MLB Pennant Races: Ranking Top Eight Tiebreakers of All Time
For baseball fans, the pinnacle of the six-month grind awaits on the horizon.
With only a few weeks left in the regular season, it’s hard not to let the mind drift to October baseball, playoff drama, and the crowning of a new World Series champion.
Currently, three divisions stand all but settled.
The Minnesota Twins have a six-game lead in the American League Central, the Cincinnati Reds have a seven-game lead in the National League Central, and the Texas Rangers sit eight games up in the A.L. West.
That leaves us with three divisions up for grabs.
The New York Yankees are a half-game back of the Tampa Bay Rays in the A.L. East after losing their fourth straight.
The Philadelphia Phillies hold a one-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the N.L. East.
And the San Diego Padres are a half-game up on the San Francisco Giants with the Colorado Rockies only two-and-a-half games back in the N.L. West.
If there’s a God, we will get to enjoy the best thing other than Game 7 of a World Series: a one-game playoff to decide the division. A 163rd game, if you will.
In anticipation of our wish, we are ranking the top “tiebreakers” of all time.
There’s only been 13 of these gems ever.
Keep in mind, one-game playoffs are only used to decide divisions and wild cards today. But prior to 1969—the year the League Championship Series debuted—these tiebreakers also decided league pennants.
Here’s the best eight tiebreakers ever played.
8. 1999 National League Wild Card
On October 4, 1999, the New York Mets met the Cincinnati Reds at Cinergy Field in Cincy.
Neither the Mets nor Reds made the playoffs the previous year. With much at stake, the ballgame didn’t turn out to be a great one.
The reason it even cracked the list is because of Al Leiter and Al Leiter alone.
Sure, Ricky Henderson and Edgardo Alfonzo both smacked home runs in the Mets’ 5-0 victory, but it was Al Leiter who carried New York to the playoffs for the first time since 1988.
Leiter threw a two-hitter at the Reds while Steve Parris took the loss.
Leiter walked four, but allowed only Pokey Reese to reach scoring position during his first complete game of the season.
The Mets would go on to lose to the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS.
7. 2008 American League Central
When the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins both finished the regular season at 88-74, the White Sox won a coin flip that awarded them home field for the one-game playoff.
White Sox fans couldn’t wait to pack “The Cell,” as tickets for the tiebreaker game sold out within an hour of going on sale after the previous night’s game.
John Danks threw eight shutout innings while Nick Blackburn of the Twins turned in a great performance as well.
It just wasn’t great enough.
Chicago’s Jim Thome led off of the seventh inning with a deep homer into the dark Chicago night, giving Danks and his bullpen the only run they needed.
Bobby Jenks closed out the ninth inning for Chicago as the White Sox bounced in celebration on the infield dirt and headed to the postseason for the first time since winning a World Series title three years earlier.
The theatrics wouldn’t last for the White Sox, though.
The eventual-American League champion Tampa Bay Rays knocked Chicago out in five games in the first round.
6. 1959 National League Pennant Game 2
In Game 2 of a best-of-three series for the pennant, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Braves met in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Don Drysdale toed the rubber for the Dodgers, and Lew Burdette did the honors for the Braves.
The Dodgers trailed 5-2 heading to the bottom of the ninth inning with Burdette trying to close it out for Milwaukee.
Wally Moon, Duke Snider, and Gil Hodges all singled to load the bases, and three runs later the Dodgers tied it up at 5-5.
In the 12th inning, Hodges walked and Carl Furillo knocked him in to send the Dodgers to the World Series where they beat the White Sox, four games to two.
5. 1962 National League Pennant Game 3
One of baseball’s best rivalries continued in the fall of ’62.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants played one game to go to the World Series.
Juan Marichal of the Giants faced off against Los Angeles’ Johnny Podres at Dodger Stadium, and it was Podres who got the better of the matchup.
And then the top of the ninth inning came with Los Angeles ahead 4-2.
San Fran’s Matty Alou led off the inning with a single. With one out, Willie McCovey walked, then Felipe Alou walked.
Willie Mays stepped to plate and knocked in the first run of the inning.
A sacrifice fly, a wild pitch, two more walks, and an error led to four runs for the Giants and a 6-4 lead.
