When Conor Gillaspie, the third baseman for the San Francisco Giants, came to the plate against Aroldis Chapman of the Chicago Cubs in the eighth inning of Monday night’s contest between the two clubs, his team had a 40 percent chance to win the game1 and thereby delay — for at least a day — the end of its season. Gillaspie tripled to right field, driving in two teammates and putting his team up 4-3. The Giants’ win probability jumped to a whopping 91 percent. The Cubs fought back and the Giants finally won 6-5 in the 13th, but even with all the late-inning theatrics, that one play was still the biggest swing of the game.
That 50-point difference2 before and after Gillaspie’s at bat is known as the win probability added (WPA), and if we use WPA as a proxy for a game’s biggest moments — which is standard practice — then we can safely say that Gillaspie’s triple has been the biggest play of this year’s division series, even after Thursday night’s wild Dodgers-Nationals Game 5.
|TEAM WIN PROBABILTY|
|10/9||M. Moreland||Rangers||Blue Jays||▲6||2B||33||64||+31|
|10/9||R. Martin||Blue Jays||Rangers||▼10||Groundout||71||100||+29|
But how do this year’s top plays so far compare to the biggest moments in any division series ever? As it turns out, only the top play of 2016 comes close to cracking the all-time top five. Since the division series was added to the regular playoff schedule in 1995,3 big-league teams have played hundreds of division series games. In most of those games, the most important play has contributed something on the order of 10-20 percentage points to a team’s chances of winning the game. On rare occasions, though, the play has contributed much more than that. Here are the stories of the top five such moments, presented in reverse order. In each case, the probability discussed is that of the batter’s team.
Oct. 3, 2014: Orioles vs. Tigers, Game 2. Baltimore’s Delmon Young doubles to left.
+52 percentage points (36 percent to 88 percent)
The 2014 Baltimore Orioles were a pretty darn good baseball team. Led by Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz and the otherwise-forgettable Steve Pearce, Baltimore ended the regular season with a 96-66 record and an American League East title. The Birds were sitting pretty on the night of Oct. 3, fresh off a 12-3 Game 1 victory over the Tigers. Game 2, on the other hand, did not start quite so well for Baltimore. Detroit put up a five-spot in the fourth inning and then tacked on another run in the top of the eighth, putting the Tigers ahead 6-3 going into the bottom of the frame. At that point in the game, the Orioles had an 8 percent chance to win. Enter Delmon Young.
By the time Young came to the plate, his teammate Pearce had already brought the Birds to within two runs, courtesy of an RBI single surrendered by Joba Chamberlain. The Tigers then sent in Joakim Soria to face J.J. Hardy with runners on first and second. Hardy promptly walked, loading the bases. Young took the first pitch from Soria — a slider that didn’t slide quite enough — into the left-field corner, scoring three and putting the Orioles ahead for good.
Oct. 5, 2003: Red Sox vs. A’s, Game 4. Boston’s Big Papi puts the Sox on his shoulders.
+52 percentage points (32 percent to 85 percent)
David Ortiz finds his way onto most lists about postseason heroics. A lifetime postseason slash line of .289/.404/.543, with 17 home runs and 61 RBIs in 369 playoff plate appearances, will do that for a guy. But for all the memorable hits Ortiz produced, this particular one — a double to right that scored Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez — was one of his biggest.
The Red Sox, mired in what was then an 85-year championship drought, needed a miracle to keep their season alive. They’d lost Game 1 to Oakland in heartbreaking fashion in the 12th inning (I mean, are people even allowed to lose on bunt singles by Ramon Hernandez?) and hadn’t fared much better in Game 2, dropping a 5-1 contest at the Coliseum. Game 3’s 11th-inning victory had kept hope alive, but the Red Sox still needed two consecutive wins to advance to the American League Championship Series.
Things looked bad by the eighth inning of Game 4. After Johnny Damon led off Boston’s half of the frame with a groundout, the Sox had just a 26 percent chance of taking the series to Game 5. But then Garciaparra doubled, and — after a Todd Walker flyout — Ramirez singled him over to third. Enter Papi: A booming double to right field off of future teammate Keith Foulke sent Garciaparra and Ramirez scampering home at Fenway and sent the A’s — after a scoreless ninth — to the showers.
Oct. 10, 2010: Braves vs. Giants, Game 3. Atlanta’s Eric Hinske hits one out.
