Major League Baseball hit a bit of a rough patch in the Aughts, what with steroids and tie games–well, one at least–and out-of-control payroll imbalances and talk of contraction and ugly stadiums and all. It’s odd to say this, but it might even have been a worse decade for the game than the ‘90s.
Okay, now that’s not true. But still, the Top 10 Major League Baseball Games from the ‘90s would certainly be a more impressive list than this one. I can think of four absolutely transcendent games from that decade, which is double the number the Aughts can boast of.*
*In chronological order because it’s too tough to rank them: ’91 World Series Game 7, ’92 NLCS Game 7, ’97 World Series Game 7, ’99 NLCS Game 5. Others that would make the top 10 off the top of my head include ’93 WS Game 6, ’95 WS Game 6, ’96 WS Game 4, and ’99 ALDS Game 5.
But that still leaves the Aughts with two games to be pretty proud of. And you know what, these other eight are pretty good, too. Most, but not all, are one-run games; several went a few extra innings, and a few went several extra innings; and a surprising and perhaps statistically significant number of them ended with a score of 6 to 5.
In case you’re wondering, hitting a walk-off home run in the World Series for your first homer of the year still wasn’t enough to get Scott Podsednik and the ’05 White Sox on the list, who also had Game 2 of their ALCS against Anaheim and Game 3 of their World Series with Houston short-listed. Brad Lidge not only escapes the Podsednik homer unscathed, but also the shot he surrendered to Albert Pujols a series earlier in Game 5. Armando Benitez is off the hook for Game 1 of the 2000 World Series, as is Steve Bartman. I heard that guy’s had some other issues to deal with.
The worst game of the decade goes to the Rangers and Orioles for that 30-3 charade they had a few years ago. I can’t imagine anyone sitting through to the end of that one.
Final clerical note: Not all of the games have videos supported by YouTube, and thus capable of embedding. Don’t blame me; blame Time magazine’s Person of 2007.
10. 2004 NLCS Game 5: Houston Astros 3, St. Louis Cardinals 0
I’d venture to call this the most underrated game of the decade, taking place in the most underrated series of the decade. But such was life in the National League in 2004, with the Yankees and Red Sox dueling in an even more memorable ALCS at the same time.
The first four games of the series had been won by the home team, setting up the clichéd “pivotal” Game 5. No one really expected one of the greatest pitching duels in playoff history, not from the alliterative duo of Woody Williams and Brandon Backe, but that’s exactly what the journeyman and the youngster provided. The Astros got a hit in the first, the Cardinals got one in the sixth. And that was it for eight innings. Seriously: one hit for each team through eight innings.
In the bottom of the ninth, though, future Met Carlos Beltran—in the midst of arguably the hottest streak in postseason history—singled off former Met Jason Isringhausen before stealing second. After an out and intentional walk, another former Met, Jeff Kent, smashed Izzy’s first pitch off the façade in left field for a no-doubt three-run shot—the game’s first extra-base hit—and a 3-2 series lead. It was the first walk-off home run in the NLCS in 18 years, since Lenny Dykstra victimized Houston in 1986; it would be joined two days later when Jim Edmonds sent the series to a Game 7 with his own walk-off shot in the 11th.
9. 2006 NLCS Game 7: St. Louis Cardinals 3, New York Mets 1
Why are my No. 9 games so painful? At least I can kind of talk about this one.
The vastly inferior Cardinals—who won the NL Central with a mere 83 wins—had taken a 3-2 series lead over the only team in the NL with even 90 wins that season behind the surprising pitching of Jeffs Weaver and Suppan and a crushing Game 2 comeback against the Mets’ bullpen. John Maine outdueled Chris Carpenter in a must-win Game 6 for New York, and Game 7 hung precariously on the ever-erratic arm of Oliver Perez—statistically the worst Game 7 starter in baseball history. (The Mets even considered starting effective longman Darren Oliver, who hadn’t started a game all season. I was more confident in DO than Ollie.)
