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October 5, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

Getting Right Back on the Horse

by Jim Baker

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Is, as they say, one loss just like any other, or is there something particularly damaging about getting whacked in the first game of a postseason series? The Yankees were trod upon by the Indians last night to the tune of 12-3. Is this a big boost for the Indians? After all, there is nothing quite like the swagger of a team that gets out of the gate well--especially in front of a home crowd. You can just about feel it in the air, can't you? Everybody is smiling. Kenny Lofton has come home. Rookie Asdrubal Cabrera contributed a homer. Franklin Gutierrez made a sliding catch--it was all there. With that kind of vibe, a sweep has to be in the offing. Except…it's just one game, right? At least, that's the cliché the loser hands out at the post mortem.

Which side are you going to believe: those with the cocky smile who just dismantled their vaunted opponent, or the team with the downcast look in their eyes, wondering how it all got off to such a terrible start? This is the ninth time in postseason history that a team has gotten smacked down in the first game by nine runs or more. Let's take a look at what happened in the aftermath of the previous eight such drubbings.

Cubs 9 - Tigers 0, 1945 World Series

The Cubs got four in the first off Hall-of-Famer-because-of-the-War Hal Newhouser and never looked back, plating three more in the third to chase him for good. They got 13 hits in all, and Hank Borowy scattered five walks, six singles, and a hit batsman in what was a very busy shutout. Detroit came back to win Game Two and took two of the next three after that to put the Cubs in the underdog position heading into Game Six. That game proved to be Chicago's last World Series victory ever, as Stan Hack doubled home pinch-runner Bill Schuster (in his last act as a major leaguer) in the bottom of the 12th for the 8-7 win. They had blown a four-run lead in the eighth, but Borowy--who had started and lost the day before--saved the day with four innings of shutout relief. In Game Seven two days later, Borowy got the call again, and was chased in the first as the Tigers got a five-spot to start things off in their 9-3 win.

White Sox 11 - Los Angeles Dodgers 0, 1959 World Series

The last time the White Sox had been in a World Series, they had lost the opener 9-1. This time, Early Wynn did not hit Junior Gilliam with the first pitch to let the riggers know the fix was on, as Eddie Cicotte had so infamously done with Morrie Rath back in 1919. Instead, Wynn and reliever Jerry Staley scattered eight singles, while Ted Kluszewski blasted a pair of homers and drove in five. They were up 9-0 by the third inning, which has got to be one of the biggest early Series leads ever. The Dodgers wasted no time getting back at them, winning the next three games before Sandy Koufax was outdueled 1-0 by Bob Shaw in Game Five. The Dodgers smacked Wynn around but good two days later, nearly reversing the 9-0 fourth inning deficit of Game One with an 8-0 lead of their own, eventually cruising to a 9-3 victory.

Brewers 10 - Cardinals 0, 1982 World Series

This was exactly the sort of behavior one would have expected from a team known as Harvey's Wallbangers, named after manager Harvey Kuenn and their propensity for slugging (they outscored the next-best team by 77 runs and the Cardinals by over 200). The Brewers piled up 17 hits, while the Cardinals managed only three off of Mike Caldwell. St. Louis came right back and won the next two before losing Games Four and Five--if your definition of a great World Series is one in which the lead changes often, then this one fit the bill. It had the maximum number of lead changes (four, including the final) as the Cards came back from 3-2 with an even worse shellacking of the Brewers than they received in Game One. If not for a wild pitch in the ninth inning of Game Six, the Cardinals could have had a 13-0 victory. Their 6-3 comeback win the next night was not as dominating, but was that much more decisive.

Cubs 13 - Padres 0, 1984 National League Championship Series

The Cubs' first appearance in the postseason since that 1945 loss to the Tigers chronicled above got started with a bang, as Rick Sutcliffe held the Pads to two hits over seven innings while his mates were sticking it to Eric Show and then reliever Greg Harris. The Cubs hit five homers (including one by Sutcliffe), and there was much joy in Wrigleyville--especially when they came back the next day and won 4-2. Facing elimination going back home, San Diego fell behind in each of the next three games (1-0, 3-2, and 3-0) but came back to win each time to take the series, 3-2.

