In the past few weeks we have looked at the most exciting regular season games played since 1974 and the most thrilling Division Series games ever; now it’s time to move into Championship Series territory.
The method leading to the rankings won’t be reiterated here, since it has been detailed in the past three articles; thus, if you are new to this series, you can refer to the pieces linked above.
So let’s go straight to the most thrilling Championship Series games.
No. 5. Braves @ Reds, Game One, Oct. 10, 1995
On the way to their 1995 World Series title, the Braves had to defeat the Cincinnati Reds for the National League pennant. Atlanta swept the series, but it did not look so easy in the beginning as both Game One and Game Two were decided in extra innings. The opener, featuring Tom Glavine and Pete Schourek as the starter, was one to remember.
After three innings, Glavine had conceded a couple of hits, while Schourek had his only base runner (a walk in the third) canceled by a double play. In the fourth the Braves finally managed to scratch a single, but the Reds were able to score first in the bottom part of the inning, when Ron Gant followed Barry Larkin‘s leadoff triple with a single of his own. Later in the same inning, Glavine escaped a one-out, bases-loaded jam, inducing Brett Boone to ground into a double play.
Schourek continued to scatter a single here and a walk there and nothing more, while Glavine quickly put the fourth inning past behind him and cruised until the top of the eighth, when he was lifted for pinch-hitter Mike Mordecai.
Reds manager Davey Johnson sent Schourek to the mound for the ninth and left him there after the Braves opened their offense with back-to-back singles by Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff.
David Justice hit a grounder to second baseman Boone, who assisted shortstop Larkin to remove McGriff from the basepath; meanwhile Chipper scored from third and the game was tied at one. After a wild pitch which advanced pinch runner Luis Polonia to second, Johnson decided it was time to relieve Schourek. There was no more scoring in the inning as Jeff Brantley escaped from a base- loaded threat.
Bobby Cox summoned for Mark Wohlers to extend the game past the ninth and the flamethrower responded with two perfect innings. In the top of the 10th, Mike Jackson issued a leadoff walk to McGriff, who was bunted to second by Polonia. Lopez grounded to third for the second out, but Mike Devereaux, who had entered the game in the bottom of the ninth, singled in the Crime Dog.
Pinch hitter Thomas Howard opened the home part of the inning with a double off Brad Clontz and moved to third on the subsequent grounder to second by Larkin. Cox called lefty Steve Avery, usually a starter, from the pen, forcing Johnson to pinch hit for his pinch hitter: Lenny Harris was out of the game without ever entering it; Mariano Duncan, as his substitute, drew a walk.
Cox used Greg McMichael, the third pitcher of the inning for the Braves, to face Reggie Sanders. Sanders hit a grounder to short and while Howard was running from third to home, Rafael Belliard, Mark Lemke and McGriff combined for a 6-4-3 double play which won the game for Atlanta.
Game thermometer late game importance: 86.1 rally: 95.5 equilibrium: 83.4 overall: 88.3
No. 4. and No. 3. Yankees @ Red Sox, Games Five and Four, Oct. 18 and 17, 2004
I’m not qualified to recount the heroics of the most entertaining games of a series that immediately became part of the baseball lore: Too much good writing has been spent on it by pro writers. Dave Roberts‘ steal in the bottom of the ninth of Game Four, with the Sox down 4-3 in the game and 3-0 in the series, as well as David Ortiz‘s back-to-back extra inning walk-off hits are the defining moments of the two games and of the only 0-3 to 4-3 comeback in baseball history.
I’m just leaving you the “thermometers” of those unforgettable games.
Game Five thermometer late game importance: 95.8 rally: 90.1 equilibrium: 79.7 overall: 88.6
Game Four thermometer late game importance: 90.9 rally: 90.3 equilibrium: 86.1 overall: 89.1
No. 2. Twins @ Orioles, Game One, Oct. 4, 1969
The first League Championship Series games ever played were held on Oct. 4, 1969 in Baltimore and Atlanta. More than 40 years later, the one played at Memorial Stadium is still as exciting as any contest ever played for a pennant.
Starters Jim Perry and Mike Cuellar were in control for eight innings, the runs coming on isolated plays. The O’s went to the scoreboard first thanks to Frank Robinson‘s homer in the fourth, but the Twins promptly tied it in the fifth: Tony Oliva hit a double to right fielder Robinson, who committed an error, allowing Oliva to go to third; the ensuing sac fly by Bob Allison made it 1-1. In the bottom of the same inning Mark Belanger, a favorite of manager Earl Weaver for his fielding prowess at shortstop, connected for a rare two-out solo homer.
