Ranking the Greatest All-Time MLB Playoff Race Moments

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistSeptember 12, 2013

Ranking the Greatest All-Time MLB Playoff Race Moments

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    Some of the most memorable moments in baseball history haven't come during the playoffs, they've come during the pennant races that teams must win to reach the promised land of the postseason.

    As we find ourselves in the thick of multiple races to make the 2013 MLB playoffs, now seems like as good a time as any to take a look back at the greatest playoff race moments of all time.

    Not just any moment will do.

    These moments were ranked according to a number of factors, including drama, the situation (both in the standings and in the game) and the players involved—the lesser-known the hero is, the better.

    To be sure, you won't agree with all of these choices, and I look forward to hearing what you believe belonged—and didn't—in the comments below.

    That said, let's take a look back at the 20 greatest playoff race moments in MLB history.

20. Sept. 26, 1965: Jim Kaat Comes Up Big

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    Needing one victory to clinch the American League pennant, Jim Kaat took the mound for the Minnesota Twins—formerly the Washington Senators—to face off against the Washington Senators, the expansion team that replaced the old franchise in the nation's capital after it moved in 1961.

    Kaat was superb, tossing a one-run complete game that saw him strike out 10 batters and lead the Twins to a 2-1 victory, giving the club its first AL pennant in Minnesota and ending a 32-year pennant-less drought.

19. Oct. 6, 1980: Joe Niekro Destroys Los Angeles

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    Tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers atop the National League West at the end of the regular season, the Houston Astros traveled to Dodger Stadium for a one-game playoff to determine which team would win the division.

    Joe Niekro took the ball for the Astros and baffled the powerful Dodgers lineup, holding the home team to only one run on six hits, while Houston, powered by four RBI from first baseman Art Howe, went on to win the game in a 9-1 rout, giving the franchise its first-ever division title.

18. Oct. 4, 1980: Mike Schmidt Puts Philadelphia Ahead

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    Needing to win one of its two remaining games with the Montreal Expos in order to clinch the National League East in 1980, the Philadelphia Phillies headed into the top of the 11th inning deadlocked in a 4-4 tie with the Expos.

    With one out and Pete Rose on first base, Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt strode to the plate to face Expos reliever Stan Bahnsen.

    The crack of the bat signaled what would become evident a few seconds later, as the ball sailed deep into the left field stands at Olympic Stadium to give Philadelphia a 6-4 lead, one that closer Tug McGraw would hold in the bottom of the inning, giving Philadelphia the NL East crown.

17. Sept. 30, 1971: The Dominican Dandy Dodges Disaster

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    With 24 games left in the season and an 8.5-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers, the San Francisco Giants looked like locks to win the NL West crown on Sept. 5, 1971.

    Instead, the Giants went into a funk, dropping 16 of their next 23 games and allowing the Dodgers pull within a game of first place heading into the final game of the season, which became a must-win as San Francisco took on San Diego.

    Giants ace Juan Marichal put his team on his back and, with his patented high leg kick, kept the Giants from an epic collapse. The Dominican Dandy would throw a complete game, scattering five hits and allowing only one run while striking out five en route to a 5-1 San Francisco victory, clinching the NL West crown.

16. Oct. 2, 1965: Sandy Tosses a Dandy

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    Holding a two-game lead over their former crosstown rivals, the San Francisco Giants, Sandy Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers needed to win one of their final two games of the regular season against the Milwaukee Braves to clinch the National League pennant for the second time in three years.

    Koufax didn't disappoint, allowing only one run on four hits, walking four and striking out 13 as the Dodgers beat 24-game winner Tony Cloninger and the Braves by a score of 3-1.

    His 13 strikeouts on the day gave him 382 on the season, setting a new modern-day MLB record that stood until 1975, when Nolan Ryan bested him by one strikeout.

15. Sept. 23, 1957: Hammerin' Hank Does What He Does Best

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    Led by a 23-year-old outfielder named Hank Aaron, the Milwaukee Braves entered play on Sept. 23, 1957, with a five-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League standings.

