October baseball. A team has finally reached a level they had not reached in over 15 years. They have a young core, including the Rookie of the Year, supplemented with some veterans, and a questionable pitching staff. Tasked to face a juggernaut, the first couple of games go about as badly as could be imagined.
A team throws their top two starters on the road. Game 1 doesn't go according to plan. Game 2's starter puts in a decent outing, but it's not enough against an even better outing from the opposing starter. Now, they must go home to start an inexperienced starter against a great pitcher who has proven his mettle in multiple postseasons, and has turned in an average Game Score of 59 in his postseason starts, a figure which the young starter has only reached 7 times all year.
Outscored by 12 runs over the first two games in the series, having just thrown the pitcher one might have expected to be the postseason hero, how can this team manage to come back?
The 2023 Diamondbacks? No. It's the 1996 Yankees, the 2004 Red Sox, and the 2012 Giants.
An apology to the people I offended in the GDT last night. I'm apparently allergic to GDTs, and let out the worst of my thoughts there. I am going to sequester myself to prevent that happening for the remainder, and share my better thoughts here. Because, despite how bad things look after the first two games of the NLCS, plenty of teams have had it worse. All of the above teams were in worse situations, and all of them wound up hoisting Rob Manfred's "hunk of metal" at the end of the season. For one of them, things would get even worse before they got better. One would never lose again, and launch the last dynasty MLB has seen.
The Phillies scored 13 runs over the last two games of the NLDS and have scored 15 runs in the first two games so far in the NLCS. The 1996 Braves laugh at such a puny number. While the offense of the 1996 Braves was easily overlooked, it was arguably the hottest offense in all of postseason history, and, of course, the Braves had three future Hall of Famers starting for them. They had roared back from a 3-1 series deficit in the NLCS by outscoring the Cardinals 32-1 over the final three games. Because they had three Hall of Famers, it didn't really matter how their rotation shaped up; they were going to have the rotational advantage. Smoltz, Glavine, and Maddux were all at the peak of their careers, and Denny Neagle was a young up-and-coming pitcher. The Yankees did have two starters with World Series rings: David Cone and Jimmy Key, who had won it in 1992 with the Blue Jays, but Cone and Key had known far more failures than successes in the postseason. Key, in fact, had been with the Bobby Cox-led Blue Jays in 1985 when they managed to blow a 3-1 series lead in the ALCS despite playing the final two games at home.
The small advantage the Yankees might have derived from having the home field advantage disappeared with the falling rain on Saturday, as Game 1 was pushed back to Sunday, and the scheduled off day on Monday disappeared. The teams would now play five games in five days, if all games needed to be played. When Game 1 finally did happen, youngster Andy Pettitte was knocked around as the Braves won 12-1, giving them 44 runs over their previous 4 games. Key pitched substantially better in Game 2, but Maddux tossed 8 shutout innings as the Braves won 4-0. Now, having been outscored 16-1 over the first two games at home, facing a team that had now scored 48 runs over the previous 5 games, and having no off day, the Yankees were truly up against it.
Cone started opposite Glavine in Game 3, and both pitched well. The Yankees held a slim 2-1 advantage into the 8th, when Bernie Williams hit a three-run shot. Things were sort of looking up for the Yankees, but because of the lack of an off day, they had to throw their fourth starter, Kenny Rogers, in Game 4. He gave up five runs in 2 innings. Neagle, meanwhile, tossed five shutout innings.
The Yankees' Rookie of the Year, Derek Jeter, led off the sixth with a single. Williams walked, and Cecil Fielder followed with a single. Charlie Hayes followed with another single. Neagle failed to get an out in the sixth, as three runs scored, and the Yankees had cut the lead in half. That set things up for Jim Leyritz's famous home run in the eighth to tie the game, and the Yankees would equal the series in the tenth inning. Pettitte came back to throw 8.1 scoreless innings on three days rest to outduel Smoltz 1-0 in Game 5, and one bad inning was enough for the Yankees to beat Maddux in Game 6.
