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October 15, 2008
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Comeback Kings
With both the Dodgers and Red Sox facing 3-1 deficits in their respective League Championship Series, the inevitable question being asked by advertisers and network executives desperate for a marquee World Series matchup-not to mention any fan who's decided they'd like to hear Tim McCarver, Joe Buck, and a chorus of moralizing pundits tell us even more about the Manny Ramirez saga-is, "Can they come back?" The answer is, probably not, as just 11 teams have come from down 3-1 to win a seven-game post-season series. Still, the legendary comebacks and heartbreaking collapses in those 11 series have stocked baseball lore with a memorable cast of heroes and villains, including Mickey Lolich, Willie Stargell, Don Denkinger, Donnie Moore, Steve Bartman, and Dave Roberts.
The history of seven-game comebacks can be broken down into three eras of decidedly unequal sizes: 1922-1984, 1985-1993, and 1995-present. From 1922 to 1984, the World Series was the only seven-game series on the baseball calendar. Prior to that, it had occasionally been a best-of-nine affair instead of a best-of-seven, but since the first 3-1 comeback didn't happen until 1925, it's an acceptable shortcut to begin counting at the point where the Fall Classic reverted to its current form. In 1969, expansion split the two leagues into two divisions apiece, giving rise to the League Championship Series, but those remained best-of-five contests until 1985. In this span of 63 World Series, only four teams came back from 3-1 to win:
1. 1925 World Series, Pirates over Senators: Defending World Champions for the only time in their history, the Senators appeared poised to repeat after Walter Johnson shut out the Pirates in Game Four for his second victory of the series. Game Five was a nip-and-tuck affair which saw the Bucs pile up four runs in the final three innings against flagging starter Stan Coveleski and reliever Tom Zachary to win 6-3. The Senators got out to an early 2-0 lead in Game Six, but Pie Traynor capped a game-tying rally in the third by plating Max Carey, and the Bucs went ahead for good on Eddie Moore's solo homer in the fifth off of Alex Ferguson, a journeyman who had put up a 7.74 ERA during limited regular-season action but had won Game Two. The Senators again jumped out to an early lead in Game Seven, going up 4-0 in the first inning via three walks, two wild pitches, an interference call, an error, and a lone single, but the Pirates scratched out three against Johnson in the third. They still trailed 6-4 in the seventh when Carey and Traynor both drove in runs with extra-base hits, though Traynor was thrown out trying for an inside-the-park homer. The Senators briefly retook the lead when Roger Peckinpaugh, the AL MVP that year and the hero of the previous year's series, homered off of Ray Kremer in the eighth. Alas, Peckinpaugh's throwing error in the bottom of the inning-his eighth error of the series, still a record-led to a three-run rally off Johnson (still pitching despite surrendering 15 hits) that proved decisive in the Pirates' favor.
2. 1958 World Series, Yankees over Braves: The Braves beat the Yankees in the 1957 World Series and appeared on the verge of doing the same in 1958 until Bob Turley twirled a five-hit shutout in Game Five. Things appeared to be looking up for the Braves in Game Six as they quickly chased Whitey Ford, who was pitching on two days' rest, as Milwaukee ace Warren Spahn drove in the go-ahead run in the second inning. The Braves loaded the bases and were ready to add another run via a sacrifice fly by Johnny Logan, but right fielder Elston Howard threw a perfect peg to Yogi Berra to nail Andy Pafko attempting to score. The Yanks tied things up in the sixth, and the score remained knotted until the 10th, when Gil McDougald clubbed a leadoff homer off of Spahn. The Yanks added an insurance run that proved crucial, as the Braves cut into the lead via a Hank Aaron RBI single in the bottom half of the 10th. Aaron got as far as third base before Turley got Frank Torre to line out to McDougald and preserve the win. Turley came out of the bullpen again in Game Seven when Yankees manager Casey Stengel gave Don Larsen a quick hook in the third inning to protect a 2-1 lead. Though Milwaukee tied the game in the sixth on a Del Crandall homer, the Yanks broke the tie in the eighth against Lew Burdette via a Howard RBI single and then a three-run homer by Moose Skowron.
