Lately around here I’ve been doing a series on the best games in the history of the League Championship Series. It’s a spin-off of a series of articles I wrote several years ago on the best World Series games in history where I divided them up by Game Ones, Game Twos, and so on through Games Seven.
Game Threes have featured many impressive pitching duels and some nice back-and-forth contests. There are rarely any super-dramatic finishes, but there certainly are some mighty nice games.
10. 2009 ALCS: Oct. 19, 2009: Angels 5, Yankees 4 (11)
This was the second straight great game in the 2009 ALCS. It was actually the second straight extra-inning game to end with a walk-off winner. The Yankees won Game Two in 13 frames, but today was the Angels’ day to shine.
New York took an early 3-0 lead but couldn’t hold it. Nor could Anaheim hold a 4-3 lead, causing this one to enter extra innings.
The Angels nearly won in the bottom of the 10th. After a leadoff double, the Yankees inserted uber-closer Mariano Rivera, who immediately made a bad decision. He tried to nail the lead runner on a sacrifice bunt play but couldn’t get him, giving Anaheim runners on the corners with no outs. After a ground out, Rivera issued an intentional walk to load the bases, but the Angels couldn’t take advantage of the situation, as two meek grounders ended the inning.
In the 11th, the Angels didn’t make the same mistake twice, as a single and double off new reliever Alfredo Aceves won them the game.
9. 1974 ALCS: Oct. 8, 1974: A’s 1, Orioles 0.
This is one of those games you hope you see every October: two great pitchers both in top form dueling for nine innings.
Hall of Famer Jim Palmer squared off against Oakland’s Vida Blue in this matchup. Both pitchers were coming off disappointing seasons and looking to make up for them here. Palmer went 7-12, his only season without 20 wins from 1970-78. Blue was 17-15 but with a good ERA, but he’d always been a feared pitcher since posting a 1.82 ERA in 1971.
Today, both were nearly unhittable. They combined to allow just one hit—a scratch single against Palmer—in the first three innings. In the fourth, Palmer surrendered a home run to Sal Bando, though.
That was all Blue needed. He allowed just two hits—half as many as Palmer gave up on the day—and no one reached second base against him, let alone scored.
8. 2003 NLCS: Oct. 10, 2003: Cubs 5, Marlins 4 (11)
For much of the day, it seemed like a tense pitchers duel, with the score 2-1 in favor of the Cubs at the seventh-inning stretch. However, the game quickly transformed into a topsy-turvy series of lead changes.
In the bottom of the seventh, Florida turned two singles, a walk, and two productive groundouts in a 3-2 lead. They couldn’t enjoy it long, though, as a Randall Simon homer in the top of the eighth gave the Cubs a new one-run advantage, 4-3. Once again a lead wasn’t safe, as the Marlins rallied to tie it in the bottom of the eighth, 4-4.
7. 1976 NLCS: Oct 12, 1976: Reds 7, Phillies 6
This one featured a wild, wild ending, which is odd because it looked like a mild, mild game for much of the day.
After six innings, the Phillies had a meager 1-0 lead over the defending world champion Reds. But when you’re up against the Big Red Machine, you know you need to score more than one run to win.
Fortunately for the Phillies, they plated a pair in the top of the seventh for a 3-0 lead. Unfortunately for the Phillies, this was still the Big Red Machine they were up against. A three-run advantage heading into the bottom of the seventh turned into a one-run disadvantage exiting it, as the Reds staged a nice rally for a 4-3 lead.
Okay, but the Phillies weren’t about to go down too easily. They scored two runs in the eighth to retake the lead. For good measure, Philadelphia scored an insurance run in the top of the ninth. With the game just three outs from completion, the Phillies were up, 6-4.
They never got that third out.
A Dave Concepcion single put the winning run aboard, and a walk and sacrifice advanced him to third. After an intentional walk to Pete Rose created a force out at every base, Ken Griffey Sr. stroked a game-winning single for an unlikely 7-6 victory—and a NLCS sweep for the pennant.
6. 1977 NLCS: Oct. 7, 1977: Dodgers 6, Phillies 5.