Were the 1996 Yankees in a worse position than the 2023 Diamondbacks? On the one hand, they had a better bullpen, even though we did not yet know how good Mariano Rivera would be. On the other, they were facing better starting pitching, they didn't have an off day, and they lost the first two games at home. I'd consider that a wash.
In some ways, the 2004 Red Sox have more resemblance to the Diamondbacks. They had two really good starting pitchers, and after that a bit of a mix. Their top-two will eventually both be in the Hall of Fame, so there is a difference in degree. Game 1 saw Curt Schilling take the mound. Arguably the greatest postseason pitcher ever simply didn't have it. In fact, he turned in his worst postseason start ever by Game Score, with a 22. Even though the Red Sox were able to score 7 runs, it wasn't enough. Game 2 saw Jon Lieber outduel Pedro Martinez as the Yankees won 3-1, and the Red Sox were heading home down 2-0 in the series. There was also no guessing when Schilling might be back.
Bronson Arroyo got the start for the Red Sox in Game 3, and despite Schilling talking him up beforehand (Schilling reportedly said "he has nuts the size of Saturn" and this is where Arroyo's "Saturn Nuts" nickname came from) he was bad. Bad might bad putting it mildly. He didn't retire a batter in the third inning, and gave up 6 runs. The Red Sox did manage to score 2 in the bottom of the third to save Arroyo from taking the loss, but eventually the Yankees won 19-8. Five of six pitchers for the Red Sox gave up multiple runs; only Ramiro Mendoza gave up a single run.
We all know what happened next. No team had ever come back from being down 3-0 in a baseball postseason series. No team has done it since. And when Alex Rodriguez hit a home run in the third, it looked like it would not happen here. The Red Sox did finally break through against Orlando Hernandez, but Mike Timlin instantly gave back the lead, and Mariano Rivera came on to attempt a two inning save. By the time Schilling did eventually return to the mound, in Game 6, the entire complexion of the series had changed, and from an inevitable Yankees victory, it seemed inevitable that the Red Sox would win. As they did. After losing the first three games, and being outscored by 16 runs in doing so, they would win 8 in a row.
Apart from the questionable pitching staff, there really isn't much similarity between the Red Sox and this year's Diamondbacks. That Red Sox team was experienced, deep, and had been there many times before. However, there are plenty of Red Sox connections, so if things don't go well for Brandon Pfaadt tomorrow, look for some more Red Sox connections giving pep talks. Perhaps even Arroyo will make an appearance in the clubhouse.
Speaking of Arroyo, he was on the other end of the story in 2012. His Cincinnati Reds had won the NL Central, while the Giants had won the NL West. The Giants had finished three games worse than the Reds, but because the NLDS was arranged in a 2-3 set up that year, the first two games were in San Francisco. As with all of the Giants teams back then, pitching was the strength. They started Matt Cain in Game 1, opposing Johnny Cueto, who would leave after just one batter due to a strained back. But the Reds would get two home runs early against Cain, and despite a late Giants' run to make it a three run game, the Reds took Game 1 comfortably. Arroyo opposed Madison Bumgarner in Game 2. Bumgarner struggled, giving up 4 runs and being lucky to do so; after allowing consecutive singles in the fifth inning, George Kontos came on to get a double play. Meanwhile, Arroyo was mowing down the Giants. He left after the Reds scored 5 more runs in the top of the eighth, as the Reds won the game 9-0. Now, the Giants would have to go to Cincinnati and win three games on the road, against the team that had just outscored them by 12 and hit three times the number of home runs.
After an extra-innings win in Game 3, the Giants would win fairly comfortably in Games 4 and 5, and then go on to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NLCS to reach and eventually win the World Series. I think it's worth noting that, despite the postseason legend of Madison Bumgarner, he was pretty bad in 2012. He pitched so badly in the NLDS and in Game 1 of the NLCS that he didn't make any further appearances in the series. He did pitch well in his lone World Series appearance.
So now, I'm sure there is some expectation of a thread, something that I will point to, to show how these three teams managed to come back from such deficits, despite (in some cases) poor performances from stars, and go on to win it all. But there simply isn't such a connection. I could try to create something, but it isn't there.
