Shame on you if you watched Monday Night football instead of Game 1 of the NLCS last night. Forget CSI — the drama with the most twists is the 2003 MLB playoffs.
The division series began in 1995, and this ninth version was by far the best. Of the 18 games played in the first round of the playoffs, there were only two bad games. The A’s 5-1 defeat of the Red Sox in Game 2 was error-filled and lacked drama, and the Yankees finished off the Twins 8-1 in Game 4 of their series. Other than these two match-ups, however, every game was incredibly intense, producing phenomenal finishes.
The frequency of clutch two-out hits and wins in the last at-bat was a staple of the division series. Three games of the A’s-Red Sox series were decided in the final at-bat. In Game 1, Erubiel Durazo tied the game with a two-out single in the ninth, before Ramon Hernandez’s two-out bunt single with the bases loaded in the 11th. The Sox then rallied from a 2-0 game deficit to win Game 3 with a walk-off Trot Nixon homer in the 11th inning. Oakland came within four outs of winning the series in Game 4 before David Ortiz’s two-out, two-run double in the 8th.
The Braves won Game 2 against the Cubs on a two-run double by Mark DeRosa in their final at-bat. In Game 3 of the Marlins-Giants series, Pudge Rodriguez delivered a two-out, two-run single to win the game in the 11th. The next day, the Marlins scored two in the bottom of the 8th to again top the Giants by one run.
Overall, six games were decided by final at-bat runs.
Pitching is usually exceptional in the playoffs, but it was even better in the division series. For the Cubs, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior combined to go 3-0 with an ERA of 1.48. New York Yankee pitching was equally brilliant, yielding only six runs in four games against the Twins. Yet, the most memorable performance of the first round belongs to Boston’s Derek Lowe, who closed out Oakland in Game 5 by striking out consecutive hitters with the tying and winning runs in scoring position.
The first round also produced bizarre plays which will be remembered for years to come. Giants fans are not likely to forget Jose Cruz’s dropped fly ball in the 11th inning of Game 3 that allowed Pudge to come to the plate in the first place. Nobody will forget Ramon Hernandez’s game-winning bunt in the series opener or Oakland’s managerial decisions during the 6th inning of Game 3 at Fenway. First, Eric Byrnes missed home plate and didn’t go back to touch the base, allowing Jason Varitek to retrieve the ball and tag Byrnes out. Then, Miguel Tejada pulled a Chuck Knoblauch and protested an interference play at third base when he could have easily scored the lead run.
For me, the best highlight was the conclusion of Game 4 of the Marlins-Giants series. The Giants cut the Marlins’ two-run lead in half before Jeffrey Hammonds singled with the tying run on second base. J.T. Snow tried to score, but was gunned down at the plate by Jeff Conine. Pudge held onto the ball and a wild celebration ensued.
So, that was pretty much the division series. Plenty of last at-bat drama, great pitching, and enough bizarre twists to keep everyone on edge. And it only promises to get better.
FOX is billing the NLCS as the “most improbable in history.” I wouldn’t argue that. The Cubs had not won a playoff series in 95 years before beating the Braves and nobody would have picked the Marlins to make the playoffs. Game 1 was phenomenal, with the Cubs tying it up in the bottom of the 9th on Sammy Sosa’s two-out homer before the Marlins won it in the 11th on Mike Lowell’s dinger. Hopefully, the rest of the series will live up to the hype.
The ALCS between the Red Sox and Yankees will be another gem, pitting the biggest rivals in professional sports against each other.
So, if you haven’t been watching, tune in now.