Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Atlanta vs. Cleveland in the Postseason

The Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers begin the Eastern Conference Finals tonight. It's the third time in the four major professional sports that these two cities are squaring off in the postseason, so let's take a look at the first two.

1995 Braves d. Indians 4-2 in World Series
2009 Cavaliers d. Hawks 4-0 in East Semis
2015 Hawks vs. Cavaliers in East Finals

1995 World Series

The Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves were the two best teams in the majors during a strike-shortened 144-game season. The Tribe went 100-44, which is 112.5 wins over a 162-game span. Over a full season, they might have broken the A.L. record for wins before the 1998 Yankees did. Atlanta was 90-54, or 101.25 wins per 162 games played. The two teams went a combined 14-3 in the LDS and LCS to reach the World Series. Their cumulative winning percentage of .660 is the 12th-highest mark for any Fall Classic, the highest since 1954.

Year Team W L Team W L Tot W Tot L W %
1906 Cubs 116 36 White Sox 93 58 209 94 0.689769
1912 Red Sox 105 47 Giants 103 48 208 95 0.686469
1909 Pirates 110 42 Tigers 98 54 208 96 0.684211
1931 Athletics 107 45 Cardinals 101 53 208 98 0.679739
1942 Cardinals 106 48 Yankees 103 51 209 99 0.678571
1910 Cubs 104 50 Athletics 102 48 206 98 0.677632
1954 Indians 111 43 Giants 97 57 208 100 0.675325
1929 Athletics 104 46 Cubs 98 54 202 100 0.668874
1953 Dodgers 105 49 Yankees 99 52 204 101 0.668852
1939 Yankees 106 45 Reds 97 57 203 102 0.665574
1927 Yankees 110 44 Pirates 94 60 204 104 0.662338
1995 Indians 100 44 Braves 90 54 190 98 0.659722

Greg Maddux, who went 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA and allowed 147 hits and 23 walks in 209.2 innings during the regular season, dazzled in Game One. He held one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball history to two hits and two unearned runs in a complete-game 3-2 victory. His pitches by inning: 17-12-9-7-10-7-8-14-13.

Fred McGriff hit a towering home run off of Orel Hershiser to tie the game at one in the second inning.

That score held into the seventh, when Hershiser walked McGriff and David Justice before departing for lefty specialist Paul Assenmacher, who walked pinch hitter Mike Devereaux. Julian Tavarez was summoned to a bases loaded, no out situation against pinch hitter Luis Polonia.

He grounded it to shortstop Omar Vizquel, who could only go to second for a run-scoring force play (he got the out despite not having possession of the ball as he touched second base on a missed call). Rafael Belliard followed with a well-executed squeeze bunt to bring home another run and that's all Maddux would need.

Eddie Murray got the Indians off to a good start in Game Two with a two-run homer off Tom Glavine.

Atlanta tied the game in the third against Dennis Martinez with a Chipper Jones sac fly and a Justice RBI single. It was still 2-2 in the bottom of the sixth when Javy Lopez took Martinez deep for a two-run shot that made it 4-2.

Cleveland cut it to 4-3 and had Manny Ramirez at first with one out in the eighth, but Lopez picked him off in an early Manny-Being-Manny moment.

The Indians put the tying run on in the ninth, but Mark Wohlers set down Carlos Baerga to end the game and put the Braves up 2-0.

Back at home in an 0-2 hole, the Indians put up four early runs in Game Three to knock out John Smoltz. Down 4-1, Atlanta crept back in it in the sixth and seventh innings with solo homers from McGriff and Ryan Klesko. Cleveland led 5-3 in the eighth when the Braves rallied, knocking out starter Charles Nagy on Luis Polonia's RBI single.

Three batters later, against Assenmacher, Justice reached on an error by the second baseman Baerga that tied the game at five. The inning dragged on when Devereaux pinch hit and knocked the go-ahead single off Tavarez for a 6-5 lead.

Cleveland roared back in the bottom half as both bullpens struggled. The Indians put runners at the corners with one out. Wohlers came in to face Sandy Alomar Jr., who did tied it on the first pitch.

Wohlers was able to get out of a bases loaded spot without the go-ahead run scoring, and he followed with a scoreless ninth and tenth. Jose Mesa also posted zeroes in the ninth, tenth and 11th innings, setting the stage for the offense in the bottom of the 11th. Baerga led off the frame with a double off Alejandro Pena, and after Albert Belle was intentionally walked, Murray stepped to the plate.

Murray's walk-off hit gave the Indians new life. Game Four was a duel between Steve Avery and Ken Hill that was scoreless into the sixth. Klesko popped a solo homer to break the deadlock in the top of the sixth (with a Grade-A bat flip).

