Some of baseball biggest underdogs have captured their league pennant in stunning fashion
By David Crawford Jones
Special to MLB.com |
Since its introduction to postseason play in 1969, the League Championship Series has lived in the shadow of the more glamorous Fall Classic. Nonetheless, it has produced some of the most consistently compelling baseball in the game's long history. Thanks to the familiarity engendered by the 162-game season and an increase in the number of Interleague series, the LCS has showcased some of the most memorable rivalries in the sport, unspooling narratives that have carried through multiple seasons, from the Royals and Yankees in the 1970s, to the Pirates and Braves in the 1990s, to the Giants and Cardinals in the 2010s.
The added context of LCS play has also given us many of the postseason's most surprising upsets. Teams that have finished well behind their adversaries in the regular-season standings -- and often had a losing record against their foes -- nonetheless used the intensity of October to their advantage to stun the baseball world, reminding everyone of the postseason's most immutable law: Anything is possible. In that spirit, here are our picks for the 10 biggest upsets in LCS history.
Florida Marlins over Atlanta Braves, 4 games to 2; Marlins went on to win the World Series
In a matchup pitting the Braves, a 101-win team that had claimed four of the previous five NL pennants, against the 92-win Marlins, an expansion franchise coming off its first-ever winning season, it was youth that brought the Marlins to the brink of a championship. With the series deadlocked, Florida's veteran ace Kevin Brown came down with a stomach virus prior to Game 5, pressing 22-year-old rookie Livan Hernandez into his first postseason start. Hernandez struck out an LCS-record 15 batters en route to a 2-1 victory, outdueling future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. Two days later, Brown tossed his own complete-game victory, giving the state of Florida its first ever pennant.
Cleveland Indians over Baltimore Orioles, 4 games to 2; Indians went on to lose the World Series
Although they were just two years removed from a pennant, the 1997 Indians entered their ALCS showdown with the Orioles as distinct underdogs: The Indians limped into the postseason with 86 wins, while the Orioles had just completed a 98-win campaign in which they spent the entire season in first place, becoming the sixth team in history to lead wire-to-wire. The ALCS was decided by late-inning heroics, as the Indians scored eight runs off Baltimore's bullpen, including a critical three-run homer by Marquis Grissom in Game 2 and a pennant-clinching blast by Tony Fernandez in the 11th inning of Game 6, both of which came against Armando Benitez.
Los Angeles Dodgers over New York Mets, 4 games to 3; Dodgers went on to win the World Series
At first glance, the 1988 Dodgers appeared to be a good match for the Mets. Although the Dodgers had finished with six fewer wins, they had both the National League MVP (Kirk Gibson) and Cy Young winner (Orel Hershiser, who entered the postseason with a consecutive scoreless innings streak of 59). But then there was the history between the two clubs: During the regular season, the Dodgers had gone just 1-10 against the 100-win Mets. No matter, though; after dropping the first game, the Dodgers won the Series in seven thanks to Hershiser, who notched a save in Game 4 and hurled a shutout in Game 7, finishing the NLCS with a cumulative 1.09 ERA.
Kansas City Royals over Toronto Blue Jays, 4 games to 3; Royals went on to win the World Series
At 91-71, the 1985 Royals were one of the most experienced teams in all of baseball. But when they met the 99-win Blue Jays in the ALCS, they seemed overmatched by Toronto's dynamic young outfield and league-best pitching staff. In his first two starts, Toronto ace Dave Stieb surrendered just one run over 14.2 innings, giving his team a commanding 3-games-to-1 lead. But the Royals clawed back into the series thanks to some critical hitting by George Brett, who smashed a home run in Game 6 to force a seventh game. Stieb wasn't as sharp this time around, as the Royals won, 6-2, to claim the second pennant in franchise history.