    With a three-game series against the Cardinals about to begin, a win in the series opener would clinch the pennant for Milwaukee, the first since the team moved to Wisconsin and only the third in the team's lengthy history.

    Tied at two in the bottom of the 11th inning, Cardinals reliever Billy Muffett, working his third inning of relief, faced off against Aaron, who stepped to the plate with a runner on first and two outs. Aaron sent a Muffett offering deep over the center field wall, giving the Braves a 4-2 victory and the National League pennant.

14. Sept. 30, 1945: The Hebrew Hammer Strikes Again

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    Leading the Washington Senators by only one game in the race for the American League pennant heading into the final game of the regular season, nobody had the slightest clue what to expect from the Detroit Tigers.

    The Tigers were starting Virgil Trucks in their biggest game of the season. Trucks, who had gone a combined 30-18 with a 2.79 ERA for the Tigers from 1942 to 1943, hadn't pitched in a major league game since, having been in the United States Army up until three days before the game.

    Trucks didn't disappoint, tossing six innings of one-run ball before giving way to Hal Newhouser, who allowed two runs and put the Tigers in a 3-2 hole heading into the ninth inning.

    Hank Greenberg stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth and crushed a pitch from Browns starter Nels Potter deep into the night, clearing the bases and giving Detroit a 6-3 lead, one that Al Benton protected in the bottom half of the inning to bring the American League pennant back to Detroit.

13. Sept. 24, 1969: Gentry's Gem Begins Something Amazin'

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    With a six-game lead over the Chicago Cubs in the NL East, the New York Mets didn't turn to Tom Seaver or Jerry Koosman with a chance to clinch the division title on the line against St. Louis, instead giving the ball to Garry Gentry.

    Going up against Steve Carlton, it seemed as if the odds were heavily stacked against the Mets. But Carlton wasn't right, getting torched for five earned runs in the first inning and recording only one out before being pulled by Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst.

    That was more than enough offense for Gentry, who scattered four hits while striking out five batters in a complete game, 6-0 shutout that sent the Mets to the playoffs for the first time in the team's eight-year history.

12. Sept. 24, 1984: Rick Sutcliffe

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    Acquired from the Cleveland Indians in June of 1984, Rick Sutcliffe made a solid Chicago Cubs team that much better. The Red Baron went 15-1 with a 2.80 ERA over his first 19 starts in a Cubs uniform, helping his new team take a 6.5-game lead over the New York Mets in the NL East.

    Facing the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates on Sept. 24, the Cubs sat one win away from ending a 39-year playoff drought.

    Sutcliffe took the mound and went the distance, scattering two hits and one run while striking out nine batters to not only win his 14th consecutive game, but to clinch the division for the Cubs.

11. Oct. 2, 1995: The Big Unit Comes Up Big for Seattle

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    The first 18 years of the Seattle Mariners' existence passed without a playoff spot. It looked like year No. 19 was going to follow suit, with the club trailing the first-place California Angels by 6.5 games in the AL West on Sept. 11, 1995.

    Lou Piniella's club wasn't interested in having history repeat itself, and the Mariners went on a 13-4 run to pull even with the Angels at the end of the regular season, forcing a one-game playoff at the Kingdome in Seattle to decide the division.

    Randy Johnson dominated California's lineup, striking out 12 Angels en route to throwing a one-run, three-hit complete game that saw the Mariners win 9-1 and, for the first time, know what it felt like to play meaningful baseball in October.

10. Sept. 27, 1940: Floyd Giebell Outduels a Legend

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    Heading into the final three games of the regular season, the Detroit Tigers held a two-game lead over the Cleveland Indians for the American League pennant, knowing that a victory in the first game would guarantee a return to the playoffs.

    The Indians sent superstar pitcher and 27-game winner Bob Feller out to the mound, while Detroit sent 30-year-old Floyd Giebell, making only his second career start in his 11th career MLB game.

    Surely, Cleveland was going to take the series opener.

    Except someone forgot to tell that to Giebell, who out-dueled the future Hall of Famer, tossing a six-hit, complete-game shutout to give the Tigers a 2-0 win and bring the pennant back to Detroit. It would be the last win that Giebell would ever notch in the major leagues.

