Ranking the Best MLB Playoff Series Since 2000

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystOctober 16, 2020

Ranking the Best MLB Playoff Series Since 2000

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    Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada
    Mariano Rivera and Jorge PosadaJulie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Quite a few amazing Major League Baseball postseason series have occurred over the past two decades.

    But which were the best of the best?

    To make the cut, a series didn't need to go the full seven games. Heck, it didn't even need to be a best-of-seven series, as we did find space for one ALDS in our top 10. But going seven games is a big boost, and every series in our top 10 did go the distance.

    Also, World Series are inherently more intriguing than Division Series or Championship Series because of the stakes. If you disagree, think about the NCAA basketball tournament: Great Final Four games will always be more memorable than great round-of-64 games. (That doesn't mean every seven-game World Series cracked the top 10, though.)

    Beyond that, what transpired en route to the winner-take-all game is crucial information. If the teams took turns blowing each other out, that's not a great series. We want drama. Extra innings. Walk-offs. Games that make people say, "Man, I hope this thing goes seven games!"

Honorable Mentions

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    Madison Bumgarner
    Madison BumgarnerDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press

    2000 World Series (New York vs. New York)

    It only went five games, but the Subway Series was a classic. All five contests were decided by either one or two runs. Game 1 lasted 12 innings. And, of course, you had Roger Clemens throwing a broken bat at Mike Piazza.

                   

    2001 NLDS (Arizona vs. St. Louis)
    2001 ALDS (New York vs. Oakland)

    The 2001 World Series between the Diamondbacks and Yankees was one of the greatest ever, but both teams were darn near eliminated in the first round. The Yankees trailed the A's 2-0 in the series before Derek Jeter's iconic flip to cut down Jeremy Giambi at the plate turned things around for New York. And the D-backs needed complete games from Curt Schilling in both Games 1 and 5 to win a low-scoring series against St. Louis.

            

    2002 World Series (Anaheim vs. San Francisco)

    Remember when the Rally Monkey saved Anaheim's season? Trailing 3-2 in the series and 5-0 in Game 6, the Angels' bats came to life in the bottom of the seventh inning. Scott Spiezio hit a three-run home run off Felix Rodriguez, and then the first four batters of the eighth inning reached base as the Angels rallied to take a 6-5 lead. They won that game and went on to take Game 7 too.

                         

    2010 NLDS (Atlanta vs. San Francisco)

    It's kind of hard to take a four-game series seriously as a candidate, but what a duel this was. Tim Lincecum threw a 14-K shutout in Game 1. Game 2 went to extra innings. All four contests were decided by one run, and Games 2-4 had a combined four blown saves in a series defined by late-inning drama.

                    

    2012 Division Series (All of Them)

    The collective insanity of this round was something else. All four series went the full five games. The road team won all five contests between Cincinnati and San Francisco. Justin Verlander pitched two gems to carry Detroit past Oakland. The Yankees and Orioles had two games last at least 12 innings. And that all paled in comparison to St. Louis vs. Washington, which featured Jayson Werth's walk-off home run in Game 4, followed by the Nationals blowing a 6-0 lead in Game 5.

                 

    2014 World Series (Kansas City vs. San Francisco)

    In compiling the candidates for this list, I looked through every series from the past two decades and jotted down notes on the most interesting and dramatic ones. For this series, all I wrote was "Bumgarner went HAM." Which he did. After pitching a shutout in San Francisco's Wild Card Game against the Pirates and continuing to thrive in the NLDS and NLCS, Madison Bumgarner allowed just 10 baserunners and one run in 21 innings against the Royals. He threw a shutout in Game 5 and then got the five-inning save in Game 7.

                    

    2019 World Series (Houston vs. Washington)

    Most of the games weren't that close, but this World Series made history when the road team won all seven. That has never happened in any seven-game series in MLB, the NBA or NHL. And speaking as a Nationals fan, it was extra fun to get this title the year after the team let Bryce Harper sign his megacontract with Philadelphia.

