Last week I wrote a column that was a personal favorite of mine. Inspired by Joe Posnanski’s article “The Agony of Defeat” I counted down the worst endings to regular-season games in MLB history. This week, we’ll look at postseason games.
But wait, what exactly is a terrible ending to a postseason game? Basically, it’s a game decided not by the victorious team achieving something, but by the losing team screwing up badly. That’s the main definition. It can be broadened if need be to a game’s ending that seems horribly wrong based on what had occurred during the game. Ultimately, deciding what constitutes one of the worst endings is fairly arbitrary.
A game with one of the worst endings is NOT one of the worst baseball games. Far from. Every single game listed below was fantastic. They’re games in the highest of pressure situations that came down to the wire. But that last act was one with a team screwing up.
Another highly important qualifier: this column won’t include any games Joe Posnanki listed in his column on the worst finishes in sports history. That’s a little too cheap. If I’m going to swipe the concept, I ought to at least come up with my own games; otherwise, there’s no point at all.
That wasn’t a big deal in last week’s column, but it is here. Posnanski’s column contained only three regular-season games on his list, and none of them were ones I would’ve thought to include: the Harvey Haddix game, Armando Galarraga‘s imperfect perfect game, and a Royals-Indians game I’d never heard of. All were valid choices, but none were must-include games.
Posnanski’s column also included three postseason games, but at least two are must-include games: the Buckner and Bartman games. (Posnanski’s third was the Sid Bream slide in the 1992 NLCS, which I wouldn’t have included). Any list without Buckner and Bartman has some immediate credibility problems, though, so I’ll begin by listing them as honorable mentions, and then moving onto the ten games I came up with.
Honorable mentions: the Posnanski pair: Oct. 25, 1986: Mets 6, Red Sox 5 (10). Oct. 14, 2003: Marlins 8, Cubs 3.
As noted already, it’s too derivative to include games Posnanski noted, so I’ll just mention them because, well, they deserve mention – but I’ll avoid saying the same things Posnanksi did.
With the Buckner game, it’s worth noting that Red Sox loss arguably earned a place on the list even before the ball skipped through Buckner’s legs.
Prior to Buckner’s error, the Red Sox had already committed two memorable gaffes. First and more subtly, manager John McNamara avoided his regular pattern of installing Dave Stapleton at first as a late-game defensive replacement. If McNamara handles the game as he normally does, there is no Buckner to make the error.
That said, Buckner or Stapleton, the Red Sox weren’t guaranteed a win anyway. The error let the winning run in, by the tying run scored minutes before – on a wild pitch by Bob Stanley. Yeah, that was an ugly one all around.
As for the Bartman game, strange as this may sound, now that I think about it, I may not have included it anyway. Oh, it was a terrible loss and deserved entry on points, but for one problem: looking at my list, all the games had the final sad finale occurr in the winning team’s last turn at bat (after all, we are talking worst endings here). The Cubs blew this one in the seventh inning.
And if I put in the Bartman game, why not the 1929 10-8 World Series game? In that contest, the Cubs led 8-0 in the seventh inning, only to see the A’s push an incredible ten runs across the board that inning.
The A’s had a secret weapon: Cubs centerfielder Hack Wilson, who went out into the blinding sun without sunglasses. First he misplayed a Bing Miller ball for a single in shallow center. Added bonus: because Wilson was apparently too embarrassed to get his sunglasses after that ball, he misplayed another one even worse, turning a Mule Haas deep fly into an inside-the-park homer. If Hack makes those plays, the inning ends with the Cubs leading 8-3.
If I were to include the Posnanski games, the Buckner game would probably go at #2 on my list. I might put Bartman and the 10-8 game in a tie at the bottom of the list. Neither key play came at the very end, but both sure were terrible losses.
Now for the ones I found:
10. You are so fired: Oct. 14, 1973: Mets 10, A’s 7 (12).
This was an ugly game with an aftermath even worse than anything that happened on the field. Tied 6-6 after 11 innings, the Mets pushed across a go-ahead run with two outs in the top of the twelfth.
The inning seemed over when the next batter hit a routine grounder to Oakland second baseman Mike Andrews. However, he booted it, allowing two insurance runs in. Then he made another error on the next play, allowing yet another run to scamper in. This pair of errors proved crucial, as the A’s got one run in the bottom of the inning.
