Sometimes, drama in baseball can be drowned out by the sea of 162 games. Even in the postseason, urgency can be limited by the margin for error built into a multi-game series. However, once it becomes winner-take-all, all bets are off and the tension really mounts.
Major League Baseball has gone years without a single sudden death game, but now it has already been blessed with three, a total that matches the last four seasons combined. Although the games that force a “double elimination” scenario can sometimes be more memorable (see Don Denkinger, Billy Buckner, and Steve Bartman), it is usually when both teams have their backs against the wall that legends are born in October.
Perhaps the best example of a player going from relative obscurity to immorality is Francisco Cabrera, who, despite having fewer than 400 plate appearances in his career, earned a place in baseball lore by authoring one of the most dramatic moments in the sport’s history. Cabrera’s two-run single, which vaulted the Braves over the Pirates in game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, still reverberates to this day, and it’s easy to understand why. Cabrera’s game winning hit ranks as the highest WPA by any player in a sudden death postseason game, not to mention a single at bat (out of 1,934 games and 5,708 PAs). In other words, there has never been a more significant postseason turning point (which some might argue also reversed the course of the Pirates’ franchise).
One year earlier, the Braves were on the other end of a historic, winner-take-all performance. Entering game 7 of the 1991 World Series, everyone expected a pitchers’ duel, but no one could have anticipated that length to which Jack Morris would go, both literally and figuratively. Morris matched zeros with John Smoltz for eight innings, but didn’t stop there. The right hander also shutdown the Braves in the ninth and then the tenth as well, giving his team a chance to squeak across a run and lay claim to victory in one of the most exciting World Series ever played.
By several measures, Morris’ epic game 7 stands out among all other sudden death games. Not only was the right hander the only pitcher to complete 10 innings under the pressure of a winner-take-all scenario, but he also recorded the highest WPA and second highest game score (a mark of 84 bettered only by Sandy Koufax’ 2-0 victory over the Twins in the 1965 World Series). In some people’s mind, on the basis of that game alone, Morris is deserving of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Although that point is debatable, what can’t be doubted is the inedible place Jack Morris holds in baseball’s long postseason history.
For some, sudden death is about more than one moment. Legendary players like Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, Yogi Berra, and Derek Jeter have all had several opportunities to play in October finales, and usually done quite well. However, all of those immortals still take a back seat to a very unlikely legend of the Fall.
Tony Womack’s career OPS+ of 72 is one of the lowest in baseball history among players with a similar number of at bats. At .212/.250/.276, his entire postseason record isn’t much better. And yet, despite his overall futility, the speedy Womack maintains the highest cumulative WPA among all hitters in sudden death games. Even though Luis Gonzalez’ blooper over a drawn-in infield is most often replayed, it was Womack’s game tying double off Mariano Rivera that defined the Diamondbacks’ clinching rally. Considering the relative ability of the two participants, Womack’s hit off Rivera could be the most improbable outcome in postseason history.
Although WPA does a good job highlighting the most significant events during a game, it can obscure overall performance by penalizing a player for limiting his leverage by contributing earlier in the game. Using OPS as a barometer, the list of top performers in winner-take-all games looks much more reassuring. Led by Jason Giambi, this group includes several names often associated with clutch performances, which is probably how they earned their reputations in the first place.
As previously mentioned, Jack Morris’ only foray into October sudden death was epic. Based on those 10 innings alone, the Twins’ right hander has the highest winner-take-all WPA among pitchers. Not surprisingly, Morris’ mound opponent that game, John Smoltz, ranks third. In three starts and one relief appearance, Smoltz compiled a WPA of .705 and miniscule ERA of .740 in 24 1/3 innings. Only Bob Gibson (2-1 in three games and 27 innings) and Roger Clemens (1-1 in five games and 26 2/3 innings) logged more face time in these crucial games, but their respective ERAs of 3.67 and 4.05 pale in comparison to Smoltz’ stinginess.
As any red blooded player will tell you, individual performance always takes a back seat to the outcome of the game. Devon White probably doesn’t lose much sleep over his 0-6 in the seventh game of the 1997 World Series because the Marlins won the World Series anyway. Similarly, Jim Thome likely doesn’t take much pride in being one of only six players to hit two home runs in a sudden death game because his Indians lost the 1999 ALDS to the Red Sox. That’s why it’s always better to have a ring than a record in October.
No team has won, and lost, more winner-take-all games than the Yankees, who have gone 11-10 in deciding postseason games. Fans of the Bronx Bombers might be happy to know that the Tigers are 2-4. If Cardinals’ fans are looking for a good omen heading into tomorrow’s game 5 NLDS showdown with the Phillies, their team has gone 10-5 when push has come to shove. The Diamondbacks have also had some success in sudden death, winning both times they appeared in such a game, but this time around they won’t have Tony Womack to save the day.
With three sudden death games on tap, it’s likely that some new postseason heroes, and perhaps a few goats, will be born. However, the real winner is major league baseball, which, fresh off a historic regular season end, seems poised for an epic postseason. Over the next two days. it’ll be winner take all, and six team are going all-in.