10. 2017 World Series

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    Jose Altuve
    Jose AltuveDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Series Result: Houston Astros defeat Los Angeles Dodgers 4-3

    This series has a trash-can sized asterisk on it, but the 2017 Fall Classic was a riveting seven games at the time.

    Clayton Kershaw has taken a lot of heat over the years for postseason shortcomings. However, he was sensational in Game 1. Kershaw allowed just three baserunners in seven innings and posted 11 strikeouts. Justin Turner's sixth-inning home run put the Dodgers ahead for good.

    Games 2 and 5 both went to extra innings, and the Astros won both.

    Game 2 was particularly chaotic. Houston scored two runs off Kenley Jansen to force extra innings and then led off the 10th inning with back-to-back solo home runs by Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. But Ken Giles was unable to preserve the lead, forcing Houston to score two more runs in the top of the 11th inning. Los Angeles scored one in the bottom of the 11th before Houston held on for a 7-6 victory.

    Game 5 was one of the highest-scoring World Series games ever. They combined for seven home runs in a 13-12 slugfest. Los Angeles erased a three-run deficit in the ninth inning to force extras, but Houston put together a two-out rally for a walk-off win in the bottom of the 10th.

    Game 7 was a dud, though, which kept the 2017 World Series from ranking any higher. Houston scored five runs in the first two innings, and Los Angelesdespite getting drilled by four pitches in the first three innings—couldn't mount a serious comeback threat. The Dodgers didn't even reach base in the final three innings as Houston cruised to its first World Series title.

    George Springer clubbed five home runs and was named MVP of a series in which the composite score was 34-34.

9. 2018 NLCS

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    Milwaukee's Brandon Woodruff
    Milwaukee's Brandon WoodruffCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Series Result: Los Angeles Dodgers defeat Milwaukee Brewers 4-3

    During the 2018 regular season, the Dodgers led the National League with 235 home runs, while the Brewers were the closest challenger with 218 dingers. We expected there to be moon shots in this NLCS.

    What no one could have expected, though, was Milwaukee relief pitcher Brandon Woodruff leading off the bottom of the third inning in Game 1 with a home run off Kershaw.

    Woodruff did hit a home run earlier that season, but come on. A pitcher who bats left-handedwho had just 22 plate appearances in his MLB career at that point, no lesshomering off one of the best left-handed pitchers of all time? What a preposterous start to a great series. Despite four Dodgers runs in the final two innings, Milwaukee held on for a 6-5 victory in Game 1.

    In Game 2, Los Angeles followed a similar script with four late runs. That time, however, the Dodgers managed to turn a 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 victory.

    Game 3 is when the drama started to bubble over, courtesy of Manny Machado.

    He had a questionable/dirty slide in the fourth inning of that game, followed by an incident in which he appeared to deliberately run into the leg of Milwaukee first baseman Jesus Aguilar in the 10th inning of Game 4, which resulted in some benches-clearing chatter.

    Then, in the bottom of the 13th inning, it was Machado who finally scored the game-winning run for the Dodgers, evening the series at 2-2 and ensuring at least two more games between teams that didn't like each other very much.

    Had things remained that intense and unpredictable, it could have been one of the best postseason series ever. However, the final three games were uneventful. At no point in the seventh, eighth or ninth innings of Games 5, 6 or 7 did the trailing team have the potential game-tying run in the batter's box. Los Angeles won Game 7 in Milwaukee without much of a challenge.

8. 2003 ALDS

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    Boston's Manny Ramirez
    Boston's Manny RamirezMARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/Associated Press

    Series Result: Boston Red Sox defeat Oakland Athletics 3-2

    With a maximum of five games, it takes a lot for a Division Series to stack up well against a Championship Series or a World Series, but the 2003 ALDS between the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland A's was wall-to-wall entertainment.

    In Game 1, Boston's Todd Walker hit a pair of home runs to help give the Red Sox a 4-3 lead heading into the ninth inning. But Boston closer Byung-Hyun Kim only got two outs before leaving the contest because of lingering shoulder and ankle injuries. (It was his only appearance of the postseason.)

