Ranking the Greatest League Championship Series Comebacks of All Time

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistOctober 14, 2013

Ranking the Greatest League Championship Series Comebacks of All Time

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    David Ortiz and Jarrod Saltalamacchia put everything that makes playoff baseball better than every other sport's postseason on display for all to see on Sunday night, with a dramatic game-tying grand slam and walk-off single that evened up the ALCS between Boston and Detroit at one game apiece.

    This wasn't the first time that we've seen teams mount dramatic comebacks when facing seemingly insurmountable odds, and it certainly won't be the last.

    But in the pantheon of MLB Championship Series rallies, where does what Boston pulled off in Game 2 rank?

    To figure it out, we'll take a number of things into consideration, none bigger than the deficit that the team in question faced and the manner in which the comeback was mounted. Did we see it coming, or did these rallies seemingly appear out of nowhere?

    That said, let's take a look at the 10 greatest single-game League Championship Series comebacks of all-time.

    *Unless otherwise noted, all historical data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

10. 2008 NLCS Game 4: Matt Stairs' Moon Shot

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    Trailing the Dodgers 5-3 heading into the top of eighth inning, Shane Victorino's one-out, two-run home run off of Los Angeles reliever Cory Wade tied things up at five apiece and, two batters later, Dodgers manager Joe Torre was forced to call on his third pitcher of the inning, Jonathan Broxton.

    A hard-throwing right-hander, Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel answered by sending up left-handed slugger Matt Stairs as a pinch-hitter for pitcher Ryan Madson.

    Stairs worked a 3-1 count, waiting for Broxton to leave a fastball right where he liked it. Broxton did, Stairs swung, crushing the fifth pitch of the at-bat deep into the right field seats to give the Phillies a 7-5 lead that they'd never relinquish.

    Philadelphia would go on to win the NLCS—and World Series—in five games, delivering a championship to the City of Brotherly Love for the first time since 1980.

9. 1980 NLCS Game 5:

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    With the series tied at two, Houston jumped out to a 5-2 lead over Philadelphia heading into the eighth inning and, with Nolan Ryan on the mound, it looked as if the Astros were destined to go to the World Series for the first time in franchise history.

    Ryan had been on his game for most of the night, scattering five hits and walking only one batter while striking out eight. What happened next surprised everyone in attendance.

    Philadelphia led the inning off with three consecutive singles, the last of which was a sacrifice bunt by Gabe Gross up the third base line, loading the bases for Pete Rose. Charlie Hustle dug in and worked a seven-pitch walk off of the Ryan Express, cutting Houston's lead to 5-3 and forcing Ryan from the game.

    Left-handed reliever Joe Sambito, who would finish fifth in the NL Cy Young Award voting in 1980, got pinch-hitter Keith Moreland to hit a grounder to shortstop, but the Astros weren't able to turn two, only getting Rose on the force out at second base.

    Ken Forsch relieved Sambito, striking out Mike Schmidt for the second out of the inning and, in theory, taking Philadelphia's most dangerous bat out of the equation.

    Del Unser, pinch-hitting for pitcher Ron Reed, smacked a single to right field, scoring Gross and tying the game at five. The next batter, Manny Trillo, proceeded to crush a game-tying, two-run, two-out triple to left field, giving Philadelphia a 7-5 lead.

    Those heroics were needed, as the Astros would tie things up in the bottom of the inning, scoring two runs on four singles off of Tug McGraw, and, after a scoreless ninth inning, the game headed into extra frames.

    With Unser on second base and one out, Gary Maddox laced a shot to center field that Terry Puhl misplayed, allowing Unser to score and giving Maddox a go-ahead, RBI double.

    Philadelphia reliever Dick Ruthven would work his second consecutive 1-2-3 inning to wrap things up for the Phillies, who would go on to defeat the Kansas City Royals in six games for the team's first World Series championship.

8. 1999 NLCS Game 5: Robin Ventura's Grand Slam Single

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    While the deficit that the New York Mets faced in Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS against the Atlanta Braves was only one, to not include this dramatic season-saving moment on a list of comebacks would be blasphemous.

    After the Braves took a 3-2 lead in the top of the 15th inning, Atlanta reliever Kevin McGlinchy merely needed to do what he had done in relief of John Rocker in the 14th inning—keep the home team from putting a run on the board.

    Shawnon Dunston singled to center field to lead things off and promptly stole second base, while Matt Franco walked, with both runners moved over to second and third courtesy of a sacrifice bunt by All-Star Edgardo Alfonso.

    Atlanta would intentionally walk John Olerud to load the bases and face catcher Todd Pratt. 

    That was a mistake, as Pratt would draw a game-tying walk, keeping the bases loaded for Robin Ventura, who only needed to hit a fly ball to the outfield to send the game-winning run in from third base.

    He'd do just that—except the ball kept traveling, easily clearing the right-center field wall for a game-winning Grand Slam—except Ventura would only be credited with a RBI single, as his teammates intercepted him as he rounded first base and piled on in celebration.

7. 1986 ALCS Game 5: Dave Henderson Destroys Halos

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    With the California Angels ahead three games-to-one in the series and holding a 5-2 lead heading into the top of the ninth inning of Game 5, it sure looked as if the Angels would be representing the American League in the World Series.

    Bill Buckner would lead things off with a single, and after getting Jim Rice to strikeout looking, Angels starter Mike Witt stared in at Don Baylor, who worked a 3-2 count before depositing Witt's sixth pitch of the at-bat deep into the left field stands to cut California's lead to 5-4.

    After retiring Darrell Evans, Gary Lucas came in to relieve Witt and promptly hit catcher Rich Gedman, giving Boston a runner on first with two outs and Dave Henderson stepping to the plate to face Donnie Moore, who was quickly bought in to replace Lucas.

    With a 2-2 count, Moore's seventh pitch of the at-bat met the sweet spot on Henderson's bat, and by the time Henderson finished his swing the ball was sailing into the left-field seats again, giving Boston a 6-5 lead.

    That lead would be short-lived, however, as the Angels tied things up in the bottom half of the inning on a Rob Wilfong single through the right-side of the infield off of reliever Joe Sambito, and the game headed into extra innings.

    Henderson stepped to the plate in the top of the 11th with nobody out and the bases loaded and did exactly what he needed to do—drive a ball deep enough to center field to allow Don Baylor to score the go-ahead run from third base.

    Boston would hold on to win the game—and the series—before famously falling to the New York Mets in the Fall Classic.

6. 2003 NLCS Game 3: Bartman

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    The Cubs were leading the 2003 NLCS against the Miami Marlins three games to two and found themselves ahead in the pivotal Game 6 by a score of 3-0 heading into the top of the eighth inning.

    Six outs were all that separated an anguished fanbase from seeing their team head to the Fall Classic for the first time since 1945.

    With one out and runners on the corners, Florida catcher Ivan Rodriguez hit a fly ball down the left field line that Moises Alou headed towards the stands to field. Steve Bartman, sitting in the first row, went for the ball as well, preventing Alou from making the catch.

    What happened next is, well, tragic if you're a fan of the Cubbies.

    Rodriguez would hit a RBI single, shortstop Alex Gonzalez misplayed what should have been an inning-ending double-play ball off the bat of Miguel Cabrera and, before you could blink, the Marlins had put eight runs on the board to take a commanding 8-3 lead and rip the heart out of Chicago.

    Florida would go on to win Games 6 and 7, advancing to the World Series where they downed the New York Yankees in six games for the second World Series title in the young franchise's history.

    While Alou would later come out and say that he probably had no chance of catching the ball, the damage had been done—and Bartman was forced to leave Chicago and go into hiding.

5. 2013 ALCS Game 2: Tigers De-Clawed by Red Sox

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    What did we learn on Sunday night, boys and girls?

    That pitching to David Ortiz in the postseason, with the bases loaded, is a terrible, terrible idea—and that walking in a run isn't always a bad thing when you have a four-run lead.

    Big Papi's grand slam, just out of Torii Hunter's reach, not only tied the game at five, but it awoke a sleeping giant in the Red Sox, who now head into Detroit for Game 3 with a swagger that they were missing for much of the first two games of the ALCS.

    Should Boston advance to the Fall Classic, Ortiz's blast will have been the moment that turned everything around.

4. 2003 ALCS Game 7: Aaron F'n Boone

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    Game 7. Red Sox vs. Yankees. Pedro Martinez vs. Roger Clemens.

    Playoff baseball doesn't get much better than that.

    The Red Sox took a 5-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning, only to watch Pedro, who began the inning with exactly 100 pitches thrown on the night, implode, allowing a one-out double to Derek Jeter, a RBI single to Bernie Williams and back-to-back doubles to Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada, the latter scoring two runs to tie the game at three.

    Fast forward to the bottom of the 11th inning where Aaron Boone, who was hitting only .161/.212/.194 for the Yankees through 10 playoff games, stepped to the plate for his first at-bat of the game, facing off against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.

    One pitch, one swing, and the Curse of the Bambino lived on for another year. Little did we know that Babe Ruth's magic, which had haunted Boston for more than eight decades, was almost out of juice.

3. 2004 ALCS Game 4: Hey Papi

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    Sitting three outs away from having the New York Yankees end their season yet again, the Boston Red Sox faced a daunting task in erasing a one-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth inning with Mariano Rivera on to close things out for the Bombers.

    Kevin Millar drew a five-pitch walk, pinch-runner Dave Roberts stole second base and then Bill Mueller hit a ground ball up the middle for a game-tying, RBI single. Boston would load the bases with two outs for David Ortiz, only to watch Big Papi hit a pop fly to second base, ending the threat.

    But the game was headed to extra innings, and Boston's season was still alive.

    In the bottom of the 12th inning, Paul Quantrill took the mound for the Yankees and saw Manny Ramirez single to left field, bringing Ortiz to the plate. The behemoth did exactly what Red Sox nation was praying he'd do—crush a ball over the outfield fence for a game-winning, two-run home run, a shot that set the wheels in motion for the greatest comeback in playoff history—and an end to the Bambino's curse.

2. 1986 NLCS Game 6: Greatest Game Ever Played?

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    Houston, facing a 3-1 deficit to New York the series, had a 3-0 lead heading into the top of the ninth inning of Game 6—and with National League Cy Young Award-winner Mike Scott set to pitch Game 7, it looked as if the Astros were on a collision course with the Fall Classic.

    But someone forgot to tell that to the Mets, who put two runs up against Astros starter Bob Knepper and tied the game on a sacrifice fly by Ray Knight, scoring Keith Hernandez from third base off of Houston closer Dave Smith.

    The visitors from up north would take a 4-3 lead in the top of the 14th inning on a Wally Backman single, only to surrender the lead in the bottom half of the frame thanks to a solo home run courtesy of Billy Hatcher off of Jesse Orosco.

    New York would take a 7-4 lead in the top of the 16th giving Orosco, working his third inning of relief, enough of a cushion to close things out. Or so they thought.

    The Astros would score twice in the bottom of the 16th and, with two outs and runners on first and second, Kevin Bass worked a 3-2 count against Orosco, who was clearly running out of gas, having thrown more than 50 pitches in the game.

    Orosco delivered, Bass swung, and the rest is history, as the Mets would go on to defeat the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.

1992 NLCS Game 7: Braves/Pirates

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    Pittsburgh and Atlanta met in a series-deciding Game 7 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where the Pirates jumped out to a 2-0 lead and needed only three more outs from starter Doug Drabek to advance to the World Series.

    Drabek would load the bases and exited the game with nobody out, putting reliever Stan Belinda in a difficult situation.

    Things started out well enough, with Belinda getting Ron Gant to line out to left field, scoring Terry Pendelton from third base but bringing the light-hitting Damon Berryhill, who was hitting only .167 in the series, to the plate.

    Berryhill worked a five-pitch walk, loading the bases once again. After Brian Hunter popped out to second base for the second out of the inning, pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera, who had gone hitless in two career playoff at-bats and had come to the plate only 11 times during the regular season, was inserted as a pinch-hitter for reliever Jeff Reardon.

    He smacked a single to left field that scored David Justice with ease, and Sid Bream, not known for his speed, chugging around third base and heading home. Barry Bonds fired the ball to the plate, where Bream's slide just beat the tag from catcher Mike LaValliere to give Atlanta the win

    Atlanta would eventually fall to the Toronto Blue Jays in six games during the Fall Classic, but Cabrera's place in Braves history was etched in stone.


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