3. 1968 World Series, Tigers over Cardinals: In yet another repeat attempt, the Cardinals had the Tigers right where they wanted them after piling up 10 runs against Detroit ace Denny McLain and company in Game Four. They opened up a 3-0 lead in the first inning of Game Five, but the Tigers clawed their way back into the series with two runs in the fifth off of starter Nellie Briles, and three more in the seventh when reliever Joe Hoerner came on and yielded three singles and a walk without retiring a batter. The Tigers had already gotten out to a 2-0 lead in Game Six when they exploded for a series-record 10 runs in the third, highlighted by Jim Northrup's grand slam; McLain bounced back from his subpar Game Four showing to go the distance as the Tigers won 13-1. Game Seven found Lolich working on two days' rest against the indomitable Bob Gibson, who to that point in his career had compiled a 7-1 World Series record and a 1.62 ERA, not to mention a record-setting 17 strikeouts in the 1968 Series opener. The contest remained scoreless until the top of the seventh, when two-out singles by Norm Cash and Willie Horton preceded a triple by Northrup and a double by Bill Freehan. The Tigers added one more in the eighth, and Lolich held on despite allowing a ninth-inning solo homer for his third victory of the series.
4. 1979 World Series, Pirates over Orioles: In a rematch of the 1971 World Series that recalled the bittersweet life of Roberto Clemente, Earl Weaver's Orioles took a commanding lead against the "We Are Family" Pirates. Cy Young winner Mike Flanagan was protecting a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the sixth in Game Five when Pirates team captain and NL co-MVP Willie Stargell hit a sacrifice fly, followed by Bill Madlock's RBI single. Game Two starter Bert Blyleven, pitching in relief on two days' rest, held the Orioles scoreless for the final four frames, while the Bucs added five more runs for a 7-1 win. With the series sent back to Baltimore, Pittsburgh's John Candelaria and Baltimore's Jim Palmer matched zeroes into the seventh, when the latter yielded three straight one-out singles, the last by Dave Parker to score the first run. Another Stargell sac fly doubled the lead, and the Pirates added two more in the eighth. Reliever Kent Tekulve came on to complete the shutout and set up Game Seven. Rich Dauer gave the Orioles an early lead via a third-inning solo homer off of Jim Bibby, but the Pirates knotted the game when Stargell hit a two-run shot off Scott McGregor. The Bucs would add two more in the ninth, and to this day they remain the last team to win a World Series Game Seven on the road.
From 1985 to 1993, the postseason consisted of three seven-game series a year, the two newly-expanded League Championship Series and the World Series. Of the 27 series in this era, three teams came back from 3-1 to win, with one team doing so twice in the same year:
5. 1985 LCS, Royals over Blue Jays: The seven-game LCS format was inaugurated in fine fashion by the comeback kids from KC. After losing the first two games in Toronto, the Royals managed to eke out a victory in Game Three via an eighth-inning rally. They appeared headed to knot the series at 2-2, but the Jays rallied for three runs in the ninth inning of Game Four off of starter Charlie Liebrandt and ace closer Dan Quisenberry, with Al Oliver's two-run double the big blow. With the Royals' backs to the wall, 23-year-old Danny Jackson spun an eight-hit shutout of the Jays the next night and sent the series back to Toronto. In Game Seven, the Royals broke a 2-1 lead open via a bases-loaded triple off Dave Stieb by light-hitting catcher Jim Sundberg.
