With each league's divisional series nearing conclusion in the 2011 MLB playoffs, we're about to embark on a whole new fantastic journey unlike anything you've ever seen.
With just one team of 25 men standing in your way, the route to the World Series has become clear. Baseball gods are about to be separated from mere mortals. Anything goes now. Guys that have spent their careers on shuttle buses from Triple-A to the Show could wind up in postseason lore, and handsomely paid All-Stars could falter.
It's worth repeating: Anything goes.
The League Championship Series are going to test the mettle of baseball players, executives, coaches and fanbases. The game's heavyweights are ready for one final showdown before each league readies itself for bragging rights in the World Series.
Now is the time for members of the Senior and Junior circuits to shine. Legends are born. Players with outstanding reputations will go down in infamy.
For now, though, let's take a look at some of these moments in retrospect.
Here are the 25 greatest moments in the history of baseball's League Championship Series.
This series was a story that was season-long in the making.
It began on Opening Day in 2008, when the Tampa Bay Rays were nothing more than an afterthought to the AL East's perennial top dogs, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. That changed quickly, though.
The small-market, low-budget Rays showed why scouting and drafting is so important, and they stunned the world by making it to the postseason, advancing to the ALCS and, most importantly, proving to be a credible threat to the Red Sox's World Series hopes.
The ALCS was an epic, back-and-forth battle of wit and fortitude, and it was only fitting that it all came down to a winner-take-all Game 7 in Tampa Bay.
The Red Sox jumped out to an early lead, but the Rays were not going to roll over. Matt Garza pitched one of the best games of his career, and a clutch seventh-inning home run from Willy Aybar put the Rays ahead.
Manager Joe Maddon then handed the ball off to rookie flamethrower David Price in the ninth inning. The future Rays ace retired the Red Sox handily, and a long celebration was under way in Tampa Bay. The underdogs were getting their shot at the World Series.
The 2006 Detroit Tigers were a team that made you want to cheer for them. After several seasons of dreadful baseball in the Motor City, they had put together one of baseball's best teams in 2006 and would eventually advance to the American League Championship Series to square off with the pitching-rich Oakland Athletics.
On this day, though, there was no amount of pitching that was going to stop Magglio Ordonez.
With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, with two runners on base, he drilled a ball to left field, and a celebration ensued. The three-run home run would not only win the game for the Tigers but would also send the A's home and the Tigers to the World Series for the first time in 22 years.
If Endy Chavez is remembered for one thing in his major-league career, this is it: the play simply known as "The Catch."
The New York Mets had put together one of their best seasons in a very long time, winning 97 games during the regular season and easily disposing of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series. Now, they squared off with a much tougher opponent in the NLCS: the St. Louis Cardinals.
On paper, the Cards were expected to be trounced from this round with ease. They had finished the season with just 83 wins but made the playoffs thanks in large part to a weak NL Central division. Now, though, they were playing some of the best baseball of the season, led by the exploits of manager Tony La Russa and slugger Albert Pujols.
Tied at one in the sixth inning, Scott Rolen came to the plate for the Cardinals with a runner on. Oliver Perez delivered a pitch, and it was drilled by the Cards third baseman. It looked like a sure home run; nonetheless, Chavez went back on it. To the track, to the wall, he leaped up and made arguably the greatest catcher ever, snow-coning the Rolen would-be home run and gunning it back to the infield, where it would be relayed to first to double up the runner and end the inning.
The Philadelphia Phillies versus the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS: the sequel.
Just a year earlier, on their way to a World Series title, the Phillies rolled over the Dodgers and Jonathan Broxton (we'll be getting to that in a few slides) before defeating those underdog Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series.
Fast-forward to 2009, and this series had a much different feel. The Phillies were leading the series two games to one, but this year the Dodgers weren't ready to let them off the hook. They wanted to grind out a win (or two, or three) on the road in Philadelphia and steal home-field advantage back for good.
