From Holliday's chinfirst slide to Dent's blast, extra games memorable
By John Schlegel
Few Major League experiences bring the drama like a one-game tiebreaker, an extra regular-season contest that could mean the beginning of something great or the end of a journey. There's simply nothing quite like earning an invitation to the postseason party by the skin of one's nose -- or chin, as Matt Holliday found out in a Game 163 for the ages.
Tiebreaker games that are postseason-or-bust are woven into the game's fabric dating back to 1908 -- an auspicious year for Chicago Cubs fans -- and have provided some of the wildest endings MLB has ever seen. Among those fantastic finishes, the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" in 1951 doesn't qualify in this category because it was Game 3 of a tiebreaker series, not a one-game, one-day, one-chance tiebreaker to get into the postseason.
There have been 11 such games in baseball's long, rich history, a collection that includes a little bit of everything. With the possibility of a Game 163 still in the mix for 2016, here's a ranking of those one-and-done tiebreaker games based on the drama and excitement they provided.
1. Rockies 9, Padres 8 (13) Oct. 1, 2007
There really is no closer shave to reaching the postseason than the one Holliday got on his headfirst (literally) slide to drag his hand across home plate (or did he?) for the winning run of the 2007 National League Wild Card tiebreaker game between his Rockies and the Padres. The play, which saw Holliday bang his chin onto the Coors Field clay as he brought his linebacker body careening into home plate in the bottom of the 13th inning, became an early case study for instant replay; it was so very close and so very important. The call on the field was safe, sending Colorado on its way to its first NL pennant.
Understanding the drama of the moment requires a bit of a rewind. Start two weeks back, when the Rockies were in fourth place in the NL West at 6 1/2 games out, and 4 1/2 behind in the Wild Card race with three teams ahead of them. They went on to win 13 of their last 14 games to earn a Wild Card tie with the Padres (at 89-73) and host Game 163.
What emerged in the Rocky Mountain autumn twilight was a toe-to-toe battle between division rivals. The seesaw affair included San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez hitting a grand slam, Colorado's Garrett Atkins hitting what many thought was a home run but was called a double in the seventh, and the Padres tying the score in the eighth on a Brian Giles double that Holliday misplayed. That tie went deep into extra innings.
History might have shown that Jerry Hairston's two-run homer in the top of the 13th propelled the Padres to a third straight playoff appearance, but the Rockies had another comeback up their sleeves. Standing in their way was legendary San Diego closer Trevor Hoffman, who that season had registered his ninth 40-save season with 42 in 48 opportunities heading into the most important one of the year. But Colorado jumped on him with a Kaz Matsui double to right-center and a Troy Tulowitzki double to left-center. With nobody out, Holliday was up with the tying run in scoring position, representing the potential winning run.
Holliday was the catalyst for the Rockies' furious finish, hitting 12 homers with a 1.235 OPS for the month of September, ultimately leading the NL with a .340 average, 137 RBIs, 216 hits and 50 doubles -- all still career highs for him. Holliday, who finished a close second to the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins in NL MVP Award voting, hit safely in 15 of his last 17 regular-season games, but he was 0-for-5 with a walk in the tiebreaker entering the plate appearance of his life. Swinging at the first pitch, Holliday sent Coors Field into an all-time tizzy with a soaring triple to right field that bounced off the wall for a game-tying RBI. Moments later, the pandemonium at Coors Field would reach epic proportions.
After Hoffman intentionally walked Todd Helton, up stepped Jamey Carroll, and the climax of a stupefying sequence was at hand. Carroll hit a line drive to short right, Holliday scampered back to the bag and tagged up, and Giles responded immediately with a throw to the plate. Padres catcher Michael Barrett was there, dropping his left spike down just as Holliday's hand reached for the plate, stepping on it and causing Holliday to halt his momentum and bounce his chin off the dirt beyond home plate. Amid it all, home-plate umpire Tim McClelland gave the sign that set off a new level of Rocky Mountain high -- safe! -- and the Rockies mobbed home plate.
Today, the play would have been under replay review but would have been tough to overturn -- Holliday might not have touched the plate, but Barrett never did tag him. And perhaps none of that would have happened if replay had shown Atkins' ball to be a homer earlier. But this game was plenty dramatic without further review.
