Here are the crazy games that made the difference in baseball’s tightest races
Sometime this offseason, when you’re staring out the window waiting for spring or you’re watching one of our lesser sports, you’re going to start thinking.
The offseason is good for that, and baseball thoughts are usually good thoughts, especially if your team made the playoffs. You’ll think back on a game that got them there — maybe one that they had no business winning and in some cases, proved to be the difference between going on and going home, or home-field advantage and a long plane trip.
Then there are those other thoughts. The game that they should have had — either they blew it or they couldn’t take care of the team that was supposed to be an easy mark on the schedule.
There were 2,429 games this year to think back on — the baseball gods owe us one more next time we see them — and a few of them were that game for a team that just missed or a team that just made it.
And for the second straight year, we present the games to remember that made the entire difference in the standings. For each team that either earned a spot or home field by one game, you’ll see the following:
- The escape from defeat. This was the game in which they had the lowest win probability at any point among the games they won.
- The win in which they were the biggest underdog coming in according to the wagering line.
- Luckiest win — This isn’t always 100 percent luck, but it’s the win in which they were most outplayed. We’ll use the biggest gaps in true average between the teams instead of just the hit total to account for walks, hit by pitches, etc.
- Miscellaneous — a stretch that saved their season, a good team that they owned, a notable game against the team they edged out, etc.
For the teams that came up a game short, it’s going to be the opposite — the most excruciating blown game, the loss in which they were the biggest favorite, the loss with their highest TAv advantage and a piece of miscellaneous misfortune that you won’t want to remember.
Starting with the single game that had the biggest impact on the postseason picture — the only single game that meant the difference between the ballfield and the golf course.
Houston Astros — Safely in the playoffs
Escape from defeat: Sept. 13 at Los Angeles Angels, won 5-3 despite a ~0 percent chance of winning in the top of the ninth.
Even if this hadn’t come against the team they ended up battling for the last spot, it still would have been the one to circle, but with it coming against the Angels, it’s probably the biggest single result of the year. Amid a September mini-collapse, the Astros were down 3-0 with nobody on and two outs in the ninth before the incredible happened a couple times. A Carlos Correa smash getting stuck in Taylor Featherston’s glove and a Jed Lowrie homer that evaded Kole Calhoun’s glove by inches are now showing up as the entirety of the margin for that second wild card.
Win as the biggest underdog: April 20 at Seattle, Asher Wojciechowski vs. Hisashi Iwakuma. Astros +179, won 7-5.
They held their own just fine against Iwakuma and took the lead for good on a Colby Rasmus home run in the eighth.
Luckiest win: May 7 at Los Angeles Angels, won 3-2 after being two-hit through eight innings.
The forgotten comeback against Huston Street was also one of the Astros’ rare wins when they were outhit. This one wasn’t a big blast, but a very un-Astro-like four straight singles that killed the Angels slowly.
Extra credit: They can credit their interleague play, which had the potential to be a downer for a team with so many DH types. They went 16-4, including 8-2 in National League parks.
Los Angeles Angels — Home for the winter
Worst blown game: Sept. 13 vs. Houston, lost 5-3 despite a ~100 percent chance of winning in the top of the ninth.
Same game, different emoticon. From the Angels side, this one was the ball stuck in the glove and the inches in right field, but also the big question of whether Huston Street should have been pitching through his sickness as they proved that 100 percent is a rounding estimate.
Loss as the biggest favorite: Sept. 30 vs. Oakland, Garrett Richards vs. Barry Zito. Angels -236, lost 8-7.
You wouldn’t believe it from this game or the Huston Street game, but the Angels did actually finish the season 20-11. It’s just that among the 11, there were some major headscratchers. The Angels could strike for only two in four innings against Zito, who was in the midst of a nostalgia tour that was hardly effective. A four-run seventh proved fatal, but …
Unluckiest loss: Sept. 30 vs. Oakland, lost 8-7 despite outhitting the A’s 13-6, with a 145-point edge in true average.
… it wasn’t even as if the Angels got outplayed. Quite the opposite. In no game across baseball this year did the losing team outdo the winning team in TAv by this much, and in no game across baseball this year did a team hit as well as the Angels did that day and still lose. It was that kind of year.