6. 1985 World Series, Royals over Cardinals: The comeback kids triumphed over "Whitey Ball," St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog's low-powered blend of speed, pitching, and defense. Once again it was Jackson who began digging the Royals out of their hole, tossing a five-hitter en route to a 6-1 win in Game Five. The Royals headed into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Six trailing 1-0, when pinch-hitter Jorge Orta, who led off the inning, hit a slow roller to first baseman Jack Clark. He tossed to pitcher Todd Worrell covering first, but Orta was called safe by umpire Don Denkinger. It was arguably the worst officiating call in sports history-replays clearly showed Worrell beating him to the bag-and it was equally infamously followed by the Cardinals' coming unraveled. Following a Steve Balboni single, a force play at third base, a passed ball, and an intentional walk, Dane Iorg blooped a two-run single, with Sundberg sliding to avoid Royals catcher Darrell Porter's tag at the plate. With Denkinger behind the plate for Game Seven, things quickly turned ugly, with the Royals rolling up five runs in the first three innings as John Tudor walked four. Tempers boiled over in the fifth, when the Royals plated six runs as Herzog and Cardinal ace Joaquin Andujar were ejected after arguing with Denkinger over balls, strikes, and getting Royal-ly screwed.
7. 1986 ALCS, Red Sox over Angels: Who can forget this one? Not only were the Red Sox down to their final game, they went into the ninth inning of Game Five trailing 5-2 against Angels starter Mike Witt. Two batters later, Don Baylor had cut the lead to 5-4 with a two-run homer, and one out later, manager Gene Mauch summoned Gary Lucas, who hit Rich Gedman with a pitch, and then closer Donnie Moore, who got Dave Henderson down to his final strike before serving up a go-ahead homer. The Angels would rally for a run in the bottom of the ninth, but the Red Sox prevailed with more Hendu heroics when they loaded the bases against Moore in the top of the 11th and Henderson hit a sacrifice fly to give the Red Sox life and send the series back to Fenway. The Sox offense sent Angels' starters Kirk McCaskill and John Candelaria to the showers early and won a pair of lopsided games to set up an agonizing World Series, though that can't even compare to what Moore would go through.
Since 1995, the postseason has become a three-tiered extravaganza, though the two LCS and the World Series remain the only seven-game series. Of the 39 series from 1995 through 2007, four teams have come back from 3-1 to win:
8. 1996 NLCS, Braves over Cardinals: Bobby Cox's Braves were the defending World Champions, but they were pushed to the brink when the Cardinals, piloted by Tony La Russa in his first year with St. Louis, rallied for four late-inning runs in Game Four, capped by Brian Jordan's decisive eighth-inning solo home run. The Braves crushed the Cardinals 14-0 in Game Five, with Cardinal starter Todd Stottlemyre yielding five runs in the first and two in the second before departing. Greg Maddux and Mark Wohlers combined to hold the Cardinals to one run in Game Six, and the Braves rolled up six runs off of Donovan Osborne in the first inning of Game Seven en route to a 15-0 rout.
9. 2003 NLCS, Marlins over Cubs: Cubs fans are still smarting over this one. One win away from their first trip to the World Series since 1945, they were stymied by Josh Beckett's brilliant two-hit shutout in Game Five. The Cubs bounced back from that to take a 3-0 lead into the eighth inning of Game Six behind Mark Prior, who was working on a three-hit shutout of his own when all hell broke loose. After retiring Mike Mordecai to start the eighth, Prior yielded a double to Juan Pierre, but he appeared to be en route to a second out when Luis Castillo popped a foul ball down the left-field line. Left fielder Moises Alou appeared ready to make a play, but Cubs fan Steve Bartman, a spectator sitting in the first row, reached up and deflected the ball away. Despite Alou's pleas, no interference call was made, and Castillo wound up walking. Two hits, an error, and two runs later, Cubs manager Dusty Baker finally pulled Prior, but by then the fire was raging; the Marlins wound up batting around and scoring eight runs. Game Seven was a seesaw affair, with the Marlins going up 3-0 in the first courtesy of a Miguel Cabrera homer, the Cubs battling back to tie thanks to a two-run homer by Kerry Wood, and then extending the lead courtesy of a two-run shot by Alou. Wood fell apart in the fifth, however, yielding three runs, and the Marlins scored in each of the next two innings as well to win 9-6.