The Mets got one off Suppan in the first, but St. Louis answered—as it did all series—a half-inning later to tie it.* After that, though, Suppan and Perez—somehow—found their rhythm. Ollie walked Jim Edmonds in the sixth, prompting a visit to the mound from Willie Randolph—who usually only visited the mound to make a pitching change. He left Ollie in, only to see Scott Rolen hammer Perez’s first pitch to left field, setting the stage for the greatest catch ever made.**
*Amazing stat of the series: The Mets scored in 14 innings in that series; the Cardinals scored in their next at-bat eight of those 14 times.
**And perhaps even rarer: a call Joe Buck nailed.
Now, when your fourth outfielder makes a catch like that and your team promptly loads the bases in the bottom of the inning, you’re feeling pretty good about your chances. But a Jose Valentin strikeout and a Chavez fly ball kept the game tied until Yadier Molina—of all people, Yadier Molina?—launched a fly ball to left that even Endy couldn’t grab in the ninth. It was an out-of-nowhere punch to the gut. We were going to lose.
But wait! The first two reached in the ninth off “shaky” rookie closer Adam Wainwright. Randolph decided to swing away with Cliff Floyd instead of bunting—a decision I know is probably the right one according to, you know, math, but one I first-guessed at the time. Floyd struck out, Jose Reyes hit a sharp line drive that looked like it would fall only to hang up long enough for Edmonds, and Paul LoDuca worked out a walk to load ‘em up for Carlos Beltran. Earlier that day I had thought that, if I could script an end to that game, it would be straight out of the Francisco Cabrera mold—some base hit that scored both the tying and winning runs. With Beltran at the plate and speedy pinch-runner Anderson Hernandez at first, here was the chance: A gapper could plate all three and send the Mets to the World Series in arguably the most exciting finish in LCS history. But there was a problem. You can’t hit a gapper, if you don’t swing.
8. 2007 Wild Card Playoff: Colorado Rockies 9, San Diego Padres 8 (13 innings)
The mere fact that this game was being played, with the Rockies having won 13 of their final 14 games and the Padres blowing back-to-back contests to the Brewers to close the season, was dramatic enough. And that’s before you throw in 17 runs, 29 hits, four lead changes, and an ongoing debate about whether the final run should ever have counted.
There was no real reason for me to be pulling as hard for the Rockies to win this game as I was; I kinda liked both teams. But I wanted it to be as exciting as possible and, in baseball, finishes are inherently more exciting when the home team wins. I decided in about the 10th inning that the only way this game could live up to my surprising investment in it—I had watched since about the fourth inning, just a day after seeing my Mets complete their ridiculous collapse—was if the Rockies not only won in walk-off fashion, but won in comeback walk-off fashion. Scott Hairston’s 13th-inning homer for San Diego paved the way for another Trevor Hoffman collapse—seriously, that guy’s worse under pressure than Michelle Kwan*—and Matt Holliday’s did-he-or-didn’t-he-touch-home game-winning slide.
P.S. He didn’t.
*I still feel bad for Michelle Kwan. That link is classless.
7. 2001 World Series Game 5: New York Yankees 3, Arizona Diamondbacks 2 (12 innings)
There’s something to be said for doing what Bob Brenly did, for sticking with your guns and dancing with the girl who brung ya. But not if that girl is Byung-Hyun Kim!
Brenly’s decision to bring Kim back to close out Game 5 the night after the fragile closer—and I mean, we knew he was fragile before this all went down—allowed a two-out game-tying homer in the ninth and a game-winning homer in the tenth was the second dumbest by a manager this decade.*
*And you can make a strong case it’s even dumber than Grady Little’s leaving Pedro in because Grady Little stuck with one of the generation’s transcendent pitchers and Bob Brenly stuck with Byung-Hyun Kim.
This isn’t to take anything away from what Scott Brosius and the Yankees did in this game, which admittedly, relies heavily on the context of what they did one night prior. To win that way once in a series is remarkable enough; to do it on back-to-back nights is unbelievable—an emotion that can be heard in Jon Miller’s voice when he incredulously yells, “It’s a home run! They’ve done it…again!”*
*YouTube’s inability to have a number of different announcing calls for famous sporting events is probably my biggest issue with it. Gary Thorne’s call was pretty good, and Buck and McCarver’s “I’ve never…seen anything…like it. It borders on the surreal.” works, too. But trust me, Miller’s was great.