    Alan Embree came in and blew the save, sending the game to extras. And in the bottom of the 12th inning, A's catcher Ramon Hernandez did the unfathomable by laying down a bunt with two outs and the bases loaded. But it worked, and the A's won Game 1 5-4.

    Game 2 was decidedly less eventful. Oakland put up five runs on Tim Wakefield in the second inning and won 5-1.

    The series then shifted across the country to Boston with the A's looking for a sweep, but neither their bats nor their gloves showed up for Game 3. They committed three errors in the second inning alone and didn't get a single extra-base hit. There were also several baserunning blunders/controversies that worked against Oakland. Boston couldn't capitalize, though, until the 11th inning when Trot Nixon broke a 1-1 tie with a two-run walk-off homer.

    In Game 4, Oakland's starter, Tim Hudson, left with a strained oblique after just one inning, but the A's still carried a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the eighth. They brought in closer Keith Foulke for what they hoped would be a six-out save. Instead, Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz all got hits off him to put Boston ahead 5-4. Scott Williamson pitched a scoreless eighth and came back out for a scoreless ninth to send the series back to Oakland.

    In that rubber match, it was 1997, 1999 and 2000 AL Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez against 2002 AL Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito. But it was Zito who got touched up for both a solo shot (Jason Varitek) and a three-run homer (Ramirez) in the sixth inning to give Boston the lead. The ever-shaky Red Sox bullpen walked the bases loaded in the ninth inning of a 4-3 game, but Derek Lowe struck out Terrence Long to end the contest and series.

7. 2003 NLCS

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    Florida's Josh Beckett
    Florida's Josh BeckettDAVID ADAME/Associated Press

    Series Result: Florida Marlins defeat Chicago Cubs 4-3

    This wasn't the 2003 NLCS matchup everyone was expecting. The 88-win Chicago Cubs eliminated the 101-win Atlanta Braves in one NLDS, and the 91-win Florida Marlins knocked out the 100-win San Francisco Giants in the other to set up this pairing.

    From the outset, though, it was clear this would be a good one.

    In Game 1, Chicago jumped on top with four runs in the first, only for Florida to rally with five runs (three home runs) in the third. It was a 6-6 nail-biter throughout the seventh and eighth innings before the Marlins broke the tie with two runs in the top of the ninth. Sammy Sosa's two-out, two-run homer off Ugueth Urbina forced the game to extra innings, where a Mike Lowell solo shot in the 11th frame gave Florida a 1-0 lead in the series.

    Chicago bounced back by winning each of the next three games. Games 2 and 4 were relatively uncontested, but Game 3 was another 11-inning affair. There were three blown leads in the span of 11 plate appearances in the seventh and eighth innings, and the Marlins left the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning before a Doug Glanville pinch-hit triplehis only at-bat of the seriesput the Cubs ahead by the final score of 5-4.

    All Chicago had to do was win one of the next three games, and it would be in the World Series for the first time since 1945.

    However, Josh Beckett pitched a two-hit shutout in Game 5 before Chicago's Steve Bartman-fueled meltdown in the eighth inning of Game 6. It's not Bartman's fault that the Cubs gave up eight runs after he got between Moises Alou and a foul ball, but he sure did get blamed for it.

    What people often forget is that game didn't end the series. Chicago had a 5-3 lead at home three innings into Game 7. But when Kerry Wood wilted in the fifth inning and gave Florida the lead, Beckett came out of the bullpen on two days' rest for four innings of one-hit relief work in a 9-6 Marlins win.

6. 2004 NLCS

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    TOM GANNAM/Associated Press

    Series Result: St. Louis Cardinals defeat Houston Astros 4-3

    Yes, we're moving straight from the 2003 NLCS to the 2004 NLCS. And guess what? The 2003 ALCS and 2004 ALCS are both in our top five. 'Twas quite the two-year* stretch for the penultimate round of the MLB postseason.