10. 2004 ALCS, Red Sox over Yankees: The Red Sox chased away the lingering ghosts of Babe Ruth and 2003 ALCS hero Aaron Boone by not only coming from down 3-1 but becoming the first and thus far only team in baseball history to come back from a 3-0 deficit. Against improbable odds, they did so in improbable fashion, scratching out a game-tying ninth-inning run in Game Four keyed by pinch-runner Dave Roberts' steal of second base against Mariano Rivera, and winning it in the 12th via a two-run homer by David Ortiz off of Paul Quantrill. Game Five went even longer, with Ortiz continuing to provide heroics via an eighth-inning solo homer off Tom Gordon to cut the Yankee lead to 4-3 (they would tie it with a Jason Varitek sacrifice fly against Rivera), and an RBI single off Esteban Loaiza in the 14th inning. Back in the Bronx, Game Six was another one for the ages, the "Bloody Sock" affair that saw Curt Schilling pitch seven strong innings despite a foot injury and Alex Rodriguez being called out for slapping a ball away from reliever Bronson Arroyo as he ran out an infield grounder. That set up Game Seven, where Derek Lowe started on two days' rest for a depleted Sox staff, Ortiz smashed a two-run homer off of Yankee starter Kevin Brown, and Johnny Damon cracked a second-inning grand slam off Javier Vazquez to expand the lead to 6-0. With considerably less drama, the Red Sox would go on to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years.
11. 2007 ALCS, Red Sox over Indians: This one should still be fresh in the memory for Red Sox fans. Josh Beckett spun a six-hitter and the Sox lineup outlasted CC Sabathia to avoid elimination in Game Five, piling up five late-inning runs to win 7-1. J.D. Drew pounded a first-inning grand slam off of Fausto Carmona to get things rolling in Game Six, and the Sox rallied for six more runs in the third and won a 12-2 laugher. Game Seven was a tighter affair initially, as the Sox plated a run in each of the first three innings off Jake Westbrook, only to have the Indians do the same against Daisuke Matsuzaka in the fourth and fifth. Dustin Pedroia's two-run homer in the seventh broke things open, and the Sox netted another six runs off the hapless Tribe in the eighth to win going away.
In all, that's 11 comebacks out of 129 series (8.5 percent). In the seven-game LCS era, that's seven out of 66 series (10.6 percent). Going just by World Series, that's five out of 85 (5.9 percent), by LCS it's six out of 44 (13.6 percent). All told, that's roughly one series in 10 in which such a comeback occurs, with the odds apparently greater if you're the Red Sox.
Of course, not all of those 129 series even got to the point of a 3-1 imbalance. The site WhoWins has an extensive database that covers baseball, basketball, and hockey best-of-seven series, and it reports that there have been 66 such points in post-season history, broken down as follows (hat tip to ESPN's Jayson Stark for calling attention to the site):
All Game 5 (W%) Series (W%) Total 34-32 (.515) 55-11 (.833) Home 19-15 (.559) 28-6 (.824) Road 15-17 (.469) 27-5 (.844)
Translating into English, 34 of the 66 3-1 games have seen the leading team win Game Five, with home teams-home for the series; i.e, scheduled to play Games One, Two, Six and Seven at home, not Game Five-winning such games at a .559 clip and road teams at a .469 clip. Fifty-five of the 66 teams enjoying a 3-1 advantage went on to win the series, with road teams triumphing slightly more often despite their Game Five struggles. Broken down further into LCS and World Series:
LCS Game 5 (W%) Series (W%) Total 12-14 (.462) 20-6 (.769) Home 7-8 (.467) 12-3 (.800) Road 5-6 (.455) 8-3 (.727) WS Game 5 (W%) Series (W%) Total 22-18 (.550) 35-5 (.875) Home 12-7 (.632) 16-3 (.842) Road 10-11 (.476) 19-2 (.905)
In all, the historical odds suggest that the Dodgers and Red Sox both have better-than-even shots at extending their series, but that those victories are likely to be pyrrhic, only forestalling the celebrations of the Phillies and the Rays on their home fields. Mounting a comeback requiring three straight wins is a tall task. We'll soon see if either team is up to it.