Leading 4-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, it looked as though the Dodgers were going to do just that, and they called on their closer Broxton to close the door on the Phillies. Trouble followed. The Phillies loaded the bases and brought Jimmy Rollins to the plate, and the following events are best described by Scott Franzke (video above).
Game over. The Phillies took a 3-1 lead in the series and would dispatch of the Dodgers easily.
Albert Pujols has been known to come through in the clutch during his career. No matter how daunting the situation or unlikely the result, he is the best offensive first baseman in baseball and has proven so on numerous occasions.
In 2005, he would face one of his toughest challenges yet. With two strikes in the top of the ninth inning, the St. Louis Cardinals were just one strike away from elimination, and the Houston Astros were a strike away from a World Series berth with closer Brad Lidge on the mound.
Pujols knew what he was going to be getting from Lidge, especially with two strikes—the slider, Lidge's bread and butter. It wasn't a good one though. Lidge hung a slider, and Pujols did not miss it, blasting it over the train tracks in Minute Maid Park and keeping the Cards' World Series hopes alive.
After the home run, Astros starter Andy Pettitte was caught on camera muttering two words with a shocked expression on his face: "Oh my."
I'm guessing that Jonathan Broxton isn't a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies, for obvious reasons. If he could look into his crystal ball and see the future, he would know that this was not the last time the Phils got the best of him, but oh boy, this was the most memorable.
In 2008, the Phillies had not been to the World Series in a long time—a very long time, in fact. The last time was in 1993, when Joe Carter left them with quite the bitter taste of defeat.
Times were different now, though, and the Phillies could smell the World Series. Trailing by two, they rallied to tie the game in the eighth inning, and with the pitcher's spot due up, they called on the services of Matt Stairs.
Brought aboard specifically for pinch-hitting duties, Stairs was Charlie Manuel's left-handed threat off the bench, and he was called on quickly to face the hard-throwing Broxton. Stairs, who is a known fastball hitter, was only going to swing at the hard stuff, and he picked a spot to cut down the strike zone. Broxton delivered a fastball right into that zone, and Stairs obliterated it.
In what is now referred to the "moon shot" in Philadelphia, Stairs hit a mammoth home run to give the Phillies the lead, and they would never give it back.
In 14 seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Steve Garvey was an excellent corner infielder. He came up through the system and won an MVP award in 1974, but following the 1982 season, the two sides just could not agree on a contract, and the former Dodger went on to sign a contract with the San Diego Padres.
The height of his glory with the Friars came in 1984, as his Padres squared off against the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS. Tied in the ninth inning at home, things were beginning to look grim for the Pads, already down two games in the series and Lee Smith, one of the greatest closers of all time, on the hill for the Cubbies.
Garvey had no fear. Smith threw a fastball over the outer portion of the plate, and the Padres slugger went right with it, driving a game-winning home run over the right-field wall and giving the Padres new life in the series—a series they would eventually go on to win.
For his heroics during this series, the Padres would later retire Garvey's number. The Dodgers never did.
This is one of the most controversial calls of all time. To set the scene, the year was 1996, and the New York Yankees were facing the Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS. (Seriously, the Orioles.) The Yankees were trailing by a run in the game, and a young Derek Jeter, fresh off his Rookie of the Year campaign, stepped to the plate.
Jeter hit a drive to right field, and it carried well. Off the bat, it was obvious that it was going to be close, and as O's outfielder Tony Tarasco jumped up at the wall, there was a sense that he had a bead on it. As the ball was coming down towards his glove, however, it disappeared.
The ball had hit another glove—the one worn by 12-year-old Yanks fan Jeffrey Maier, who reached over the wall and brought the ball into the crowd. Somehow, the umpire—Richie Garcia—didn't see Maier reach over the wall, and Tarasco was irate.
The home run call would stand, and the Yanks would go on to win this game in 11 innings, with Maier helping Jeter set the tone for the rest of this battle.