From John, Shameless Yankee Fan: I certainly don’t think this game should be higher on the list, but it may have been the happiest I’ve ever been during a sporting event. Objectively speaking, it was a very good, but probably not great, game. Two great pitching performances (one from Miguel Batista, of all people, who actually had a very good series) and a great ending, combined with the context set up the night before, certainly warrant it a place on this list, but not in the Top 5.
With that said, as a Yankee fan, I’ve never had my emotions swing so drastically. For whatever reason, I was absolutely convinced that the game was over when we were down 2-0 in the 9th. In fact, I was so depressed I had to leave the living room and watch the ninth inning in my room so I could be alone. I figured there was no way we’d come back from down two with two outs in the last inning TWO DAYS IN A ROW. Fairy tale comebacks like that only happen once. But as soon as Brosius connected, I went from utterly despondent to euphorically happy. I literally felt like anything was possible; I became a human cliche. It was probably the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience.
6. 2005 NLDS Game 4: Houston Astros 7, Atlanta Braves 6 (18 innings)
It’s hard to nitpick when you have a playoff game that sees two grand slams and a dominant relief performance from a legendary starter during 18 tense innings. But I have two. The first is that that dominant relief performance was from Roger Clemens, and if you know nothing else about me, know that I detest Roger Clemens. The second is its ending: Chris Burke’s line-drive home run to left field with one out in the bottom of the 18th left the yard so fast—I mean, it is that short porch at Minute Maid—that you couldn’t help but think, “Wait, it’s over? That’s it?”
5. 2009 Wild Card Playoff: Minnesota Twins 6, Detroit Tigers 5 (12 innings)
Anybody who writes about sports uses the phrase “back and forth” a lot; I use it even more than most. But you wanna talk about back and forth? Just look at a graph of win expectancy for this divisional tiebreaker between Minnesota and Detroit. Tigers lead, Twins come back and lead, Tigers come back and lead, Twins come back and tie, Tigers throw winning run out at home on Chip Caray’s infamous “line drive base hit caught” call, Twins finally win in 12th on Alexi Casilla’s chopper through the right side.
The tiebreaker—or Game 163 as Caray referred to it ad nauseam throughout that night and the Twins’ subsequent division series with the Yankees—was made even more special by Minnesota’s tremendous comeback in the final weekend, back from three down with four to go, and that it was the final regular-season game in the history of the Metrodome, a house of horrors for visiting teams that worked its Homer Hankie magic one last time.
4. 2002 World Series Game 6: Anaheim Angels 6, San Francisco Giants 5
Easily the most underrated game of the decade, maybe in all sports, as evidenced by the complete lack of videos on either YouTube or MLB.com about it. Oh, wait: Here’s a fan reaction to the Scott Spiezio home run. That’s the best I can do for you.
Perhaps there’s a good reason for that. Baseball’s postseason reached a kind of nadir in 2002, with the Yankees knocked out early, an entirely forgettable NL playoffs, Adam Kennedy hitting three home runs in an ALCS clincher, and Wild Cards claiming the pennant in each league. Even though the World Series was close, it wasn’t particularly thrilling until Game 6.
And even then, it wasn’t until the seventh inning of Game 6, at which point it sure looked like the series was over. The Giants had a 5-0 lead with “ace” Russ Ortiz—who back then was actually an ace—on the mound and one of the league’s best bullpens backing him up. This series was so over that even when Dusty Baker pulled Ortiz in the seventh, he let his pitcher take the ball with him off the mound as a memento, which has to be the single greatest jinx in World Series history.
The next batter was Spiezio, who belted a three-run homer to right to start one of the greatest comebacks in Series history. Darin Erstad added a solo shot leading off the eighth, and Troy Glaus—on his way to Series MVP—capped it off with a two-run double. The comeback was almost as quick as it was surprising. The series was over one minute, and then it wasn’t.
Rookie John Lackey backed it up in a Dead Man Walking Game 7, lifting Anaheim to its first championship.
