Last month I saw the most enjoyable sports column I’ve read in some time. Naturally, Joe Posnanski wrote it. Titled “The Agony of Defeat,” it presented admittedly-subjective picks for the worst endings ever to any sports games.
What makes a terrible ending? Well, normally it’s a game decided at the end when one team blows the contest instead of the other team achieving it. For example, he included the Bill Buckner game on his list. Or when an official blows it: Armando Galarraga‘s non-perfect perfect game from last year made the list.
Other times it’s an ending that just seems somehow morally wrong. Posnanski also put the Harvey Haddix game on his list, as a guy who retired 36 in a row doesn’t deserve a loss.
That column was a blast, and it got me thinking: what are some other horrible losses that column didn’t cover. I came up with enough ideas that I realized I could get my own column out of it. In fact, I should end up with two: this one on regular season games and a future one on postseason contests. Normally this would be a top ten column, but even just limiting it to regular season games, I found more than ten games that demanded attention.
One key rule: I will NOT use any game Joe Posnanski covered in his column. His list of 33 worst sports endings including six baseball games – of which three were regular season contests: 1) the Haddix game, 2) the Galarraga game, and 3) a bizarrely brutal Royals loss to the Indians in August, 2005. Those three are out – but that leaves plenty.
Based on my memories, some research, Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index, and a few comments by posters at Baseball Think Factory (who pointed out a few of these games) here are the worst regular-season defeats not listed in Posnanski’s column:
15. Not how it’s supposed to end. September 30, 1967. Red Sox 6, Twins 4.
This one is cheating: it’s not a game that ended badly but a pennant race that didn’t end as it should.
The 1967 AL race was a great one, with the Twins, White Sox, Tigers, and Red Sox battling throughout September. By the last weekend, it was just Twins and Red Sox – and they played each other for the season’s last two games.
Minnesota led by a game, so the Twins needed just one victory to claim the pennant. They had the right man on the mound in the first game to do it: Jim Kaat.
Though not the first name that comes to mind when you think of great pitchers, Kaat – as I once noted in a column – had arguably the greatest month of clutch, pennant-race pitching by any hurler in MLB history. Here’s Jim Kaat’s line from September 1 onward in 1967: 7-0 with a 1.51 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 65.2 IP. DAMN! It was a great season ending with a great pitcher in a potentially pennant-deciding game. Perfect.
Or not. That 65.2 innings was too much: Kaat blew his arm out in the third. The Minnesota bullpen couldn’t stop Boston, which won the game, and the next one. It’s great for Boston that they won, but that ain’t how the storybook is supposed to go. You’re supposed to slay the giant, not have him trip over his own foot and break his neck.
14. Couldn’t you have sucked earlier? April 15, 1968: Astros 1, Mets 0 (24).
Never had a game gone so long without a run scoring. But when one did, it sure did rather lamely.
Norm Miller led off with a single, and then advanced to second on a balk. After being sacrificed to third, he scored on an error by the shortstop. It’s bad enough to play for 24 innings and lose, but even worse to lose like this.
13. (TIE). Cub fan memories. May 4, 1993: Rockies 14, Cubs 13 (11). May 28, 2006: Braves 13, Cubs 12 (11).
I’ve seen the Cubs blow a bunch of games, but these two error-related losses stand out.
The 1993 game could’ve and should’ve been one of the all-time greats for Cub fans. The Cubs entered the bottom of the ninth down 10-5, but somehow rallied with two outs to tie it. The big blast was a three-run homer by Sammy Sosa.
In the 11th, the bullpen blew it. They let two runs score and had two on with two outs, when a pop fly appeared to end it. Unfortunately, the ball went into, then out of, shortstop Jose Vizcaino‘s glove. Both runners scored, making it a 14-10 game.
It appeared meaningless as the Cubs already had let two runs in, but wouldn’t you know it, they rallied in the bottom frame: with two outs they scored three more runs. The big blast again was a Sosa homer (that would’ve won the game if Vizcaino had caught the ball). Chicago got the 14th run to second base, but he died there.
The 2006 game featured an even more embarrassing error. The Cubs, who had dropped 22 of their previous 27 heading into that game, scored four in the bottom of the ninth to tie it, 12-12.
In the top of the 11th, Atlanta’s leadoff hitter Ryan Langerhans tapped an easy pop fly to third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who settled under it. Instead of a routine catch, the ball bounced comically off his skull. Naturally, Langerhans went on to score the game-winning run. Naturally, there were two outs when he scored.
Hitting: that’s why Ramirez is a star.
12. Three blind Jays. See how they (don’t) run. August 24, 1983: Orioles 7, Blue Jays 4 (10).
I wrote about this one a few days ago, so I won’t give a full recap. The key fact: in the top of the 10th, Toronto made baseball history by having three straight runners picked off. Ouch. Then they allowed a walk-off homer to non-slugger Lenn Sakata.
Actually, some readers pointed out a neat fact after my earlier piece: the Jays were leaning toward second because Baltimore had made a series of player moves earlier in the game that left them without any catcher. They installed a man who never caught before or since in the MLB to man the plate that inning: Lenn Sakata.
11. Oh, those pre-miracle Mets. August 27, 1963: Pirates 2, Mets 1.
The early Met teams were as bad a unit as any professional sports squad you’ll see this side of Matt Millen. They never looked worse than on the last play of this game, though. The Mets clung to a 1-0 lead with one out and a runner on first in the bottom of the ninth.
Then Manny Mota bopped a comebacker up the middle that got past the pitcher and through the middle infielders. Center fielder Duke Carmel fielded the ball – or at least he intended to. The ball clonked off his glove and went into right. Fortunately, the Mets had just inserted a defensive replacement in right: Joe Christopher. Unfortunately, they would’ve been better off with someone else there. Christopher’s throw to third to head off the lead runner was badly off target and went somewhere between third and home.
Pitcher Galen Cisco went to retrieve it, but tripped over his own feet and did a lovely face plant on the ground. One run scored to tie the game, and the second chugged for home. Cisco got up and corralled the ball in time to make one last play at the plate to nab the would-be winning run. The throw was in time – but of course something had to go wrong: catcher Jesse Gonder caught it out of position. Instead of staying behind the plate, he had advanced upward. When he caught the throw, his back was to home, and when he did a 180 to tag Mota, he found out the hard way that he was five feet from home, and out of arm’s distance to tag Mota. Pirates won, 2-1.
Officially there were only two errors on the play, but that’s one of the worst-fielded two-error performances of all-time.
10. The Luis Castillo game. June 12, 2009: Yankees 9, Mets 8.
With two outs and two runners on in the bottom of the ninth, the Mets led 8-7 when Alex Rodriguez hit an apparent game-ending pop up to Luis Castillo at second.
Sure enough, it was a game-ending pop up – just not how anyone expected it to end the game. Castillo muffed the play, and it fell harmlessly out of his glove. Both runners were going, and thus scored the game-tying and game-winning runs. Few things make a professional athlete look more foolish that dropping a routine pop up.
For many Mets fans, Castillo will forever be the guy who dropped the pop up.
9. (TIE). Tools of ignorance or ignorant tools? August 1, 1971: Dodgers 5, Reds 4 (11). August 12, 1995: Dodgers 11, Pirates 10 (11).
Thanks to Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index, we know that only one game in the last 60 years ended on a walk-off catcher’s interference play. I really don’t know what Johnny Bench did with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 11th of a 4-4 game in 1971, but the ump ruled it catcher interference. Runners advance – game over.
Perhaps an even stranger catcher-inflicted loss came 24 years later. With runners on second and third in a game tied 10-10, the Pirates struck out opposing pitcher Pedro Astacio for the first out. However, the ball rolled a foot away from catcher Mark Parent. Rather than leap up and get it, he had a nice laborsaving brainstorm: he scooped the ball up with his mask.
That’s so simple – why hadn’t anyone thought of doing it before? Because the rules say a catcher can’t do that. Again, runners could advance one base – game over.
8. That time it didn’t count. July 9, 2002: AL 7, NL 7 (11).
Yeah, it’s the All-Star Game that ran out of pitchers. This was let’s-get-everyone-into-the-game taken to the point of silliness.
At the end of the game, the tying run was on second with only one out. Personally, I rooted for AL pitcher Freddy Garcia to intentionally groove a pitch so the game wouldn’t end in a tie. Hey – maybe he did. But it made no difference – the first batter to come up with a runner in scoring position was the opposing pitcher: Vicente Padilla. The NL had no one to pinch hit for him. Then came Benito Santiago, a rather bizarre All-Star pick. A feeble ending to a tie game.
7. Charles not in charge of the ninth inning. June 16, 1986: Angels 2, Rangers 1.
Charlie Hough was on the verge of his own slice of baseball history. Through 25 outs, he had yet to allow a single hit by the Angels.
Out #26 looked at hand when pinch hitter Jack Howell belted one by the line in left to George Wright, who had just entered the game as a defensive replacement. Obviously I wouldn’t have mentioned he was a defensive replacement if he fielded it cleanly. Instead, he muffed it, and there’s no kind of muff like one by the line in the outfield: Howell stood on third.
I don’t know if the muff unnerved Hough or if it was something else, but he then allowed the only hit of the night: an RBI-single by Wally Joyner. So long no-hitter, shutout, and lead.
Then catcher Orlando Mercado got into the act: passed ball. With the winning run in scoring position, Hough stuck a batter out, and issued an intentional walk. With the tying run on second, another knuckleball got by Mercado as a passed ball. This time, Joyner didn’t stop at one base, but dashed all the way home. Why not? After Mercado’s misplay, the stunned Hough had a complete brain fart and forgot to cover home. Nothing blocked Joyner’s path for the winning run.
Tallying it up: an error, two passed balls, and a mental miscue all helped turn a no-hit, complete-game victory into a tough 2-1 loss.
6. Butterfingers. May 18, 1950: Dodgers 9, Cardinals 8.
There are no good ways to lose a game – but dang near all ways are preferable to how St. Louis did it here. They led 8-0 heading into the bottom of the eighth, but somehow blew it.
Worst of all was the game’s final three plays. The Cards led 8-5 with the bases loaded with one out in the bottom of the ninth. Then third baseman Tommy Glaviano muffed a grounder – run scores and everyone advanced a base. 8-6.
The next batter also hit it to third. For the second straight play, Glaviano pooches it: everyone advances a base and a run scores. 8-7.
Then – you know what’s going to happen, right? Yep, grounder to third, Glaviano blows it. In a change of pace, two runs score. St. Louis lost on back-to-back-to-back errors by the same player. Almost makes Luis Castillo sound good.
5. “OH NO!!” September 23, 1998. Brewers 8, Cubs 7.
Here’s where we find games with pennant-race importance. Chicago was battling for the wild care in late September, and this looked like an easy win as they led 7-0 at the seventh inning stretch. Then Milwaukee rallied.
The Cubs still led 7-5 in the ninth with two outs, though the bases were loaded. The game appeared over when Geoff Jenkins lifted a lazy fly to left. Brant Brown camped under it – but the ball clanked off his glove. In a call that became local legend, radio color man Ron Santo blurted out, “OH NO!” with a voice full of passion. Because there were two outs, all runners were going and scored. So sure enough the game was over on that play – just with a very different result than expected.
Forget pennant race implications: a walk-off error allowing three runs is damn rare. It’s the only time it happened in the NL since 1950. It happened twice in the AL – June 30, 1958 when the A’s made two errors on one play allowing the Tigers to win, and June 4, 1988 when the Yanks lost to Baltimore in 14 innings. And that A’s-Tigers game had one out when the last play happened. Thus, the Brant Brown game is one of only two times since 1950 a would-be game-ending out became a three-run walk-off error. OH NO, indeed.
4. The one that got away. October 10, 1904: Red Sox 3, Yankees 2.
Jack Chesbro had a season in 1904 that won him a plaque in Cooperstown, winning 41 games, the most by a pitcher since 1900. He carried the Yanks into pennant contention that year, but he couldn’t quite get them all the way.
Heading into the last day of the season, New York was in second place, a game and a half behind Boston – with New York and Boston playing a season-ending doubleheader that day.
Chesbro got the start in the first game, and kept New York in it, tied 2-2 in the ninth. Then, with two outs and a runner on third, he unleashed a spitball that flew over the catcher’s head, allowing the pennant-winning run to score for Boston. The Yanks won the next game, but by then the pennant race was over.
3. #165. October 3, 1962: Giants 6, Dodgers 4.
In the final inning, in the final game of a best-of-three playoff to determine the pennant, the Giants let one get away from them. They entered the ninth leading 6-2, but gave up four runs despite only two balls leaving the infield (and one of those was a fly out).
Worse was how they allowed the four runs: single, out, walk, walk to load the bases, RBI-infield single to the pitcher, sacrifice fly that advanced the two leading runners (and thus tied the game). So much for the lead.
Then, with runners on first and third, a wild pitch advanced the trailing runner. Then the Dodgers intentionally walked a batter to set up the force at every base. This backfired: they walked the next batter, giving the Giants the lead. A grounder to second was muffed for an error and an insurance run. Finally, mercifully, the Dodgers got their elusive third out.
Four runs on two single, four walks, a wild pitch, and an error. Now that’s giving the game away.
2. Bonehead. September 23, 1908: Cubs 1, Giants 1.
This is one of the most famous games ever. The Cubs and Giants entered the game fiercely fighting in one of the greatest pennant races ever. With two on in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game, the Giants appeared to cinch it with a walk-off single. However, trailing runner Fred Merkle walked off the field without ever touching second base. As was common practice at the time, he assumed the play was over once the run scored and didn’t finish his run from first to second.
Cub second baseman Johnny Evers knew better and had Merkle taken out at second for a force play that nullified the seeming game-winning run. Since fans had already swarmed the field, the game couldn’t go on, and ended in a tie. Added bonus: the season ended in a tie, necessitating a makeup of this game, which the Cubs won to clinch the pennant (which led to their last world championship). The game wasn’t a defeat for the Giants, but it led to the biggest loss of all: a blown pennant.
On the one hand, this is an example of a great, alert, heads-up play by Johnny Evers, who saved the day from seeming certain defeat. Yeah, but it’s a game decided on a technicality. And that technicality ended up deciding the pennant.
Random fact: the Cubs’ Brant Brown “OH NO” game was exactly 90 years to the day after this one.
1. The greatest story never told. April 10, 1976: Yankees 9, Brewers 7.
This isn’t a pennant race game, but it sure was a loss like no other.
Anyone who ever swung a bat in the back yard imagined a scenario like this. It’s the bottom of the ninth, the bases are loaded and your team is down by three runs. Who hasn’t imagined taking a big swing and blasting a game-winning, walk-off grand slam?
That’s exactly what happened to veteran third baseman Don Money in this game. With the Yankees leading 9-6 in the bottom of the ninth in Milwaukee, Money stood at the plate with no one out. New York hurler Dave Pagan threw the ball, and Money was money. He got good wood on the ball, and it skyrocketed over the infield, flew over the outfield, and landed in the stands.
Can you imagine the surge of adrenalin Money must have felt? The sense of pride and elation of being one of the happy few to accomplish what every schoolboy dreams of. The crowd of 10,871 must have been going bonkers.
There’s just one problem: it didn’t happen. Well, technically it did. The bases were loaded. Pagan threw a fat pitch. Money took a good swing and the ball really did fly over the fence. All of that actually happened.
But you know what else happened? First base umpire Jim McKean called time. Just before Pagan threw the pitch.
It’s fun to imagine Money’s feelings as he began his home run trot. It’s considerably less fun to imagine his feelings when he heard the bad news. He went back and, predictably, lightning didn’t strike twice. Milwaukee pushed one run across, but the Yanks won.
Those are the worst endings to regular-season games. But what about postseason games? Tune in next week for the worst postseason losses that Joe Posnanski didn’t cover in his column.
References & Resources
Joe Posnanski’s Agony of Defeat column inspired this all. Also, the Baseball Think Factory thread about it brought a few more to my attention: most notably the Luis Castillo game and the weird 1995 catcher-induced lost game.
That reminds me, Retrosheet helped out twice, as its play-by-play notes both the odd catcher-loss in 1995 and Don Money’s grand slam that wasn’t. The only reason I knew about the Money game is because BTF poster Harveys Wallbanger once linked to the Retrosheet account as an example of how that site captures the extremely odd events in its play-by-play.
Baseball-Reference.com, especially its Play Index, came in handy several times.
The old Baseball Hall of Shame books by Allan Nash and Bruce Zullo came in handy for several entries, as did Rob Neyer’s “Big Book on Baseball Blunders.” The Zullo/Nash book was especially helpful with the 1963 Mets game. I totally forgot about the 1962 Game #165 until flipping through Neyer’s book.