New York Mets over Chicago Cubs, 4 games to 0; Mets went on to lose the World Series
Featuring the game's most dominant pitcher in Jake Arrieta and a lineup filled with emerging young stars like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, the 2015 Cubs seemed destined to reach their first World Series in 70 years. During the regular season, the North Siders had won 97 games, including all seven matchups against the 90-win Mets, en route to capturing the second NL Wild Card spot. But riding the hot bat of second baseman Daniel Murphy, New York dispatched Chicago in a four-game sweep, during which Murphy hit .529 and clobbered a home run in each game of the series, and Arrieta took his first loss in nearly three months. "That was a lot of fun," Murphy proclaimed after it was all said and done. "You get so excited when you're able to come together and accomplish something like this. We're going to enjoy this right now." For Chicago, though, postseason redemption would have to wait at least one more year.
Minnesota Twins over Detroit Tigers, 4 games to 1; Twins went on to win the World Series
Powered by the American League's best offense, the 1987 Tigers won 98 games, making them a heavy favorite against an 85-win Twins team that had won the AL West despite giving up more runs than it had scored during the regular season. But thanks to the hot hitting of sluggers Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky and Greg Gagne, the Twins pummeled the Tigers to the tune of 34 runs in the five-game series, giving Minnesota its first AL pennant in 22 years. "Whenever we made a mistake, they cashed in," said Tigers relief pitcher Mike Henneman, who was tagged for six runs in the series. "This wasn't the same Minnesota team I faced all year."
New York Yankees over Seattle Mariners, 4 games to 1; Yankees went on to lose the World Series
It may seem absurd to describe a three-time defending world championship-winning team as an underdog, but in the 2001 ALCS, that is precisely the role that the Yankees played. While the Mariners tied a Major League record with 116 regular-season wins, the Yankees had required a miraculous comeback against Oakland in the ALDS just to reach the next round. Although Seattle boasted the league's best offense and pitching, the Yankees' staff held Seattle to a .130 average with runners in scoring position in the team's four victories.
Houston Astros over St. Louis Cardinals, 4 games to 2; Astros went on to lose the World Series
Although the 2005 Astros finished 11 games behind the Cardinals, this series marked an opportunity for revenge, as Houston had narrowly fallen to St. Louis in a riveting seven-game series in 2004. This time around, capitalizing on superb outings from Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, the Astros had taken a 3-games-to-1 series lead before NL MVP Albert Pujols launched a three-run homer off closer Brad Lidge to force a Game 6. But Oswalt was up to the challenge, winning his third game of the postseason with seven strong innings to secure Houston's first World Series berth in franchise history.
St. Louis Cardinals over New York Mets, 4 games to 3; Cardinals went on to win the World Series
At 97 wins, the 2006 Mets finished nine games ahead of the pack in the NL, establishing them as the prohibitive postseason favorites. By contrast, the 83-win Cardinals had just compiled their poorest record since 1999, yet captured their division anyway, making them the third-worst team ever to reach the playoffs. But the Cards pulled off the upset thanks to Yadier Molina, who hit .348 and launched a tie-breaking, two-run homer in the ninth inning of Game 7. In the bottom of the frame, the Mets stranded three base runners when Adam Wainwright froze Carlos Beltran on an 0-2 curveball with the bases loaded, giving the Cardinals their most improbable NL pennant.
New York Mets over Cincinnati Reds, 3 games to 2; Mets went on to lose the World Series
It was a battle between the team of the decade and the team of destiny, as the Mets entered the 1973 NLCS with the worst record ever for a playoff team at 82-79, while the Reds had finished the regular season with an MLB-high 99 wins and were seeking their third NL pennant in four years. But the Big Red Machine scored just eight runs in the series, as the Mets' Rusty Staub slugged three homers to give his squad its second pennant in five seasons. "Ya Gotta Believe!" had become their rallying cry, a clarion call fitting for all October upstarts, past, present, and future.
This article appears in the MLB Official League Championship Series Program. To purchase a copy, visit mlbshop.com.
David Crawford Jones is a freelance writer and baseball historian based in Ohio. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.