9. Sept. 28, 2010: Jay Bruce Stops the Streak

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    Nothing gets the home crowd fired up like some late-inning heroics by a homegrown talent.

    When those heroics happen to end a team's playoff drought and clinch the division, well, it's that much sweeter. That's exactly what happened at Great American Ballpark and it sent all of Cincinnati into a frenzy.

    Jay Bruce deposited the first pitch he saw from Houston reliever Tim Byrdak into the grass beyond the center field wall, clinching the National League Central and putting Cincinnati in the playoffs for the first time since 1995, when Atlanta swept the Reds in the National League Championship Series.

    Manager Dusty Baker was giddy—and rightfully so—when John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer caught up with him after the game:  “What a way to win this thing. That was as dramatic a home run as you’ll see. Jay off a left-hander. The boys are happy. Everybody’s happy. Let ’em party.” (Up to this point, roughly 80 percent of Bruce's career home runs had come against right-handers). 

    The party didn't last long, however, as Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter in Game 1 of the NLDS. The Reds never recovered, getting swept in three games.

8. Oct. 1, 1967: Yaz Puts Boston on His Back

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    Four teams found themselves battling for American League supremacy in the final week of the 1967 season, with the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins all battling each other for the top spot.

    Minnesota and Boston met at Fenway Park for a two-game series to finish the season. Boston would emerge victorious in Game 1, thanks to Carl Yastrzemski, who went 3-for-4 with a home run and four RBI to give the home team a 6-4 victory and pull his team into a tie with the Twins for first place.

    In the pivotal Game 2 on Oct. 1, the future Hall of Famer delivered for Boston once again, picking up a bases-loaded single in the bottom of the sixth inning, scoring two runs and erasing Minnesota's 2-0 lead. Boston would go on to put up five runs in the inning.

    It would be all the offense the Red Sox would need, as they'd go on to win 5-3, with Yaz going 4-for-4 with a pair of RBI.

7. Sept. 28, 2011: Chris Carpenter

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    The St. Louis Cardinals mounted one of the great comebacks in baseball history in 2011, rallying from 8.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves for the National League wild-card berth on Sept. 5 to tie things up heading into the final game of the season.

    But the comeback wasn't yet complete, as St. Louis had to beat Houston—and Philadelphia needed to beat Atlanta—in order for the Cardinals to wrap up a playoff spot.

    In a battle of aces, Houston's Brett Myers was no match for St. Louis' potent lineup, which sent 10 men to the plate in the top of the first inning, resulting in seven hits and a 5-0 St. Louis lead, more of a cushion than Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter needed.

    He retired the first 10 batters that he faced and finished what he started, tossing a complete-game, two-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts.

    Relegated to watching the scoreboard, the Cardinals watched as Philadelphia tied its game against Atlanta in the top of the ninth inning and took a 4-3 lead in the top of the 13th. It wasn't until David Herndon induced Freddie Freeman to ground into a game-ending double play in the bottom of the inning that the Cardinals could breathe easy—and celebrate their victory.

6. Sept. 28, 1938: Homer in the Gloamin'

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    Seven games behind Pittsburgh on Sept. 1, Chicago went 20-5-1 to pull within a game of the first-place Pirates, culminating in a three-game series between the two teams at Wrigley Field that began on Sept. 27, 1938.

    A 2-1 Cubs victory in Game 1 pulled the team within a half-game of first place in the National League, setting up a crucial Game 2 between the two rivals.

    Tied at five after eight innings and the night quickly moving in, the umpires ruled that the ninth inning would be the last inning played (this was before lights were installed at Wrigley Field). If the game remained deadlocked, it would have to be replayed in its entirety the following day.

    Chicago catcher Gabby Hartnett wasn't interested in such a scenario, and with two outs and facing an 0-2 count in the bottom of the ninth, he took Pittsburgh reliever Mace Brown deep into the left field bleachers for a game-winning solo home run. 

    The Cubs would go on to win the National League pennant, with Hartnett's heroics forever remembered as the "Homer in the Gloamin.'"

