Momentum in baseball is a myth. Sure, teams can have momentum, if you define momentum as “whichever team scored most recently.” It’s just that it doesn’t seem to mean anything. Game 6 was the latest proof of that. When the St. Louis Cardinals, down to their final strike, tied the game in the bottom of the ninth on David Freese’s two-run triple, they had all the momentum in the world.
Then they lost it all in the top of the 10th, when Josh Hamilton hit a two-run homer to restore the Rangers’ lead. The momentum had shifted again, the wind had been taken out of the Cardinals’ sails, and that was the end of that. At least until the Cardinals started a rally in the bottom of the inning on singles from Daniel Descalso and Jon Jay, and capped it with a two-out, two-strike single by Lance Berkman. If momentum can change direction at the drop of a hat, what value does it have?
Momentum might be almost meaningless as a general rule, but general rules break down at the extremes. What happened last night — when the Texas Rangers, one strike away from their first world championship, TWICE blew two-run leads in both the ninth and 10th innings — wasn’t simply a seismic shift of momentum; it was a psychological drop-kick to a team that has less than 24 hours to get it out of its system before taking the field for a do-or-die Game 7. Oh yes, the Rangers will also be on the road and in front of 47,000 hysterical fans dressed in red and screaming for blood.
We don’t have a large enough sample size to evaluate whether the Rangers’ stunning loss truly has a hangover effect — last night’s game has few precedents in the history of baseball. But the prospect of playing a Game 7 on the road is daunting enough. Of the past 13 occasions in which a major league team had a 3-2 playoff series lead, then lost Game 6 on the road, 12 of those teams also lost Game 7. (The exception? The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, who lost Game 6 of the NLCS at Shea Stadium, but won Game 7 when Yadier Molina hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning.)
But let’s take a look back at the most recent instances when a team blew a late-inning lead in a pivotal World Series game, and whether it was able to recover after that.
2002: It’s been nine years since we last saw a World Series Game 7, and like this year, that game was made possible by a monumental Game 6 collapse. The San Francisco Giants held a 5-0 lead against the Anaheim Angels after 6½ innings, just nine outs away from their first title since they moved to California in 1958. But Scott Spiezio’s three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh gave the Angels life, and they scored three more runs in the bottom of the eighth to win, 6-5.
The Giants would score the first run of Game 7 in the second inning, but the Angels scored four runs in the second and third, and held on for the 4-1 win. Barry Bonds retired without ever winning a ring.
2001: History is written by the victors, which is why Byung-Hyun Kim’s name rarely comes up during discussions of the greatest World Series goats. The Diamondbacks led the World Series, two games to one, and held a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth in Game 4. But with two outs, Tino Martinez hit a game-tying two-run homer off of Kim, the Diamondbacks’ closer. One inning later, a few minutes after midnight on Halloween night, Derek Jeter hit a walk-off homer and became Mr. November.
The very next night, the same scenario played out: The Diamondbacks took a 2-0 lead into the ninth inning, and with two outs and a man on, Kim gave up another game-tying homer, this time to Scott Brosius. Kim was long gone when Alfonso Soriano
hit a walk-off homer drove home the winning run in the 12th, and wouldn’t pitch again in the series.
Despite back-to-back crushing losses, the Diamondbacks had two momentum-killers on their side. Their names were Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, and they would start Games 6 and 7 for Arizona. The Diamondbacks were also headed home for the last two games. Arizona crushed the Yankees in Game 6, 15-2, and staged their own two-run, ninth-inning rally in Game 7, capped by Luis Gonzalez’s walk-off bloop single. He who laughs last laughs best.
1996: Before the dynasty and the three straight world championships from 1998 to 2000, the Yankees were — believe it or not — heavy underdogs in the 1996 World Series. The Braves were defending champs, and had played in three of the previous four Fall Classics. Atlanta won Games 1 and 2 in New York, and even after losing Game 3 at home were poised to finish off the series in Atlanta.
The Braves had a 6-0 lead in Game 4, and still led 6-3 in the eighth inning, when closer Mark Wohlers surrendered a game-tying three-run homer to Jim Leyritz, the Yankees’ backup catcher. Adding insult to injury, the Yankees scored two runs with two outs in the 10th inning on a bases-loaded walk and a dropped popup.
