We were treated yesterday to yet another pair of absorbing and exhilarating games from what’s quickly shaping up to be a classic postseason. The Los Angeles Angels’ Jeff Mathis hit a walk-off double to keep their ALCS hopes alive against the New York Yankees, while Jimmy Rollins repeated the ‘walk-off double’ trick a few hours later to give the Philadelphia Phillies a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Yankees-Angels game was probably the last early contest of 2009: there will only be another (game six of the ALCS on Saturday) if the NLCS goes to seven games. If there are no more games to be enjoyed live during the British evening this year, we couldn’t have asked for a better one to go out on. The Yankees’ three early solo shots (courtesy of Jeter, A-Rod and Damon) had reduced the thunderstick-pounding Anaheim crowd to a murmur of red disappointment, but the long-ball-laced riposte by Erick Aybar and Vladimir Guerrero brought them hurtling back into the game. The celebrations that greeted Mathis’s game-winning double in the eleventh inning were about more than merely avoiding a 3-0 series deficit, they represented a genuine wave of optimism that the turnaround could be the start of a famous ALCS victory.
The fourth game of a series stuck at 2-1 always seems vitally important as the perception of a 3-1 series is completely different to one level at 2-2. If the Angels can get the better of CC Sabathia on short rest tonight (00.57 BST) then they’ll have a shot at winning Game Five and heading back to New York needing only to win one of the two remaining games. The momentum will be on the side of the Angels and the Yankees will have to face the pressure of potentially blowing a 2-0 series lead.
However, MLB.com helpfully report that fourteen of the nineteen teams that have led 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have gone on to win it. The Yankees also have the benefit of playing the final two games of the series at home, if needed. Some sports teams can take a while to feel comfortable in their new surroundings, but the Yankees quickly settled into their grandiose new ballpark, posting a 57-24 regular season record there. Only two of the five teams that previously managed to escape from a 2-1 hole completed the job on the road: the 1995 Cleveland Indians over the Mariners by a series score of 4-2 and the 1985 Kansas City Royals over the Toronto Blue Jays 4-3. While a 2-1 lead doesn’t sound like much, the Yankees clearly still hold a decent advantage.
If a 2-1 lead is a good position to be in, a 3-1 lead looks very handsome indeed. That’s the position the Phillies are in and the reigning champs will book a return visit to the Fall Classic if they defeat the Dodgers on Wednesday night. MLB.com once again provides the historical perspective. Of the twelve teams that have been in a 3-1 hole in a best-of-seven series, only the 2003 Marlins and 1996 Braves were able to stage a successful comeback, so the odds are stacked against the Dodgers. Maybe there’s a Phillies version of Steve Bartman out there?
The last two games in the NLCS do raise the question of which is worse for a team’s morale: a heavy defeat or a close game that you lose at the last. Cliff Lee was outstanding over eight innings in Game Three and the Phillies’ offense made short work of Hiroki Kuroda to earn a comfortable 11-0 win. Yet in some ways such a comprehensive loss can be written off as ‘one of those days’. Holding a 4-2 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth, only for your young star closer to blow the save, has got to be more demoralizing. The Dodgers have no choice but to use today’s off-day to forget about it. They can’t carry any baggage into Game Five tomorrow: it’s ‘do or die’ for them.
That’s the harsh reality of the playoffs and that’s why the games are so much fun to watch.