Sorry about the quality of the photo, but I wanted to show you just how simple a play this was to make for a first baseman.
1984 just wasn't a good year for the Chicago Cubs. Sure, they advanced to the NLCS, but once they got there, things went sour quickly. We've already taken a look at San Diego Padres slugger Steve Garvey launching a home run off Lee Smith. Now, we'll take a look at the man who singlehandedly helped keep the Cubs out of the World Series.
All in all, Leon Durham was not a bad defensive first baseman. In fact, he was quite good, especially in 1984, when he made just seven errors during the regular season and posted a fielding percentage of .994. In Game 5 of the NLCS, though, those metrics went right out the window.
Amidst a number of superstitious controversies, Durham let a ball go right through his legs while the Cubbies were nursing a lead, which eventually became a deficit. He also made a throwing error in this game, a game that the Padres would eventually win, eliminating the Cubs from the postseason.
Because of all the controversy he has become shrouded in, we often forget just how good Roger Clemens was during his career—so good that he pitched arguably the greatest game in the history of the American League Championship Series, absolutely dominating a Seattle Mariners team that won 91 games during the regular season.
With the series tied at one game apiece, the New York Yankees had to go on the road to play the M's. They were able to start "The Rocket" in this pressure-packed game, and he didn't disappoint, striking out 15 Mariners hitters. (Fifteen!) He allowed just one hit, and the Yanks defeated the M's handily, 5-0, en route to yet another World Series title.
To date, this is the only game ever pitched in either league's championship series where the starting pitcher allowed just one hit.
The Montreal Expos were so close to making it to the World Series in 1981, but Rick Monday would have none of it. Monday, who played in Kansas City when its team was still called the Athletics, was much more of a part-time player in 1981, but he had one of the biggest hits of his career.
The game was tied at one in the top of the ninth inning, and the Expos were so close to the World Series that they could taste it. Hoping to seal the deal, they brought in their ace, Steve Rogers, to put the Los Angeles Dodgers away.
With two outs in the inning, Monday stepped to the plate, and no one could have imagined the result. Monday, who had hit just 11 home runs during the regular season, took Rogers deep, and the Dodgers would go on to win the game (and the series.)
In fact, one out away from a World Series berth was the closest the Expos would ever come to playing in the Fall Classic.
Fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers might want to skip this slide. It isn't pretty (and involves Tom Niedenfuer).
The 1985 St. Louis Cardinals were not a power hitting club. They just weren't built that way, and the rest of the baseball world knew it.
That's not to say they weren't a good offensive team. After all, they would win 101 games during the regular season. However, it was a well-known fact that the lineup had little pop—other than Jack Clark, that is, who finished the season with 22 home runs. The next closest total was Andy Van Slyke's 13.
The Cardinals were on the road, in Los Angeles, trailing 5-4 in the top of the ninth inning. The Redbirds were threatening, with runners on second and third but two outs. With first base open, Clark stepped to the plate. The only legitimate power threat in the Cardinals order, and Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda was going to pitch to him.
The Dodgers, one out from sending this series to a winner-take-all Game 7, collectively held their breath as Clark swung and mashed a mammoth blast, clearing the left-field wall and giving his Cardinals the lead. They would go on to hold that lead and advance to the World Series.
This series was so jam-packed with great moments that I'm sure any particular one deserves to be featured in a photo to the left, so allow the one that I used to set the scene.
The year was 1980, and the Philadelphia Phillies and Houston Astros were locking horns in the NLCS. It's now Game 5, with the Phillies on the road in Houston.
The Astros sent fireballing, no-hit king Nolan Ryan to the mound and gave him an early lead. Heading into the top of the eighth inning, it was 5-2 Astros with the Phils coming to bat. The rally that followed was improbable, but it happened. The Phillies scored five runs off Ryan, turning a deficit into a 7-5 lead heading into the bottom of the eighth inning.
