Thursday, January 7, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Florida Marlins

(Yes, I know they're the Miami Marlins now, but they haven't made the playoffs under that name yet.)

As I've mentioned before, I consider several factors external to WPL when choosing each team's best postseason win. One of the most important is whether the team went on to win the World Series that year, as victories that lead to titles are more likely to be fondly remembered than those that don't.

For the Marlins, that factor is a complete non-issue - because they have made the postseason only twice, and gone on to win the World Series both times. Which means they are the only team never to have lost a playoff series. (And they were the wild card both times, which means they've won two World Series championships and no division titles.)

Of course, there are still other factors in the decision, one of which came strongly into play when making this selection. See if you can figure out which one!

1997 World Series Game 7: Marlins 3, Indians 2 (11). The pitching matchup was not necessarily what you'd expect from a winner-take-all game. Florida selected Al Leiter, who had taken a while to establish himself, but at age 31 was now a reliable lefty starter, even if he had just finished what was a pretty bad year for him. Cleveland countered with Jaret Wright, a 21-year-old rookie right-hander. In a rookie righty vs. veteran southpaw matchup, you'd figure on the youngster being the wild one - but not this time, as Leiter had both a higher strikeout rate (7.9 per 9 innings to 6.3) and a significantly higher walk rate (5.4 to 3.5).

Leiter was perfect in the top of the first; Wright did not match him in the bottom of the inning, allowing a double to Edgar Renteria and walking Gary Sheffield before coaxing a double play from Darren Daulton (apparently with the help of an interference call on Sheffield). Both starters cruised through the second, and the Indians jumped ahead in the third, starting with a walk to Jim Thome and a single by Marquis Grissom. Wright bunted the runners to second and third, and after the second out, Tony Fernandez singled them both home to take a 2-0 lead. A walk to Manny Ramirez moved Fernandez to second before David Justice struck out to end the inning.

Wright walked Leiter and Renteria in the bottom of the third, but left them both on; Sandy Alomar Jr. singled in the top of the fourth and was the only baserunner either team would manage in the inning. In the top of the sixth, Omar Vizquel singled and stole his way to third, but the rest of his team could only manage an intentional walk, so the runners were left at the corners. The next three half innings saw one non-hit baserunner each, and neither the two walks nor the three-base error would result in any scoring.

Dennis Cook relieved Leiter and worked a perfect top of the seventh, and the Marlins finally broke up the shutout when Bobby Bonilla led off the bottom of the inning with a home run. One out later, Wright walked Craig Counsell and was pulled for Paul Assenmacher, who ended the inning without further incident.

Antonio Alfonseca took the mound and threw a spotless top of the eighth, and Michael Jackson and Brian Anderson combined to produce the same result in the bottom of the inning. Alfonseca opened the ninth by walking Matt Williams, and one out later, Felix Heredia gave up a single to Thome, putting runners at the corners. Robb Nen relieved and drew a grounder from Grissom that resulted in the lead runner being thrown out at home, then retired pinch hitter Brian Giles to end the threat. But the Marlins still trailed by a run, and they were down to their last half inning.

Moises Alou led off with a single against Jose Mesa. Bonilla struck out, but Charles Johnson singled as well, moving Alou to third with the tying run. Counsell then flied to right, deep enough to bring Alou home and even the score. Mesa recovered to induce a groundout that forced extras, but Cleveland's best chance at a championship in half a century had just vanished.

Nen allowed a Fernandez single in the top of the tenth, but nothing else. In the bottom of the inning, Renteria and Sheffield both singled with one out. Pinch hitter John Cangelosi struck out, and Charles Nagy relieved Mesa and coaxed a flyout from Alou to keep the game going. Jay Powell took the mound in the top of the eleventh and walked Williams, but a bunt forceout and a double play grounder cut off the potential rally. Bonilla led off the bottom of the inning with a single. Gregg Zaun then popped up a bunt, and Counsell grounded to second, but Fernandez misplayed the grounder into an error that put runners on the corners with one out. An intentional walk loaded the bases, and Devon White grounded into a force at home for the second out. Up next was Renteria, who singled to score Counsell with the Series-winning run.

This had never fully occurred to me until I revisited them for this post, but... the 1997 Marlins were movie villains, right? They were essentially a team of mercenaries assembled to defeat opponents who'd built their success far more organically. They lost the division to the Braves by nine games in the regular season, but beat them in a short series largely thanks to (reputedly) one of the worst strike zones ever called, then went on to face a wonderful team that hailed from a city that had been without a title in any major sport for over three decades and beat them in a thrilling World Series. And once that was done, the players were all sold off at the first opportunity. (Plus, their best pitcher and hitter were notorious grumps Kevin Brown and Gary Sheffield, respectively.)

Not only have the Marlins achieved more than their share of playoff success, they've also done so in unreasonably exciting fashion. They've won 22 playoff games, and four of them are among the top 100 ever played. (That extends down the list, too; six of their triumphs are 90th percentile or better, the median Marlin playoff win is in the 72nd percentile, and only three of their victories are below the 40th percentile, with none at all below the 20th.) The '97 World Series provided another one of those top-100 games in Game 3, which was a ridiculous affair; the lead changed hands and went from 1-0 to 2-1 to 3-2 to 7-3 early, then the Marlins stormed back to tie it at 7 in the seventh; Florida left the bases loaded in the eighth, and Cleveland stranded the go-ahead run in scoring position as well. And all of that looked like mere prologue to the ninth, when the Marlins unloaded 7 runs, only to have the Indians score four and get the tying run to the on-deck circle before finally succumbing.

The 2003 Marlins also had a pair of exceptional playoff wins, which WPL actually prefers to the selected game. (They're probably not the games you're thinking of, which is for the best in terms of my mental health.) In Game 3 of the NLDS, the Giants rallied to tie it at 2 in the sixth. The Marlins left the go-ahead run at third in the bottom of the inning, and the Giants must have liked the look of that, because they went on to put a tiebreaking runner in scoring position for each of the next four innings without bringing one of them home. (One inning even saw two different runners reach second; the first was caught stealing third.) Florida rejoined the action in the tenth, leaving the bases loaded, and San Fran finally broke through with a run in the eleventh - but they still left three runners on base, and they would regret that, because Ivan Rodriguez's two-out bases-loaded single brought home a pair of Marlins for a comeback victory.

The other win was in the NLCS - but it was Game 1, not the more infamous sixth and seventh entries. Both starters got hit around early (Carlos Zambrano, who had given up 9 home runs all year, allowed three in a four-batter span in the top of the third), but hung in long enough to leave in the seventh with the game tied at 6. Ivan Rodriguez broke the tie in the ninth with a bases-loaded single, but the Cubs rallied on a two-out, two-run homer by Sammy Sosa to force extras. Mike Lowell's homer in the eleventh put the Fish in front for good.

With the Marlins out of the way, it makes sense to check in next with their less-fortunate 1993-born brethren. So tomorrow, we'll be heading west and seeing what the Rockies have to offer.

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