"I don't even know what happened," Holliday said afterward. "The umpire called me safe. That's all I know, and then the guys were pounding on me. I don't even know. I don't even really remember what happened on the play."
What happened is the Rockies won the most thrilling one-game tiebreaker in history, and they went on to sweep through the NL playoffs in "Rocktober" for 21 wins in 22 games before being swept themselves by the Red Sox in the World Series.
2. Yankees 5, Red Sox 4 Oct. 2, 1978
For the record, Bucky Dent's middle name is Earl. Anyone wondering why that is an important item to note perhaps hasn't heard another certain middle name uttered in a Boston accent, or heard tell of the day one swing created a sort of pre-Internet meme. Bucky (Bleeping) Dent, they called him, a nickname earned with as clutch a homer as you'll see from a light-hitting shortstop.
The Yankees and Red Sox hadn't played in a 163rd game against each other, and they haven't since. The Sox took a 2-0 lead on a Carl Yastrzemski homer and an RBI single by Jim Rice, the pair of Hall of Fame hitters putting the Sox nine outs from advancing to the American League Championship Series. Then came the seventh, and an utterly unexpected hero emerged.
Sox starter Mike Torrez, who had allowed two hits in the first six innings, gave up back-to-back singles with one out in the seventh but then recorded the second out on a flyout by pinch-hitter Jim Spencer. That brought up a No. 9 hitter who hadn't hit a homer since his fourth of the season in August, a guy who was 0-for-2 on the day to extend an 0-for-17 skid dating through the last week of the season. Yanks manager Bob Lemon would say later he'd have pinch-hit for him if he'd had anybody available. Add to that Dent then fouled a Torrez pitch off an already sore left foot and cracked his bat, borrowing Mickey Rivers' bat. Despite all that, the No. 9 hitter made history.
Dent turned on a hanging breaking ball from Torrez and elevated himself into baseball lore with a three-run shot that just cleared the Green Monster at Fenway. Dent, in Yankees grays and eye black, sprinted around the bases to be greeted by Chris Chambliss and Roy White and then a dugout full of Yanks. An utterance was born.
The homer gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead, which Thurman Munson much less famously extended to 4-2 with an RBI double. The Yanks still needed a Reggie Jackson solo homer to stave off a two-run Red Sox rally in the eighth, with Goose Gossage leaving the potential tying run stranded at third to end the game.
All those Hall of Fame names and clutch performances became footnotes to the homer hit by Bucky Earl Dent.
"The home run that I hit was the biggest moment of my career -- just playing in that game, the one-game playoff and what it meant for the two organizations, the two towns and everyone watching," Dent would say years later.
3. Cubs 4, Giants 2 Oct. 8, 1908
The very first tiebreaker game in Major League history came after the Giants won three straight makeup contests over the Boston Braves to catch the Cubs and force one game to decide the 1908 NL pennant. Of course, this first eventually would be part of a last -- that is, the last World Series the Cubs have won, beating the Detroit Tigers in five games.
This tiebreaker game only took place because of an actual tie game a couple weeks earlier after what was known as Merkle's Boner. In the Sept. 23 game, the 19-year-old Giants first baseman, who had singled the eventual winning run to third, didn't touch second on the game's final play, heading to the dugout thinking, along with those who had mobbed the field, that the game was over and the Giants had scored the winning run. Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers of "Tinkers to Evers to Chance" fame retrieved the ball (or at least a ball) and stepped on second for the foreceout. The winning run was wiped out and a tie game declared in one of the most controversial calls in the game's history.
In the tiebreaker game, the Cubs handled Christy Mathewson and went into what still stands as the franchise's last victorious World Series, but it was a unique tie that got them to the extra game in the first place.
4. Indians 8, Red Sox 3 Oct. 4, 1948
As with the Cubs, the Indians' last World Series title wouldn't have been possible without a play-in victory. The Tribe had lost to the Tigers and the Red Sox beat the Yankees on the season's final day, setting up the tiebreaker. Cleveland won it and went on to beat Boston's other team, the Braves, in the 1948 World Series in six games.
What's so remarkable about this tiebreaker is how one man played such a huge role: Lou Boudreau was not only the team's shortstop and cleanup hitter but also the manager. He wrote knuckleballer Gene Bearden on his lineup card as the starting pitcher, and Bearden went the distance for his 20th win. All Boudreau did was hit a home run in the first inning and another in the fifth on a 4-for-4 day at the plate, willing his team into the postseason and then all the way to the title while winning Most Valuable Player honors to boot.
