- From dramatic home runs in the two wild-card games right through the thrilling final inning of Game 7 of the World Series, the past month proved to be as historic as it was unforgettable.
Another MLB postseason has come and gone, and while 2016 will be remembered as the Year of the Cubs, Chicago wasn't alone in making the past month one to remember. The 10 playoff entrants—the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays in the American League and the Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals in the National League—combined for four weeks of dramatic home runs, incredible rallies, walk-off hits and controversial moments. So before we turn our attention to free agency and the hot stove, let's look back at the 10 best games of a terrific postseason.
"Clayton Kershaw versus the narrative" is one of America’s most mind-numbing yet inescapable playoff matchups, and this game was no exception. On the one hand, the three-time NL Cy Young Award winner was stellar for six innings, striking out 10 batters and doing so on short rest in a must-win game for the Dodgers; on the other, he failed to make it out of the seventh, leaving the bases loaded for his bullpen, which then allowed all three runners to score to tie the game, the last two on a Daniel Murphy single. Los Angeles rallied to win in the bottom of the eighth on a single by Chase Utley, an outcome that helped quiet some of Kershaw's critics. Anyone else who needed convincing of Kershaw's October brilliance would have to wait another game.
This game, which had already included a steal of home by Chicago's Javier Baez, turned during a wacky eighth inning. After the Dodgers tied the score at three in the top half on a two-out, two-run single by first baseman Adrian Gonzalez off Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman, Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts get himself into a predicament in the bottom half by ordering a pair of intentional walks that loaded the bases for pinch-hitter Miguel Montero. On an 0–2 pitch from Dodgers reliever Joe Blanton, Montero crushed a grand slam into the rightfield stands. Dexter Fowler followed with a home run of his own, and Chicago went on to an 8–4 win. It’s not easy to top the phrase "pinch-hit grand slam" for pure drama and excitement, so the fact that this game is No. 9 is an indication of just how thrilling the 2016 postseason was.
This year's rematch of the 2015 Division Series clash between the Blue Jays and the Rangers—a five-game epic won by Toronto—felt like a letdown. After all, last year’s version ended with a lunatic Game 5 featuring backbreaking errors and hurt feelings by Texas and the bat flip to end all bat flips by Jose Bautista. The 2016 edition, meanwhile, lasted just three games and was comparatively even-tempered. The Jays hammered the Rangers twice in Texas before finishing the series back home with a 7–6 walk-off—or slide-off—win in the 10th inning. With two on and one out, Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor—Canada’s public enemy No. 1 after his right cross last May to Bautista's chin—had a chance to complete an inning-ending double play but bounced his throw to first baseman Mitch Moreland. Josh Donaldson scampered home from second and slid face-first across the plate, barely beating the tag from catcher Jonathan Lucroy.
The pitching duel we were all salivating over—October demigod Madison Bumgarner of the Giants versus the flowing locks and overpowering velocity of the Mets' Noah Syndergaard—went as expected: Both pitchers were stellar in the winner-take-all game, with Syndergaard matching Bumgarner zero for zero through seven innings. In the ninth, San Francisco finally broke through, as third baseman Conor Gillaspie—we'll pause here so you can look up Gillaspie's name and confirm that he’s a real person who actually did this—clubbed a game-winning–three-run homer off New York closer Jeurys Familia. Bumgarner went back out for the bottom of the ninth and retired all three hitters to complete his four-hit shutout.
Amazingly enough, Bumgarner vs. Syndergaard wasn’t even October’s best pitching matchup. That occurred in San Francisco's very next game, between the Cubs' Jon Lester and the Giants' Johnny Cueto at Wrigley Field to open the teams' Division Series matchup. Lester completely baffled San Francisco over eight shutout innings, allowing five hits and no walks against five strike outs, while Cueto struck out 10 without walking a batter over eight nearly-perfect frames of his own. Why nearly perfect? Because of the one-out, full-count fastball he left over the plate that Cubs second baseman Javier Baez launched into Wrigley's leftfield basket for the only run—and just Chicago's third hit—of the game. It was a win that further demonstrated how brilliant Lester has been in the postseason during his career, and it acted as a coming-out party for Baez, who spent the rest of the postseason thrilling fans at the plate, in the field and on the bases.