3. 2004 ALCS Game 4: Boston Red Sox 6, New York Yankees 4 (12 innings)
I don’t have many problems with the 2004 ALCS, which was great for anyone who doesn’t like the Yankees. But here’s the biggest one: The Red Sox wins happened in the wrong order. Their most exciting victories came early, and their two wins in New York—in particular Game 7—were relatively anticlimactic.
Having said that, there is some value to Game 4 being the best game of the series. After all, it’s hard for a team to be down more in a series than Boston was: Down three games to none, down in the ninth inning by a run, down to the bottom of the order, down to facing Mariano Rivera.* Suffice it to say, things were pretty bleak. But then Rivera inexplicably walked Kevin Millar on four pitches, Dave Roberts got the pinch-run steal that might be the most overrated play of the decade, and Bill Mueller got the game-tying hit that everyone forgets.**
*My excessive use of the word “down” in that sentence was inspired by Jay Sean.
**Other problem: Look, I get that the steal was important, that we all knew he was going to steal and he did anyway. But he got the steal off of Rivera and Posada, not Pettitte and Santiago. What percentage of fourth outfielders predominantly used as pinch-runners would notch that steal? At least fifty, right? Let’s give some credit to Mueller, the man most responsible for the Red Sox’ ownership of Rivera, ca. 2003-05.
And all that only tied the game! The Boston bullpen, one game after the disaster of 19-8, held the Yankees off the scoreboard for the final six innings, until the 12th when none other than Big Papi put an end to the game that started the comeback.
From John, Shameless Yankee Fan: You wanna talk about an overrated play? How about an overrated game? The entirety of the Red Sox has been so romanticized and glorified that I feel obligated NOT to repress the memory of this series just so I can dispel people of these myths. First of all, Rivera was not “owned” at any point by the Red Sox: His ERA in this series was 1.29. And people conveniently forget that he struck out the side in the 8th, and that Mueller’s hit was a bleeder up the middle. Afterwards, he worked around an error by Tony Clark and he got Mr. Clutch/Steroids to pop up with the bases loaded to end the inning. Ortiz’s home run actually came against the less-than-intimidating Paul Quantrill.
Secondly, people act as if Roberts’ steal totally changed the tide of the series, giving the Red Sox hope and putting the Yankees on notice. This is not the case. Pulling out Game 4 seemed like the last hurrah for a desperate team, a pathetic way of salvaging some dignity after being embarrassed in the first three games. My only thought was, “Aw shucks, now we have to win it in 5.” Game 5 was slightly more disheartening (which, once again, gets unfairly blamed on Rivera, who gave up 1 hit and no runs in 2 IP; Ortiz’s big hit this time came against the Big Bad Esteban Loaiza), but it really wasn’t until Game Six did I feel like the Yankees might lose this series. And don’t even get me started on Curt Schilling….
2. 2003 ALCS Game 7: New York Yankees 6, Boston Red Sox 5
I already stated how solo home runs to left field by non-home run hitters make for bad endings to great games. Aaron Boone gets off the hook for two reasons: First, he hit his home run really high. It sounds silly, but there was some suspense as to whether that was gone or not, unlike Burke’s line drive in Houston. Second, the rest of this game was off-the-charts.
The set-up seemed perfect for Boston: Not only were the Red Sox finally going to get past the Yankees, but they would batter Roger Clemens to do it. Clemens lasted only three innings, departing with his team down 4-0. The lead was 5-2 after seven, and Pedro was dealing to everyone not named Jason Giambi—who along with Mike Mussina is the unsung hero of the game—prompting me to conclude, “Wow, the Red Sox are really gonna win this thing, aren’t they?” And, of course, that’s when the Yankees came back.
If this were a Game 7 of any series, what followed would be memorable. But this was Game 7 of Yankees-Red Sox, and the man on the mound was Pedro Martinez. Jeter doubled, Bernie singled him in. No biggie. Five outs for the bullpen to get because Embree would face Matsui.
Why isn’t Embree facing Matsui?
Never before, and maybe never again, has the momentum of a game changed so much on a visit to the mound. Boston fans went from a feeling of “we’re-still-fine” confidence to one of all-out panic; Yankee fans switched from “don’t-get-too-excited” to “we’ve got this”—all without a pitch being thrown.
