Friday was fun.
Two winner-takes-all NLDS games, both providing plenty of drama. First, the Brewers beat the Diamondbacks in extra innings. Then the Philadelphia and St. Louis aces staged a pitchers’ duel for the ages. Yeah, it sure was a nice day of postseason baseball.
Riddle me this: How often does postseason baseball have two games as impressive as the pair played on Friday? Playoffs have been around since 1969 and were expanded in 1995, so we’ve had plenty of chances to see two great games in one day, but how often does it happen?
Let’s come up with a list: The ten greatest days in which the playoffs gave us two great helpings. There are a few guidelines:
- Both have to be pretty great games in their own right. If one game is the best thing in postseason history and the other is just another game, that doesn’t qualify.
- The higher the stakes, the better a game should rank. That said, let’s not get carried away. If two Game Ones in the LDS really were that great, put them on.
- We’re looking for great games, not great performances. That’s a judgment call, but it seems appropriate.
- Lastly, let’s just note that guidelines aren’t laws. Any list is by definition a bit arbitrary.
OK then, here are the greatest pairs ever:
10. Oct. 1, 1998: Late dramatics early in the postseason. NLDS Game Two: Braves 2, Cubs 1 (10). NLDS: Game Two: Astros 5, Padres 4.
The Cubs and Braves had a nice little pitching duel, with a combined 10 hits in as many innings. Chicago took a slender 1-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth, but Atlanta’s Javy Lopez belted a game-tying homer. In the next frame, Atlanta rode a walk, error, and Chipper Jones walk-off single for a victory.
Houston took an early 3-0 lead, and though San Diego narrowed the gap to 3-2 later on, an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth gave a seemingly comfortable 4-2 lead for Houston’s closer, Billy Wagner.
Making just his second ever postseason appearance, Wagner displayed a characteristic he’d become infamous for—the inability to pitch well in October. Though he’d post a career ERA of 2.31, his lifetime postseason ERA would be 10.03, and this game is one reason for that. He allowed a two-run dinger to Padre pinch-hitter Jim Leyritz, and suddenly the lead was no more.
However, opposing relief ace Trevor Hoffman also had trouble, and an RBI single in the bottom of the ninth gave Houston the win despite Wagner.
9. Oct. 2, 1996: Birth of a dynasty. ALDS Game Two: Yankees 5, Rangers 4 (12). NLDS Game One: Braves 2, Dodgers 1 (10).
Joe Torre’s first postseason victory was memorable. Texas took an early 4-1 lead, but New York chipped away, tying it in the bottom of the eighth. In the 12th, Derek Jeter scored his first postseason run on an error by Ranger third baseman Dean Palmer.
Texas led the ALDS one game to none heading into this one, and it’s fun to hypothesize how history might be different if this had gone another way. Would George Steinbrenner have fired Torre if he lost in the ALDS to Texas? There have been rumors he thought about bringing Buck Showalter back. Would another manager use Mariano Rivera as aggressively in the postseason as Torre did? Who knows how baseball might be different if Palmer hadn’t made his error.
In the NL, the Braves began a sweep of the Dodgers, scoring two runs despite only getting four hits. Good thing one of the hits was a Javy Lopez homer in the top of the tenth. Meanwhile, the Brave staff held LA to just five hits, just one after the fifth inning.
8. Oct. 19, 2009: Backs nearly at the wall. ALCS Game Three: Angels 5, Yankees 4 (11). NLCS Game Four: Phillies 5, Dodgers 4.
Neither of these games was literally a must-win contest, but both sure felt like it to the clubs trailing in their respective League Championship Series.
The Angels lost the first two games of the ALCS, and fell behind 3-0 early in Game Three. That’s a bleak position, but Anaheim rallied in the middle of the game, taking a 4-3 lead. Now it was New York’s turn to rally, and a Jorge Posada homer in the eighth tied it.
In overtime, the Angels nearly won it in the bottom of the 10th, loading the bases with only one out, but the Yankees kept them from getting the to the plate. Instead, Anaheim staged a two-out rally in the 11th to win. However, the Yankees would win the LCS in six games.
In the NLCS, the Dodgers needed a win to avoid falling down three games to one to the defending world champs. For a while it looked like they’d do it, taking a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth. But a walk to Matt Stairs, and a hit-by-pitch to Carlos Ruiz set the stage for Jimmy Rollins’ two-out two-run double to give the Phillies the lead. They’d clinch their second straight pennant the next day.
