The best comeback attempts from 3-0 holes in playoffs
Trying to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven postseason series is a daunting task. In fact, most comeback attempts end without much drama.
Case in point: In AL/NL history, we’ve seen 40 teams go up three games to none in a best-of-seven series. Most of these clubs have finished the job quickly, with 31 ending things with a sweep -- including the 2022 Astros against the Yankees in the ALCS -- and another five in five games.
A handful of teams have put together valiant comeback efforts -- four have won two straight to force a Game 6 after falling behind three games to none, and two of these teams pushed the series to Game 7. But only one, the 2004 Boston Red Sox, has completed the comeback.
In light of the Boston Celtics looking to become the first NBA team to ever come back from a 3-0 deficit, here’s a look at the MLB teams that made the best comeback attempts from a three-games-to-none deficit in the postseason.
2004 ALCS: Red Sox over Yankees, 4-3
Then-Red Sox owner Harry Frazee’s decision to sell Babe Ruth to the Yankees after the 1919 season led to decades of unprecedented prosperity for the Bronx Bombers, while the Red Sox found mostly frustration, anguish and despair, with many attributing Boston’s misfortune to the “Curse of the Bambino.”
This felt like a cosmic correction. Like something out of a storybook, the Red Sox not only ended their 86-year World Series title drought, they did it after forging a comeback from a 3-0 series deficit against the Yankees.
One year prior, Boston was dealt yet another heartbreaking defeat at the hands of its archrival in ALCS Game 7, blowing a 5-2 lead in the eighth inning before Aaron Boone hit a walk-off homer off Tim Wakefield in the bottom of the 11th to cap a classic series. For three full games and most of a fourth in 2004, it didn’t seem like the rematch would be as close.
The Yanks were on the verge of a four-game sweep, with future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera on the mound to protect a one-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 4. But after Kevin Millar drew a leadoff walk, pinch-runner Dave Roberts stole second (a swipe now known as “The Steal” thanks to what came next) and Bill Mueller singled up the middle, the game was tied.
Three innings later, David Ortiz walked it off with a two-run homer off Paul Quantrill. The next night was déjà vu, as Boston notched another come-from-behind, extra-inning win on an Ortiz walk-off, sending the series back to the Bronx.
In Game 6, the Red Sox gave the ball to a hobbled Curt Schilling, who tore the tendon sheath in his right ankle during the ALDS against the Angels. Prior to his start at Yankee Stadium, Schilling underwent a surgical procedure to stabilize the tendons in his ankle, allowing him to take the mound. Despite the injury, which caused his white sock to become visibly bloodied during the game, Schilling threw seven innings of one-run ball in a 4-2 Red Sox win.
With history at their fingertips, the Red Sox took down the Yankees in Game 7 as well, as Ortiz went deep in the first inning before Johnny Damon clubbed a grand slam in the top of the second, one of two homers the center fielder hit on the night.
After finishing off the Yankees, the Red Sox swept the Cardinals in the World Series to win their first championship since 1918, thus putting the curse to rest for good.
FORCED GAME 7
2020 ALCS: Rays over Astros, 4-3
After winning the AL East with a 40-20 record during the shortened 2020 season, the Rays swept the Blue Jays in two games in the AL Wild Card Series and edged the Yankees in five games in the ALDS to set up an ALCS showdown with the Astros. Although Houston limped into the postseason with a 29-31 record, the seasoned club found its groove in October, defeating the AL Central-champion Twins and AL West-champion A’s in the first two rounds.
With the entire series taking place at Petco Park in San Diego due to pandemic-related health and safety protocols, Tampa Bay won the first three games before the Astros got back in it with a pair of one-run victories, the second on a walk-off homer by Carlos Correa. Houston also took Game 6, putting up seven runs on 11 hits and nine walks in a 7-4 victory that gave the team a shot at history.
However, the Rays rose to the occasion in Game 7, with eventual ALCS MVP Randy Arozarena hitting a two-run homer in the bottom of the first inning and former Astros right-hander Charlie Morton tossing 5 2/3 shutout innings. Houston made it interesting in the eighth, as Correa’s two-run single cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 4-2 and brought the go-ahead run to the plate. But Pete Fairbanks struck out Alex Bregman to end the threat, then held the Astros scoreless in the ninth.
FORCED GAME 6
1998 NLCS: Padres over Braves, 4-2
Throughout the 1990s, the road to the NL pennant perennially went through Atlanta. From 1991-99, the Braves reached the World Series five times. The three times they didn’t in that span, they served as a Fall Classic gatekeeper of sorts, making it to the NLCS in all three years. The Braves had to feel pretty good about their chances of making another World Series in 1998, having won a franchise-record 106 games in the regular season before easily handling the Cubs in the NLDS. But an upstart Padres team had other ideas.
Despite having to face the Braves’ vaunted rotation trio of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux in the first three games, including two on the road, the Friars won all of them as Andy Ashby, Kevin Brown and Sterling Hitchcock held Atlanta’s offense in check. The Braves’ bats woke up in a Game 4 blowout, leading to a Game 5 thriller that saw Atlanta erase a 4-2 deficit on a go-ahead three-run homer from Michael Tucker off Brown with one out in the top of the eighth.
The Braves called Maddux out of the bullpen in the bottom of the ninth to protect a one-run lead, and the future Hall of Famer sealed the win with the first and only save of his career.
All of the pressure was on the Padres with the series shifting back to Atlanta, but Hitchcock responded with five scoreless innings in Game 6, and San Diego broke through against Glavine for five runs in the top of the sixth to extinguish the Braves’ comeback try once and for all. Hitchcock, who went 2-0 with a 0.90 ERA in his two starts against Atlanta, was named series MVP.
1999 NLCS: Braves over Mets, 4-2
A year after their own attempt at history fell short against the Padres, the Braves found themselves on the other side of a 3-0 series lead in the NLCS against the Mets.
Atlanta and New York played an extremely tight series throughout, with the final five games all being decided by one run. That included Game 5, which famously ended on Robin Ventura’s “grand-slam single” after a 5 hour and 46 minute battle at Shea Stadium. While Ventura’s bases-loaded blast in the bottom of the 15th inning left the park, the play was ruled a one-run single after he was mobbed by his teammates between first and second base and never completed his home run trot.
Back in Atlanta, the two clubs played another extra-inning epic in Game 6. After squandering a 7-3 lead in the seventh, the Braves battled back from one-run deficits in the eighth and 10th before finally putting the Mets away in the 11th, when Kenny Rogers walked Andruw Jones to force in the pennant-clinching run.