The numbers are simple. 84% of the time, the team that loses the first two games in a best of seven series will lose the series. A 2-0 deficit has been overcome just 14 times. One could point to the fact that 11 of the 14 teams to come back did not have home field advantage in the series, but that simply makes sense. (That is simply a fancier way of saying that only three times has a team come back from losing the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home. Interestingly enough, it first happened in the 1985 World Series and then happened in the 1986 World Series. The other occurrance was in 1996, as outlined above. Every postseason series in 1985 featured a comeback from being down 2-0.) One could also point to the fact that since the Red Sox in 2004, no team has come back from being down 2-0 in a best-of-seven series that involved travel. (The lone comeback was in the 2020 NLCS.) One could commit a gambler's fallacy and say that means that it is bound to happen.
The teams that have come back from such a deficit did so in different ways. Jim Leyritz's home run is remembered, but if it were not for the earlier rally that cut the Braves' lead in half, that would have been nothing but a footnote. Dave Roberts's stolen base is remembered, but if it were not for a bullpen that had been completely victimized the night before tossing 6.2 innings of 1 run ball, it would have been meaningless. (Curt Leskanic, who got the win in Game 4, pitched 1.1 scoreless innings and saw his postseason ERA drop to 10.13. The night before, he gave up 3 runs in 0.1 innings, while Alan Embree and Mike Myers had each given up 2 runs. All worked scoreless outings in Game 4.) A similar cast of characters pitched eight shutout innings in Game 5 to allow David Ortiz to be the hero in the fourteenth inning. The late Tim Wakefield got the win in that game, working three innings, and Arroyo pitched a scoreless frame.
This has been about 2000 words simply to say that baseball is random. Harvey Haddix worked twelve perfect innings and took the loss. The 1999 Diamondbacks, who scored 908 runs (almost 100 more than any other team in franchise history) failed to score a single run in four straight Randy Johnson starts. (In one of them, they failed to record a hit.) On May 1, 1991, Nolan Ryan was so stiff that he told Bobby Valentine to have another pitcher ready to go in case he couldn't do it. He pitched a no hitter and struck out 17.
In a postseason full of complaints about how the "best teams" haven't won, people have failed to realize that this is baseball. It is a feature of the sport, not a bug. There's a reason why baseball, the sport which provides by its rules the most substantial advantage to the home team, has the least home field advantage of any of the major sports. (I am of the minority opinion that, were it not for the rules directly benefiting the home teams in baseball, we might actually see more road teams winning.) Baseball is a sport where you can develop the most obvious, asinine way to steal signs at home games, and hit better on the road than you do at home. (Yes, I know the Astros had other methods for the road.) Craig Counsell has a career OPS+ of 79 and three huge successful plate appearances in the ninth inning or later in Game 7 of the World Series, to go with an NLCS MVP. Barry Bonds, arguably the greatest hitter of all time, hit .196 with 1 home run in his first 116 postseason plate appearances. Apart from 2002, in fact, he hit 1 home run in 134 postseason plate appearances. Of players with at least 50 postseason plate appearances, Cody Ross ranks 12th all time by OPS, and the top five includes (in addition to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig) Troy Glaus, Chris Young, and Billy Hatcher. The greatest postseason batting performances in the integration era (minimum of ten plate appearances) belong to Lloyd McClendon, Jay Johnstone, Juan Gonzalez, Mark Grace, and Colby Rasmus. None of the five won a series, let alone a championship. 17 players (including Yordan Alvarez this year) have a postseason OPS of 1.600 or higher in a single postseason. None of them won a championship. The only players to post an OPS of 1.500 or higher in the integration era and win a World Series are Don Clenendon, Rickey Henderson, and Johnny Mize.
We have at least two games left to revel in the randomness. Sure, the numbers are very much against the Diamondbacks winning. But they always were. For most of this season, the odds have been around 1%. But in baseball, there is always a chance, even if you're down by five, down to your last out, and you hit a groundball to the first baseman.