 innings, but the O’s went 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position and ended the day with 14 men left on base, eight of them left in scoring position. It’s the greatest Game Six in ALCS history.
Cleveland’s win gave them the pennant.
3. Oct. 14, 2003: NLCS: Marlins 8, Cubs 3
No disrespect intended to the other games, but in the annals of great LCS Game Sixes, there are the top three, and then there is everything else.
Yes, this is the Steve Bartman game. Part of what makes this such a compelling game is the history behind it. The Cubs hadn’t won a pennant in 58 years but could do so with a win here. They had superstud young pitcher Mark Prior on the mound, and the Marlins couldn’t do anything against him. After seven innings, the Cubs led, 3-0. All Prior had to do was make it through one more inning and let the bullpen close it out from there.
Prior got the first batter to fly out, putting the Cubs just five outs from their first pennant in over a half-century. Next up came Juan Pierre.
A career contact hitter, Pierre wasn’t going to go down without a fight. He fouled a few off he didn’t like before connecting for a two-strike double. Florida was still alive.
Up next came fellow contact hitter Luis Castillo. The pitch-by-pitch info tells just a fraction of the story of this at-bat. It says Castillo fought hard, making Prior throw him eight pitches, despite falling behind early in the count. It says Castillo fouled off three straight offerings before taking the eighth pitch for a wild-pitch ball four that advanced Pierre to third.
But it’s one of those foul balls that everyone remembers. It went along the left field line. In any other ballpark it would have been an out, but Wrigley Field has almost no foul territory. Left fielder Moises Alou jumped and reached into the stands, but before the ball could get to him, a fan named Steve Bartman tried to grab it, and the ball never made it to Alou.
Maybe Alou wouldn’t have come down with it anyway. Maybe he would have, but no play that difficult is a sure thing. Clearly, Alou thought he had a chance. Upset over the fan getting in the way, Alou turned around and threw his glove down in disgust. He hadn’t made the play, and now he was letting it get to him. Soon, the entire Cubs team would let it get to them. The meltdown had begun.
A few minutes later, Prior threw the wild-pitch ball four. That was his 19th pitch of the inning and 114th of the game, but Cubs manager Dusty Baker didn’t have anyone up in the bullpen. Bartman or no Bartman, Prior was toiling out there and had lost his crispness, but Baker was slow to react.
Oh, well. Next up was Ivan Rodriguez. After Prior got an 0-2 count, I-Rod lashed out a single. There goes the shutout, and now the tying run was on base.
A young Miguel Cabrera came up next. Chomping at the bit, he swung at Prior’s first pitch, and it looked like the Cubs and Prior and Bartman could all heave a sigh of relief. It went to shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Never a great hitter, Gonzalez had a job as starting shortstop because of his glove.
Well, on this play he didn’t deserve his job because he botched a could’ve-been double play grounder. E6. Everyone was safe, and now the bases were loaded for first baseman Derrek Lee. He wasted no time, doubling Prior’s first pitch to tie the score, 3-3. And the go-ahead run was just 90 feet from home, still with just one out.
By this time, Baker had finally finished his apparent nap and pulled Prior from the game. Enter the inconsistent Kyle Farnsworth. He intentionally walked Mike Lowell to set up the force play but then allowed a sacrifice fly to give Florida the lead.
After another intentional walk (a rather needless strategic move given that with two outs a force was no longer a big deal, and the batter being walked, Todd Hollandsworth, wasn’t that great), Farnsworth allowed a three-run double, followed by an RBI single. When the third out finally came, Florida led, 8-3.
The Cubs never got another man on base. Bartman got the headlines, but the Cubs were the ones who choked. Not surprisingly, they lost Game Seven, too.
2. Oct. 19, 1999: NLCS: Braves 10, Mets 9 (11)
You know how I said there are the three best Game Sixes and then there’s everything else? Well, when you really think about it, there are the two best Game Sixes and then there’s everything else. The marathon Mets games from 1986 and 1999 are probably the two greatest LCS games of all time, not just the two greatest Game Sixes. It’s a shame they both can’t be No. 1.
The Mets sought to do what the Red Sox did five years later, rally from a three-games-to-none deficit to win. Like the 2004 Red Sox, the Mets won Games Four and Five thanks to late comebacks, with Game Five’s marathon win being one of the greatest games ever.
Here, the Mets looked doomed. The Braves jumped all over Mets starting pitcher Al Leiter, scoring five runs in the first and forcing the Mets to immediately go to their bullpen.