But Belle answered in the bottom of the sixth with a solo shot to the opposite field.

Hill pitched into the seventh, but Mike Hargrove might have left him in a little too long. He lost a seven-pitch battle with Marquis Grissom on a one-out walk, and lefty Luis Polonia jumped on the righty's next pitch for the go-ahead double.

Justice added a two-run single in the inning for insurance and the Braves won 5-2 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. Game Five had a fun ceremonial first pitch from the space shuttle.

Albert Belle jumped on Maddux in the first inning by hitting a laser shot to right field for a two-run homer.

The Braves tied it with tallies in the fourth and fifth innings, but Cleveland took the lead again in the sixth with consecutive RBI singles by Jim Thome and Ramirez.

Thome added a long homer to center in the eighth to make it 5-2. That ended up being the deciding margin as Mesa served up a two-run shot to Klesko in the ninth before locking down the 5-4 win.

Back in Atlanta, Game Six was a scoreless duel between Glavine and El Presidente. Martinez didn't allow a run in four and two-thirds innings before being removed with two runners aboard and McGriff coming up. Lefty Jim Poole struck him out on three pitches to keep it 0-0.

As for Glavine, he didn't allow a hit for the first five innings. Tony Pena led off the sixth by dunking a single into center field to break up the no-hitter. Glavine shook it off and retired the next three batters.

Leading off the bottom of the sixth for Atlanta was David Justice. The headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that morning read, "Justice Takes a Rip at Braves Fans," alluding to his comments that he felt fans weren't supporting the team they way they did in the 1991 Fall Classic. Booed before the game, Justice was forgiven after hitting a home run for a 1-0 lead.

Glavine made the one run hold up. He was brilliant in eight shutout innings, holding the powerhouse Indians to only one hit and three walks while striking out eight. Wohlers worked a 1-2-3 ninth to clinch the championship for the Braves.

In his game-ending call on NBC, Bob Costas said, "the team of the 90's has its world championship." Little did he know that the Yankees would close the decade with three of the next four titles, spurring him to call them "the team of the decade, the most successful franchise of the century" at the end of the 1999 World Series. 

Underscoring the crapshoot nature of the postseason, of all the great Braves teams that won 14 straight division titles, this was the only one that won the World Series. Reliving this and going through all the video made me remember what a great series it was, with five of the six games decided by one run.

2009 East Semis

LeBron James and the Cavaliers were the NBA's best team in 2009, running up a 66-16 record as James won his first MVP award. They swept the Pistons in the first round of the playoffs while the Hawks beat the Heat in seven games to set up a Cleveland-Atlanta Conference Semifinals matchup.

The Hawks got past the first round for the first time since 1999, but LeBron and company made quick work of them, winning all four games by an average of 18 points. LeBron put up 47 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in a Game Three victory, the best performance of a series where he averaged 33.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.5 steals per game.

James averaged 38.5 points per game in the Eastern Conference Finals, but the Orlando Magic thwarted hopes of a LeBron/Kobe NBA Finals by winning the series in six games.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Anaheim vs. Chicago in the Postseason

A spot in the Stanley Cup Final is on the line as the Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks fight for the Western Conference title. It is the third postseason matchup between Anaheim and Chicago teams in the four major pro sports. Interestingly, in three different sports, all in the semifinal/final four round.

1985 Bears d. Rams 24-0 in NFC Championship
2005 White Sox d. Angels 4-1 in ALCS
2015 Ducks vs. Blackhawks in West Final

1985 NFC Championship

The 1985 Bears were one of the most dominant teams in NFL history. Their punishing 46 defense held opponents to 12.4 points per game as they rolled to a 15-1 record. Their offense was pretty good too, I was surprised to see they were second in the league in scoring (28.5 ppg). After stomping the Giants 21-0 in the divisional round, they hosted the Los Angeles Rams (who played their home games at the Big A in Anaheim from 1980-94) in the NFC Championship Game.

What an amazing open by CBS, narrated by the late, great Pat Summerall. The Bears got out of the gate quickly, scoring a touchdown on their opening drive on Jim McMahon's 16-yard scramble.

Chicago led 10-0 late in the second quarter, but the Rams were in the red zone in the final minute before halftime. With a timeout in his pocket, L.A. coach John Robinson had a clock-management meltdown, allowing the clock to run out with the ball at the Bears' 5-yard line.

In the third quarter, Eric Dickerson, who ran for a playoff-record 248 yards in the divisional round, coughed up his second fumble of the game. It was a miserable afternoon for the star running back, with the Bears holding him to just 46 yards.