Bonus blame: If the other two losses to division rivals weren’t enough, how about this one from April, where the Angels gave up a two-strike, two-out tying hit in the ninth to the eventual AL West champion Rangers and lost it in the 11th.
New York Yankees — Playing at home Tuesday
Escape from defeat: Sept. 14 at Tampa Bay, won 4-1 despite a 3 percent chance of winning in the top of the ninth.
When you’re on the wrong end of a one-hit shutout by Erasmo Ramirez for 7 2/3 innings, you’re probably not supposed to be on the right side of anything that night, so the Yankees should count this one as a blessing. Down to their last out, Alex Rodriguez doubled home the tying run and enabled the beginning of Slade Heathcott, True Yankee.
Win as the biggest underdog: Aug. 14 at Toronto, Ivan Nova vs. David Price. Yankees +204, won 4-3.
This one was a pretty nifty escape as well. After going expectedly quiet against Price, they had a near exact preview of that Rays rally. This time it was Chase Headley’s double and Carlos Beltran’s three-run homer that sent the Yankees into the lead.
Luckiest win: Sept. 24 vs. Chicago White Sox, won 3-2, managing to give up only two runs on 11 hits and three walks thanks to some nifty scattering.
Extra credit: This being an odd-numbered year, the Yankees of course dominated the Twins, something that they also do in even years. They went 5-1 against Minnesota, and if that had been reversed, the Yankees might not even be in the playoffs as this proved to be one of the downfalls of the otherwise ahead-of-schedule Twins.
Houston Astros — Missing Minute Maid
Worst blown game: June 7 at Toronto, lost 7-6 despite a 93 percent chance to win entering the ninth.
If you want to isolate some causes that the Astros missed out on home field — or the division, which they missed by two games — start looking in this, their seven-game losing streak that shortly preceded a six-game losing streak. This one was four hits and two steals in the ninth off Luke Gregerson, who recorded just one out.
Loss as the biggest favorite: Sept. 18 vs. Oakland, Mike Fiers vs. Felix Doubront. Astros -205, lost 4-3.
Eleven days after they lost a different Fiers vs. Doubront matchup, their year-long mediocrity against the A’s caught up to them again. Pat Neshek, stumbling to the finish, got a lot of plate, and Danny Valencia got a lot of ball to turn a 3-2 Astros lead into a 4-3 deficit.
Unluckiest loss: April 22 at Seattle, lost 3-2 with a top-10 TAv advantage for any losing team across baseball this year. Left 10 on base to Seattle’s four.
Bonus blame: This seems the time to address the potential Rookie of the Year shortstop in the room and wonder if the Astros would be hosting the Wild Card Game — or better, raising a division flag — had they brought up Carlos Correa before June 8, when he was likely to avoid Super Two status. To say anything having to do with being 34-24 pre-Correa and 52-52 since his call-up would be lazy, but it’s possible that saying that an extra 50 games of a player who got 2.6 WARP in 99 games would have put them over the top is too.
This, being an exercise in assumptions, carries an underlying assumption to it all. That changing one game doesn’t change the rest. It’s a close relative of what baseball’s rule book tells you to do within a game — when determining an unearned run, assume everything would have played out as it did. We all know that’s not exactly fair, though, which is why this is ‘games to remember’ rather than they’d definitely be tied. Within individual games, it’s even harder. In Correa’s case, not to get too far into chaos theory or anything like that, you wonder if a team as constructed plus Correa would have gone 35-23 over the first two months just because the actual team went 34-24. The batting order would have been different; hit sequences, etc., would have been different. The same way you can say after a major upset in football that had the other team won the coin toss, the upset probably wouldn’t have happened, it seems hard to assume a team with Correa on it would have gone 35-23, just because 35-23 is hard and 34-24 is probably the tail end of their possibilities anyway.
Also, they went 1-5 against the White Sox and 2-5 against the Rays.
Pittsburgh Pirates — Playing at PNC Wednesday
Escape from defeat: July 12 vs. St. Louis, won 6-5 despite a four percent win probability in the bottom of the 10th.
If you’re a fan of either the Pirates or the Cardinals or if you’re a big enough fan at all, you shouldn’t have to think back too hard to remember this one. It would have been a Game of the Year candidate with no context, but the high stakes division race and the national Sunday Night Baseball audience made it that much more memorable. The 10th-inning rally will be recalled plenty in the next two weeks if it is a Pirates-Cardinals division series.