This game came in a best-of-five series that was all knotted up at one game apiece, so this contest was pretty damn important. It was so important that both managers gave their pitchers very short hooks, removing each by the fourth inning, despite the fact that the score was only 3-3 at the time.
Given how well the bullpens pitched, giving the starters early showers seemed to make sense. The score was still 3-3 entering the bottom of the eighth.
That’s when the Phillies appeared to break the game open. A double, a single, and an error by third baseman Ron Cey gave the Phillies a 5-3 lead. Then they began the ninth in perfect fashion, retiring the first two Dodger hitters without any problems.
They were just one out away from going ahead two games to one in hopes of claiming the franchise’s second pennant since World War I. Spirits must have been pretty high in the Philadelphia dugout.
However, pinch-hitter Vic Davalillo laid down a bunt for a single. The game wasn’t over yet. Eh, no biggie, though. It was just a runner on first with two outs and a 5-3 lead.
Then world-class pinch-hitter Manny Mota strode to the plate and did what he did best, belting a solid line drive to the outfield. As Mota cruised into second base with a double, Davalillo sprinted to the plate. It was now 5-4 with the tying run in scoring position.
He wasn’t in scoring position for very long, as Davey Lopes singled him home. So long lead; it was 5-5 in the ninth.
Still, the game wasn’t over, and the Phillies would still bat. Besides, Philadelphia reliever Gene Garber had an idea to make Lopes pay; he picked off the speedy Lopes at first. Or almost did. Instead, Garber’s throw got away and went for an error, and Lopes scampered into second base. Dodger shortstop made Garber pay, singling home Lopes to finish off the improbable comeback for a 6-5 lead.
In the bottom of the ninth, a shell-shocked Phillies team went down without much of a fight. For the second straight year, the Phillies lost Game Three in heartbreaking fashion due to an unlikely rally by the opposing team in the bottom of the ninth.
The Dodgers had won this pivotal game and would win Game Four to take the pennant.
5. 1978 ALCS: Oct. 6, 1978: Yankees 6, Royals 5.
This is the best Yankee-Royals Game Three, but not the most famous. Two years later, they met again, with George Brett stealing the show, belting a towering late-game homer off Rich Gossage to seal the Royals victory.
That was a great game, but it was more a great performance by Brett. Besides, that just finished a sweep, whereas this Game Three pitted two teams tied at one game each back in the best-of-five days.
It’s one of the most back-and-forth games in postseason history and certainly one of the most back-and-forth 6-5 games ever. Despite 11 runs scoring, neither team ever led by more than one run.
The Royals led 1-0 early, but then the Yankees tied it. Okay, so KC took a 2-1 lead, but New York overtook them to go up, 3-2. Now it was the Royals turn to tie, making it 3-3, but then the Yankees pulled ahead again, 4-3.
That’s where it stood heading into the eighth inning. The Royals took their third lead of the game when two singles, a double, a passed ball, and a productive ground out plated a pair for a 5-4 lead.
But on this day no run was safe, as Thurman Munson belted a two-run homer for a 6-5 win.
There was a bit of controversy in it, too. In the fourth inning, Lou Piniella was thrown out at the plate on a fly out to center. At least home plate umpire Ron Luciano called Piniella out. Piniella beat the throw, but Luciano was sure that Piniella had bounced during his slide and gone over the plate. Luciano was sure he got the call right—until he asked the Royals catcher what he thought and heard, “It was pretty close” in reply. Uh-oh.
Later, Munson told Luciano he blew it, but then said don’t worry. I’ll bail you out, he told the umpire. Then, when Munson hit his homer, he told Luciano, “You’re welcome.” In his autobiography, The Umpire Strikes Back, Luciano said he didn’t know if he wanted to kiss or punch Munson for saying that.
4. 1980 NLCS: Oct. 10, 1980: Houston 1, Philadelphia 0 (11)
The 1980 NLCS was one of the all-time greats, with each game seemingly more tightly fought than the one before. That’s quite the compliment to Games Four and Five, given how this one went.