5. Twins 6, Tigers 5 (12) Oct. 6, 2009
No matter the outcome, this was going to be the last regular-season game played at the Metrodome, home of so many historic moments for the Twins, including two World Series clinchers. After a seesaw battle went into extras, both teams scored in the 10th. But Minnesota had the final word in the 12th, setting off a wild celebration under that puffy roof.
Carlos Gomez stood on second when Alexi Casilla came to the plate, batting for the first time since being thrown out trying to score the winning run in the 10th. With Fernando Rodney pitching his fourth inning of relief, Casilla stroked a single through the right side of the infield, and Gomez came flying home with a headfirst slide. His teammates were already mobbing home plate, knowing he'd score the winning run. And the Metrodome would live to see another day of baseball.
6. White Sox 1, Twins 0 Sept. 30, 2008 John Danks entered the 2008 season as the No. 3 starter in the White Sox rotation, and the 23-year-old had a strong second season with some rough spots at the end. Game 163 often calls for an ace performance, and Danks delivered, big-time.
Pressed into action on three days' rest because Mark Buehrle and Gavin Floyd had pitched that weekend just to get the White Sox to the tiebreaker, Danks pitched eight shutout innings, allowing just two hits. Jim Thome provided the only run of the game, with a blast to center off Twins starter Nick Blackburn in the seventh inning.
7. Mets 5, Reds 0 Oct. 4, 1999
Al Leiter had been the Mets' Opening Day starter in 1999, and with the club looking for its first playoff berth in 11 years, he was the starter in Game 163. He couldn't have done much more to propel his team into the postseason, twirling a two-hit shutout. Leiter allowed just one single through eight innings and worked around a leadoff double in the ninth. He got ample support, but his mound mastery was the key in Game 163.
8. Mariners 9, Angels 1 Oct. 2, 1995
The Mariners' first trip to the postseason forever will be remembered with Ken Griffey Jr. beaming at the bottom of a dogpile at the end of Game 5 of the AL Division Series vs. the Yankees. But that moment wouldn't have been possible without a dominating performance by another Hall of Famer -- Randy Johnson -- in the tiebreaker for the AL West title vs. the Angels.
The Mariners trailed the Angels by 13 games on Aug. 2, but they roared back to take a three-game lead in the division with five games to play before the Halos won five straight to force Game 163. But in that last regular-season game, it was all Seattle, and a Tony Phillips solo homer in the ninth was all that kept Johnson from the shutout in the three-hit, 12-strikeout performance.
9. Astros 7, Dodgers 1 Oct. 6, 1980
The Astros, too, needed a tiebreaker to reach the postseason for the first time. They had dropped the final three games of the regular season in one-run losses at the Dodgers, forcing a Game 163 at Chavez Ravine. With Joe Niekro going the distance and Art Howe delivering a two-run homer, the Astros earned their first postseason bid, eventually falling to the Phillies in a thrilling NLCS, with Houston losing Game 5 in 10 innings.
10. Rays 5, Rangers 2 Sept. 30, 2013 David Price, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner that year, got the ball with the Rays heading into hostile territory for the 2013 tiebreaker. Price delivered his team into the playoffs in a big way with a complete game, allowing two earned runs on seven hits in a 118-pitch performance. Evan Longoria sparked the offense with a two-run homer, and Tampa Bay was on its way to the team's fourth playoff appearance in six years.
11. Cubs 5, Giants 3 Sept. 28, 1998
Some 90 years after a tiebreaker led to the Cubs' last World Series title, the first and only tiebreaker game at Wrigley Field took place. Remember, the Friendly Confines weren't built yet when the 1908 team went all the way. When the Cubs faced the Giants for the 1998 NL Wild Card berth, Steve Trachsel threw 6 1/3 shutout innings and the Cubs held on for the win despite a three-run rally in the ninth. Former Giants closer Rod Beck sealed the deal with his 51st save for the Cubs, who were swept by the Braves in their first Division Series appearance.
That's a lot of ties to break, but this much isn't in dispute: From Holliday's mad dash to Dent's homer and dating back to historic moments for several clubs, one-game tiebreakers have delivered the drama for decades, becoming memorable gateways to October history.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnSchlegelMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.