Andrews’ play was ugly, but A’s owner Charlie Finley’s reaction was far uglier. He coerced Andrews into signing a fraudulent medical report that claimed he couldn’t play the rest of the series, allowing Oakland to activate another player to take his roster spot. Eventually, Finley’s shenanigans were undone, but it crystallized the team’s already widespread resentment of their owner.
|The man whose fast thinking helped the Sox even the ALCS at one game apiece.|
9. That A. J. Pierzynski gets in the middle of everything. Oct. 12, 2005: White Sox 2, Angels 1.
The Angels had taken the first game of the ALCS in Chicago and had a chance in the second game. With the game tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, White Sox catcher A. J.Pierzynski stepped to the plate with none on and two out and promptly struck out to end the inning. Or so it seemed.
A. J. took a step or two over the plate to the dugout, then stopped. You could see a light go on: the swinging strike three was on a pitch in the dirt. “Hey, let’s run to first on the wild pitch rule.”
Angels catcher Josh Paul wasn’t expecting this—he was on his way to the dugout—and A.J. made it to first.
This was controversial, in part, because the ump admitted he based his call partially on A. J.’s actions. The Angels never got that third out, and the Sox scored the winning run a few minutes later.
8. Sentimental journey: Oct. 15, 1925: Pirates 9, Senators 7.
Johnson, hampered by a sore leg, had trouble pitching, and the day’s muddy conditions on a rainy day didn’t help. He wore down, and needed to be removed, but Harris wouldn’t do it.
Washington led 6-4, but Johnson allowed a pair of runs in the bottom of the seventh. Washington went ahead 7-6 in next frame, but Johnson was completely gassed and allowed three more runs for a 9-7 Pittsburgh win.
Harris cost Washington by refusing to pull the obviously-in-need-of-pulling ace. Even Commissioner Landis blasted Harris for sentimentality.
7. The first great World Series finale: Oct. 16, 1912: Red Sox 3, Giants 2 (10).
This is a great example of how a great game can have one of the worst endings. The first great final game of a World Series (it was actually Game Eight, as Game Two had ended in a tie), had a dramatic conclusion, but one filled with miscues.
New York took a 2-1 lead in the top of the tenth and proceeded to royally botch things. Leading off the bottom of the tenth, the normally sure-handed Fred Snodgrass muffed a routine fly in center for a two-base error. Though he made a great play on the next batter for the first out, the team took its cue from his mistake rather than this play.
Christy Mathewson, known for his control, walked the winning run on. Next up, Tris Speaker hit a routine foul pop-up that first baseman Fred Merkle, catcher Chief Meyers, and Mathewson all circled under—and let fall between them. They all assumed one of the other two had it. Between this play and Snodgrass’s earlier oops, the inning (and game and series) would be over. But it wasn’t—and Boston scored two runs to win.
6. Not how it’s supposed to end: Oct. 3, 1947: Dodgers 3, Yankees 2.
This is a different type of game. It made the list not because of a sad error or managerial miscue. This had a cleanly-hit walk-off double. It just seemed so horribly wrong, though. A nearly-great performance became a loss.
Cookie Lavagetto‘s walk-off double against Yankees pitcher Bill Bevens wasn’t just the game winner, it was also Brooklyn’s only hit of the game. Bevens retired 26 batters without allowing a single batsman to hit his way on board. Bevens allowed plenty of other base runners—10 walks in all, still a World Series record for one pitcher—but no hits.
Fun fact: I’ve done some research, and unless I’ve missed something, this is the only time a walk-off hit was also a no-hit-spoiling shot. Maybe I missed something, but it can’t have happened too often. That it came in the World Series makes it that much more amazing.
5. Denkinger. Oct. 26, 1985: Royals 2, Cardinals 1.
St. Louis, up 1-0, was three outs from the world championship when Don Denkinger made arguably the most infamous blown call ever, saying leadoff batter Jorge Orta was safe at first when the throw clearly beat him.
While Denkinger’s call is the famous part, he isn’t why the Cardinals lost the game. St. Louis misplayed it from there, with first baseman Jack Clark messing up on a foul ball, and catcher Darrell Porter letting a passed ball get away from him, putting the winning run in scoring position. Denkinger was part of it, but this was a series of goofs.
4. Pennant-losing pitch: Oct. 11, 1972: Reds 4, Pirates 3.
1972 is the most underrated postseason. I wrote an article in last year’s THT Annual arguing the 1972 Series might be the best ever. The LCS were both pretty good, too, with both series going the full five games.
The NLCS had an especially memorable ending. The defending world champion Pirates entered the bottom of the ninth leading 3-2. A leadoff homer by Johnny Bench tied it, and then back-to-back singles put the winning run on second with no out. A flyout advanced lead runner George Foster to third, but the next batter popped up. With two outs and the game still tied, extra innings seemed to beckon. Or not.