The Bears extended their lead to 17-0 when McMahon hit Willie Gault with a 22-yard touchdown pass.

Chicago punctuated their victory with Wilber Marshall's 52-yard fumble return touchdown that made the score 24-0.

Super Bowl XX in New Orleans was little more than a coronation as the Bears demolished the Patriots 46-10.

2005 ALCS

The Yankees and Red Sox had two classic showdowns for the American League pennant in 2003 and 2004. Both reached the postseason again in 2005, but were knocked out in the Division Series (the Angels held off the Yanks in five games while the White Sox swept Boston).

A rainout pushed back the fourth game of the opening round, so the Angels lost to the Yankees in New York on Sunday, beat them in Anaheim on Monday, then had to play Game One in Chicago on Tuesday. They were no worse for wear when Paul Byrd outpitched Jose Contreras in the opener for a 3-2 road win. Contreras worked eight and one-third innings and was replaced by Neal Cotts for two batters, and that would be all we'd see of the White Sox bullpen in the series.

The most notable moment of the series was late in Game Two. Mark Buehrle pitched a five-hit gem for Chicago, but despite Jarrod Washburn not lasting five innings for the Halos, relievers Brendan Donnelly, Scot Shields and Kelvim Escobar kept it a 1-1 game in the ninth. With two down in the bottom of the ninth, Escobar got A.J. Pierzynski to swing and miss for the third out. Catcher Josh Paul rolled the ball toward the mound and the rest of the Angels headed off the field for extra innings. However, Pierzynski ran to first base and home plate umpire Doug Eddings ruled that the pitch had hit the dirt, ruling Pierzynski safe at first on a dropped third strike call.

The missed call by Eddings, often included among the worst and most combative umpires in the game with Angel Hernandez and CB Bucknor, allowed the inning to continue. With Joe Crede at the plate next, pinch-runner Pablo Ozuna stole second base on the second pitch. The third pitch would be the last of the game.

Crede's walk-off double tied the series at one. The White Sox took control quickly in Game Three, with Jermaine Dye's RBI double and Paul Konerko's two-run homer putting Chicago up 3-0 just four batters into the top of the first inning. That would be enough for starter Jon Garland, who shut down the Anaheim bats in a complete-game 5-2 win.

Game Four followed the same script. Once again it was 3-0 White Sox four batters into the game, with Konerko driving in all three runs himself on a home run. Once again, the visiting starter held the Angels to two runs in a comfortable victory, this time it was Freddy Garcia in an 8-2 win.

The fifth game was more dramatic. Byrd and Contreras squared off again in a Game One rematch. Dye's RBI double in the sixth pushed the White Sox in front 2-1, but Chone Figgins and Garret Anderson drove in runs in the bottom half for a 3-2 Anaheim lead. Escobar relieved Byrd in the seventh, but Crede greeted him with a home run that tied the game. An inning later, an error by Escobar on what could've been the third out opened the door for Crede, whose infield single scored Aaron Rowand with the go-ahead run. The White Sox tacked on two more in the ninth for a 6-3 lead. In the bottom of the ninth, Contreras retired his 15th straight batter to send Chicago to the World Series for the first time since 1959.

Contreras worked the fourth consecutive complete game for the White Sox. In the Fall Classic against the Astros, they swept four games by a total of six runs for their first World Series title since 1917, ending an even longer drought than the more famous one ended by the Red Sox one year earlier.

Oakland vs. Houston in the Postseason

The Houston Rockets overcame a 3-1 deficit to shock the Los Angeles Clippers and advance to the Western Conference Finals. The Golden State Warriors host them tonight in Game One of a matchup between the West's top two seeds. It is the fourth time in the four major professional sports that teams from Oakland and Houston are meeting in the postseason.

1967 Raiders d. Oilers 40-7 in AFL Championship
1969 Raiders d. Oilers 56-7 in AFL Divisional
1980 Raiders d. Oilers 27-7 in Wild Card
2015 Warriors vs. Rockets in West Finals

It's been all Oakland in this one, with the Raiders beating the Oilers in three playoff games by a combined score of 123-21. Let's take a closer look at each one.

1967 AFL Championship (highlights here - still can't embed, NFL?)

The Raiders dominated the AFL in '67, averaging over 33 points per game with a +235 point differential (the +154 Chiefs were the only other team above Houston's +59). The Oilers edged the New York Jets to take the Eastern Division crown, just one year after finishing last at 3-11. Played on the same day as the NFL Championship, this one would not go down in history like the other game did (the Packers-Cowboys Ice Bowl at Lambeau Field).

