Recent events aside, a team losing the third game of a best-of-seven series after being down 2-0 still has its goose royally cooked. Winning the third game is still a requirement for further success, while at the same time being no guarantee of it.
When a team gets down two games to none, there are four possible outcomes for the Series. They can lose the game and the Series, win the game but lose the Series anyway, win the game and win the Series or lose the game and win the Series. So far, that last thing has never happened. Here are the fates of the teams that have gone down 2-0:
Lost Game Three, lost Series: 20
Won Game Three, lost Series: 15
Won Game Three, won Series: 11
Lost Game Three, won Series: 0
That’s the polite way of saying the Cardinals are in a heap of trouble right now. Less than one in four teams that have gone down 2-0 have managed to come back to win the World Series, a daunting prospect for the Cardinals heading into tonight’s game. What is more, they are facing a quality starting pitcher in the person of Pedro Martinez. How many of the previous 47 teams who have found themselves in the position that so afflicts St. Louis have come against a pitcher of Martinez’s caliber in the pivotal Game Three?
Very few, actually. Even when taking into consideration that 2004 was not one of Martinez’s better campaigns and that he’s not been especially good in the playoffs so far, he is still one of the most intimidating opponents a team down 2-0 has ever had to face in this circumstance.
Let’s look at this group of 47 men in terms of Stuff, Clay Davenport’s stat that serves as a rough indicator of a pitcher’s dominance. These are the five highest Stuff numbers for the Game Three pitchers during the season in question:
- 37: Dave Righetti, ’81 Yankees vs. Dodgers
Righetti was a rookie who pitched just 105 1/3 innings in the strike-shortened year of 1981. He pitched very well in the first two rounds of the playoffs that year, though, allowing just one run in 15 innings. The Dodgers turned him out after two-plus innings of rough going and went on to win that game and the next three. Righetti would never pitch quite as well as he did in ’81.
- 35: David Cone, ’98 Yankees vs. Padres
Cone blanked the Padres for five innings before surrendering three runs (two earned) in the sixth and leaving the game. The Yankees rallied from the 3-0 deficit and won the game 5-4. They closed out the Series the next day.
- 33: Pedro Martinez, ’04 Red Sox vs. Cardinals
As you can see, Martinez rates pretty high here. What is more, this is his worse Stuff season since 1996.
- 27: John Smoltz, ’95 Braves vs. Indians
After a rough first inning, Smoltz calmed down in the second but was immediately back in the cauldron in the third when four consecutive hits and a walk forced him out of the game. The Braves came back and had the Indians on ice heading into the bottom of the eighth, but they rallied to tie and went on to win in the 11th. They also won Game Six, but the Braves triumphed in the end.
- 27: George Earnshaw, ’29 A’s vs. Cubs
Earnshaw was cruising with a 1-0 lead through five when a leadoff walk to opposing pitcher Guy Bush and an error by Jimmy Dykes paved the way for a three-run sixth. Bush held his own on the mound and Chicago went on to win 3-1. The next day they positioned themselves to tie the Series at two each by building an 8-0 lead heading into the bottom of the seventh. The A’s famously scored 10 runs to cop the game. The other comeback in this Series never gets any ink. The Cubs had a 2-0 lead headed into the bottom of the ninth in Game Five when the A’s rallied for three runs on a Mule Haas homer and a big double by Bing Miller to close out the Series.
A few Hall of Famers have found themselves in the position in which Martinez is now. They are:
- Herb Pennock: 1927 Yankees vs. Pirates; 3-hitter, 8-1 win
- Lefty Gomez: 1939 Yankees vs. Reds; 1 IP, Bump Hadley won in relief
- Don Drysdale: 1963 Dodgers vs. Yankees; 3-hit shutout, won 1-0
- Don Sutton: 1978 Dodgers vs. Yankees; 5 R in 6 1/3, lost 5-1, Dodgers lost Series
Conversely, who are the five pitchers with the lowest Stuff number to throw for their teams in this situation?
- -1: Wally Bunker, ’66 Orioles vs. Dodgers
Just 21 years old, Bunker had already thrown 550 innings of big-league ball by the time he ran into the Dodgers in Game Three of the ’66 Series. He drew Claude Osteen, who pitched a three-hitter that wasn’t enough as the Orioles prevailed, 1-0. They closed out the Dodgers the next game with yet another shutout.
- -2: Les Straker, ’87 Twins vs. Cardinals
Straker gets my vote for the most obscure pitcher to ever turn up in this situation. After ’87, he pitched in just 16 big-league games. He came up big here, though, throwing six innings of shutout ball, aloowing four hits and two walks. He left with a 1-0 lead only to see Juan Berenguer enter the game and surrender it. Straker started Game Six as well but was lit up, creating the classic dichotomy of having his team lose when he pitched well and win when he pitched poorly. Yet, some people still pay attention to won-loss records.
- -4: Blue Moon Odom, ’72 A’s vs. Reds
Odom is probably more famous for his nickname and for being a member of the A’s early ’70s dynasty than he is for his pitching. In this case, though, he did right by Oakland for seven innings in a game that should have put the Reds on the brink. Instead, it wasn’t enough as Cincinnati prevailed 1-0 and went on to take Oakland all the way to Game Seven.
- -5: Hugh McQuillan, 1922 Giants vs. Yankees
McQuillan wiggled out of trouble in the first inning thanks in part to Wally Pipp trying to take an extra base on a single. He surrendered two runs on four hits but cruised the rest of the way, although he allowed an Aaron Ward home run in the seventh. His mates rallied for four in the fifth to take Carl Mays and the Yankees to the brink.
- -13: Brian Anderson, 2001 Diamondbacks vs. Yankees
Anderson may be the least intimidating pitcher ever to take the mound in the World Series with his team up two games to none. He certainly held his own against Roger Clemens in this one for the 5 1/3 innings he was in there. He started to lose it in the sixth and left with the go-ahead run in scoring position. It scored on a broken-bat single and he took the loss. The rest, as they say, is recent history.
Only one man has ever found himself at this juncture twice in his career. That man was the Yankees’ Monte Pearson, and he did it in consecutive seasons. He came up big on both occasions, beating the Giants in 1937 and Cubs in 1938. (5-1, 5-2). His ERA in the two games was 1.02.
So, the Cardinals are not doomed by any means, but the weight of history is certainly pressing down on their spines.
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