7. Oct. 9, 1973: 23 innings of pitching duels. ALCS Game Three: A’s 2, Orioles 1 (11). NLCS Game Four: Reds 2, Mets 1 (12).
The A’s and Orioles were tied one game apiece heading into this day, in which Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar and Oakland’s Ken Holtzman both went the distance in a pitchers’ duel for the ages. Their combined Game Score of 177 is the second highest in any postseason game. In 11 innings, they allowed a combined seven hits.
Holtzman struggled a bit early, allowing a first-inning single and a second-inning solo shot, but he then settled down, giving up one more hit the rest of the day. Cuellar had a great start, allowing only one hit through seven innings, then surrendered the tying run on two eighth-inning singles, and an 11th inning walk-off Bert Campaneris homer gave the Mustache Gang the victory. It was the Campaneris’ only career walk-off homer.
The Reds-Mets duel was a staff effort as both starters were pulled early. With the game tied 1-1, the Reds loaded the bases in the top of the ninth and tenth innings, but couldn’t score. A Pete Rose homer in the 12th finally broke the deadlock.
6. Oct. 5, 2007: The bugs and the bomb. ALDS Game Two: Indians 2, Yankees 1 (11). ALDS Game Two: Red Sox 6, Angels 3.
Down one game to nothing, the Yankees couldn’t overcome the Indians and their secret weapon—an insect swarm. With the Yankees leading, 1-0, in the eighth inning, a bunch of bugs bizarrely invaded the field of play, distracting Joba Chamberlain. He tried putting on bug spray and getting some help, but it was to no avail.
Unnerved, he surrendered two walks, a hit batsman, and two wild pitches, allowing the Indians to score the tying run despite zero hits and no balls hit out of the infield. Cleveland’s Fausto Carmona just bore down and let the bugs bite, sending the game into extra frames, where a bases-loaded Travis Hafner single put Cleveland one win from the ALCS.
The Red Sox also went up two games to none on that day, albeit in less bizarre manner. Their margin of victory came from a more predictable source—Manny Ramirez’s bat. In the bottom of the ninth with two on and two out, he belted a walk-off homer.
5. Oct. 4, 2003: The day the baserunners died. ALDS Game Three: Red Sox 3, A’s 1 (11). NLDS Game Four: Marlins 7, Giants 6.
Both of these contests were possible elimination games, as the Red Sox trailed two games to none, and San Francisco two games to one.
In the ALDS, the top of the sixth was the stuff of nightmares for Oakland, as two runners were thrown out at the plate as controversy swirled on Boston’s defense and Oakland’s baserunning ability.
With one out and runners and first and third, lead Oakland runner Eric Byrnes tried to score from third on a grounder to pitcher Derek Lowe. A collision with catcher Jason Varitek prevented him from scoring, as he was tagged out.
A little later, a bases-loaded error by Nomar Garciaparra led to Oakland scoring its only run, but it probably should’ve gotten them two.
Oakland’s Miguel Tejada, who began the play at second, rounded third only to be held up by Boston third baseman Bill Mueller. Tejada tried to get the attention of umpires, but they didn’t notice. He got away from Mueller, only to be tagged out at the plate to end the inning. So many variables could’ve gone differently, and controversy swirled. Heck, if Tejada had just tried to plow through, he might’ve been safe anyway.
Instead, that one run only sent the game into extra innings, where a Trot Nixon homer gave Boston a walk-off win. They’d win the next two to take the series.
Florida’s win was less controversial but still exciting. In a back-and-forth contest, they took a 7-5 lead on a two-run Miguel Cabrera single in the bottom of the eighth.
Needing to score a pair of runs to keep their season alive, the Giants rallied in the top of the ninth, scoring one and putting the tying run on second with two outs. When Jeffrey Hammonds singled, the third base coach waved J.T. Snow around. Instead of scoring, he was thrown out at the plate, making this probably the only postseason series to end with a man gunned down at home.
4. Oct. 7, 2011: The greatest day in LDS history. NLDS Game Five: Brewers 3, Diamondbacks 2 (10). NLDS Game Five: Cardinals 1, Phillies 0.
Do I really need to say that much about these games? They just happened, so recapping them seems pointless.
It was the greatest day ever in the LDS, which is fitting because 2011 had the best bunch of division series overall. A record 19 LDS games were played, with a record-tying three of the four LDS going the distance. In all, eight of the 19 games were decided by one run, and another trio by a pair of runs.