This will forever be known as the Zach Britton Game despite the fact that he was not one of the 34 players who stepped onto the field. Instead, Orioles manager Buck Showalter used six different relievers—none of whom was his All-Star closer with the 0.54 ERA during the regular season—to try to preserve a tie on the road, preferring instead to save Britton until Baltimore had a lead to protect. That strategy worked for 10 innings, as Baltimore's relievers escaped dangerous situations by getting double-plays in the fifth and eighth innings. But in the 11th, Showalter turned to back-of-the-rotation starter Ubaldo Jimenez with one out and nobody on base; five pitches later, the game was over. Toronto's Devon Travis and Josh Donaldson singled, and Edwin Encarnacion crushed a flat Jimenez fastball into lunar orbit to send the Jays to the Division Series. If anything, this game may go down as the last shuddering gasp of a reflexive orthodoxy of bullpen management—one that other postseason managers, like Cleveland's Terry Francona, Chicago's Joe Maddon and Los Angeles' Dave Roberts, would shatter in the coming weeks.
On a night when Madison Bumgarner was mortal—allowing three runs (!) on a home run by opposing pitcher Jake Arrieta (!!)—the Giants found a little bit of the Even Year Magic that had been part of their three championships in the six years prior. How else can you explain Gillaspie—yes, him again—banging a go-ahead, two-run triple off of fearsome Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman with his team five outs from elimination for a 4–3 lead? San Francisco stretched its lead to 5–3, but its own closer, Sergio Romo, gave the lead right back in the ninth by allowing a two-run homer to Kris Bryant. That set up a back-and-forth battle in which no runners advanced past second base until the bottom of the 13th, when the Giants' Joe Panik followed Brandon Crawford's leadoff double with one of his own, keeping San Francisco alive with a 6–5 win. It was enough to make Cubs fans wonder what they’d done to offend whatever deities kept giving San Francisco its seemingly supernatural postseason powers.
The first four games of the World Series between the Cubs and the Indians were mostly drama-free. Even Game 3—a 1–0 win by Cleveland that ended on a Cody Allen strikeout of Javier Baez with runners at second and third—felt oddly antiseptic thanks to the bevy of pitching changes and a Chicago offense that only had one at-bat with a runner in scoring position over the first eight innings. But Game 5—with the Cubs facing elimination and the Indians just a win away from a title—was everything that makes a postseason game great.
The Indians jumped ahead 1–0 on a Jose Ramirez home run in the second inning, but the Cubs countered with a three-run fourth that began with a Kris Bryant home run. Jon Lester was brilliant again in holding Cleveland to two runs over six innings, and closer Aroldis Chapman recorded the first eight-out save of his career, shutting down Indians' rallies in the seventh and eighth and cruising in the ninth to keep Chicago alive with a 3–2 win.
Interestingly, before World Series Game 7, this was the only postseason contest in which both teams faced elimination. That alone makes it a strong favorite to be one of the best games of the past month, but there are plenty of other factors that elevate it. There was NL Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer doing yeoman’s work for Washington, allowing one run in six-plus innings. There was late offense, as the Dodgers erupted for four runs in the seventh inning to take a 4–1 lead that the Nationals countered with two runs in the bottom half. There were two tense (and interminable) final innings that were so stressful that it’s a miracle that the Nationals Park crowd was able to stay conscious throughout.
In the end, however, there were two players who made this game such a thrill. The first was Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen, who entered in the seventh inning with the tying run at first and nobody out, for what appeared would be a nine-out save try. Janses got the first seven of those outs before yielding to Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. Just 24 hours after helping stave off elimination in Los Angeles and approximately seven hours after his manager, Dave Roberts, had said Kershaw would not be used no matter what in this game, the three-time Cy Young winner came out of the bullpen with two on and one out and retired the final two batters. He got Daniel Murphy, the NL's OPS leader in the regular season, to pop out, then used one of his vintage curveballs to strike out Wilmer Difo to finish Los Angeles' 4–3 victory.
Where to start? Just the fact that this game was played—with the Cubs forcing a winner-take-all World Series finale after falling behind 3–1 in the series to the Indians—is incredible enough. But then there was this 10-inning epic, a bruising slugfest between two teams each looking to end decades of frustration and sadness by capturing the championship that had eluded them for what must have felt like an eternity.
There were home runs and game-tying rallies and daring base-running plays and questionable managerial decisions and relief outings from starting pitchers. There was a leadoff home run from Chicago's Dexter Fowler, the first ever to start a Game 7, and a homer from 39-year-old David Ross, playing in his last major league game. There was Rajai Davis's home run in the eighth off of a gassed Aroldis Chapman that capped Cleveland's comeback from a 5–1 deficit and will be remembered as one of the biggest hits in the franchise's long and tortured history. There was the rain delay that gave everyone a chance to catch their breath. And then there was the 10th—the inning in which the Cubs put two runs on the board thanks to RBI hits from Ben Zobrist and Miguel Montero, then held off a frantic Indians rally to clinch their first title in 108 years. This wasn't just the best game of this year's postseason; it will likely go down as one of the greatest World Series Games 7 ever played.