But the Phillies bullpen couldn't hold the lead! The Astros scored twice in their half of the eighth, and neither team would be able to push a run across in the ninth. This game was going into extra innings with the Phillies already up three games to one.
In the top of the 10th inning, the Phils would scratch out one run and hold on to the lead, winning the game and the series, a steppingstone on their path to the World Series.
Maybe this wasn't the most memorable League Championship Series moment of all time, but with the history these two men share, I think it's safe to say that there was drama to be expected when they met in the 1980 ALCS.
After several devastating defeats in the latter half of the 1970s, the Kansas City Royals were out for blood when the new decade rolled around, and the stage couldn't be set any more perfectly against the New York Yankees—with the Yanks in the lead, Goose Gossage the pitcher, George Brett the batter.
Gossage reared back and threw a fastball to his arch nemesis as hard as he could, but it wasn't hard enough. Brett launched a mammoth home run into the upper deck, sealing the Royals win and eventually a World Series berth.
Say what you want about Curt Schilling. He may not have had a perfect career. He may not be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. His transition into politics and sharp criticism of the Boston Red Sox after he retired may make him a little less than liked by some fans.
But you can't say that his Game 6 wasn't one of the best, gutsiest performances of all time.
Schilling literally walked into the 2004 ALCS limping. He had a severe ankle injury that would have benched most guys, but not Schilling. Not when he had an opportunity to help bring a World Series title to a Boston city that so badly craved it.
His Game 1 performance certainly didn't help that cause. He was shelled by the New York Yankees and publicly stated after the game that he wouldn't pitch again in the series if his ankle wasn't healing. He didn't want to put the team in that kind of situation.
But as the Sox fell to 3-0, desperation began to mount. They were able to pull off a win in Game 4, and if they were going to pull off the most improbable comeback of all time, they'd need a little help from Schilling. He knew that.
That's why he and Dr. Bill Morgan decided to use one of the most drastic options possible—a surgery that Morgan had never performed before. He was going to attempt to stitch Schilling's tendon back together. He would practice the technique just once on a cadaver before performing the surgery on Schilling.
But it was a success.
Schilling was feeling well enough to take the ball in Game 6, but his stitches weren't able to hold. Blood began to seep through the wound, turning his usually white sock into an actual red sock. Pitching through incredible pain, he gave it his all, holding the Yankees to one run and eventually helping the Red Sox claim victory in the ALCS and the World Series.
Long before they had a chance to hand Curt Schilling the ball in a crucial Game 6 in 2004, a different Boston Red Sox team was trying its best shot at an improbable comeback. This team played its games in 1986 and was trailing the California Angels, who led the series three games to one.
Led by manager Gene Mauch, they were in a position to clinch a World Series berth at home, sending the Red Sox packing, with Donnie Moore on the bump to pitch the ninth inning. In stepped Dave Henderson, an unlikely hero that the Red Sox had acquired during the season.
He must have gotten a pitch he liked from Moore, because with the Red Sox trailing 5-4, Hendu, as he was called, hit a long two-run home run, giving the Red Sox a temporary 6-5 lead. But the drama was far from over. The Angels managed to tie the game before the Sox eventually won in extras. They'd also win the next two games, eliminating the Angels and going on to the World Series.
Henderson, on the other hand, would be traded during the next season for a player to be named later.
Once upon a time, there was a long-haired, goofy outfielder that played for the Boston Red Sox by the name of Johnny Damon. He was a fan favorite and, as only could be written as a fairy-tale, was at the forefront of the Sox's improbable, impossible comeback against the Evil Empire—against the New York Yankees.
Once upon a time, the Yanks led the series three games to none, but that was a long, long time ago. Now, thanks to several different heroes, including one bloody sock that would eventually be donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the series was even at three. Each team had an advantage for a winner-take-all Game 7. The Yankees had home field, but the Red Sox had the momentum.