    In this series, there were both early fireworks and late drama in just about all seven games. A combined total of 17 runs were scored in the first inning throughout this series, with at least one run scored in the top of the first inning in six of the seven games. The lone exception was in Game 5, when neither team scored until the ninth inning. But despite that near-constant early advantage for the road team, the home club won all seven games.

    In Game 1, the Cardinals teed off on Chad Qualls, scoring two runs in the fifth and six more in the sixth inning of a 10-7 victory. In Game 2, Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen hit back-to-back home runs in the bottom of the eighth to put St. Louis ahead 6-4. Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen walked a pair of Astros in the ninth inning, but they were both stranded.

    Game 3 had equal but opposite late drama. The series now in Houston, it was Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman with home runs in the bottom of the eighth, and then it was Astros reliever Brad Lidge's turn to put two men on base in the top of the ninth before closing the door.

    In Game 4, St. Louis took a 3-0 lead in the first inning, but Houston clawed back to tie the game at 5-5 in the sixth before going ahead by the final score of 6-5 on a Beltran home run in the seventh.

    Game 5 was one of the greatest postseason pitching duels of all time. Houston's Brandon Backe and St. Louis' Woody Williams had a combined line of 15.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 4 BB, 8 K. Heading into the bottom of the ninth, each team had zero runs, zero errors and just one hit. But after a Beltran leadoff single and an intentional walk to Berkman, Jeff Kent crushed a walk-off three-run homer to put the Astros ahead 3-2 in the series.

    In Game 6, Isringhausen was going for a six-out save in a 4-3 contest, but he could only get five outs before a Jeff Bagwell RBI single forced extra innings. The respective bullpens retired the next 19 batters, though, before a Pujols walk and a Jim Edmonds two-run walk-off blast sent the series to a winner-take-all Game 7.

    Houston had that year's Cy Young Award winner, Roger Clemens, on the mound, while St. Louis went with Jeff Suppan, who never received a single Cy Young vote in his 17-year career. Craig Biggio hit a leadoff home run, and Houston took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the third inning, but Clemens couldn't hold it. The Cardinals scored one in the third and three in the sixth in a 5-2 victory.

    *The 2005 NLCS was also quite the series, producing one of the most unforgettable postseason moments of the past two decades: Pujols' mashing that three-run ninth-inning home run off Lidge in Game 5.

5. 2011 World Series

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    David Freese
    David FreeseEric Gay/Associated Press

    Series Result: St. Louis Cardinals defeat Texas Rangers 4-3

    The 2011 World Series was the most difficult series to rank, because, frankly, several of the games weren't that good.

    Game 3 was entertaining, with Pujols mashing three home runs, but the Cardinals never trailed and won by nine runs. Derek Holland almost threw a shutout in Game 4, but Texas won comfortably, negating any drama. Even Game 7 went out with a whimper, as the Rangers couldn't muster even a semblance of a rally beyond the second inning.

    But the first two games were white-knuckle affairs.

    The only time in either game that either team led by multiple runs was when St. Louis broke a scoreless tie with two runs in the bottom of the fourth inning of Game 1to which Texas immediately responded with two runs in the top of the fifth. Eight runs were scored between those two pitching duels, two of which came in the ninth inning of Game 2 as Texas turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 victory.

    Game 5 was also a nail-biter chock-full of runners left in scoring position. St. Louis scored two in the second inning before leaving 11 runners on base while held scoreless from the third through eighth innings. That left the door open for Texas to tie the game in the sixth inning and win it in the bottom of the eighth.

    Game 6 was the magnum opus, though, as it was easily one of the most absurd contests in World Series history.

    Texas led 3-2 in the series. The teams were tied at 2-2 after two innings, 3-3 after four innings and 4-4 after six innings. Then, in the top of the seventh, the Rangers made their move. Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz hit back-to-back home runs as Texas took a 7-4 lead. Allen Craig got one run back in the eighth, and then it all came down to David Freese with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth inning of a two-run game. Freese rose to the occasion with a two-run triple to send the contest to extra innings.