Win as the biggest underdog: Sept. 19 at Los Angeles Dodgers, Francisco Liriano vs. Clayton Kershaw. Pirates +165, won 3-2.
Another possible playoff preview here. If you’re looking for one stretch that solidified the Pirates’ playoff position beyond that series right before the break, it was the eight-game streak that started on a Saturday night at Dodger Stadium against the best in the game.
Luckiest win: July 31 at Cincinnati, won 5-4 with their bullpen giving up five hits and three walks in four innings but allowing only one run.
Extra credit: They went 36-17 in one-run games. Enough said there.
Chicago Cubs — In their road grays
Worst blown game: May 22 at Arizona, lost 5-4 in 13 innings despite in a 99 percent chance to win in the bottom of the 10th.
Long before it became clear that 97 wins would only buy you a ticket to Pittsburgh, there was this heartbreaker, where the Cubs were one out away with a two-run lead and nobody on base. Yada, yada, they pitched to Paul Goldschmidt, yada.
Loss as the biggest favorite: July 24 vs. Philadelphia, Jon Lester vs. Jerome Williams. Cubs -265, lost 5-3.
The Cubs finished 34 games ahead of the Phillies, but they’ll be kicking themselves if they have an early exit because of the seven head-to-head matchups in which the Cubs went 2-5. They were swept at home in the shocker of the year, including an extra-innings loss, a blowout loss and a shutout loss, and then they finished the cycle in Philly with a walkoff loss.
Unluckiest loss: May 19 at San Diego, lost 3-2. Outhit and outwalked the Padres, but lost the game on three unearned runs on three errors.
Bonus blame: Their worst head-to-head loss against the Pirates came early, April 23 as part of the short-lived Edwin Jackson experience. He didn’t retire a batter in his relief appearance as the Cubs blew a 4-1 lead and lost 5-4.
And finally, one more that had nothing to do with the playoffs but was a one-game separation in one of the most hotly contested races of the year.
Philadelphia Phillies — On the clock for the 2016 draft
Worst (best?) blown game: Aug. 27 vs. New York Mets, lost 9-5 in 13 innings despite a 93 percent win probability in the top of the fourth.
One of many defining moments in the Summer of Yo in New York was also one of many for the Phillies as the Phils took a 5-0 lead in the third and quickly and thankfully gave it back in the next two innings.
Loss as the biggest favorite: May 29 vs. Colorado, Cole Hamels vs. Chad Bettis. Phillies -157, lost 4-1.
Unluckiest (luckiest?) loss: Aug. 14 at Milwaukee, lost 3-1 despite having 12 baserunners to the Brewers’ four.
Extra credit: For a while, the Brewers looked to be the Phillies’ stiffest competition for the No. 1 pick — something that several NL teams took their turns doing at various points. The Phillies laughed in the face of this particular challenge and went 0-7 against Milwaukee’s worst team in more than a decade.
Cincinnati Reds — Picking No. 2 by a game
Escape from defeat: Aug. 24 vs. Detroit, won 12-5 despite a four percent win probability in the bottom of the sixth.
It’s rare to find a blowout in the escape category, but a 10-run sixth against Buck Farmer and a band of relievers turned around a 5-0 deficit. Despite missing the playoffs for the first time in five years, the Tigers bullpen was once again able to exert its influence on the season.
Win as the biggest underdog: Aug. 31 at Chicago Cubs, Michael Lorenzen vs. Kyle Hendricks. Reds +197, won 13-6.
Luckiest (unluckiest?) win: Sept. 15 at San Francisco, won 9-8 in 10 innings despite allowing five home runs.
If only Madison Bumgarner had pinch-homered against Aroldis Champman instead of merely pinch-walking, maybe the Reds take this thing down to the final day with something to not play for.
Bonus blame: They took as valiant a run as they possibly could at the seemingly uncatchable Phillies, losing 13 in a row. As much as one point of this exercise is to show that titles can be won and lost any time from April to September, you have to wonder if Brandon Finnegan didn’t get the memo before his breeze through the Pirates lineup on the final Saturday when the Phillies clinched it.
Win Probability added from Baseball-Reference.com, Odds from the Covers.com historical data. Thanks to Xavier Alatorre, Bryan Holcolmb, Jeff Lamb and Emmett Rosenbaum of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.