There’s never going to be another 2004 ALCS.
I’m sure a team will come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven again — if something’s happened once and conditions haven’t substantially changed in the meantime (so, don’t apply this to Charley Radbourn’s 1884), assume it’ll happen again — but that wasn’t just a comeback from a 3-0 deficit. I feel like the rest of baseball and its fans (me included) have grown so tired of the Red Sox and Yankees being forced down our throats that it’s all become kind of kitschy. Back then, though, it really was something, that sense of utter hopelessness in Red Sox fans when they faced the Yankees (reinforced so recently by that heartbreaking 2003 series). The prospect of winning four in a row, the last two in Yankee Stadium, was just stupidly, hilariously implausible, and they went out and did it. That’s just not going to happen again, not quite.
Tonight, though, after overcoming a hostile crowd, a terribly wild Barry Zito, and Bruce Bochy’s puzzling decision to sit Brandon Belt in favor of Hector Sanchez to beat the Reds 8-3, the Giants have a chance to win their NLDS matchup with a third consecutive victory, each victory coming on the road. Could that be the second-best playoff comeback ever?
You’ll probably hear or read a lot today about why it might be. Of the 42 league division series to have started 2-0 heading into this postseason, 38 of them were ultimately won by the team that won those first two games. No National League team, as of this writing, has ever come back to win an NLDS down 0-2; the NL trailers in that situation have an 0-for-21 going. And as already alluded to, this is the first year since 1997 that a series has followed a 2-3 format, where the team with home field advantage spends the first two games on the road, but then closes the whole series down at home (it should be noted that this isn’t as historically unusual as most people seem to think; both League Championship Series followed the same travel-day-saving format from 1969 until the LCSes went from five- to seven-game series in 1985, and the modern LDS adopted it from 1995 through ’97). The Giants’ offense looked entirely impotent in those first two losses. Moreover, the Reds were 50-31 at home, and didn’t lose three consecutive games at home all season. This wouldn’t be your run-of-the-mill two-games-to-none comeback; this one has an especially high degree of difficulty. Does anything else (aside from 2004) compare?
The ’04 Red Sox are the only team to have won a series by winning while facing elimination four straight times. As best I can tell, sixteen other teams have won a series by winning three straight elimination games: nine teams down 3-1 in best-of-seven series (list here), and seven down 2-0 in best-of fives (much less reliable, but believable, list here). But, again, we’re looking for the very unlikeliest of those ever. Here are my own five candidates, in chronological order:
1. 1958 World Series: Mantle’s and Berra’s Yankees against Aaron’s, Mathews’, and Spahn’s Milwaukee Braves. I think this one is notable because the Yankees’ three losses should’ve demoralized them in just about every way, and because of the way it ended. They dropped the first game, 4-3, in ten innings (Warren Spahn pitched all ten), then lost the second, 13-5, and judging by the line score, it wasn’t even as close as that looks. After Don Larsen and Ryne Duren combined on a 4-0 shutout in favor of New York, Spahn started game four and tossed a two-hit, two-walk, seven-K shutout, giving the Braves the 3-1 lead. The Yankees came back and won game 5 easily, but then had to return to Milwaukee and face Spahn again and Lew Burdette. In game six, Yankees starter Whitey Ford was knocked out after allowing two runs and recording just four outs, while Spahn threw another nine-inning gem…but did give up two runs along the way while the New York bullpen held serve, and after throwing 28 innings in the spa(h)n of a week, the 29th was probably just a bit too much, as Spahn gave up two more on a Gil McDougald home run and a Moose Skowron single. Game seven was a comparative letdown; that one was only tied until the eighth inning, when the Yankees scored four (three of them on a Skowron homer) to win 6-2 and take the series.