The World Series was the first for the Giants since moving from New York to San Francisco, but they lost to the New York Yankees in seven games.
4. 2009 American League Central
No, the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minn., didn’t remind us of the days of Kirby Puckett on this night, but the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers provided a thriller nonetheless.
Great relief pitching and two homers apiece kept the Twins and Tigers knotted up at 5-5 going into the 12th inning.
With the bases loaded in the top half and Detroit’s Brandon Inge at the plate, Twins reliever Bobby Keppel threw a fastball high and tight to Inge.
Inge believed that the pitch grazed his jersey, which would have forced in the go-ahead run, but home plate umpire Randy Marsh ruled that Inge did not get hit.
That one call, or non-call, provided the only window the Twins needed.
Keppel escaped the jam with a force out at home plate followed by a strikeout.
In the bottom half, Alexei Casilla singled home Carlos Gomez, and Minnesota broke out the champagne with the 6-5 victory.
Minnesota would lose to the New York Yankees in the divisional round.
3. 2007 National League Wild Card
We will remember this 13-inning thriller for two reasons and two reasons only: Matt Holliday’s nosedive into and phantom tag of home plate.
The San Diego Padres held a two-run lead over the Colorado Rockies heading into the bottom half of the 13th with Padres' closer Trevor Hoffman trotting in from the bullpen.
You know, the man who has more saves than any other pitcher in the history of baseball.
So in that sense, it should have been over.
Oh, but not so fast.
On the first night of October, things happened to be different.
Things change for baseball when it reaches the month of black cats and costumes.
Holliday tripled in Kaz Matsui and Troy Tulowitzki to tie the game at 8-8, and put the winning run only 90 feet away.
Hoffman intentionally walked Todd Helton to set up a double play and pitch to Jamey Carroll instead.
This is where the controversy occurs.
Carroll hit a fly ball to right field, and Holliday tagged up.
Steaming home, Holliday slid headfirst into home plate, or Michael Barrett’s shin guard depending on whom you ask.
Home-plate umpire Tim McClelland called Holliday safe giving the Rockies a 9-8 extra-inning victory.
Holliday, with blood streaming from his chin after he practically ate the batter’s box during his slide, jumped for joy as Colorado celebrated.
However, replays showed that Holliday had not touched home plate.
But for some reason the Padres didn’t put up much of a complaint.
Manager Bud Black didn’t vehemently disagree with the call and Barrett “never, ever second-guessed Tim McClelland at home plate.”
“Rocktober” rolled on in Denver as the Rockies advanced to their first-ever World Series before finally falling to the Boston Red Sox.
2. 1978 American League East
When the National League offers Dodgers-Giants, the American League counters with Yankees-Red Sox.
On a fall afternoon at Fenway Park, Boston and New York had one game to decide the division.
As it turned out, the ’78 A.L. East wasn’t the only thing decided on this day.
A man’s name, and legacy, were defined by one swing.
With the Red Sox ahead 2-0 in the seventh inning, the Yankees had two runners on after Chris Chambliss and Roy White both singled.
Up stepped Bucky Dent.
You know the call.
Dent, with only four previous homers all season, crushed a ball over the Green Monster in left field to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead.
New York would tack on two more and the Red Sox would answer back with two, but in the end the Yankees prevailed 5-4 and continued on to win the ’78 World Series.
And to this day, “Bucky [bleeping] Dent” lives on in Boston.
1. 1951 National League Pennant
“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
When Russ Hodges uttered those words on WMCA-AM radio in New York, one of the most famous baseball moments of all time had been stamped with its trademark phrase.
Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘round the World” will forever live on as the most famous moment for the New York Giants.
His homer off Ralph Branca of the Brooklyn Dodgers at the old Polo Grounds in New York capped a four-run comeback in the bottom of the ninth-inning for the Giants and sent New York to the World series with a 5-4 win.
The call will be replayed for years to come and the late Thomson became immortal that day.
Recently, only Aaron Boone, formerly of the New York Yankees, can say that he hit a walk-off homer to send his team to the World Series.
It’s moments like these that enrich the annals of Cooperstown and make baseball the father-son game that it is, passed down through generations via old-time calls and age-old video.
And if it weren’t for the tiebreaker, would we even know who Bobby Thomson was today?
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