This annotated week in baseball history: May 16-May 22, 2010

This past week, both Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon suffered blown saves. This got Richard to think about some of the playoff blown save superlatives in baseball history.

For my money, there is no kind of loss more crushing than a blown save in the ninth inning. Blowouts are terrible, of course—especially if you attend the game and feel compelled to stay all nine innings anyway—but losing a game when victory is so close is terrible. (And, by the same token, extra satisfying for fans of the team that rallied.)

With that in mind, and since we are approaching graduation season, I decided to look back at some of the notable playoff blown saves in baseball history, and grant them their superlatives.
This list is heavily skewed toward the past 30 or so years, which should be no surprise as there are both more playoffs and more closers in that period. I don’t intend this to be a definitive list, so feel free to add your own choices in the comments.

Biggest non-pitcher scapegoat: 1985 World Series, Game Six

More than any other player, closers live and die by their success. When things are going well, the closer is a hero, entering triumphantly to earn a save, putting the finishing touch on a victory. If he blows it, the closer goes down as a goat, the man responsible—whatever the club’s other failings—for defeat.

It is rare for a pitcher to avoid that, especially when he blows a save that could have clinched a World Series game. But Todd Worrell managed it. The reason for that is the blame for the Cardinals loss in this game falls entirely on umpire Don Denkinger, who made an admittedly horrific call at first base. Jorge Orta’s ground ball—which should have been the first out in the inning—instead became a single.

This is more than a little unfair, and it seems odd that history fails to remember that Worrell pitched terribly after the blown call: another single, a failed sacrifice, an intentional walk (with a passed ball in there for good measure) and then a game-winning single. But as blown saves go, Worrell is off the hook; it will always be Denkinger’s burden to bear.

Most unexpected: 2001 World Series, Game Five

There have been some shocking blown saves, including Mariano Rivera’s later in this series, but none stands out as more improbable, more unbelievable than this one. The night before, Byung-Hyun Kim (who allowed just 10 home runs in almost 100 innings that season) gave up first a game-tying, two-out, two-run home run to Tino Martinez and then later a walk-off shot to Derek Jeter.

Byung-Hyun Kim, pitching better than he did in the 2001 World Series (Icon/SMI)

Closers blowing back-to-back saves is rare, so those watching were no doubt confident that Kim would be able to get the job done when brought back the next night. Kim gave up a lead-off double to Jorge Posada but then retired the next two batters, bringing up Scott Brosius. Impossibly—and wonderfully, for those of us Yankees fans—Brosius managed to hit a two-run, two-out, game-tying home run. Not only had Kim blown back-to-back saves, but he did in the World Series, in the same way, on consecutive nights. As amazing events go, nothing is topping this one.

Saddest: 1986 ALCS, Game Five

For some pitchers, appearing on a list like this can be tantamount to a career ending. Kim pitched well in 2002, but he has an ERA over five thereafter and hasn’t played in the majors since 2007. Mark Wholers blew a save not featured on this list—the Most Dynasty Launching from the 1996 World Series—and within two seasons lost his ability to throw the ball anywhere near the plate. (He would eventually regain it somewhat, though never return to being the pitcher he was in his prime.)

But no pitcher suffered as much from his blown save as Donnie Moore. Mike Witt was cruising, entering the ninth with a three-run lead. Witt got one out before allowing a two-run home run to Don Baylor. He seemed to rally, however, bringing the Angels to the precipice of victory when Dwight Evans fouled out.

Apparently concerned about the match-up of Rich Gedman and Witt, manager Gene Mauch called on Gary Lucas to retire the Boston catcher. Instead, he hit Gedman with a pitch. Mauch then summoned Moore from the bullpen.

The Angel closer brought himself to a 1-2 count on Dave Henderson. After a ball, Henderson fouled off two pitches before driving a home run to left field to give the Red Sox the lead.

On the broadcast, Al Michaels described the home run as “astonishing.” The Angels managed to rally in their half of the ninth, but harshly, Moore gave up the lead in the 11th and the Angels lost the game. They would go on to lose the next two, sending Boston to the World Series.

Just three years later, Moore, out of baseball and depressed, first shot his wife—she would survive—and then turned the gun on himself. It is insulting to suggest that Moore’s failures in the ALCS were the root cause of his suicide, but one cannot help but wonder how things might have been different if he had nailed down the save.

Cruelest: 1986 World Series, Game Six

I have been very fortunate to be a Yankees fan, as the team has won five World Series across the 25 full baseball seasons of my lifetime. Some fans are not so lucky—famously those of the Cubs, who are still waiting for the follow-up to their 1908 triumph. In 1986, Red Sox Nation had gone almost 70 years since its last title.

The description of the action of Game Six is superfluous, as Calvin Schiraldi, who actually blew a 3-2 Red Sox lead in the eighth inning, and Bob Stanley, who ended up with the game-losing blown save, combined (with a little help from Bill Buckner) to turn a two-run deficit into a one-run victory for the Mets. Three times the Mets were down to their final strike, but Boston could not close the door. It would be almost 20 years before the Red Sox finally won their title.

As I mentioned earlier, these are just a few of the possible blown save superlatives. Those not on the list include Kirk Gibson’s home run in the 1988 World Series and Joe Carter’s walk-off in 1993. But they are a representative selection of baseball’s unkindest cut.

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  1. Bob Rittner said...

    Mariano Rivera has had 4 gut-wrenching blown saves in the playoffs in his career. That is not to deny him the title of greatest closer of all time or the added honor of the greatest closer in playoff history, but it does remind us that even the best may fail.

    1997: Game 4 ALDS: NY can clinch but up 2-1 in the 8th, Rivera gives up a tying home run to Alomar. Mendoza loses it in the 9th.

    2001: Game 7 WS: NY had staved off disaster by hitting home runs off Kim in games 4 & 5 in come back wins and now were up 2-1 in the 9th after finally getting to a dominant Schilling in the 7th and 8th. Mariano gives up 2 runs aided by his own error and NY loses the World Series.

    2004: Games 4 & 5 ALCS: Ready to sweep Boston, Mariano gives up the tying run in the 9th in game 4 by allowing a BB, stolen base and single. NY goes on to lose. He then gives up the sacrifice fly to allow Boston to tie game 5 which they also go on to win on the way to the World Championship. That last run was set up by Gordon’s failures, but still, Mariano did not keep the runner at 3rd.

    Again, it is not that he pitched badly in every case, but the closer did not close and the fact that it was Mariano made it all the more galling to Yankee fans.

  2. Jacob Rothberg said...

    No mention of Robbie Alomar singlehandedly ending Dennis Eckersley’s career? Maybe it’s homerism, but considering the season ‘Eck had put up, and the problems the Jays had had putting away the A’s in previous years, that has to be right up there.

  3. Richard Barbieri said...

    Alomar’s HR could definitely earn a place on the list, although saying it “singlehandedly [ended] Dennis Eckersley’s career” is an overstatement. Eck was already 37 that season, and did have more than 150 saves after Alomar’s HR.

  4. Dave Adkins said...

    Jose Mesa, Indians vs Marlins, 1997, bottom of 9th, 2 outs, 2 strikes before blowing game 7 for the Indians! Major, Major choke. Indians 1st legit championship since ‘48, down the tube, just like that. We’ve never recovered.

  5. Jacob Rothberg said...

    Call it however you see it, but Eck was an almost mythical figure in his dominance those years and when Alomar hit that HR it was like Tyson getting KO’d by Buster Douglas, sure he kept fighting after that, but once the aura of invincibility was gone, he just wasn’t the same guy.

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