5. Sept. 25, 1986: Mike Scott Delivers in Dramatic Fashion

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    Back in 1986, when the Astros were contenders and their uniforms were awesome, Houston took the field against San Francisco on Sept. 25 with a 10-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds in the NL West, needing only to beat the Giants to clinch the division.

    Houston's No. 2 starter, Mike Scott, stymied the Giants all day long, allowing only three baserunners (two walks and a hit-by-pitch) and tossing the first title-clinching no-hitter in baseball history, fanning 13 batters along the way.

4. Sept. 28, 2011: Dan Johnson and Evan Longoria Power the Rays

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    With 27 games left to play in the season, Tampa Bay went on a 19-7 tear, while Boston, ahead of the Rays in the standings and the wild-card race, went 7-19. This resulted in a tie between the two AL East foes for the lone AL wild-card spot heading into the final game of the 2011 season.

    Facing off against the first-place New York Yankees, the Rays rallied back from a 7-0 deficit in the eighth inning, putting six runs on the board, the last three courtesy of a home run from Evan Longoria. An inning later, pinch hitter Dan Johnson stroked a two-out, two-strike bomb to tie the game at seven.

    Three innings later, Longoria did it again, lacing a line drive down the left field line that sailed over the short fence in the corner to give the Rays an 8-7 victory, one that propelled the club into the playoffs and knocked Boston, which had lost to Baltimore, out of the picture.

3. Sept. 30, 1934: Dizzy Dean Proves That Rest Is Overrated

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    Holding onto a slim one-game lead over the New York Giants in the race for the National League pennant, St. Louis Cardinals manager Frankie Frisch had no choice but to turn to the ace of his staff, Dizzy Dean, to take the mound in a must-win game.

    Normally, that wouldn't sound like an issue, except for the fact that Dean had thrown a complete-game, seven-hit shutout against the Cincinnati Reds less than 48 hours earlier.

    Known as "The Great Man," Dean lived up to his nickname, tossing another seven-hit shutout against Cincinnati for his 30th win on the season and clinching the pennant for the Cardinals.

2. Oct. 2, 1978: Bucky "F'n" Dent

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    With the Yankees and Red Sox tied for the AL East lead at the end of the regular season in 1978, a one-game playoff at Fenway Park was needed to determine the fate of the division crown.

    Boston took a 2-0 lead into the top of the seventh inning, with starter Mike Torrez dealing, having held New York to only two hits on the day. Chris Chambliss and Jim Spencer doubled that total, and with two runners on and two outs, Torrez needed only to get the light-hitting Bucky Dent out to escape unscathed.

    Instead, Dent, who had hit a total of 22 home runs over the course of his six-year career up to that point, smacked a three-run shot off Torrez that cleared the Green Monster to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead. The Bronx Bombers would go on to win the game 5-4, capturing the team's third consecutive AL East crown.

1. Oct. 3, 1951: The Shot Heard 'Round the World

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    Starring in the first-ever nationally televised sporting event, a pair of bitter rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, finished the regular season tied for the National League lead and were thrust into a three-game playoff to decide the National League pennant.

    The Giants won Game 1 at Ebbets Field by a score of 3-1, with Bobby Thomson's two-run shot off Ralph Branca in the top of the fourth inning providing all the offense that the visitors would need. Brooklyn got its revenge at the Polo Grounds in Game 2, drubbing the home team with a 10-0 rout, a game that saw four different Dodgers go deep.

    That set up the decisive Game 3 at the Polo Grounds, where, after taking a 4-1 lead in the top of the eighth inning, it looked as if Brooklyn was about to win the pennant.

    In the bottom of the ninth, after a Whitey Lockman double cut the Dodgers' lead to 4-2, Thomson stepped to the plate to face Branca, bought in to replace Brooklyn starter Don Newcombe. With one out, Lockman on second base and Don Mueller on third, Branca delivered his second pitch of the at-bat.

    Thomson quickly deposited it in the left field stands for a game-winning pennant-winning three-run home run, breaking the hearts of Dodgers fans and sending the Polo Field crowd into a frenzy.