You know the rest, leading up to Boone’s homer off Tim Wakefield, who deserved a better fate in this series. What else can I say? It was all, well, “stupid.”
From John, Shameless Yankee Fan: Good call, Tim, on mentioning the unsung heroism of Mike Mussina and Jason Giambi. Those were the two guys whose time with the team unfortunately coincided with their most recent title drought, but they still had some great moments that are often overlooked. Mussina pitched great in Game 5 of the 2001 WS as well, and his work in relief in this game was, dare I say it, clutch. Giambi’s home runs were similarly huge: His home run in the 7th was the first time I felt like the Yankees had a real shot at coming back in this game.
But now let me defend the indefensible: Grady Little made the right call. I remember there was a quote from Joe Torre about David Cone in 1996: “I think 75% of David Cone is probably better than 100% of a lot of other guys.” Well, that was David Cone. And this is PEDRO MARTINEZ. The best pitcher of last 25 years. His ERA in 2003 was 2.22. Alan Embree’s was over 2 runs higher. Alan Embree was a lefty specialist? Well, Pedro’s numbers against lefties were better. Matsui, in fact, was 2 for 16 off Pedro that year. Pedro had thrown a lot of pitches, and traditionally did worse after 100 pitches? Who cares? He’s STILL Pedro. I would venture to say that 10% of Pedro is better than 150% of Alan Embree. There has never been a moment in all my years of rooting for the Yankees when I thought Boy, I’m sure glad Pedro Martinez is still pitching. It also should be pointed out that Posada’s game-tying hit was a bloop to short center; Posada only made it to second because Damon was playing deep in center and Jorge made the first and only smart baserunning move of his career. If Matsui’s ball had been a foot more to the right, then we’d all be talking about how Grady Little’s faith in Pedro finally broke the Curse. Sometimes, it’s nobody’s fault.
1. 2001 World Series Game 7: Arizona Diamondbacks 3, New York Yankees 2
Sometimes the obvious choice is obvious for a reason. I don’t think you can make a case that the 2001 World Series is the greatest Fall Classic ever—there were too many uninteresting games mixed in. But I do think you can make a strong case that Game 7 in ’01 is the greatest World Series game ever.
You can start with Clemens and Schilling—two of the game’s five best pitchers that season—living up to the magnitude of the start. Clemens pitched into the seventh having surrendered one run; Schilling finished the seventh allowing two. You can talk about Alfonso Soriano stepping into the spotlight with his seventh-inning solo homer to break the 1-1 tie. And you can spend some time discussing Randy Johnson’s two innings in relief, one night after he threw 104 pitches.
*I should note that the pitching matchup would have been even more interesting historically if Randy Johnson had started for Arizona; Johnson was the Cy Young winner that year in the NL, and I think we can agree that he is on the Mount Rushmore of his generation’s pitchers. Schilling decidedly is not.**
**The list: Maddux, Martinez, Clemens, Johnson—probably in that order.
But let’s be honest: It’s all about the bottom of the ninth.
It’s all about the fact that, for the first time in baseball’s illustrious history, we were afforded the privilege of watching an all-time great—the man who possesses the greatest single pitch the game has ever seen—face a contemporary great—the league’s second-best hitter, enjoying a hot streak that never seemed to end that season—with the bases loaded in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the World Series. This doesn’t happen. Baseball never comes down to star versus star; it’s about upstarts and underdogs and unsung heroes coming through when no one expected them to.
This was the exception, and Luis Gonzalez took advantage. It’s not like Mariano Rivera threw a bad cutter; it did what it always does in sawing off a left-hander’s bat. The ball just fluttered far enough into center field.
From John, Shameless Yankee Fan: Unlike the 1997 ALDS, the 2004 ALCS and the 2007 ALDS, I don’t really have bitter memories about this game. In a game like this, you just have to tip your hat and admit that the other team was better. Having said that, the “mano a mano” matchup between Gonzalez and Rivera wasn’t really the epic you describe. Gonzalez was in the midst of a….shall we just say “fluky”?….year. His 57 home runs were almost double what he had ever, or would ever again, hit in a single season. And the “showdown” ended on the second pitch, with a pop up that would have been caught had the infield not been playing in.