+56 percentage points (30 percent to 86 percent)
All that even-year nonsense began way back in 2010, when the 92-70 San Francisco Giants took on the 91-win Atlanta Braves in what wound up being a four-game series in which all the games were won by one run. Hinske, then in his age-32 season, was an unlikely hero in Game 3. He’d hit .256/.338/.456 in part-time duty for Atlanta, mostly in left field but also periodically at first base. He didn’t start the contest in the field, but with Atlanta behind 1-0 and Braves shortstop Alex Gonzalez singling to lead off the eighth inning, Bobby Cox decided to try Hinske’s bat against the Giants’ young relief ace, Sergio Romo.
Hinske took Romo’s fifth pitch, a 2-2 changeup, just over the wall by the right-field foul pole and sent Turner Field into pandemonium. Thanks to Hinske’s shot, the Braves’ chances of winning leapt from 30 percent to 86 percent. Not bad for an old guy.
Oct. 11, 2009: Angels vs. Red Sox, Game 3. Vlad comes through in the ninth for Anaheim.
+58 percentage points (24 percent to 81 percent)
This wasn’t a particularly close series. The Angels, led by Chone Figgins, Torii Hunter, and Kendrys Morales, took three straight contests from the Red Sox in a matchup that featured a Game 1 faceoff between Jon Lester and John Lackey, which must seem bizarre in retrospect to both Cubs and Red Sox fans. Lackey won that encounter, and the Angels kept up the pressure in Game 2 with a relatively easy 4-1 victory.
Game 3, though, was close: The Sox scored three in the third and two in the fourth, but the Angels scored runs of their own in the fourth, sixth and eighth innings, putting the game within reach as they entered the top half of the ninth. The Angels’ Maicer Izturis and Gary Matthews Jr. popped out to start the inning, but then Erick Aybar singled and Figgins walked, allowing Bobby Abreu to drive a run in with a double and bring the game to within one.
After Hunter was intentionally walked to load the bases with two outs, the game came down to Vladimir Guerrero. He’d had a fairly typical season, for him — .295/.334/.460, although he’d been injured — but he was only two years away from retirement, and this would be his last year with Anaheim. It didn’t matter. Guerrero took a low pitch from Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon right back up the middle, dropping a single into center and putting the Halos up by a run.
Oct. 3, 2003: Marlins vs. Giants, Game 3. Florida’s I-Rod walks it off.
+73 percentage points (27 percent to 100 percent)
The Marlins had slid into the postseason as the wild-card team — their first October appearance since 1997, when they won the title — and had split the first two games of their division series with the Felipe Alou-led Giants. Kirk Rueter had pitched five decent innings for San Francisco to begin Game 3, and the Fish took a 2-2 tie into extra innings.
In the 10th, both teams got runners in scoring position, but neither could bring in a run. Then in top of the 11th, it all went horribly wrong for Florida. Rich Aurilia led the inning off with a walk, Barry Bonds reached on an error, and Edgardo Alfonso singled to right field, scoring Aurilia and putting the Giants up by a run heading into the bottom half of the frame. If there’s an ironclad rule of postseason baseball, it’s this: You never want to lose a game because of something Rich Aurilia did.
But the baseball gods give just as well as they take. Florida’s Jeff Conine led off the bottom of the 11th by reaching on an error, Alex Gonzalez walked, and Miguel Cabrera’s sacrifice bunt (!) moved the runners to second and third in advance of Juan Pierre’s trip to the plate. Pierre was intentionally walked to load the bases, and Luis Castillo reached on a fielder’s choice while Conine was forced out at home. That brought Marlins catcher Ivan Rodriguez to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded, trying to erase a one-run deficit.
That’s the kind of moment you practice for in your backyard when you’re 10 years old. Even with the bases loaded, the Marlins had just a 27 percent chance of winning — if the Giants could record an out, the game would be over. But Rodriguez jumped on Tim Worrell’s 1-2 fastball that stayed way, way too flat through the zone, taking it to right field and scoring Gonzalez and Pierre, sending the Marlins and their fans into ecstasy.
The Fish would go on to take Game 4 and the series the next night. They finished off the Cubs in the NLCS a week and a half later and went on to secure the world title against the Yankees by the end of the month. It wasn’t, all things considered, a bad year to be a Florida Marlin. And it all depended, that one October night, on the biggest division series hit of all time.