One-game playoff a thrilling occasion
Postseason dreams made, crushed in nine-inning dramas
The expression is uttered hundreds of times in the Majors throughout the course of the regular season. "It's just one game," a manager, coach or player will say, putting aside a tough loss in the marathon that is the 162-game schedule.
The comment is usually followed by the declaration, "We've got to go back out there tomorrow."
There are times, however, when there is just one game to settle a division title or Wild Card berth with no tomorrow as a safety net. Such occasions have occurred merely five times since divisional play began in 1969. And while those games technically are extensions of the regular season, they were played with every bit the atmosphere as any Division Series, League Championship Series or World Series game.
That was how Mets first base coach Rickey Henderson described the most recent one-game playoff, the Mets' 5-0 victory over the Reds on Oct. 4, 1999, for the National League Wild Card.
"I never thought there was pressure in the postseason," said Henderson, who played left field for the Mets that day and homered in the fifth inning. "The pressure was you had to get there. Then it was fun."
Um, that's the point, Rickey -- getting there. The Mets needed to win that game to get into the postseason.
"I remember that if I didn't pitch well, we were flying to LaGuardia and not to Phoenix," said Al Leiter, who pitched a two-hitter against the Reds that sent the Mets up against the Diamondbacks in the Division Series. "During my warm-ups, the stadium [Cinergy Field] was already full, and every one of the Cincinnati fans knew what was at stake. I had experienced a couple of World Series before that. I know it creates great television and drama. Somebody is going to be all teary-eyed, and someone is going to be jumping around like a 12-year-old."
"What I learned about it was that we had just won 96 games, and that wasn't good enough," said Reds first baseman Sean Casey, now with the Tigers. "A hundred and sixty-two games and it felt like you shouldn't have even played them. It came down to one night. For the Mets, it was exciting. For us, it was heartbreaking. To have all the marbles riding on that one game and lose after having won all those games, it was a heart-breaking loss. It made for a long offseason."
Almost as long as the previous day had been for the Reds in Milwaukee.
"We were sitting there," Casey said, "everyone else is done, and we're in a nine-hour rain delay knowing we have to win to go home to a playoff tomorrow against the Mets, knowing that Al Leiter's pitching, and that was when he was filthy."
|"A hundred and sixty-two games and it felt like you shouldn't have even played them. It came down to one night. For the Mets, it was exciting. For us, it was heartbreaking. To have all the marbles riding on that one game and lose after having won all those games, it was a heart-breaking loss. It made for a long offseason."|
-- Former Red|
"It was a nice October day, but we got nothing going. We played as if we just got off the plane. The Mets went on to the playoffs, but I don't know how they did that year. I was distraught; I didn't watch the postseason because I thought we should have been there."
"I wouldn't have been able to handle a start like that one if it was in my first five years," said Leiter, now an analyst on Yankees telecasts. "I really had the mental side of understanding what my job was. Not to steal it from him, but I was reading Orel Hershiser's quote: 'It's not a matter if someone rose to the occasion; it's a matter of not allowing the situation to have you lessen your performance and not be who you are.' I know what he's saying, and it makes sense. I kept this one-game playoff as if it was April 17 and did my job, as opposed to letting it consume you."
Cubs pitcher Steve Trachsel took a similar approach in Chicago's 5-3 victory over San Francisco on Sept. 28, 1998, at Wrigley Field for the Wild Card.
"I wasn't nervous, nothing like that," said Trachsel, who took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. "I was extremely focused and almost locked in all day long, which probably helped. I remember seeing [post-game commentator] Peter Gammons examining my pitches to Barry Bonds and saying I got away with all these pitches, and I'm thinking, 'That's exactly how I wanted to throw to him.' I was very focused and had a game plan from the moment I woke up."
"I remember never being more nervous in my life," said former Cubs first baseman Mark Grace, who caught the last out of that game, a popup by Joe Carter. "I was more nervous that night than when my children were born. When you talk about must-win, that was the epitome of must-win. Michael Jordan threw out the first pitch and hung out in our dugout for a while before the game. I rubbed up against him trying to get some superstar luck off him. I've never heard a place that loud, and that includes [Phoenix] during the 2001 World Series."
The first divisional, one-game playoff remains the most celebrated, the Oct. 2, 1978, showdown at Boston's Fenway Park in which the Yankees survived a 5-4 victory over the Red Sox, completing a comeback from a 14-game deficit in mid-July.
The game made a Yankees folk hero and New England pariah of Bucky Dent, the 9-hole hitting shortstop whose three-run home run just over the Green Monster in the seventh inning off Mike Torrez gave New York a 3-2 lead. A later home run by Reggie Jackson and two startling fielding plays by right fielder Lou Piniella would prove equal value.
"Most people associate me with hitting," said Piniella, now the manager of the Cubs, "but the defining moment of my playing career was that game and those two defensive plays. When you play on a world championship team, someone is going to make plays like that, just the way Graig Nettles did for us in the '78 World Series."
Don Zimmer, the Red Sox manager that day, considered the turning point of that game Piniella's catch of a Fred Lynn liner in the sixth that, had it fallen, would likely have given Boston a 4-0 lead. Yet even Zim has to acknowledge that Dent's home run remains frozen in time.
"I knew I hit the ball high enough to hit the wall, but I never saw it land," Dent said.
Neither did Red Sox left fielder Carl Yastrzemski, who was prepared to play the ball off the wall and was left simply to hang his head.
Several years later, Zimmer joined the Yankees as a coach and rented a house in New Jersey from a former Yankees player who had been traded. That player was Bucky Dent.
"Just what I needed," Zimmer mused to collaborator Bill Madden in his 2001 memoir, "Zim: A Baseball Life."
"Everywhere in the place, on every wall, was all this memorabilia, all of it different pictures of that [darn] home run," Zimmer said. "I turned every one of 'em around and left 'em that way for the rest of my stay there."
Jack OConnell is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters Carrie Muskat, Marty Noble, Bryan Hoch, Bill Ladson and Jason Beck contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.