Another long ball, the second extra base hit by Oliva, drove in Harmon Killebrew and put the Twins on top for the first time in the top of the seventh inning. In the bottom of the ninth Boog Powell restored equilibrium with a leadoff homer. Then, Orioles manager Earl Weaver went all-in trying to grab the win in regulation innings. Ralph Ray recounted the gamble in the Oct. 18 issue of The Sporting News.
Twin reliever Ron Perranoski was on the mound, Brooks Robinson on third and Belanger on first with two down.
Weaver signaled both Oriole runners to break on a 2-2 pitch to Merv Rettenmund. Perranoski fired a pitch so wide it looked like a pitchout. B. Robby was trapped between third and home for the third out. Writers besieged Weaver after the game to comment on the tactic, but he refused, claiming he might want to use it again and that it didn’t work because Perranoski was just “too smart.”
In the top of the 12th, Marcelino Lopez‘s lack of control (a walk and a wild pitch) contributed to the Twins loading the bases with one out. Dick Hall was called to the hill to get Baltimore out of the jam and responded by striking out Leo Cardenas and inducing pinch hitter Johnny Roseboro to fly out to left.
Earl Weaver’s credo on bunting, explained in his book Weaver On Strategy went like this:
I’ve got nothing against the bunt—in its place. But most of the time that place is the bottom of a long-forgotten closet.
The bottom of the 12th of the 1969 ALCS opener was one of those right places. Belanger opened the offense with an infield single and was moved to second via the sacrifice (catcher Andy Etchebarren advanced him). The Orioles shortstop then reached third on a grounder to shortstop by leadoff man Don Buford. Finally Paul Blair, having trouble getting out of a slump, laid another bunt about 15 feet down the third base line and neither third baseman Killebrew nor catcher Roseboro had a chance to get him at first. Belanger scored the winning run, a small ball triumph (after three runs all obtained on as many homers), manufactured without a single ball leaving the infield.
Minnesota gave the Orioles fits again the following day (Baltimore emerged victorious in extra innings once more, thanks to a two-out pinch hit single by Curt Motton, driving in Powell for the only run in the game), but was swept in three as it collapsed at home, surrendering 11-2 to the powerful orange lineup.
Game thermometer late game importance: 96.1 rally: 91.9 equilibrium: 81.2 overall: 89.7
No. 1. Braves @ Mets, Game Five, Oct. 17, 1999
And the winner is…
Atlanta secured the first three games of the 1999 NLCS and was denied a sweep when John Olerud hit a two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the eighth of Game Four off John Rocker to give the Mets a come-from-behind 3-2 victory.
The Mets made immediately clear in Game Five that they intended to extend the series some more: Rickey Henderson led off with an infield single and, after Edgardo Alfonzo‘s line out to center, Olerud took Greg Maddux deep and the score was 2-0.
In the top of the fourth, Bret Boone and Chipper Jones hit back-to-back doubles, followed by a single by Brian Jordan and a walk to Ryan Klesko. That was the game for Masato Yoshii, and Orel Hershiser was summoned to preserve the tie with two on, nobody out and the Mets facing elimination. The Bulldog escaped the inning, striking out two Braves and inducing Walt Weiss to hit a grounder to first.
The Metropolitans were again in trouble in the sixth, when the Braves loaded the bases despite not getting a hit. Maddux was expected to squeeze, but as he failed to make contact for the third strike, Klesko was doubled on a rundown between third and home. The Mad Dog was to face similar fate on the mound in the bottom of the same inning: three Mets got on base with just one out, courtesy of two botched ground balls by first baseman Klesko, but nothing came out of the threat as Rey Ordonez grounded into a double play to end the inning.
The Braves died again with three men on in the seventh; again none of them had reached base via base hits.
The contest went to extra innings and Mets manager Bobby Valentine, having already used seven pitchers, asked starter Kenny Rogers for two innings of work in the 10th and the 11th, then replaced him with Octavio Dotel in the 12th.
In the top of the 13th, Keith Lockhart singled with two out and tried to score on the following double by Chipper Jones. Edgardo Alfonzo relayed Melvin Mora‘s throw to home and Mike Piazza managed to keep possession of the ball on Lockhart’s charge for the final out of the inning.
Two innings later, Lockhart played the big role once more. With Weiss on second, he hit a fly ball to center which Shawon Dunston misplayed, allowing a triple and a run to score.
