The Little Things Add Up to Big Things in LCS Play
Getting ready for the random moment that may decide it all
By Adam Hoff
It is a Thursday night and the Mets and Dodgers are scoreless in the third. If New York wins, they will probably win the series. Just like the Cardinals and A's both appear poised to win their respective series as well. Detroit-New York? It could still go either way.
Somehow, none of this seems terribly urgent or compelling. Ever since the wild card system was implemented, the divisional round has felt like the baseball version of treading water. The series are too short, the outcomes too random. Other than the Boston-Oakland series in 2003, I can't remember an LDS that truly felt like magical postseason baseball.
That is why, for me, the playoffs really start with the league championship round. It is arguably the best round of any postseason format in any sports, consistently producing classic series and memorable moments. From the epic Mets-Astros series in 1986 to the Red Sox comeback from 3-0 against the Yankees in 2004, LCS play has always seemed larger than life.
The League Championship Series is also the stage in which the smallest plays seem to produce the grandest results. Over the past few years, each eventual World Series champion has benefited from a bizarre or underrated play, and in each instance, said play occurred during LCS play.
Let's take a look back:
2005: The Dropped Third Strike. Due to the way the White Sox rolled through the playoffs last year, most people don't think of this incident as being a huge event ... but try telling that to an Anaheim fan.
Looking at something in hindsight is tricky, because you lose the perspective of the moment. Yes, the White Sox went 11-1 in the playoffs last year, but the one game they lost was Game One of the ALCS to Anaheim. The Angels has just trounced the mighty Yankees in divisional play and were on the verge of going up 2-0 against the Sox when all hell broke loose. A.J. Pierzynksi swung and missed on a Kelvim Escobar fastball that seemed to land safely in the glove of catcher Josh Paul. Umpire Doug Eddings and Pierzynski were the only people in the stadium that felt differently and as Paul was rolling the ball back toward the mound, Pierzynski was heading down to first base. After what felt like hours of debate, the call stood. A few pitches later and the White Sox had taken the lead.
Anaheim never recovered from the blow. They were so close to leaving Chicago with a 2-0 lead and instead went back to Southern California feeling cheated and deflated. They never recovered and Chicago went on to win the series 4-1 and then sweep the Astros.
2004: The Dave Roberts Stolen Base.
The 2004 ALCS was probably the most exciting, improbable playoff series I've ever seen and you could single out dozens of memorable plays. From the heroics of David Ortiz to the cowardly ball-swipe attempt by Alex Rodriguez, there was plenty of SportsCenter material to go around. However, ask almost any Red Sox fan what the single most important play of that series was and they will tell you the same thing: "Dave Roberts' stolen base."
With the Yankees leading the series 3-0 and the game 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Kevin Millar drew an improbable leadoff walk against the great Mariano Rivera. Manager Terry Francona immediately inserted Dave Roberts into the game to pinch run. Considering that Roberts is a major league baseball player purely because of his speed and ability to steal bases, all 35,000 people packed into Fenway Park, including everyone associated with the Yankees, knew what was coming next. It didn't matter. When Roberts finally picked his pitch to run on, not even a high heater that effectively worked as a pitchout for Jorge Posada could stop Roberts, who slid headfirst just ahead of Derek Jeter's tag.
It was a breathtaking play and on many levels, it was baseball at its most exciting. However, it was bigger than just a cat-and-mouse game or a battle of wits. It turned out to be the play that won the game and kept the series alive. Bill Mueller hit a ball back up the middle (that might have been a double play ball with a runner still on first, although it is hard to say) to score Roberts and send the Red Sox faithful into hysterics. You could make a pretty rational argument that it was the most important stolen base in baseball history.
2003: The Bartman Incident.
Poor Steve Bartman. He obviously screwed things up for the Cubs in almost unimaginable fashion, but if you go back to that train wreck of an inning, he was only one factor. That said, the moment when Bartman prevented Moises Alou from catching a foul ball out stands as pretty much the epitome of this whole theme. I mean, talk about your unpredictable moments.
Again, let's reset the scene. The Cubs were leading the Marlins 3-2 in the series and 3-0 in the game and were five outs away from reaching the World Series for the first time since 1945. Mark Prior was working on a three-hit shutout and looked invincible (if not a little tired, but hey, Dusty Baker was the manager, so we were used to that). Luis Castillo lofted a lazy fly ball down the line and Alou gave chace. Upon reaching the wall, he set his feat, sized up the ball, and timed his leap perfectly. But just as the ball was about to reach Alou's glove, Bartman took a wild stab it it and knocked it away. Just an awful moment. Of course, replays showed that there was another, equally guilty culprit (the guy in the gray sweatshirts with black strips), but while it always bothered me that the Other Guy got away with it, the city of Chicago already had its villain: the guy wearing headphones and a vacant expression.
We all know what happened after that horrible moment. Prior - clearly rattled by the whole situation - walked Castillo and allowed a single to Pudge Rodriguez to make it a 3-1 game. Then, sure-handed shortstop Alex Gonzalez booted a sure double play ball, Derek Lee ripped a game-tying double, and the rout was on. Florida wound up scoring eight unanswered runs, went on to win the series, and then manhandled the Yankees in the World Series. I still can't believe the Marlins won, to be honest with you. And it all started with a ball that wasn't even hit in fair territory. Baseball is a crazy game.
I'm can't recall whether the Angels caught a massive break against the Twins in 2002, but in any event, you get the idea. Baseball is a game of inches and the margin for error is never slimmer than it is when the calendar flips to October and the skies get darker earlier.
We have no way of knowing what strange play might occur in the coming weeks (perhaps Chris Carpenter will balk in the winning run of a game in controversial fashion or Frank Thomas will steal home), but if the last few years are any indication, something small will add up to something big.
To the participants of the NLCS and ALCS: beware of the little things.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com.