January 4, 2011
When Alex Rodriguez hit the most important home run of his career on Friday night - and in so doing, temporarily demolishing his plentiful postseason demons - tying the game in the bottom of the ninth inning against the overmatched Minnesota Twins, was the game's eventual outcome really ever in question? I doubt anyone in the stadium or watching on TV had any notion that the Yankees would not win the game, even Twins fans I'd hazard a guess. So when Mark Teixeira's line drive barely cleared the left field wall in the 11th, it seemed more a formality than anything else. The Yankees just don't lose extra-inning games at home in the postseason, it seems.
And earlier last week, when the Detroit Tigers, who had utterly choked down the stretch of the regular season, seemed on the verge of making that final week a wonderfully distant memory as they found themselves up a run going into the bottom of the 10th inning in that epic game against the Twins, one just felt that it wouldn't be enough to withstand the assault from both the Twins and their Metrodome fans. And sure enough, it wasn't. The Twins tied the game and then won it in the 12th.
It just always feels as if the road team is charged with a Herculean task when faced with an extra inning game in postseason play. Sure enough, the statistics bear this out. In my count, since the inception of the Wild Card in 1995, there have been 52 postseason games (including two "163rd" games to decide a playoff spot) that have gone to extra innings. In only two of these years - 2002 and 2006 - were no extra inning games contested. The home team has triumphed in 35 of these contests, for a 67% winning percentage. It's a startling statistic considering that in the playoffs the teams are often evenly matched, especially when it comes to pitching.
It's tough to compare with other sports. In NFL's overtime over the last decade, the team who wins the coin toss first has won 60% of the games according to various studies. The fact that it's not more than 60% is in some way surprising as the advantage of gaining possession in a sudden death situation would appear far more advantageous than both teams getting an equal chance, as in baseball.
Perhaps the closest analogy is tennis. When serving second, or "from behind", in the final set of a match it is a marked disadvantage - if you lose your serve, it's over. Whereas if the player who serves first loses his serve, there's that psychological edge that you can always get another shot. Just ask Andy Roddick. The poor guy had to serve to stay in the Wimbledon final against Roger Federer an unreal 10 times. But on the 11th try he came up short and just like that the match was over.
So it is just purely a psychological edge that the home team in baseball knows they get the last word, win or lose, that allows them to ease up? Is it the home crowd that can will a team to victory as many claim it did last week in Minneapolis? We'll never really know.
What is for certain is that some of these extra inning games have to be regarded as some of the greatest of all games played. Below is a short list which all can agree contain five of the finest games ever contested, postseason or otherwise. But I would take a fair amount of umbrage with anyone who disagrees with the No. 1 extra inning postseason game of the last 15 years.
THE GREATEST POSTSEASON EXTRA INNING GAMES SINCE THE INCEPTION OF WILD CARD PLAY:
5 -- 2001 World Series Games 4 and 5, 2001 World Series, Yankees vs. Diamondbacks - We'll count these as one game, considering the circumstances, with 9/11 as a backdrop. Brenly - inhumanly it seems - leaves Kim in both these games and forces him to face the Bronx crowd on consecutive nights.
4 -- 2003 ALCS Game 7, Yankees vs. Red Sox - Aaron Boone becomes the 21st century Bucky Dent to millions of New Englanders after Pedro is left in the game too long.
3 -- 2007 NL Wild Card Tiebreaker, Rockies vs. Padres - After surrendering two runs in the top of the 13th, the Rockies answer with three to complete their remarkable run to the postseason.
2 -- 2009 Twins-Tigers -- Greatest one-game playoff, ever.
1 -- 2005 NLDS Game 4, Houston vs. Atlanta - Houston was down 5-0 in the 5th and 6-1 in the 8th. They tied the game in the 9th and then after eight scoreless innings from both teams, won the game in the 18th on a home run by Chris Burke. A bizarre footnote to this game is that the fan who caught Burke's home run also caught the grand slam hit by Lance Berkman earlier in the eighth inning.