A few random observations: On Oct. 7, not only were both of these games one-run contests, but at no point in either game did any team lead by more than one run. Philadelphia hadn’t lost a 1-0 game all year. Sean Burroughs, who hadn’t played in the majors in five years prior to 2011, damn near scored the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth for Arizona in their game against Milwaukee. What an unlikely hero he would have been.
3. Oct. 11, 1986: A pair of walk-off classics. ALCS Game Four: Angels 4, Red Sox 3 (11). NLCS Game Three: Mets 6, Astros 5.
The 1986 playoffs gave us the best pair of championship series ever. Neither Oct. 11 game was the best in its respective LCS, but that says more about the overall quality of those series than any lack of drama in these games.
The Mets beat the Astros with not one, but two, impressive comebacks. After the Astros struck for a quick 4-0 lead, the Mets rallied with a four-run bottom of the sixth. When Houston went ahead again, the Mets won with a two-run walk-off home run by Lenny Dykstra.
In the ALCS, Boston led California, 3-0, entering the bottom of the ninth. Then the Angels roared back for three runs in that final frame, with the tying score coming on the rare RBI HBP. After that, Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson strode to the plate with the bases loaded and a chance to win this game. Instead, he grounded out to end the inning.
Two innings later, a Bobby Grich RBI single won it, giving the Angels a substantial three-games-to-one lead in the ALCS. As it turns out, it was the last game they would win all year, as Boston stormed back to face the Mets in the 1986 World Series.
2. Oct. 11, 1972: Part of the most underrated postseason ever. ALCS Game Four: Tigers 4, A’s 3 (10). NLCS Game Five: Reds 4, Pirates 3.
Before 1972, no LCS had ever gone five games. That year, both did, and then the World Series went seven games, including a record six games decided by one run.
The Oct. 11 pair of contests were the highlights of their respective LCS. The Tigers lost the first two games of the ALCS, but they had won the third to stay alive. Now Detroit needed to do it again to force a fifth and final contest. The A’s fought them hard, and after nine innings the game was still tied, 1-1.
In the top of the 10th, Oakland pushed two runs across the plate for a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 lead, only to see Billy Martin’s Tigers surmount it. In fact, the A’s only got one out. Here’s how the Tigers went in the bottom of the 10th: Single, single, wild pitch, walk, RBI-fielder’s choice, RBI walk to tie the game, and finally an RBI single to end it.
Despite those heroics, Detroit would lose the next game when Reggie Jackson provided Oakland’s winning run in Game Five on a steal of home.
The Reds-Pirates NLCS came to an end on one of the greatest forgotten games. Pittsburgh entered the bottom of the ninth with a 3-2 lead. Relief ace Dave Giusti, who sported a 1.93 ERA on the year, needed just three outs for a Pirate pennant.
Instead, Giusti allowed a leadoff home run to Johnny Bench, followed by back-to-back singles. New reliever Bob Moose got two outs, though in the process the lead runner George Foster advanced to third, just 90 feet from Cincinnati winning the pennant.
And advance he did—on a walk-off wild pitch. And thus the Reds won the pennant.
1. Oct. 18, 2004: A pair of games that were great even before becoming walk-offs. ALCS Game Five: Red Sox 5, Yankees 4 (14). NLCS Game Five: Astros 3, Cardinals 1.
Even if neither of these games ended in walk-off plays, they would’ve made this list. Since they both did, they top it.
Let’s start with the famous one. The Red Sox became the only team to rally from a three-games-to-one deficit in the 2004 ALCS. They’d already won Game Four in a dramatic rally and did it again here. They trailed by two in the eighth, but a two-run rally tied it up, thanks in part to a David Ortiz home run.
The NLCS game has been largely forgotten, overshadowed by the Boston-New York contest, which is a shame because it was a classic pitchers’ duel. Heading into the ninth inning, the game was not only a double shutout, but a double one-hitter.
St. Louis starter Woody Williams allowed only a first-inning single to Jeff Bagwell, and Houston’s Brandon Backe kept his no-hitter going until Tony Womack connected for a two-out single in the sixth. Forget scoring, no one had even made it to third.
In the bottom of the ninth, Houston finally got a rally going with a Carlos Beltran single, stolen base, and then an intentional walk to Lance Berkman. That brought up Jeff Kent, who made St. Louis pay for the IBB by blasting a game-ending three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth. It put Houston up three games to two, but it would be their last victory, as St. Louis won the next two games for the pennant.