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October 15, 2004

Prospectus Matchups

Dodging Checkmate

by Jim Baker

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Chess. All I know about it is that it was invented by political prisoners who preferred anything to the boredom of enforced slave labor. Actually, I don't even know that much, but it's a reasonable explanation in the absence of real scholarship.

The only other thing I know about chess is that when one is about to win, one says "checkmate." So far, in the history of seven-game postseason baseball series, going up three games to none is the equivalent of checkmate. Therefore, being down two games to none is the equivalent to "check"--the absolutely last other thing I know about chess other than that Bobby Fischer is as crazy as a bed bug. One can still wiggle out of the check, but one must do it immediately. This makes the starting pitcher who comes up big for a team that lands itself in check the greatest of heroes, right?

Bronson Arroyo finds himself in that particular situation for the Red Sox this year: the man who must come up big in order to keep his team alive. Even if he does the trick, his successors on the mound--Tim Wakefield and Derek Lowe, do not inspire overwhelming confidence. With Curt Schilling down and out and Pedro Martinez not looking especially like himself, just how bleak are things for the Red Sox?

Let's compare their situation to those of the teams that have found themselves in this position previously and gone on to victory, shall we? Yes. Let's do.

  • 1921 World Series

    By coincidence, the first time it occurred, the Yankees were also the team with the 2-0 lead. In this case, it was over the Giants, after winning the first two games by identical 3-0 shutouts. They had a 4-0 lead after 2 innings of Game Three, thanks to the largesse of Fred Toney, an 18-game winner during the season for the Giants. How close to oblivion is that? It's hard to say since 1921 was the last year of the best-of-nine format. There isn't enough evidence available for us to know how truly catastrophic going down three games to none in that scenario is. The Giants rallied to tie Game Three in the bottom of the third and went on to score nine more times in that game. In spite of another disastrous outing by Toney in Game Six--one they also overcame--the Giants won four of the next five.

    Were things as bleak for the 1921 Giants as they now appear to be for the Red Sox?

    No, if only for the simple reason that the Yankees needed to win three more games rather than two.

  • 1955 World Series

    Don't you always get the impression that Johnny Podres was a rookie when he pitched the Dodgers to their first World Championship in 1955? Yes, he was young, but it was his third season. He had already pitched in--and lost--a World Series game in 1953. Anyway, with the Bums down two games to none, they put their hopes in a guy who went 9-10 with an ERA pretty close to league average. He won that game 8-3 and pitched a gem in Game Seven to ice it.

    Were things as bleak for the 1955 Dodgers as they now appear to be for the Red Sox?

    Like the Sox, they were headed home after losing the first two. Much like the Red Sox with Schilling, the Dodgers' ace, Don Newcombe, pitched poorly in Game One and was not available after that. In this case, it was due to a sore arm. Their starting rotation was certainly less settled than Boston's. Think about this, too: they started six different pitchers in the first six games of the Series. It's one of the few times that's ever happened.

  • 1956 World Series

    The Yankees were outscored at Ebbets Field 19-11 in the first two games, not that scores have anything to do with relative hopelessness. Nobody knew Don Larsen was going to chip in with a perfect game. Maybe Derek Lowe will do the same--if Boston gets that far.

    Were things as bleak for the 1956 Yankees as they now appear to be for the Red Sox?

    Uh, no. Like the Sox, they were headed home for the middle three games; unlike the Sox, their Game Three pitcher was their ace, Whitey Ford. He responded with a quality start to get them back in the Series. With Ford having started Games One and Three, he would have seemed a natural to ice things in Game Seven, but Casey Stengel opted for Johnny Kucks instead, based on input from catcher Yogi Berra and Game Four winner Tom Sturdivant. Peter Golenbock writes in Dynasty that Stengel was wary of starting the left-handed Ford in Brooklyn again. Berra thought Kucks' sinkers would frustrate the Dodgers; he was right, as the 1-0 result showed.

  • 1958 World Series

    As in 1956, the Yankees surrendered 13 runs in Game Two to fall behind 2-0 in games. The Game Three starter was Don Larsen, who had started only 19 games all year, winning nine.

    Were things as bleak for the 1958 Yankees as they now appear to be for the Red Sox?

    Well, Larsen ca. '58 is somewhat comparable to Arroyo '04, and both teams were playing at home for Game Three. All of the ink Larsen gets is about his perfecto, but attention must be paid to his shutout in Game Three of this Series, too. He also won the clincher. In between, the Yankees still had Ford and 21-game winner Bob Turley.

  • 1965 World Series

    The Twins took down Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax in the first two games, which had to put them in a righteous mood for Game Three. Claude Osteen got the call against Camilo Pascual a pitcher whose 1965 line looks fairly modern in that he started 27 games and got just 12 decisions (9-3).

    Were things as bleak for the 1965 Yankees as they now appear to be for the Red Sox?

    No. Osteen did not have the insane won-loss records that Drysdale and Koufax did, but he was a cut above his opponent, Pascual. What is more, the Dodgers were in a position to bring Koufax back two more times. Pedro Martinez is not resembling Koufax these days.

