Monday, November 2, 2009

It's Happened Five Times

The Philadelphia Phillies find themselves trailing the 2009 World Series by three games to one to the New York Yankees after last night's disheartening 9th inning defeat in Game #4 of the Fall Classic. Can a team come back from this kind of deficit on Major League Baseball's ultimate stage in a best-of-7 games format?

History shows that it can, and has, five different times to be exact. So let's take a walk down the memory lane of baseball history with stars Pie Traynor, Max Carey, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Al Kaline, Eddie Matthews, Enos Slaughter, Willie Stargell, and George Brett, each of whom played on teams that came back from 1-3 down to win the World Series, and each of whom went on to immortality in baseball's Hall of Fame.

In 1925, Traynor and Carey played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and their club may have had one of the toughest roads to travel of any comeback team. The Bucs trailed the defending World Series champion Washington Senators by 3-1, and despite rallying to even the series things did not bode well for the Pirates chances of actually completing the comeback and winning the series.

The reason that the odds still seemed stack against Pittsburgh was the presence of one man, Senators pitching legend Walter 'Big Train' Johnson, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. Johnson had already pitched and won the 1st and 4th games of the series by 4-1 and 4-0 scores. Now here in the decisive 7th game, the Sens bolted out of the gate with a 4-run first inning.

Staked to that 4-0 lead, Johnson coasted through a couple of innings before the Bucs rallied for a 3-run third. The Sens got a pair back in the 4th, and the Pirates scored one in the 5th, but entering the bottom of the 7th, the Senators led by 6-4. The Pirates tied it up with two in that inning. Washington went back up with a run in the 8th, but then Pittsburgh scored 2 in the bottom of the 8th and incredibly led 8-7 entering the 9th. Red Oldham closed out the Sens, and the Pirates had completed the amazing comeback for the first time in baseball history.

It would be 33 years before the Pirates feat was repeated. This time it was Mantle, Berra, Ford, and the New York Yankees who found themselves trailing the defending World Series champion Milwaukee Braves by 3-1. Both the Giants and Dodgers had moved to California and played their first seasons out west, so this was the first year ever that the Yankees had all of the Big Apple on their side.

Bob Turley tossed a 5-hitter at old Yankee Stadium to keep the team alive, and the series shifted back to Milwaukee. Here in Game 6, two of baseball's immortal arms dueled as both Ford for the Yanks and Warren Spahn for the Braves twirled gems. The two teams went into extra innings tied at 2-2. The Yanks scored a pair in the top of the 10th for a 4-2 lead, but the Braves answered when Hank Aaron knocked in a run in their half and eventually moved to 3rd as the tying run, but future Yanks's skipper Joe Torre's brother Frank lined out to end the game.

In the decisive 7th game in Milwaukee, the two teams seemed like a pair of tired boxers, each trying to hang on and outlast the other. They entered the 8th inning tied again at 2-2, and Braves pitcher Lew Burdette quickly got the first two Yanks out. But then suddenly the Bronx Bombers awoke with 4 straight hits capped by a Moose Scowron 3-run homer. They would coast through the final two innings for a 6-2 victory, completing the series comeback.

A decade later the Detroit Tigers with Kaline and Matthews found themselves trailing the defending World Series champion Saint Louis Cardinals. Mickey Lolich had started Game Two for the Tigers and recorded a complete game 8-1 victory. Down by 3 games to 1, the Tigers again turned to Lolich. Again he recorded a complete game victory, this time by a 5-3 margin.

Detroit's big bats exploded for a 10-run 3rd inning in Game Six, and the Tigers coasted into the decisive 7th game. Here, Lolich was brought back on just two days rest to face the great Cardinals intimidating right-hander Bob Gibson. For the third time in the series, Lolich met the challenge by tossing a complete game. The Tigers broke a scoreless tie with three 7th-inning runs and completed the comeback with a 4-1 victory.

