Can Cards rally from 0-3? It's not impossible

October 15th, 2019

On Monday night, the St. Louis Cardinals lost, 8-1, to the Washington Nationals in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series. It was, to put it mildly, a feeble effort. The Cardinals have been outscored in the series 13-2, they are slugging .143 for the series (roughly the equivalent of an American League pitcher) and they have a strikeout-walk ratio of 34:3. Their ace was on the mound for Game 3, their No. 1 and 2 hitters are a combined 0-for-21 and they have one RBI for the series (on a ball that should have been caught). This is not going well. This series feels over.

But then again: It always does at 0-3, doesn’t it? It is one of baseball’s curiosities that teams, when they fall behind 0-3 in a series, roll over so quickly. Sure, sure, the 2004 Red Sox, they did something truly amazing. But that is the extreme aberration. Not only do teams never come back from 0-3 deficits to win, they rarely even come back to extend the series at all.

This Nationals-Cardinals series is the 37th series in MLB history, counting World Series and League Championship Series, in which one team has taken a 3-0 lead over the other one. (Thanks to Grant Brisbee for some of his research from a few years ago). Do you know how many of those series reached a fifth game? Would you believe six?

Six! As Brisbee pointed out, that flies in the face of all sorts of statistical and analytical information. If you go under the rough estimate that in any one game even an underdog has a 45 percent chance of winning, as Brisbee did, nearly half of those series should have at least gone five. But nope: Only six. Heck, the last 15 World Series that have started 3-0 ended up as sweeps. The last LCS Game 5 after a 3-0 lead was in 2017, when the Cubs fell behind 0-3 to the Dodgers but won Game 4 before losing Game 5, sort of a gentleman’s sweep.

But it gets worse: Only three times has the series gone six games when a team took a 3-0 lead. And only once has it gone seven … in 2004! I suppose that’s the good news: If you somehow force a Game 7 after being behind 0-3, you just go ahead and win it.

Still, it’s odd, right? Even this year, the Cardinals won four games in a row eight different times. They beat the Nationals three in a row back in April. It shouldn’t be impossible. But doesn’t it feel impossible right now? It feels impossible.

And there isn’t much hope for them to turn to from the past. Just those three series. Maybe we can look into those series and see a path back for the Cardinals? Probably not, but let’s try.

2004: Boston Red Sox over New York Yankees, 4-3

Obviously, this is the one we’ll be talking about forever, the one that you’ll see highlights of during Tuesday’s game (and all 0-3 series games from now until eternity) and the one that every team will try to talk themselves into happening when all looks lost. The Red Sox had an advantage that the Cardinals don’t have: Their first game back from the 0-3 deficit was at home, which means the Dave Roberts steal could happen in front of a screaming Fenway Park crowd.

Suffice it to say, if Randy Arozarena is sent in to steal second base while behind one in the ninth inning on Tuesday night, he will have a decidedly less receptive audience. There was also a ton of history heading into this Game 4; remember, the Red Sox had nearly beaten the Yankees in the ALCS the season before, and their comeback had a “beaten-down-victim-finally-rises-up” vibe to it. If anything, the Cardinals have the opposite slant here; they’ve caused the Nationals far more pain than the Nats have caused them throughout the years. But yes: If you want to believe as a Cardinals fan, you have this to point to. You also have only this to point to.

1999: Atlanta Braves over New York Mets, 4-2

When you watched this one in the moment, you did legitimately think the Mets might be able to pull this off. The Braves won the first three games by a total of four runs -- two of the games were saved by John Rocker, who would make his “7 train” comments just a couple of months after the series was over -- and the Mets came back with two incredibly tight wins of their own. Game 4 featured a dramatic two-out, two-run single from John Olerud off Rocker, and Game 5 was even crazier, going 15 innings, with the Braves scoring a run in the top of the 15th but the Mets scoring two in the bottom half, thanks to Robin Ventura’s famous grand slam single.

Game 6 was a doozy, too, with the Braves scoring five runs in the first inning before the Mets came all the way back to force the game into extra innings. They should have won it in the 10th when they scored off Rocker again to take the lead, but Ozzie Guillen slapped a game-tying single with two outs in the bottom half off Armando Benitez. The bottom half featured a sequence we’d never see today, with the Braves facing Kenny Rogers:

Gerald Williams: Double.
Bret Boone: Sacrifice Williams to third.
Chipper Jones: Intentional walk.
Brian Jordan: Intentional walk.

Then Rogers walked Andruw Jones … and the comeback was over. But what a comeback it was.

1998: San Diego Padres over Atlanta Braves, 4-2

This is the one people don’t remember. The Braves here are a model for the Cardinals in that they started their comeback on the road. They lost the first two at home, and then one at Jack Murphy Stadium, before recovering with a comeback Game 4 win in which they scored six runs in the seventh inning, and a thrilling Game 5 win in which they scored five runs in the top of the eighth to overcome a 4-2 deficit. (The winning pitcher in that game was Rocker. The save went to Greg Maddux, the only save of his Hall of Fame career.) Game 6, back in Atlanta, was tight for a while, scoreless through five, until the Padres put up five runs on Tom Glavine and went on to win the series.

That’s it. Those are the only three, in all of baseball history. So again: What the Cardinals are facing isn’t impossible. But it is very close to it.