    Texas' Josh Hamilton hit a two-run homer in the top of the 10th inning, but the Rangers bullpen couldn't make it stick. Back-to-back singles to open the bottom of the 10th inning eventually turned into two runs when Berkman got a clutch two-out, two-strike single to extend the game.

    In the bottom of the 11th inning, more Freese magic. The man who sent the contest to extra innings also sent the series to seven games with a walk-off home run.

4. 2003 ALCS

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    Aaron Boone
    Aaron BooneBILL KOSTROUN/Associated Press

    Series Result: New York Yankees defeat Boston Red Sox 4-3

    Archrivals with bad blood, constant late-inning drama and a series walk-off home run?

    Now we're cooking with gas.

    While Game 7 was the only one in this seven-game series with a lead change in the eighth or ninth inning, Game 2 was the only one decided by more than three runs. Even that one was 4-2 in the seventh inning before the Yankees won by four. Every night brought high-stress innings for those bullpens.

    The intensity of the rivalry boiled over in Game 3 with Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez dueling. Martinez drilled Karim Garcia with a pitch in the top of the fourth inning, and benches cleared when Clemens threw one a bit up and in on Manny Ramirez in the bottom of the frame. That led to the infamous moment when Martinez tossed New York's 72-year-old bench coach, Don Zimmer, to the ground by his head.

    As if these teams didn't already hate each other's guts, that ensured the remainder of the series would be extra intense.

    Clemens and Martinez battled again in Game 7. Clemens only lasted three innings, while Martinez pitched into the eightha decision that will forever be remembered as Red Sox manager Grady Little's biggest blunder. Martinez was already at 100 pitches when he went back out for the eighth inning to face the heart of the Yankees order. He got the first man (Nick Johnson) out after a seven-pitch at-bat, but he melted down from there, allowing four consecutive hits and blowing Boston's 5-2 lead.

    The series-deciding game then went to extra innings, where renowned knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield gave up the walk-off home run to Aaron Boonewho was only in the game because he was brought on as a pinch runner during that chaotic eighth inning.

    Boston would have its revenge the following year, but this series carried some extra weight because of that near-centurylong curse hanging over Beantown.

3. 2004 ALCS

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    David Ortiz
    David OrtizAMY SANCETTA/Associated Press

    Series Result: Boston Red Sox defeat New York Yankees 4-3

    For the first 3.9 games, it looked like it would be a terribly boring 2004 ALCS.

    The Yankees scored the first eight runs of Game 1. Boston eventually clawed back to close the deficit to 8-7 but couldn't finish the fight. Game 2 was a closer affair throughout, but New York took a 3-0 lead into the final three innings and kept the Red Sox from ever bringing the potential winning run to the plate. And then Game 3 was just a beatdown. The Yankees took a 3-0 series lead with a 19-8 victory.

    Then, in Game 4, New York carried a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning with Mariano Rivera on the mound. And the Sandman was particularly dominant that year. He set a career high with 53 saves during the regular season, and before that ninth inning, he had pitched 9.1 postseason innings without allowing a run.

    But in his second frame of the night, Rivera walked Kevin Millar to begin the inning, and pinch runner Dave Roberts stole a base and then came around to score on a Bill Mueller single. David Ortiz later came up with the bases loaded, but he was unable to be the hero in that moment. Fast-forward to the 12th inning, though, and it was Big Papi with the walk-off two-run dinger to force a Game 5.

    Ortiz was just getting warmed up. He also homered to lead off the eighth inning of Game 5, cutting New York's lead from 4-2 to 4-3. Jason Varitek added a sacrifice fly, and then there was no more scoring until the bottom of the 14th when Ortiz drove in the game-winner.

    Papi went hitless in Game 6, but Mark Bellhorn made up for him with a three-run home run in the fourth inning. That was enough for Schilling and his bloody sock to get the 4-2 victory. And then Ortiz was back in Game 7 with a first-inning home run that began the onslaught for a 10-3 win.