It was another decade before I had my own first experience with a team rallying from 1-3 down. That team was the 1979 'We Are Family' Pittsburgh Pirates. During the regular season, those Pirates had beaten out the 3-time defending NL East Division champion Phillies for the eastern title. Moving on to the World Series, they found themselves trailing the pitching-rich Baltimore Orioles.

The Pirates big bats, nicknamed 'The Lumber Company' with stars like Stargell, Dave Parker, and Bill Madlock leading the way, erupted to win the 5th game by a 7-1 margin. But then the series shifted back to Baltimore, and there the O's would send their own legendary righthander Jim Palmer to the mound. Palmer was incredibly out pitched by Bucs youngster John 'the Candy Man' Candelaria for a 4-0 Pirates win that tied the series.

The decisive Game 7 saw the Orioles carry a tense 1-0 lead into the 6th inning. It was here that Stargell broke out with a mammoth 2-run homer that put the Pirates on top. That narrow lead was carried into the 9th inning, where Pittsburgh put the game and the series comeback away by scoring a pair of insurance runs.

Just six years later a comeback from down 1-3 in the World Series happened again, this time thanks largely to one of the most controversial umpiring calls in baseball history. It was also significant that this series would mark the final time that it would be played with no 'DH' in the AL park games, and would be the first played with all night games.

The 'I-70' series would feature a pair of perennial contenders of the day, both from the state of Missouri, the Saint Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals. The Cards bolted out to that 3-1 series lead, and it appeared that the Royals all-time great hitter George Brett would again face post-season frustration. But the club responded with a solid 6-1 victory that returned the series to Kansas City.

Game Six of that 1985 World Series would be one of the most controversial in history thanks to a pair of umpiring calls. A scoreless pitchers duel was broken up by a Cardinals run in the top of the 8th, and they took that 1-0 lead into the bottom of the 9th, just three outs away from clinching the series title. It was then that the craziness began.

Royals leadoff man Jorge Orta bounced a routine grounder to Cards' 1st baseman Jack Clark, who flipped the ball to reliever Todd Worrell who covered the bag and clearly beat Orta for the first out (pictured). Everyone in the ballpark, including every television angle, saw that clear first out. Unfortunately for the Cards, 1st base umpire Don Denkinger didn't see it that way. He ruled Orta 'safe' in what has become possibly the single most controversial umpiring call in the modern television era.

The next Royals batter, Steve Balboni, lofted an easy foul pop, but the ball fell between the Cards defenders giving Balboni new life. He promptly took advantage by singling. With two on and no outs, the Cards seemed to gain momentum when Worrell made a great play to field an attempted sacrifice bunt. He fielded, whirled, and fired to 3rd to get the lead runner.

But the drama was far from over. A passed ball by St. Louis catcher Darrell Porter made up for Worrell's great play, allowing the two runners to move into scoring position. After an intention walk, pinch-hitter Dane Iorg looped a game-winning 2-run single to right field. The stunned Cardinals returned to their lockers after the series-tying 2-1 loss to find the lockers covered in plastic and bottles of champagne on ice. They would never get to pop those bottles.

In the decisive 7th game, young Royals ace Brett Saberhagen tossed a 5-hit shutout on the day after becoming a father for the first time. The Royals had completed the incredible comeback from down 1-3 in the World Series and became the first team to do so after losing the first two games at home. Amazingly they had also trailed by 1-3 to the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS and rallied to win that series as well.

The 1903 Boston Americans, who later became the Boston Red Sox, also trailed in the World Series by 3 games to 1 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Those Americans rallied to win four straight games and take the 2nd-ever official World Series by 5-3 in what was then a best-of-9 event.

So the moral of the story for our Fightin' Phils is that the task ahead of them can be accomplished successfully. It hasn't been done now in 23 years, and it will take them focusing on one game at a time, some heroic pitching and hitting efforts, and possibly a little bit of fortune at some point. But it can be done. The series is best-of-7, and the Yanks haven't won a thing until they win that 4th game.

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