  • 1971 World Series

    When you've just lost two games to 20-game winners and face the prospect of coming up against two more, it's hard to find a happy place. That's the position in which the Pirates found themselves heading into Game Three.

    Were things as bleak for the 1971 Pirates as they now appear to be for the Red Sox?

    No. Game Three starter Steve Blass was certainly a more accomplished pitcher than Arroyo. Like the '55 Dodgers, the Pirates ran six different starters out in the first six games and managed to beat the team with the four 20-game winners.

  • 1978 World Series

    The Yankees came out flat and fell behind the Dodgers 2-0 heading back to New York.

    Were things as bleak for the 1978 Pirates as they now appear to be for the Red Sox?

    Not with Cy Young Award winner Ron Guidry scheduled for Game Three. The Yankees are the first team on this list to come back and win all the remaining games after dropping the first two.

  • 1981 World Series

    As with every occasion before, the Dodgers lost the first two on the road.

    Were things as bleak for the 1981 Dodgers as they now appear to be for the Red Sox?

    Just like three years before, the Game Three starter for the team that was down 2-0 was the Cy Young Award winner. In this case, it was Fernando Valenzuela who responded with a serviceable appearance that kept his team alive. The Dodgers continued to reverse the script from three years before by winning the next three as well.

  • 1985 American League Championship Series

    The Royals had the benefit of having one their two best starters going in Game Three in the person of Bret Saberhagen. The problem is, he got torched in the fifth inning, putting them behind 5-3 and four innings away from checkmate.

    Were things as bleak for the 1985 Royals as they now appear to be for the Red Sox?

    No, but they got that way by the middle of the game. Their bacon was saved by reliever Steve Farr, who pitched 4 1/3 shutout innings.

  • 1985 World Series

    The Royals followed up their out-of-the-grave performance in the LCS by digging themselves an even deeper hole in the World Series. They became the first team to lose their first two games at home and go on to win a seven-game series.

    Were things as bleak for the 1985 Royals as they now appear to be for the Red Sox?

    Yes, in that they were going to St. Louis rather than home. Once again, it was Saberhagen who got the call to take the team out of check. This time he responded. Apart from John Tudor, the Cardinals didn't have a lot of big pitching guns.

    Of course, there is the matter of Mr. Denkinger.

  • 1986 World Series

    After never having had it occur in the previous 85 years, for the second year in a row, a team down 2-0 went on the road and came back to win. In this case, it was the New York Mets over these very same Boston Red Sox.

    Were things as bleak for the 1986 Mets as they now appear to be for the Red Sox?

    Apart from the road disadvantage thing, no. (The Mets actually had a better road record in '86--.654--than the Red Sox home record--.630). Fortunately for the Mets, they were deep enough rotation-wise that their Game Three starter would have been the ace of a lot of staffs. Bobby Ojeda sported a 2.57 ERA and was coming off what would prove to be the best year of his career. His opponent was Oil Can Boyd who was in the last year of the dependable stage of his own career. He was a formidable adversary at that time although he hadn't fared especially well against the Angels in the ALCS. The Mets took the drama out of it by spanking him for four runs in the first inning and cruising from there.

    By never putting Game Three in doubt, the Mets avoided placement on the following list: the teams that came the closest to losing the pivotal Game Three:

    • 1985 Royals (LCS): Down 5-2 after 4
    • 1981 Dodgers: Down 4-3 after 4
    • 1956 Yankees: Down 2-1 after 5

    The '81 Yankees fell behind 5-4 to the Dodgers but had the go-ahead--and, therefore, possible clinching--run on first with none out in the eighth when Bobby Murcer hit into a double play. (The '21 Giants trailed 1-0 in the seventh, but that was not as dire owing to the best-of-nine format.)

    So, which of these teams came the closest to the brink? It's probably the '85 Royals.

  • 1996 World Series

    The Yankees duplicated the feat of the '85 Royals by losing the first two at home and then winning the Series. The difference was they swept the final four.

    Were things as bleak for the 1996 Yankees as they now appear to be for the Red Sox?

    They sure looked a lot worse after the first two games. They were crushed 12-1 and then blanked by Greg Maddux 4-0. Not only that, but that all happened in Yankee Stadium. What chance would we be giving the Red Sox right now had they lost these first two games in Boston rather than New York? None. The Yankees did have David Cone going in Game Three. He was injured most of the year, but he was still David Cone. You could make the case the Red Sox are facing a lesser corps of starters than the '96 Braves had to offer, though.

Given that history, how do the '04 Sox rate on the Bleak-O-Meter compared to the teams who stormed back and won? Somewhere in the middle for teams down 2-0, I would say. They still have four things going for them:

  • They're headed home
  • Their lineup can turn on anybody at any time
  • Arroyo can do what he's being asked to do
  • At this point in time, no Yankee starter qualifies as a blue-chipper

Down in Houston, the Astros find themselves in the same dire straits as Boston. It might seem they are in a better position given who they have starting the next two games. What may well negate that, though, are the in-game managerial skills Phil Garner has trotted out in the first two games. If his foolishness continues, the efforts of Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt--not to mention the continued bombardment by Carlos Beltran--will all be for naught.

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