Monday, December 7, 2015

Best Postseason Win: Boston Red Sox

For a team that went nearly a century without winning the World Series, the Red Sox have a very large selection of outstanding postseason victories. It makes sense, given that most of their playoff losses were of the agonizing variety, and it's hard to be too torn up about getting swept out of a series. True sports misery comes from losing a series in which you had a chance - which means a close series, and you can't have a close series without winning some of the games. Indeed, the Red Sox had two extremely (and justifiably) famous postseason wins come out of years in which they did not win the World Series - and if this post was being written 15 years ago, it would most likely be about one of them, and would end with a sad disclaimer.

Happily for Red Sox fans, their postseason fortunes have shifted with the new century, and with them, the selection for this post. The famed Dave Roberts Steal Game, which came when they were down 3-0 in the 2004 ALCS, saw the Sox trade the lead with the Yankees throughout regulation, come back to tie in the ninth, strand a baseload of Yankees in the eleventh, and finally win in the twelfth on a David Ortiz walkoff homer. It surpassed all previous Red Sox postseason wins... and held the top spot for about 24 hours before being leapfrogged.

Our selection is 2004 ALCS Game 5: Red Sox 5, Yankees 4 (14). Future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez started for Boston, and was opposed by Mike Mussina, who will hopefully one day join him in Cooperstown. Both men were into their thirties and had slipped from the peak of their considerable skills, but both were still quality pitchers.

Pedro worked around an Alex Rodriguez walk in the first inning, and the Red Sox struck quickly in the bottom half. One-out singles by Orlando Cabrera, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz put a run on the board, and Kevin Millar walked to load the bases. Trot Nixon grounded into a force at home, but Jason Varitek then walked to force in a run before Mussina struck out Bill Mueller to close out the frame.

New York responded quickly with a leadoff homer from Bernie Williams in the second, cutting the deficit in half. After a flawless inning from Mussina, both teams threatened in the third. The Yankees put runners on the corners on a two-out Gary Sheffield walk and a Hideki Matsui single, but Williams struck out to leave them on. Ramirez led off the bottom of the third with a hit, and Millar reached on a one-out Jeter error, but Mussina struck out the other three Red Sox who batted in the inning. New York tried again in the fourth as Jorge Posada singled and Ruben Sierra walked, but Pedro retired the next three hitters. Both teams put their leadoff men on in the fifth, but Rodriguez was erased on a double play and Cabrera never made it past first.

The scoring finally resumed in the sixth. Posada and Sierra singled with one out, and Miguel Cairo was plunked with two away to load the bases. Jeter followed with a three-run double, putting the Yanks in front 4-2. They would reload the bases on an HBP and a walk; Matsui lined out to strand all three runners, but they had scored three runs in a mid-to-late inning against Pedro in the ALCS again.

Mussina was perfect in the sixth; Pedro was replaced by Mike Timlin in the seventh, who worked around a Sierra single. Mark Bellhorn led off the home seventh with a double, chasing Mussina. Tanyon Sturtze retired Johnny Damon, but walked Cabrera, and was replaced by Tom Gordon, who coaxed a double play from Ramirez. Miguel Cairo led off the top of the eighth with a double and was bunted to third by Jeter; Rodriguez struck out, Sheffield walked, and Keith Foulke replace Timlin and retired Matsui to leave runners on the corners.

That escape proved particularly important, thanks to the bottom of the eighth. Ortiz led off with a home run that cut Boston's deficit to 4-3. Millar walked, and Nixon singled pinch runner Dave Roberts to third. Mariano Rivera was summoned and retired the next three hitters - but the first one, Varitek, hit a sacrifice fly that brought Roberts in with the tying run.

New York threatened with two outs in the ninth, as Sierra walked and Tony Clark hit a ground-rule double, but Cairo fouled out to strand them. Rivera allowed a leadoff single to Damon in the home ninth, but he was caught stealing, and the Sox put nobody else on as the game moved to extras.

Bronson Arroyo relieved Foulke in the tenth and set the Yanks down on a popup and two strikeouts. Felix Heredia gave up a one-out double to Doug Mientkiewicz, and Paul Quantrill was brought in to retire the last two Red Sox, which he did. Lefty specialist Mike Myers struck out Matsui in the top of the eleventh, and Alan Embree took his place, allowed a single to Williams, and then ended the inning with two more strikeouts. The Sox threatened again in the bottom of the inning, as Mueller and Bellhorn started it with singles; Damon popped up a bunt, and Esteban Loaiza supplanted Quantrill and induced a double play from Cabrera.

Tim Wakefield took over in the top of the twelfth, making the game a matchup of pitchers who were usually starters. Cairo reached second on a single-and-error, but was left on; in the bottom of the inning, Ortiz singled against Loaiza but was... caught stealing? Apparently David Ortiz was caught stealing in extra innings of an elimination game. So there's that.

Wakefield had an eventful top of the thirteenth; he struck out Sheffield, but Varitek couldn't handle strike 3, and Sheff reached first as a result. Two outs later, it was Matsui on first, courtesy of a forceout; a passed pall moved him to second, Posada was intentionally walked, and another passed ball put both runners in scoring position. Sierra then whiffed to extinguish the threat.

Loaiza was perfect in the bottom of the thirteenth, and Wakefield settled down to retire the side in the next inning. Damon drew a one-out walk in the home fourteenth, and Ramirez walked with two away, moving Damon to scoring position. Next up was Ortiz, who worked Loaiza for a ten-pitch at bat, and hit pitch number 10 into center field for a single that scored the winning run and further cemented him as a postseason legend. The combination of the game's length, the lead changes in regulation and the number of threats in extra innings give this game the 4th-highest WPL in playoff history, and the highest score of any ALCS game.

You know what happened next; the Sox went back to New York, had Curt Schilling win the Bloody Sock Game, and then posted a blowout in Game 7. They would then sweep the World Series from the Cardinals, which was fairly perfunctory with the exception of a wild Game 1 that saw St. Louis rally from two-run deficits in both the sixth and eighth, only to have the Sox retake the lead each time. The victory ended the team's 86-year title drought, and they've been one of the most successful teams of the 21st century to date.

Speaking of Game 1 of the '04 Series makes this a good time to start the honorable mention list. We've already discussed the most honorable option here, Game 4 of the '04 ALCS. Narrowly beaten out by that one is Game 6 of the '75 World Series (Carlton Fisk's foul pole homer), which in turn was a mere sliver ahead of Game 5 of the '86 ALCS (best-known for Dave Henderson's ninth-inning go-ahead homer, but the Angels rallied to tie and left the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, and the Sox threatened seriously in the tenth before winning in eleven). Along with the selected contest, that gives the Red Sox a remarkable total of four games in the top 30 - that is, the top 2% of all playoff games ever played.

But wait, there's more! Further down the list, there's Game 1 of the 1946 World Series, in which the Cardinals pulled ahead in the eighth, the Sox tied it in the ninth and then won in the tenth. There's also Game 2 of the 1916 World Series, which saw Pitching Babe Ruth win a 14-inning 2-1 duel against Brooklyn's Sherry Smith. And finally, there's the decisive eighth game of the 1912 World Series, in which Boston came from behind in the tenth inning against Christy Mathewson with the help of Snodgrass's Muff.

The reason that there was an eighth game in a best-of-7 series is another story entirely - and it's one that will be told next time.

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