But the bullpen did a good job, and the Mets’ bats sprang to life. In the seventh, the amazing Mets had tied it, 7-7. An inning later, they took the lead, appearing like a team of destiny.
But Atlanta wasn’t about to curl up in a fetal position like the 2003 Cubs. They tied the game in the bottom of the eighth, forcing extra innings.
In the 10th, the Mets took another lead, 9-8. All they had to do was record three outs before Atlanta scored, but they couldn’t quite do it, as an Ozzie Guillen single drove home a run to make it 9-9. It could’ve been worse, but heads-up defense gunned down Ryan Klesko trying to advance from first to third on the play.
The game entered the 11th. Gerald Williams led off with a double for the Braves, and then the team sacrificed him to third. With a runner 90 feet from an Atlanta pennant, Mets manager Bobby Valentine decided to engage in some strategy to help his team out.
He ordered pitcher Kenny Rogers to issue back-to-back intentional walks. The theory was simple. Valentine knew that the trailing runs were meaningless in this situation, and the walks put a force at every base. They could perhaps get the lead run at the plate or, better yet, end the inning with a double play. There didn’t seem to be much downside to the strategy.
Well, there was one danger to it. What happens if Rogers can’t throw strikes? Wouldn’t you know it, that’s what happened. Rogers issues a bases-loaded walk to Andruw Jones, and that forced in the game-ending, pennant-winning run for the Braves. An unreal game had a surreal ending.
1. Oct. 15, 1986: NLCS: Mets 7, Astros 6 (16)
This is the Game Seven-est Game Six of all time.
On the face of it, the Mets had all the advantages. They destroyed the NL, winning 108 games in the regular season, while the Astros looked like just another division winner. They were good but nothing special.
But Houston had an ace up its sleeve—literally an ace: Mike Scott. The wonder of the baseball world in 1986, Scott fanned over 300 batters and peaked at the end of the year. He’d thrown a no-hitter in late September, and in his first two starts of the NLCS, he easily dominated the Mets, allowing one run in 18 innings while fanning approximately 83 kajillion Mets.
If Houston won this game, it could unleash Scott again against the Mets in Game Seven. So while Houston needed a win in Game Six to keep its hopes afloat, the Mets needed a win to avoid facing Scott. Thus, this felt more like a Game Seven than any other Game Six.
Early on, the Mets looked doomed. Houston quickly scored thrice in the first inning and then held on for a long stretch. The good news for the Mets was that Houston didn’t add to its lead. The bad news was that the Mets couldn’t dent it. Heading into the ninth, it was still 3-0. It looked like the Mets were getting ready for Scott in advance with all those goose eggs on the scoreboard.
In the ninth, however, the incredible happened. Down to their last inning, the Mets sprang to life. With a triple, double, single, three walks (one intentional) and a sacrifice fly, New York tied it up, 3-3. Houston was lucky to avoid falling behind, as reliever Dave Smith recorded the last out with the bases loaded.
The game entered extra innings and then was locked in a prolonged 3-3 stalemate. Finally, in the 14th, the Mets broke it open on a Wally Backman RBI single for a 4-3 lead. They couldn’t enjoy the feeling for long, though. Rather than a 4-3 win, a Billy Hatcher homer turned it into a 4-4 tie. The game moved on.
In the 16th, Houston’s bullpen collapsed from exhaustion. After a leadoff double and RBI single gave the Mets the 5-4 lead, Houston relievers proceeded to make things worse. There was a wild pitch. Then a walk. Then a run-scoring wild pitch. Then an RBI single. When a doulbe play finally, mercifully ended the inning, the Mets now had a three-run lead, 7-4.
Earlier, the Mets had succeeded in scoring three runs when down to their last inning to keep the game going. Surely Houston couldn’t do the same? How often does something like that ever happen, after all?
Well, Houston was going to try, that’s for sure. After the first batter struck out, Houston staged a last, desperate rally. Between a walk, a groundout, and three singles, Houston pushed a pair of runs across the plate and put the tying run in scoring position with two outs.
Mets reliever Jesse Orosco faced his 14th batter, Houston All-Star Kevin Bass, who hit .311 with 20 homers that year. Bass worked Orosco to a full count and then took a big swing at Orosco’s sixth pitch—but missed.
It was over. The Mets had won the pennant, ending an improbably brilliant game. It’s the greatest Game Six and, frankly, the greatest game in all LCS history.
But what are the greatest Game Sevens? We’ll figure that out when this series of articles concludes.