Will Leitch took an in-depth look at the game in 2019 with a series exploring Major League Baseball's Data Decade. From the best World Series, to the best starting pitchers and more, Leitch ranked, dissected and celebrated all the things we loved most about the Great American Pastime during the past 10 years.
In the moment, every second of every postseason series seems like the most important baseball moment you will ever witness. This is what is so fun about the postseason, no? The rhythm of baseball’s regular season gives way to the manic rush of October, the late nights, the constant pressure, the unrelenting stress. When you’re watching your team play in the postseason, it always feels like the end of the world.
It’s only when you have time and perspective to look back that you can truly understand what makes an eternal, immortal postseason series. You want the series to be close, of course, but you also want it to be lasting: You want to have that play that no one will ever forget. You never know when it’s coming. Which is why the postseason is so incredible.
As part of our ongoing Data Decade series look back at the last 10 years of baseball, we attempt to rank the best 10 postseason series of this decade (looking only at Division Series and League Championship Series). These are the ones with staying power. And the good news: We still have this postseason ahead of us … we’ll rank every World Series this decade in a couple of weeks.
1. 2018 National League Championship Series: Dodgers 4, Brewers 3
Every truly great postseason series needs some bad blood, and this one had plenty, most of it provided by Manny Machado. The Brewers were so infuriated by Machado’s maybe-unintentional-maybe-not pseudo-collision with Jesús Aguilar that that nearly derailed the whole series. Soon-to-be-MVP Christian Yelich muttered some choice words when asked about Machado after Game 4, which ended with Machado -- right on the heels of his infamous “Johnny Hustle” comments -- scoring the winning run from second base on a Cody Bellinger single in the bottom of the 13th. Oh, and let’s not forget that this series began with one of the most improbable postseason moments in recent memory, when Brewers reliever Brandon Woodruff took Clayton Kershaw deep in the third inning of Game 1, and Miller Park (and Woodruff) went absolutely ballistic.
The Brewers staved off elimination with a Game 6 win at Miller Park and were all set to clinch their first World Series trip since 1982 -- when they were in an entirely different league -- but a three-run homer by Yasiel Puig in the sixth inning gave the Dodgers a 5-1 lead they’d never relinquish.
2. 2015 American League Division Series: Royals 3, Astros 2
When Carlos Correa and Colby Rasmus hit back-to-back homers in the bottom of the seventh inning to take a 6-2 lead in a series the Astros already led 2-1, it looked like the Royals, after a heartbreaker of a World Series loss the year before, were about to be sent packing for the winter. But then Kansas City began the eighth with five consecutive singles, ultimately scoring five runs in the inning -- aided by an unfortunate error from Correa -- and taking back control of the series. Johnny Cueto and Wade Davis shut down the Astros in K.C. the next game to win the series, and ultimately the Royals would win the World Series. But that eighth-inning comeback will be what everyone always remembers.
3. 2011 NL Division Series: Cardinals 3, Phillies 2
The Cardinals just barely sneaked into the postseason on the glorious last day of that regular season. Meanwhile, the Phillies had Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt leading a team that won 102 games. After an overpowering 11-6 Game 1 win, the Phils lost two of three tightly contested games but headed back to Citizens Bank Park for an epic showdown between Halladay and Cards ace Chris Carpenter. Halladay was brilliant, giving up just one run, and it came in in the first inning. But Carpenter was better, giving up just three hits and no walks in a shutout that sent the Cardinals to the NLCS and, essentially, ended the Phillies’ would-be dynasty right there. Ryan Howard famously couldn’t make it all the way to first base on the last out, and Philadelphia hasn’t been back in the playoffs since.