With his team facing elimination, Dunston tried to make up for his miscue, obtaining a leadoff hit off Kevin McGlinchy and stealing second. Pinch hitter Matt Franco drew a walk and both runners advanced on Alfonzo’s sacrifice bunt. Hot Olerud was given an intentional pass to load the bases, then McGlinchy lost his control and walked home the tying run, a five-pitch base on balls to Todd Pratt.
Then Robin Ventura parked a ball in the stands for what appeared to be a grand slam. He never completed his trot as he was mobbed by teammates on his way from first to second. The play was ruled a mere single, but the game was won and the series had to return to Atlanta.
Game thermometer late game importance: 81.0 rally: 89.6 equilibrium: 99.7 overall: 90.1
The greatest Championship Series ever
You surely would expect a series going the full seven games as the best ever, but that’s not the case, at least if you define the greatest series as the one featuring the best combination of single games. A couple of weeks ago we selected the best Division Series ever by simply summing the “overall game temperature” of the contests of the series. Repeating the same task for series awarding the pennant, the six-game 1999 NLCS emerges as the most thrilling ever, despite not going the distance.
The 4-2 Atlanta victory of Game One turned out to be the most lopsided game of the series. The Braves won Game Two with a 4-3 score, scoring all their runs in the sixth, on homers by Brian Jordan and Eddie Perez. The first game at Shea was another victory for Atlanta: The only run came in the first as Cox ordered a double steal and Gerald Williams trotted all the way to home when Piazza’s throw to second sailed into center field.
Game four was decided in the eighth: the Braves went from being back 1-0 to get ahead 2-1 on back-to-back homers, then Olerud singled home two teammates with two down to ultimately put the Mets back on top. Olerud was also responsible for the first run as he homered off John Smoltz.
After just one inning it looked like New York’s dream of coming back from a 3-0 deficit was over. The Braves, as in Game Three, scored the first run on a double steal plus Piazza’s throwing error, then plated another four runs before the inning was over; starter Al Leiter was removed from the game without retiring any opponent. His reliever, Pat Mahomes, stopped the bleeding, inducing a sac fly and a double-play grounder
The Mets scored three runs in the sixth, but the Braves quickly responded with two of their own, making it 7-3 after two-thirds of the game.
Smoltz, who had saved Game Two and started Game Four, entered the contest in the seventh; he managed to retire Alfonzo on a long fly to right, but was bombed by Henderson (double), Olerud (single) and Piazza (home run), and was removed with the game tied at seven.
A pinch-hit single by Mora put the Mets ahead for the first time in the eighth, but the Braves responded with Brian Hunter, who drove home pinch-runner Otis Nixon. The Mets went ahead again in the 10th, thanks to a sac fly by Pratt, driving home Benny Agbayani, who was walked leading off the inning.
One out away from Game Seven, Cox sent Ozzie Guillen to the plate, replacing Walt Weiss. The future White Sox skipper singled to right, Andruw Jones tied the game and Klesko was gunned down at third by right fielder Mora.
Rogers, who had started in Game Two and worked two inning in relief in Game Five, was reached for a double by Gerald Williams to open the bottom of the 11th. Boone advanced the runner to third on a bunt, then Roges issued free passes to both Chipper Jones and Jordan, setting up a potential force at the plate. Unfortunately, he threw a full count high and outside ball to Andruw Jones and that was the game and the series.
If one wants to weigh games differently according to the series situation, so that a seventh game is more important than a fourth game with one team up 3-0 in the series, Sky Andrecheck’s Championship Leverage Index can be borrowed.
Using slightly modified values than the ones Sky introduced in the postseason pdf accompanying the 2010 Hardball Times Annual (if you don’t have that one, it’s also in the 2011 version), I came up with an alternative ranking.
In this scenario, the 2003 ALCS comes out on top, pushed up by the Yankees’ come-from-behind victory in Game Seven, culminated with Aaron Boone‘s historic homer in the 11th. The 2006 Mets-Cardinals, decided in the ninth inning of Game Seven by Yadier Molina‘s homer, is ranked second.
An interesting case can be made for the series ranked third, the 1980 NLCS between Houston and Philadelphia. Back then, the series for the pennant was played with a best-of-five formula and this one went the full length. Philadelphia won Game One 3-1, then all the remaining games went longer than nine innings. The Astros won Game Two 7-4 in 10 and Game Three 1-0 in 11, then the Phillies came back winning Game Four 5-3 in 10 and Game Five 8-7, again in 10. If we keep into account the imposed different length of the LCS, this one would go over the top as the most exciting Championship Series ever.