3. One that got away: Oct. 5, 1971: Yankees 7, Dodgers 4.
This was the unlikeliest of losses. The Dodgers blew it AFTER winning the game. Really. They led 4-3 with two outs in the top of the ninth, and Tommy Heinrich – New York’s last hope – struck out. Ballgame over.
Except the ball squirted away from catcher Mickey Owen, and Heinrich scampered to first. Suddenly, the over game was still going on. After a single by Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller battled reliever Hugh Casey mightily, fouling off pitch after pitch. Keller won that battle with a double that scored the tying and winning runs. Brooklyn melted down from there, with two walks and a double before getting the 28th out.
Obviously, this game is more than a little similar to the A. J. Pierzynski game in 2005. So why is the recent game No. 9 and this one No. 3? Simple: this game was over if not for the passed ball. The 2005 was merely headed for extra innings.
2. You got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk-off away . . . Oct. 19, 1999: Braves 10, Mets 9 (11).
Roger Craig once said you have to be a good pitcher to lose 20 games. Well, it takes one heckuva game to be one of the worst endings ever, as this one proves.
The Braves led 5-0 and 7-3, only to need to rally to tie the game at 8-8, sending it into extra frames. The Mets took the lead in the tenth, and the Braves came back yet again with the tying run. All of which set up the bottom of the 11th.
Newly-installed relief pitcher Kenny Rogers immediately ran into trouble, allowing a leadoff double. When a sacrifice advanced the runner to third, Atlanta needed only two outs to bring their man the final 90 feet to clinch the pennant.
Recognizing this, Mets manager Bobby Valentine decided to strategize. He ordered Rogers to intentionally walk the next two batters, setting up the force at all the bases. That way they could force the runner on third to take off for home, even if he otherwise wouldn’t have gone. Besides, a single ends the game anyway, so why not set up the force?
Well, there was one scenario this strategy overlooked: Rogers’ inability to find the plate. Sure enough, with the bases loaded and the game tied in the bottom of the 11th inning, Rogers couldn’t locate his pitches and walked Andruw Jones, ending one of the greatest games on a walk-off walk. This was a combination of self-defeating managing and pitching to end the game.
1. Passive witnesses to their own victory: Oct. 10, 1924: Senators 4, Giants 3 (12).
A key theme has been that only great games can have terrible endings. Thus, it’s appropriate that arguably the greatest game in history finishes atop the list of worst postseason endings. Never has such a confluence of events beyond the winning team’s control allowed them to skate away with victory.
Game Seven of the 1924 World Series was tied 3-3 with Washington coming up in the bottom of the 12th. Leadoff batter Ralph Miller grounded out weakly to second to start the inning on the wrong foot. It would prove to be the only out of the inning. The succeeding batters didn’t perform better than Miller, they just had much better fortune.
With one out, catcher Muddy Ruel stepped up and lofted an easy foul pop-up behind the backstop. Giants catcher Hank Gowdy flipped off his mask, reached to catch the ball and…accidentally stepped on his own mask, lost his footing, and the ball dropped for an error. Given new life, Ruel took the only good swing of the inning, lacing a double to left.
Next up was pitcher Walter Johnson, who grounded to New York shortstop Travis Jackson. However, Jackson muffed the ball, and Johnson was safe. If New York could field, the inning would be over and the game would enter the 13th. Instead, runners were on second and first with still only one out.
Now Earl McNeely stepped to the plate. Just like all previous batters, his swing was not true – he hit a hopper right to third baseman Fred Lindstrom. This should be an easy ground out and perhaps an inning-ending double play.
Again, something had to go wrong. At least Lindstrom didn’t make a third straight New York error. He never had a chance. As the ball bounced to Lindstrom, it hit a pebble and took a weird hop way over his head and into left. Gowdy scored the walk-off run in an inning when the Senators should’ve had no one reach base.
Added bonus: the only reason the game entered extra frames in the first place was because in the bottom of the eighth, a grounder to third by Bucky Harris also hit a pebble and took a bizarre bounce over Lindstrom’s head into left. That scored two runs, tying the game at 3-3.
This was a great game full of drama. It also had a great storyline, as the underdog Senators won their first world championship – and Walter Johnson was the winning pitcher as well.
A couple years ago, I wrote a series of columns on the best World Series games ever and listed this as the best Game Seven. I stand by that. For all the oddities and quirks that let the Senators win by default, there’s something Homeric (I mean the Greek poet, not the Springfield barfly) in it. Those crazy hops off pebbles are like the intervention of the gods and the Fates, decreeing that for once Walter Johnson deserves to win it all.
That said, it’s also a highly important game decided by a series of plays in which the winning team didn’t do anything to deserve winning. For that, the greatest game in history has the worst ending.