4. 2016 NLDS: Dodgers 3, Nationals 2
Still questioning Kershaw in the postseason? You must have forgotten this series, particularly Game 5. Kershaw won Game 1 but was roughed up a little in Game 4, a 6-5 loss that sent the series back to Nationals Park for a decisive Game 5. A four-run seventh gave the Dodgers a 4-1 lead, but after the Nationals brought it within 4-3, Kenley Jansen ran out of gas in his third inning of work, walking Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth and bringing up Daniel Murphy. So even though Kershaw had started the previous game, the Dodgers brought him in to close it out. He got Murphy to pop out and struck out Wilmer Difo, and the Nats were eliminated.
5. 2017 AL Championship Series: Astros 4, Yankees 3
You may remember this as “the only time a Yankees team could ever be considered a band of plucky young upstarts,” but now it looks like a precursor series for the two American League franchises perhaps best set up to thrive in the next decade. A classic home-field advantage series, the Astros won every game at Minute Maid Park and the Yankees won every one at Yankee Stadium, but because Houston won its division and New York won the Wild Card Game, Game 7 was at Minute Maid Park. In that one, Charlie Morton (who would have some more highlights to come that postseason) threw five shutout innings and Lance McCullers Jr. threw four, giving up just three hits between them. One gets the sense this will not be the last time these two teams will run into each other come October.
6. 2015 ALCS: Royals 4, Blue Jays 2
This one didn’t go the full seven, which pushes it down this list a little … but only just a little. This was the series, if 2014 hadn’t made it abundantly clear already, just how overpowering of a home-field advantage the Royals had in this series. They won every home game, all of them in inspiring fashion, culminating in a thrilling Game 6 victory which featured a 45-minute rain delay with the game tied in the eighth inning. (The Blue Jays had just scored two runs, on José Bautista’s second home run of the game, to tie it.) When we returned, the Royals scored their run when Lorenzo Cain came all the way home on an Eric Hosmer single, the second time that postseason he had done that. Davis, staying in the game after the delay, finished the Jays off in the ninth.
7. 2011 NLDS: Brewers 3, D-backs 2
Maybe the most unappreciated Division Series of the decade. Another series where the home team won every game, this one featured superstars doing superstar things (Paul Goldschmidt was a monster this series), but it came down to a role player having an incredible moment at just the right time. In the decisive Game 5, in the bottom of the 10th, Nyjer Morgan came to the plate with Carlos Gómez (who had just stolen second) in scoring position. On a 2-2 count, he slapped a single up the middle to give the Brewers a walk-off win and their first postseason victory in nearly 30 years. And you have to listen to Bob Uecker's call.
8. 2012 NLDS: Cardinals 3, Nationals 2
We apologize to Washington fans for even bringing this series up. This was the Nationals’ first postseason series since moving from Montreal, and they were packed with talent, most notably rookie Harper. In Game 5, the game after Werth’s epic walk-off homer, the Nats, thanks partly to a homer from Harper, jumped out to a 6-0 lead, but the Cardinals slowly pecked away at the lead, cutting it all the way to 6-5 until the Nationals scored an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth to take a 7-5 lead into the ninth.
The stage was set for the Nationals’ big breakthrough, with two outs in the ninth, until Daniel Descalso slapped a game-tying single up the middle off Drew Storen, and then Pete Kozma, of all people, singled home two more. The shellshocked Nats went down in order in the ninth. They’re still, somehow, looking for that first postseason series win (though at least they can now say they have advanced in the postseason after winning the NL Wild Card Game on Wednesday).
9. 2012 NLDS: Giants 3, Reds 2
The Reds came out and blitzed the Giants twice at AT&T Park, and it looked like Dusty Baker was going to get revenge on his old mates. But San Francisco won an extra-innings game in Cincinnati in Game 3 and actually never trailed again the rest of the series, its Game 5 road win punctuated by a Buster Posey grand slam (and a memorable dejected reaction Reds catcher Ryan Hanigan). Imagine how the story of this decade, and the Giants, is written if Cincinnati gets just one of those last three games.
10. 2010 NLDS: Phillies 3, Reds 0
Ordinarily we wouldn’t put a sweep in the top 10. But this sweep was particularly special indeed, because it started with this: