The first day of the Division Series saw the two No. 1 seeds head in different directions. In the AL, the Rays were denied the lifeblood of their offense -- bases on balls -- by Cliff Lee, who struck out 10 without a free pass in seven innings in leading the Rangers to a 5-1 win. In the NL opener, In Philadelphia, Roy Halladay became just the second pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the postseason, absolutely owning the Reds in a 4-0 Phillies win.
Given that start to those series, what can we expect will follow? The current format, where home-field advantage is assigned based on regular-season performance, has been in place since 1998. Entering this postseason, 27 teams have had a claim to the No. 1 seed, (ties between division leaders accounting for the extra three No. 1s) in that time. A bit surprisingly, those teams posted just a 16-11 record in their first postseason game. (More evidence for the idea that chasing home-field advantage, as opposed to lining up your rotation and getting your team healthy, is folly.)
When a No. 1 seed has lost its first game, as the Rays did yesterday, it has gone on to win the Division Series a mere four times in 11 tries (see tables below). That's how important stealing Game 1 can be for the underdog: it can turn them into a nearly 2-1 favorite. No top seed has turned the trick since 2004, when the Yankees were shut down by Johan Santana in Game 1 before winning the next three games. Just two No. 1 seeds have lost their first postseason game and reached the World Series (the 1999 Braves and the 2003 Yankees), and no top seed has done so and become world champion. Think of it as the a sign that maybe it's just not your year. That's small comfort for Rays fans, who may be seeing the waning days of a dynasty that never was if owner Stu Sternberg's cost-cutting plan is executed.
What's certain is this: Game 2 is a must-win for the Rays. The four No. 1 seeds that overcame a 1-0 deficit all won the second game of the Series. Doing so doesn't guarantee victory -- the overall record for the No. 1 seeds in this spot is 7-4 -- but a loss has been a death sentence. No top seed has ever fallen behind 2-0 and advanced out of the Division Series.
For the Phillies, the news is fantastic. When the No. 1 seed has won its first game, it has gone on to win the Division Series 13 times in 17 tries. The list includes five of the 12 World Series champions in that span, among them the 2009 Yankees and the 2007 Red Sox. If an upset-minded underdog doesn't make hay in that first game, it becomes very difficult to get anything done. Winning the first game changes the series for teams playing No. 1s. The swing from 0-1 to 1-0 is the swing from a 19 percent success rate to a 63 percent one.
There are a couple of funny things about the teams that did win when starting from the Reds' current position. The first is that they all swept the next three games. Despite being one game down to the top team in the league and playing on the road, all four teams ran the table from that point forward. The second is that all four teams actually either trailed or went to extra innings in Game 2, winning a dramatic contest that set the stage for what was to follow. Despite not going five games, all rank among the more entertaining Division Series in the round's limited history. Here are the heroes:
The Mets took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth of Game 2, but Armando Benitez allowed a three-run homer to J.T. Snow to tie things up. The Mets scored in the top of the ninth, and John Franco retired Barry Bonds with the tying run on first -- this was back before Bonds was walked in 75 percent of his plate appearances with runners on base -- to end the game. The Mets would win Game 3 in 13 innings, coming back from 2-0 down early to tie it in the eighth, then see Bobby Jones toss a shutout in Game 4 to end it.
Up 5-4 in the eighth inning of Game 2, Joe Torre elected to ride Orlando Hernandez, who'd relieved Andy Pettitte in the fourth, rather than go to his setup men or Mariano Rivera. Back-to-back solo homers by Garret Anderson and Troy Glaus flipped the lead, and the Angels held on. In Game 3, the Angels overcame an early 6-1 deficit to win 9-6. In Game 4, an eight-run fifth inning turned another early deficit. The Angels had 44 hits in the final three games of the series.
The Marlins trailed 4-1 and 5-4 early in Game 2 before winning 9-5. They trailed 3-2 in the bottom of the 11th of Game 3, and won when Jose Cruz Jr. dropped a fly ball that led to a two-run rally. They blew a 5-1 lead in Game 4 and won when J.T. Snow was thrown out at home plate, carrying the tying run, to end the series. The image of Ivan Rodriguez holding up the ball and yelling is one of the indelible images of the Division Series round.
Trailing 3-1 after four innings in Game 2, the Tigers chipped away to take a 4-3 lead in the sixth and held on from there. Unlike the three previous series, the rest of their comeback provided little drama, as their pitching shut down the Yankees the rest of the way. The Yankees, it should be noted, were two of the four victims of these comebacks.
If the Reds are to have any hope of advancing this season, they have to win Friday. Top seeds that go up 2-0 in the Division Series are 13-0.
Losing Game 1 has been a very bad thing whether you are a No. 1 seed or you're facing one. Worse, though, is losing Game 2. No matter what side of the line you're on, there is no path to victory if you lose and fall down 2-0. No top 1 seed has come back from that deficit, and no top 1 seed has ever blown that kind of lead. James Shields this afternoon, and Bronson Arroyo on Friday, are pitching for their team's seasons.