2. 1968 World Series: Kind of a similar thing, except the Tigers didn’t have any Mantles or Berras, and the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson played the role of Warren Spahn. This was the Year of the Pitcher, where Gibson threw 304.2 innings with a 1.12 ERA. He threw a five-hit shutout in game 1, the teams split games two and three, and then Gibson went back out and threw a complete game five-hitter, allowing one run in a 10-1 win to put them up 3-1 (both times, he outpitched 30-game-winner Denny McLain, although the Tigers made seven errors in those two games, so that’s probably not totally fair). The Tigers won game five 5-3 and game six 13-1, then it was Gibson again…and he held the Tigers to one hit and faced one over the minimum through six innings. Then they finally figured him out in the seventh, scoring three times on a Jim Northrup triple followed immediately by a Bill Freehan double, and ultimately won 4-1.
3. 1984 NLCS: Kind of the reverse of the Giants-Reds series (if the Giants win, that is), which automatically makes it less interesting, I suppose, but I like it because the Padres had no business beating the Cubs in this series. Not that the Cubs were great — they won 96 games, but probably didn’t deserve to, and Rick Sutcliffe won the Cy Young, but definitely didn’t deserve to — but the Padres were basically Tony Gwynn and a pretty good bullpen. Chicago won 13-0 and 5-3 at Wrigley, then was up 1-0 in the bottom of the fifth in the first of three straight games in San Diego when the Padres finally woke up, scoring three in the fifth and four more in the sixth. The Cubs took leads in both of the remaining two games, but the Pads came back in both, clinching the series with four in the seventh off of Sutcliffe in game 5.
4. 1995 ALDS: Still Seattle’s most cherished baseball memory (which makes me sad, not because it’s not awesome — it is — but because the city also arguably boasts the greatest single-season team ever assembled). After two disheartening losses in Yankee Stadium, including the famous 15th-inning Jim Leyritz home run in game 2, the Mariners returned to the Kingdome and managed wins in games 3 and 4. In game 5, the Yankees led 4-2 when the Mariners tied it on a Ken Griffey, Jr. homer and, later, a bases-loaded walk. The tie persisted until the 11th, when the Yankees manufactured a run off of Randy Johnson in his third inning of relief. In the bottom of the 11th, Joey Cora and Griffey singled, and Edgar Martinez hit what is known in Seattle simply as “The Double.” You can see it at 10:42 here. It’s just a double, by Edgar Martinez (who hit a ton of those), but it scores Cora and then Griffey flies all the way around from first, and gives the Mariners the game and series.
5. 2001 ALDS: Yankees again, but on the other side this time. The A’s took two in New York, then Barry Zito threw eight innings of two-hit, one-run ball in game three…and lost, because Mike Mussina and Mariano Rivera combined on a six-hit shutout. That was the game that’s best known for the Derek Jeter “flip” play; he was out of position, Jeremy Giambi had only to slide to erase any doubt, and I still think he was totally safe … but at any rate, it saved the Yankees from a tie game and potential sweep. Everything after that seemed inevitable; the Yankees won game four easily in Oakland (9-2), then won game five less easily (5-3), but the scoring was over by the sixth, and the A’s never even seriously threatened after that.
So what makes a great comeback is a totally subjective thing, and entirely up to you (except that the 2004 ALCS is the best — sorry, that’s just a fact), but those are what I see as your contenders, if the Giants win tonight.
Personally, if the Giants win in a particularly exciting way, I think there’s a good argument that it becomes the next-biggest comeback ever, purely in terms of the difficulty or unlikelihood of their making it happen — having to do it three times in a row on the road, the Reds never having lost three times in a row at home, overcoming the Zito problem, etc. There have been a lot of these 2-3 five-game series, and there’s a reason none of the others went this way. It’s really, really hard to do.
But if by “best comeback” you mean something other than “hardest,” I don’t know. The Mariners’ “Double” in ’95 is hard to beat in a sudden-oh-my-god-moment sense, and I’d always rather see it happen in a World Series, or at least an LCS, than in an LDS. For my money, the very “best” three-straight-win comeback of all time would have to be the Tigers finally getting to Bob Gibson in game seven in 1968. But regardless: if the Giants do do it, it’ll really be something special.