Having tied the series at two apiece, the Yankees then took Game 5 when Andy Pettitte outdueled John Smoltz, 1-0, with the winning margin coming by way of a single, unearned run. The Yankees completed the upset by beating Greg Maddux in Game 6, 3-2. Until Jim Leyritz batted, the Atlanta Braves were major league baseball’s Team of the Decade. From that moment on, it was all pinstripes.
1993: Joe Carter’s walk-off, series-ending home run off of Mitch Williams in Game 6 is the enduring memory of the 1993 World Series. But the only reason there wasn’t a Game 7 that year was because of an epic cave-in by the Phillies’ bullpen in Game 4. The game was a pitching debacle on both sides — the score was 7-6 after 2½ innings — but the Phillies led comfortably 14-9 headed into the eighth. The Blue Jays scored six runs in the eighth, five of them with Williams on the mound and four of them with two outs. Toronto won 15-14 in the highest-scoring game in World Series history. More important, the Blue Jays took a 3-1 series lead.
The Phillies staved off elimination in Game 5, thanks to a complete-game shutout from — he’s everywhere — Curt Schilling. And they took a one-run lead into the bottom of the ninth in Game 6. But manager Jim Fregosi refused to accept the fact that his closer was cooked. Williams had a 20.25 ERA in the World Series that year. The Phillies traded him away that winter; Williams threw just 37 more innings in his career, and walked 52 batters.
1991: Joe Buck finished off last night’s play-by-play with perhaps the most poignant call of his career. As David Freese’s home run cleared the center-field fence, he simply said, “We’ll see you tomorrow night.”
Twenty years and one day earlier, with Tim McCarver also by his side, Jack Buck — Joe’s dad — made the identical call in an identical situation. Last night, David Freese led off the bottom of the 11th against a new pitcher (Mark Lowe) and sent everyone home. In 1991, Kirby Puckett led off the bottom of the 11th against a new pitcher (Charlie Leibrandt) and did the same thing.
And like Freese, who had already been a hero with his game-tying two-run triple in the ninth, Puckett’s walk-off homer only capped off what is widely considered to be one of the greatest single-game performances in World Series history. He tripled home the game’s first run in the first inning and later came around to score. In the third inning, he robbed Ron Gant of a home run with a circus catch by climbing the plexiglass in centerfield. With the game tied at 2 in the fifth, Puckett drove home the go-ahead run with a sacrifice fly. And then he sent the series to a Game 7.
If Lonnie Smith hadn’t lost track of the ball on Terry Pendleton’s double in the eighth inning, Puckett’s heroics the night before might have been forgotten. But Smith failed to run home, the Braves didn’t score, Jack Morris threw 10 shutout innings, and the Twins won The Greatest World Series Ever Played — for another 12 hours, at least.
1986: You may remember this game. What you might not remember was that Game 7 was delayed a day by rain, giving the Red Sox a chance to (1) catch their breath, or (2) stew in their Game 6 collapse. (Which narrative would be selected depended on the outcome of the next game.)
You also might not remember that the Red Sox scored three runs in the second inning of Game 7, and held that 3-0 lead into the sixth inning. But the Mets scored three in the sixth to tie, Ray Knight led off the bottom of the seventh with a home run, and the Red Sox would have to wait another 18 years.
1985: After his managing days were over, Whitey Herzog lamented that only once in his career did he feel his team was not mentally prepared to play a ballgame. That game was Game 7 of the 1985 World Series.
Game 6, of course, is remembered as the Don Denkinger game. The Cardinals led 1-0 with three outs to go. Jorge Orta chopped a ball to the right side. Denkinger called him safe at first. Replays showed he was out. And the Cardinals fell apart. The next batter, Steve Balboni, popped up in foul territory, but the ball fell between catcher Darrell Porter and first baseman Jack Clark. Balboni responded with a single. Jim Sundberg tried to bunt the runners over, but pitcher Todd Worrell nailed the lead runner at third base; Porter then allowed a passed ball that accomplished the same feat. After Hal McRae was intentionally walked, Dane Iorg looped a single to right, Sundberg slid under the tag, the Royals had won, and 26 years later this paragraph is still a joy to write.