Damon, who entered Game 7 just 3-for-29 in the series, was beginning to sense a bit of animosity from the Red Sox faithful. They questioned whether or not he'd be able to provide the clutch hit, and numerous fans and analysts alike called for his benching, or at least to be moved out of the leadoff spot.
Nonsense. Manager Terry Francona left him right where he was, and it paid dividends. With the bases loaded in the second inning against Javier Vazquez, Damon stepped to the plate and history followed, as he launched a grand slam into the New York night, giving the Sox an early lead—one they would never give back.
Damon would go on to hit a second home run in the game, but that was just icing on the cake. The comeback was complete. The Red Sox were the American League champions, ready to take on the world in the World Series.
A lot of people thought that the 1999 New York Mets were a team of destiny. However unlikely the situation, it seemed like they were going to win the World Series, even if they had to beat the pitching-rich Atlanta Braves first.
Alas, it was not meant to be, as the Braves would eventually go on to win this series, but there sure was a great moment that came out of it.
Specifically, that moment came out of Game 5. The two teams had been deadlocked at two for what felt like an eternity, and the Braves had pushed across a run in their half of the 15th inning. With the season on the line, the Mets managed to load the bases in their half of the inning, as Robin Ventura stepped to the plate. A batter earlier, Todd Pratt had walked to load the bases, and knowing so, Ventura only needed to hit a fly ball to give the Mets the win.
Boy, did he.
Ventura hit a bomb that left the ballpark in a hurry—a grand slam. He was mobbed by elated teammates as he rounded the bases, with Pratt picking him up to celebrate before he even had a chance to reach second base. In fact, he never did round the bases. With the winning run across, that didn't matter. He was credited with an RBI single despite the fact that the ball went over the wall for a grand slam.
How do I even explain this? The incident that we read about earlier involving Jeffrey Maier was kind of like "Bartman Lite." It may not have been much of a baseball moment, but everything involving this play made it one of the most memorable LCS moments of all time. From the goofy headphones to Moises Alou's reaction, it was just a strange moment.
To set the scene some, the Chicago Cubs were playing the Florida Marlins in the NLCS. They had taken a three games to two lead in the series and were looking to put the away the Fish at home and move on to the World Series—a place they had not been in a really long time. It was the eighth inning, and the Cubbies were leading.
But not for long. Perhaps inspired by a little work of a double agent (I've actually seen him called a double agent), Steve Bartman, Cubs fan, reached over to catch a foul ball that would have been an easy out for the Cubs. The thing is, Alou thought he had a play on it too, and when the ball hit off Bartman, Alou was irate.
The Marlins would go on to score eight runs in the inning, winning both Games 6 and 7 to advance to the World Series.
Later, Alou would come out and say that he probably had no chance of catching that ball anyway.
Chris Chambliss may not have had the most memorable of careers. He was a former Rookie of the Year winner, but following that campaign, only a few seasons even showed a glimpse that he'd ever live up to his full potential.
If he was ever going to have a chance to prove that he had what it takes to play with the New York Yankees, it was in 1976, when, believe it or not, the Yanks were having trouble making it to the postseason on a consistent basis.
They were squaring off with the Kansas City Royals yet again, as this became one of the most heated rivalries of the time. George Brett, the Royals' poster boy, had tied the game up with a three-run bomb, with Chambliss coming up to bat in the bottom of the ninth.
Yankee Stadium was like a powder keg waiting to explode. The Yanks wanted to beat the Royals. They wanted to go back to the World Series. Chambliss didn't waste much time in this at-bat. He swung at the first pitch he saw and mashed it over the wall, but the most memorable scene came after that moment.
The Yankees faithful almost trampled him as he rounded the bases!
Heading into the ninth inning of this game, it wasn't the "greatest game ever played." With the Houston Astros at home battling the New York Mets in Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS, tensions were high.
Houston, trailing by two games in the series, had the lead heading into the top of the ninth inning, up 3-0. It was flying high with a Cy Young Award winner (Mike Scott) ready to pitch a decisive Game 7 for the 'Stros.
But the Mets would have none of it. They rallied to score three runs in the top of the ninth inning, and with the Astros unable to score in their half of the inning, we were back to square one after nine frames, where just a single run would force a Game 7 for the Astros.
The Mets bullpen was up to the task, keeping the Astros scoreless until their offense was able to scratch out a run in the top of the 14th. Now, they needed just three more outs to advance to the World Series, but a clutch home run from Billy Hatcher (who had a total of six home runs during the regular season) tied the game at four. Back to square one yet again.
The game endured a scoreless 15th, and in the top of the 16th inning, it looked as though the Mets had decided to go for the jugular. They pushed across three runs to take a 7-4 lead into the bottom half of the 16th inning. Now, the Mets bullpen, specifically Jesse Orosco, who had already thrown a ton of pitches, was given the task of holding the Astros off the scoreboard.
But he couldn't do it! The Astros scored twice in the bottom of the 16th inning and were threatening to tie the game yet again. Kevin Bass ran a full count against Orosco, and Houston was ready to take off. He went into the wind, the pitch...
Struck him out!
Orosco, who had thrown more than 50 pitches in relief, threw his hands up in the air, and the celebration began. The Mets were going to the World Series, and now this game could officially (unofficially) be dubbed the "greatest game ever played."
I don't even know how to capture this moment in words. The situation was more than daunting—it seemed impossible.
The Boston Red Sox were down three games to none against the powerful New York Yankees, who sent postseason (and any season, for that matter) legend Mariano Rivera to the mound to complete the sweep.
But for once, Rivera couldn't get it done. The Red Sox rallied to tie the game against the greatest closer of all time, setting the scene for that dramatic home run to left that would begin the greatest comeback of all time, the first steppingstone en route to a World Series berth for the Sox.
As we covered earlier, Tom Niedenfuer is not a very popular man with Los Angeles Dodgers fans.
The St. Louis Cardinals were batting in the bottom half of the ninth inning, Niedenfuer on the bump. Ozzie Smith stepped to the plate batting left-handed, and the Dodgers liked this matchup. After all, Smith wasn't much of a power threat and prior to 1985 had never hit a home run left-handed in his career—but all that was about to change.
Niedenfuer delivered his pitch, and Smith hit a drive. It was back, back to the track, back to the wall and gone. Smith's home run won Game 5 for the Cardinals but more importantly, perhaps, spawned one of baseball's all-time greatest calls, spoken by Jack Buck:
"Go crazy folks! Go crazy! The Cardinals have won the game by a score of three to two on a home run by the Wizard! Go crazy!"
Arguably the most heated rivalry in sports was a little more intense back in 2003. After a seesaw battle to give each team three games in the win column, a start from Pedro Martinez that had arguably gone too long, a pair of home runs from Jason Giambi and an extended outing from Mariano Rivera, the stage was set for Aaron Boone.
I think watching it actually unfold is the best description here.
Everyone loves a story about an unlikely hero. Here's a good one for you.
The year was 1992, and the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates were headed to a winner-take-all Game 7 in Atlanta. The Bucs cruised to a lead and held it in the bottom half of the ninth inning, up 2-0 and forcing the Braves to scratch and claw their way back into this one.
After managing to push a run across, they loaded the bases, and Francisco Cabrera was called upon to face Stan Belinda. It was an unlikely spot for Cabrera, who had collected just 10 at-bats during the regular season. Apparently, that was all he needed to get into postseason form.
He smacked a single to left field that scored David Justice with ease, and Sid Bream, who may have been slower than a sloth, trailed right behind him, chugging all the way to the plate. It was going to be bang bang. The throw was close, Bream slid and he was...safe!
The Braves had rallied to score three runs and win the game, coming all the way back in the bottom of the ninth inning in a decisive Game 7. It was the ultimate opportunity for a man with little experience, and boy, did he deliver.