Through 10 innings, neither side could score. Both teams had their chances, but neither could convert. The Astros had runners on the corners with one out in the first, only to hit into a double play. The Phillies had runners on second and third with one out in the third inning, but Pete Rose was thrown out when trying to score on an infield grounder. In all, in nine different half-innings a team put a runner in scoring position, and every time the man never crossed the plate safely.
In the 11th, Houston’s Joe Morgan led off with a triple, causing the Phillies to intentionally walk the next two batters to set up the force play. It was for nothing, as Morgan scored on a sacrifice fly by Denny Walling to win the game, 1-0.
There is something about Game Three of the NLCS that just doesn’t work for the Philadelphia Phillies.
3. 1986 NLCS: Oct. 11, 1986: Mets 6, Astros 5.
Of all the back-and-forth games with dramatic endings in the history of Game Three-dom, this was the best.
The Astros jumped all over Mets pitcher Ron Darling early, scoring twice in the top of the first and adding two more in the second. Houston held their 4-0 lead until the sixth, when the Mets launched a sudden and swift counterattack. The first four batters of the inning reached base, and the last of them was Darryl Strawberry, who homered to tie the game.
The lead only lasted a few minutes, as Houston scored in the top of the seventh, with the go-ahead run scoring via a productive ground out by Denny Walling, the RBI man from the 1980 NLCS Game Three.
Today would not be Walling’s day to drive in the winning run, though. Instead, Lenny Dykstra did it, hitting a two-run home run with two out in the bottom of the ninth for a 6-5 Mets win. That has all the elements you want in a walk-off homer. Since there were two outs and his team trailed, if he hit a flyout the game would have ended right there. Instead it ended right there—but with a victory.
2. 1997 ALCS: Oct. 11, 1997: Indians 2, Orioles 1 (12)
This had, without question, the most incredible ending to any LCS Game Three ever.
It was a real pitchers duel, with Mike Mussina and Orel Hershiser trading goose eggs through six innings. Cleveland got on the board against Mussina in the seventh for a 1-0 edge, but Cleveland closer Jose Mesa surrendered the game-tying run in the ninth. Extra innings beckoned.
In the 11th, both teams loaded the bases, but neither team could score, bringing on the memorable bottom-of-the-12th-inning finale. With one out, Cleveland had Marquis Grissom on third, Tony Fernandez on first, and Omar Vizquel at the plate.
You wouldn’t expect Vizquel to do something heroic to win the game with his bat. And you would be right. The end had nothing to do with him. It had everything to do with the man on third, Grissom.
He stole home to end the game. Yeah, that’s one you don’t see to often. A steal of home is rare enough, but a walk-off steal? That’s as rare as it gets. But it’s what happened here.
1. 1973 ALCS: Oct. 9, 1973: A’s 2, Orioles 1 (11).
There was something about the A’s and Orioles in early 1970s Game Threes. They had the Blue-Palmer showdown, and this one, which was even better.
In fact, you can make a legitimate case that this is the greatest pitchers’ duel in postseason history. Both pitchers went the distance, all 11 innings. Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar posted a Game Score of 84, the highest ever for the losing pitcher in a postseason game. Young Ken Holtzman was better, though, with a Game Score of 93.
Holtzman allowed just three hits all game long. One was a first-inning single and another a home run by Earl Williams with one out in the second. He then retired 14 batters in a row before walking the leadoff man in the seventh. That was his only walk on the day, and the runner immediately was erased in a double play. A ninth-inning single was the only other hit against Holtzman.
Cuellar was nearly as good, allowing four hits while fanning 11. His problem was that he bunched up the hits. Throwing a one-hitter into the eighth, he was tagged for two singles and a run that tied in the game. In the 11th, shortstop Bert Campaneris—a man with just two homers on the entire year (and none since June)—belted a walk-off dinger. It was the only walk-off homer of his 19-year career.
Those are the best Game Threes. Next we’ll look at the best Game Fours.
References & Resources
Stats and game accounts come from Baseball-Reference.com.
As noted in the article, one story comes from The Umpire Strikes Back by Ron Luciano.