The League Championship Series action in the MLB playoffs has been outstanding as we go into Wednesday’s games, with St. Louis now having three shots at clinching the pennant in the National League and Boston halfway home with a 2-1 lead in the American League.
But all seven games played in the LCS round have been competitive and entertaining, five have been decided by one run, one went to extra innings and one was turned around by the Shot Heard ‘Round Boston–David Ortiz’s grand slam that tied Game 2 against Detroit in the eighth inning.
It’s that home run and its potential place in history that we’re going to take up here, as we let both series continue through their middle sequence of games, the three played in both Los Angeles and Detroit.
The question TheSportsNotebook poses and seeks to answer is this–where, in the tapestry of American League Championship Series history, does the grand slam of Ortiz rank in the pantheon of big home runs?
To keep the focus narrow, we’re focusing only on games in the League Championship Series, and specifically in the American League. In time, we can broaden it to the NL, but for the sake of space, clarity and narrowing things down, we’re going to make a run through ALCS lore and first look at the biggest home runs hit, and then speculate where the Papi Bomb might fit in.
The Decisive Walkoffs: On two occasions, the ALCS has reached a decisive game and been decided by a walkoff jack, both times in Yankee Stadium. The first game in the 1976 American League Championship Series, when it was still best-of-five. New York first baseman Chris Chambliss hit one over the right-center fence to break a 6-6 tie. It’s worth nothing that Chambliss overshadowed George Brett–the Royal third baseman had unloaded a three-run bomb in the eighth to tie the game.
Then in 2003 came Aaron Boone’s 11th-inning Game 7 blast off Tim Wakefield and the Yankees broke the Red Sox’s hearts again. Boston manager Grady Little would lose his job over leaving staff ace Pedro Martinez in the game with a 5-2 lead in the eighth and Pedro clearly tired. But in fairness to Little, the Sox did not have a good bullpen in ’03. A more valid question is why a knuckleballer like Wakefield, who is only one floater away from a season-ending solo shot, was in the game prior to the entire pen being emptied in extra innings.
Sealing The Pennant: There were three more shots that either clinched a pennant in walkoff fashion or came close to doing so. Brett finally got his revenge in Yankee Stadium, when he hit a massive three-run blast off Goose Gossage into the third deck in 1980. The home run put the Royals up 4-2 and all but clinched a three-game sweep.
Magglio Ordonez put the finishing touches on Detroit’s four-game sweep of the Oakland A’s in 2006 with a three-run shot of his own that broke a tie game in extra innings. And Tito Landrum, of the 1983 Baltimore Orioles, broke a scoreless tie in Game 4 against the Chicago White Sox with a three-run homer in the top of the 10th. Had Baltimore lost and been forced into a Game 5 on the South Side, the Cy Young winner, in Lamar Hoyt, would have opposed them.
There was a fourth home run that meets the framework for this section, but we’re going to mention it in conjunction with another blast below.
Turning The Tide: These four home runs didn’t come in decisive games, but all had a decisive effect on momentum, and ultimately led the way to a pennant.
*In 1986, the Boston Red Sox were down to their last out, trailing 5-4 in Anaheim with a man aboard in the ninth inning of Game 5. Dave Henderson hit one out and gave Boston the lead. The Angels were able to tie the game, but the Red Sox won in extra frames, went back home and routed the Angels twice more to win the AL flag.
*The 1978 ALCS was the third straight between the Yankees and Royals, teams that would ultimately play four times in five years, the most oft-recurring matchup in ALCS history. The series was tied 1-1 and the Royals led Game 3 by a 5-4 count in the eighth, thanks to three home runs from Brett. Thurman Munson, the Yankee captain, came up with a man on and hit a 460-foot bomb into left-center at the old Yankee Stadium, a gap so deep that at the time it was called “Death Valley.” The Yanks closed out the win and a third straight pennant one game later.
*The 1992 Toronto Blue Jays led the Oakland A’s 2-1 in games, but the recent history of each franchise in LCS play was quite the opposite and it favored Oakland. They led 6-1 in Game 4 and had staff ace and big-game master Dave Stewart waiting in Game 5. The Blue Jays scored three times in the eighth to close the gap, but closer Dennis Eckersley had still been the AL MVP in 1992. Roberto Alomar hit what was, at the time, the biggest home run in Toronto history, taking Eckersley deep to tie a game the Jays would win in extra innings.
Alomar’s status as having hit the biggest home run in Toronto history lasted about a week and a half, as they won the 1992 World Series when Joe Carter hit a walkoff to clinch Game 6.
*The 1997 Cleveland Indians were underdogs to the Baltimore Orioles, had lost the first game and trailed Game 2 by three runs in the eighth. Centerfielder Marquis Grissom then stunned everyone with a three-run shot that tied the game. Cleveland won in extra innings and won two of the next three. When the series came back to Baltimore, Tony Fernandez would be a hero, breaking a scoreless tie with a 10th-inning home run that won the pennant.
Honorable Mention: Four home runs deserve at least a passing mention. Alfonso Soriano’s two-run shot to win Game 4 of the 2001 American League Championship Series was close to being the dagger by which the Yankees ended the dream season of the 116-win Seattle Mariners.
Also in Yankee Stadium, Alex Rodriguez’s game-tying blast in Game 2 of the 2009 ALCS came in the 11th inning against the Angels and set up the Pinstripes for a commanding 2-0 series lead. Noteworthy is that no one in the Yankee front office wanted to void A-Rod’s contract for PED use even though he was an admitted user by that time.
In 2012, Raul Ibanez hit a stunning two-run ninth inning shot to tie the series opener against Detroit. The Yanks would lose that game and be swept, but this was the third game-tying or game-winning shot by Ibanez in the postseason, all in the ninth or in extra frames.
Finally we come to Ortiz himself, who hit the two-run shot that won Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series and started Boston’s epic comeback against the Yankees.
Since we’ve come full circle to Big Papi, we have to ask where his blast fits. The ultimate answer will be determined by whether this leads to a pennant.
With Boston winning Game 2, and then taking Game 3, the momentum is there for Ortiz’s grand slam to fit with Grissom’s 1997 heroics for Cleveland–a true turn-of-the-tide moment early in a series that everyone looks back on.
Should Detroit rally and take the pennant, we’d have to rank Ortiz’s blast as similar in tone to Ibanez of 2012–clutch to be sure, but not ultimately decisive. Ortiz would deserve to rank ahead of Ibanez in either case, because the 2013 Red Sox at least won the game the heroics were performed in and tacked on another win, moving the fan base from complete despair to a reasonable hope of reaching the World Series.