    To this day, that 2004 Red Sox team was the only one in MLB history to come back from a 3-0 series deficit to even force a Game 7, let alone win it.

2. 2016 World Series

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    Cubs celebrating World Series
    Cubs celebrating World SeriesCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Series Result: Chicago Cubs defeat Cleveland Indians 4-3

    As with the 2011 World Series, this one wasn't a "heart-stopping drama every night" sort of seven-game set.

    Game 1 had some tense moments. Trailing 3-0 in the top of the seventh inning, Chicago loaded the bases with no outs, but it got no runs out of it. It was a similar story the following inning when Kyle Schwarber stranded men at first and third. Cleveland then added three runs in the bottom of the eighth to win 6-0, but it was a closer fight than the final score indicated.

    Not so much for Games 2, 4 and 6. At no point in the final five innings of any of those contests did the trailing team even put together the faintest whiff of a comeback.

    And yet, it's the most unforgettable MLB postseason series of the past decade, because of Chicago's history and because of how it ended.

    The long-cursed Cubs trailed 3-1 in the series when they turned to Aroldis Chapman to preserve a one-run lead in the seventh inning of Game 5. Incredibly, he got the eight-out, 42-pitch save. But when they tried to hand the reins to Chapman for a four-out save with a three-run lead in Game 7, he immediately collapsed. Chapman allowed an RBI double and a two-run home run to the first two batters he faced, which tied the game and eventually led to extra innings.

    Not before a 17-minute rain delay after the ninth inning, though. As if extra innings in Game 7 of a World Series weren't tense enough, that weather-forced hiatus felt like it went on for hours as the anticipation mounted.

    Three hits and two intentional walks later, Chicago took an 8-6 lead into the bottom of the 10th inning. But with Chapman out of gas, the Cubs brought in Carl Edwards Jr. for what would have been just the third save in his young career. After he gave up a run, though, an equally inexperienced Mike Montgomery came in for what proved to be his first save. Chicago won 8-7 and ended its 108-year World Series drought.

1. 2001 World Series

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    Randy Johnson
    Randy JohnsonJOHN BAZEMORE/Associated Press

    Series Result: Arizona Diamondbacks defeat New York Yankees 4-3

    How can it get any better than this?

    The Arizona Diamondbacks were in their fourth year of existence while the New York Yankees were chasing their fourth consecutive World Series title. One of the most "David vs. Goliath" moments possible in professional sports.

    But this David had some serious stones for his slingshot. The one-two punch of Schilling and Randy Johnson at the top of the rotation was lethal. Sure, the Yankees also had Clemens, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte to keep pace. However, Schilling and Johnson combined to pitch 38.2 innings with 45 strikeouts and just six runs allowed. In fact, the Yankees only scored 14 runs in the entire seven-game series.

    Through the first six games, New York's postseason experience paid dividends in the close contests. Arizona won Games 1, 2 and 6 by a combined margin of 25 runs, while the Yankees took Games 3, 4 and 5 by one run each. Game 4 took 10 innings. Game 5 went 12.

    So when an Alfonso Soriano home run gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning of Game 7, all Goliath needed was two innings of shutout ball from the greatest postseason closer to ever throw a cutter.

    From the start of the 1998 playoffs through the start of this game, Rivera made 38 postseason appearances, logging 56 innings with just four earned runs allowed. He recorded 23 saves and four wins without blowing a single save. It was like bringing the Grim Reaper out of the bullpen. And when he struck out the side in the eighth inning, it seemed like it would be business as usual.

    In the ninth inning, though, Rivera gave up a leadoff single and then committed a throwing error when the Diamondbacks tried to sacrifice bunt that man to second base. Two batters later, Tony Womack smacked a game-tying RBI double. After Craig Counsell got hit by a pitch, the bases were loaded for Arizona's star, Luis Gonzalez.

    Gonzo hit 57 home runs and drove in 142 runs that year, but the most memorable hit of that slugger's career was the bloop single into center field that brought Arizona its only World Series title.