The Cardinals hadn’t just lost in heartbreaking fashion; in their minds, they had been cheated out of a victory. They came out flat in Game 7, and then fell apart. John Tudor, the Cardinals’ ace, was knocked out of the game in the third inning, having allowed five runs; he then injured his hand punching a fan (the electric kind, not the kind wearing a Royals cap and a George Brett jersey) in the dugout. The Cardinals gave up six more runs in the fifth inning; pitcher Joaquin Andujar was booted from the game along with Herzog after Andujar tried to dismember the home plate umpire with his bare hands. The final score was 11-0, and the game wasn’t even that close.
1980: The Royals and Phillies were tied in the World Series, two games apiece, and the Royals held a 3-2 lead headed to the top of the ninth in Game 5. But closer Dan Quisenberry gave up a leadoff single to Mike Schmidt, and Del Unser doubled him home. Unser was sacrificed over to third, and with two outs, Manny Trillo managed an infield single that scored Unser with the winning run.
The Royals were faced with the task of winning two straight games in Philadelphia, and had to face Steve Carlton in Game 6. Carlton was too much, and the Royals went down meekly, 4-1.
1975: If you’re a Rangers fan looking for a ray of optimism to shine through before tonight’s game, you have to go back to the Big Red Machine — 36 years ago. Game 6 of the 1975 World Series is remembered for one iconic moment — Carlton Fisk waving his walk-off home run fair in the bottom of the 12th inning. But that home run was the final nail in a demoralizing loss for the Reds, who had led 6-3 in the eighth inning.
Fred Lynn led off the bottom of the inning with a single, and Rico Petrocelli walked, but Rawly Eastwick came in and retired the next two batters. Bernie Carbo, pinch-hitting for the pitcher, hit a game-tying three-run homer that gave the Red Sox new life. There would be great plays, defensive gems, and runners thrown out at the plate, and Fisk’s heroics cemented the game as an all-time classic. But the Reds let that game slip out of their grasp, and had to win Game 7 in hostile territory.
Which they did. The Red Sox scored three runs in the third inning, and left the bases loaded. The Reds were still down 3-0 in the sixth, when Bill Lee tried to slip a slow curveball past Tony Perez, and Perez turned on it for a two-run homer. In the top of the seventh, Pete Rose hit a game-tying RBI single with two outs. And in the top of the ninth, Rose walked to put men on first and third with two outs, and Joe Morgan came through with the go-ahead single. Will McEnaney completed five shutout innings from the Reds’ bullpen with a 1-2-3 ninth, and the Reds were World Champions.
The Reds, though, won 108 games that year. They had four Hall of Famers (well, four deserved Hall of Famers) in their lineup — Perez, Morgan, Rose, and Johnny Bench. The Rangers are a good team; they are no Big Red Machine.
Eight times since 1975, a World Series team has blown a late lead that would have clinched a world championship or put them in the driver’s seat to win one. Only one of those teams — the 2001 Diamondbacks — rebounded to win the Series, and that team had home-field advantage in Games 6 and 7, plus a pair of future Hall of Fame pitchers starting each game. The Rangers have neither.
The Rangers hold Ron Washington in high esteem as their manager because of his ability to lead men, to set a winning tone in the clubhouse — above all, to have his players ready to play every single night. (As he showed again last night, they’re certainly not paying him the big bucks for his tactical decision-making.) If the Rangers are going to come back from one of the most difficult losses in baseball history, Washington has to earn his paycheck and then some tonight.
Momentum may be a myth, but myths can be powerful when people believe in them. Tonight, Washington needs to make the Rangers forget for a few hours. If he can do that, the Rangers can overcome both the history of last night’s game and of the past 35 years. They can still write their own chapter in the history books, but they’re facing an uphill battle.
Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website and co-hosts The Baseball Show with Rany and Joe podcast. He is one of the original founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.
Previously from Rany Jazayerli:
Why the Cardinals will win in 7
Can Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder carry the Brewers to the World Series?
The Astros hit rock bottom
Philadelphia Phillies: The End is Nigh
On the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 2011 turnaround
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