Twins 10 - Cardinals 1, 1987 World Series

Bob Forsch had started and lost the 10-0 game to the Brewers in 1982, and had the dubious honor of relieving a struggling Joe Magrane with the bases loaded in the fourth in 1987, only to immediately surrender a grand slam to Dan Gladden. The rest of the game was academic. The Twins won the next night, too, but the Cards copped all three games in St. Louis, and this turned out to be a pure home field-advantage series, as the Twins wrapped things up by winning Games Six and Seven in Minnesota.

Atlanta Braves 12 - Yankees 1, 1996 World Series

New York's manager, Joe Torre, and three of its current players, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte, have already experienced the sting of a first-game humiliation, followed by the redemption of putting it in the past. (Jorge Posada played briefly for the '96 Yanks, but did not appear in the postseason.) Pettitte, this afternoon's starter, was also the starter of this game, and he didn't get out of the third inning. Nineteen-year-old Andruw Jones took him deep, then added another home run later, while John Smoltz and four relievers held the Yankees to four hits. Things looked even worse the next night when New York was shut out by Greg Maddux and Mark Wohlers. The Yankees headed to Atlanta trailing 2-0, but Pettitte came back to pitch a gem of his own in Game Five (a 1-0 win) during the course of the Yankees winning out the rest of the way.

Cardinals 12 - Diamondbacks 2, 2002 National League Division Series

Randy Johnson was not having an especially good game when he left after six innings, having allowed six runs on 10 hits. At that point, things really got out of hand, as Greg Swindell made an error on a Mike Matheny bunt with the bases loaded; eventually, another six runs would score. Curt Schilling was much sharper for Arizona the next night, but it wasn't enough as the Cards won 2-1 in the ninth against Mike Koplove and closed it out in St. Louis in Game Three.

White Sox 14 - Red Sox 2, 2005 American League Division Series

The once and future World Champions got down to business early, as Matt Clement hit Scott Podsednik with a pitch; he was quickly sacrificed to second, as is Ozzie Guillen's wont. In spite of giving away the out, the White Sox then plated five runs, including a three-run homer by A.J. Pierzynski. The Red Sox got two in the fourth to make it 6-2, but Chicago matched that and put it away with four more in the sixth, as Podsednik, who had not homered all year, hit a three-run poke off of Geremi Gonzalez. Boston came out shooting in Game Two, and was up 4-0 after three. David Wells appeared to be cruising, allowing two hits in the first four innings. Things fell apart in the fifth, though, and a five-run inning was capped by a three-run homer by Taduhito Iguchi. The White Sox completed the sweep when the series moved to Boston.

---

So, that's eight opening games where the loser lost by as many runs as did the Yankees last night, and in five of those series, the Game One thrashee came back to take it. In terms of game count, the Game One whipping boy has gone 22-14 after that; 22-10 before the last two series of this kind. This is a very small sample size, of course, but it serves to illustrate that a loss is just a loss. Even the teams that did lose their series did not lie down and die after being crushed in Game One. The '82 Cards won three games. The '02 Diamondbacks played a very tight Game Two, and the '05 Red Sox had a 4-0 lead for almost half of Game Two before succumbing. If being totaled out in the first game really crushed a team's spirit, the evidence would be that the next two (in best-of-five series) or three games would be at least nearly as devastating.

In the interests of full disclosure, however, it should be pointed out that when we lower the beating threshold, the Game One losers don't fare as well. In eight-run deficit losses to open things up, the vanquished go on to lose five of the six series (although one of them is the 1919 World Series). The sole exception came in the 1998 ALDS, when the Red Sox beat the Indians 11-3, only to drop the next three contests and the series. Seven-run deficit Game One teams have won only one of four series, with the 1986 Red Sox being the exception. Teams that lost their opener by six runs have gone on to win just three of 12 series. The last team to do so was the 1978 Yankees, who reversed an 11-5 drubbing from the Dodgers by taking games Three through Six. (The '75 Reds and '65 Dodgers are the other two teams to pull this off.)

That means that in series with Game One scoring gaps of six to eight, the loser went 5-17. Perhaps the lesson here is that if one is going to lose by a lot in Game One, make it a whole lot.

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