When a league pennant is on the line, the tense moments of the League Championship Series will steal your heart
By Mike Bauman
While the Fall Classic may be baseball's grand finale, the drama of the League Championship Series builds as a World Series trip becomes tangible. Some of the most iconic postseason comebacks and moments have occurred during the battle for the pennant. And while it's tough to enumerate all the great aspects of LCS play that dazzle fans and leave them on the edge of their seats, let's consider this list a step in the right postseason direction. Here are 10 reasons why the LCS represents baseball at its best.
1. It's the marker of real success
My go-to guy on matters concerning the LCS is Craig Counsell. Now the Brewers' manager, in the 1997 NLCS he hit .429 with a .958 OPS for the Marlins, and in the 2001 series he was named NLCS MVP for the Diamondbacks.
"It's like you have to win the LCS to have the fun," Counsell said. "That's how it feels. For some guys, winning the LCS is a big exhale."
2. This LCS stuff is so good that the fans never forget David Freese emerged with an explosive performance in the 2011 postseason for the Cardinals. In the NLCS, with his Wild Card-winning Cardinals playing the division-winning Brewers, Freese hit .545 with a 1.691 OPS, three home runs, nine RBI and seven runs scored in six games. He was named MVP of the NLCS and the subsequent World Series, as well, but his former performance set him apart for a lifetime.
Although Freese now plays for the rival Pirates, when he returns to St. Louis, the crowd still gives him a thunderous ovation for what he once did to propel the Cardinals to Fall Classic glory.
3. Historic comebacks are par for the course
Fans of every team can justifiably have their own favorite LCS moment, but Boston's unprecedented comeback from a three-game deficit in the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees takes the top prize. Not only did this happen against the club that historically tormented the Red Sox, but it paved the way for Boston to end its 86-year World Series championship drought. In the ensuing Fall Classic, the Red Sox swept a Cardinals team that had won 105 games. After coming back to beat the Yankees, the Red Sox were a force of nature.
4. The LCS proves the old adage that great pitching beats great hitting
Just within the last decade, a sampling of LCS pitching performances sparked teams to October glory. In 2007, ALCS MVP Josh Beckett fanned 18 batters over 14 innings to notch two wins and propel the eventual World Series champion Red Sox to the Fall Classic. A year later, NLCS MVP Cole Hamels was a perfect 2-0, as well, allowing just three runs over his two starts to cement the Phillies' spot on baseball's biggest stage. And the list goes on, including the Yankees' CC Sabathia in 2009, the Cardinals' Michael Wacha in 2013 and the Giants' Madison Bumgarner just two seasons ago.
5. Players have used the League Championship Series as an announcement of their arrival at the star level
Rookie Michael Wacha earned MVP honors in the 2013 NLCS on the strength of two scoreless starts for the Cardinals, propelling them to victory over the Dodgers. Daniel Murphy of the Mets had been around for a while, but had not performed at an elite level until 2015, when he hit .529 in his team's NLCS sweep of the Cubs, with four home runs and six RBI. The second baseman departed for Washington this offseason but continued his pace, setting career highs in homers, RBI, average and OBP.
6. Unlikely heroes emerge from unlikely places
Sterling Hitchcock of the Padres was the MVP of the 1998 NLCS with a 2-0 record and a 0.90 ERA against the Braves, despite his lifetime 4.80 ERA. Jeff Suppan was the MVP of the 2006 NLCS, leading the Cardinals to victory over the Mets. The hurler had a 1-0 record and a 0.60 ERA in two LCS starts, and even hit a home run, but outside that magical series, his lifetime ERA clocked in at 4.70.
7. Teams you don't see coming win on the big stage
In the 2008 ALCS, the Rays, who had never even sniffed the postseason previously, beat the defending World Series champion Red Sox in seven games. A season earlier, Boston had not only won the division but also led the cellar-dweller Tampa Bay squad by 30 games, so the turnaround one year later shocked the baseball world.
In the 2005 NLCS, the Astros, who entered the playoffs as a Wild Card, defeated the 100-win Cardinals, who had finished 11 games ahead of them in the NL Central during the regular season. This earned Houston its first World Series berth.
8. The LCS is fraught with drama
The stakes are obviously high, but the pitching is so good at this level that close games are a logical result. Over the last 15 years, 45.9 percent of all League Championship Series games have been decided by two runs or fewer. In the 2014 ALCS, Kansas City toppled Baltimore on its way to the World Series, and all four games were decided by that same margin.
9. Every team has a shot
In the age of competitive balance, there is a greater chance than ever before for fans to see their team playing with the opportunity to win a pennant and advance to the World Series. During the first 16 years of this century, 26 of the 30 Major League clubs appeared in at least one LCS. All 15 of today's American League clubs made LCS appearances during this period -- even though Houston's two appearances came as a National League team.
10. Self-made success stories
If you want to succeed at the lofty level of the LCS, you can't try to be someone else; you have to be yourself. Just make sure it's your best self.
"You're trying to do things the way you always did them," Counsell said. "I don't remember doing anything different.
"One of the big things in the playoffs is that you do really hone in on what you're good at, and keep doing it. That's your best chance at success. When other people try to be something they're not or do something different because of the magnitude of the situation, lock in on being great at what you're good at. You can get an edge on everybody else."
This article appears in the MLB Official League Championship Series Program. To purchase a copy, visit mlbshop.com.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.