The Oilers hung in with Oakland, only trailing 3-0 in the first quarter while actually outgaining the Raiders 93-52. But the Raiders opened the second with Hewritt Dixon's 69-yard touchdown run (0:55 in above highlight link). In the final seconds of the first half, kicker George Blanda and quarterback/holder Daryle Lamonica lined up for a field goal from the 17-yard line. Lamonica pulled off a fake, hitting Dave Kocourek with a touchdown pass for a 17-0 lead at the break (1:15 in highlight).

Houston fumbled the second-half kickoff, and Lamonica quickly made them pay with a 1-yard plunge for a 24-0 advantage. The Raiders added three Blanda field goals around Houston's lone score, a 5-yard pass in the fourth quarter from Pete Beathard to Charley Frazier. Lamonica added one more Raiders TD in the middle of the final period when he connected with Bill Miller from 12 yards out. The Raiders won 40-7, outgaining the Oilers 364-146 (312-53 after the first quarter)! Dixon and Pete Banaszak teamed up to rush for 260 yards for Oakland.

The Raiders advanced to Super Bowl II in Miami, but Green Bay cruised to a 33-14 victory in Vince Lombardi's final game as head coach of the Packers.

Two years later, the AFL expanded their postseason to four teams. In the new divisional round, the 12-1-1 Western Division champion Raiders (led by rookie head coach John Madden) hosted the second-seeded team in the East, the 6-6-2 Oilers.

If Houston was looking for revenge, they wouldn't get it on this day. In fact, Lamonica and the Raiders gave them an even bigger beatdown than they had two years earlier. Three touchdown throws by Lamonica (two to Fred Biletnikoff and one to Rod Sherman) and a George Atkinson pick-six of Beathard made it 28-0 in the first quarter. After opening up the largest lead after one quarter in NFL/AFL playoff history, Lamonica added a 60-yard TD to Charlie Smith for a 42-0 halftime edge.

Lamonica made history in the third quarter with a second scoring strike to Sherman and a 3-yard pass to Billy Cannon, his sixth touchdown pass of the day. The Mad Bomber became the first of three quarterbacks to toss six TD's in a playoff game, with Steve Young (1994) and Tom Brady (2011) joining him.

The Oilers avoided a shutout with Beathard's 8-yard touchdown pass to Alvin Reed, but Marv Hubbard answered for Oakland, running in from four yards out for a 56-7 score that would be the final margin. The 49-point spread makes this the third-biggest blowout in playoff history, behind the Bears' 73-0 title game victory in 1940 and the Jaguars' 62-7 win over Miami in 1999 that ended Dan Marino's career.

In the AFL Championship Game two weeks later, the Raiders were upset at home by the eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs, 17-7.

The Raiders went 11-5, but lost the tiebreaker to the rival Chargers, so while San Diego enjoyed the AFC's top overall seed, Oakland had to play the Oilers in the wild card round. Houston was also 11-5, powered by running back Earl Campbell, who won his third straight rushing title in three years in the league.

These two clubs swapped quarterbacks before the season, with Oakland great Ken Stabler going to Houston for Dan Pastorini. Pastorini broke his leg early in the season, however, and it was Jim Plunkett who led the Raiders to the playoffs.

Campbell fumbled on the first play, leading to a Chris Bahr field goal less than two minutes in. The fumble happened so quickly, play-by-play man Charlie Jones didn't notice it as the NBC telecast continued with their lineup graphics.

He made up for it later in the quarter with a 10-yard touchdown run for a 7-3 Oilers lead.

In the second, Plunkett drove the Raiders into the end zone, with a long completion to Kenny King setting up a 1-yard TD pass to Todd Christensen for the go-ahead score.

That 10-7 score held for the rest of the period and all of the third, with a Lester Hayes interception of Stabler in the end zone preserving Oakland's lead.

The Raiders opened it up on the last play of the third with Plunkett's long pass to Cliff Branch. Then he started the fourth with a 44-yard strike to Arthur Whittington that made it 17-7.

Another Bahr field goal increased the lead to 13 with six and a half minutes to play. Backed up at his own 2-yard line down 20-7, Stabler's third-and-long heave was intercepted by Hayes, who ran it back for the icing-on-the-cake touchdown.

Oakland won 27-7, then moved on to upset the Browns in Cleveland on the infamous Red Right 88 interception. The Raiders got another crack at the Chargers in the AFC title game in San Diego and pulled off another road upset to reach the Super Bowl. They beat the Eagles 27-10 to become the first wild card championship team in NFL history.

** For the purposes of these city-vs-city playoff histories, I count the Warriors (and Sharks) as both Oakland and San Francisco teams. Both cities have their own baseball and football teams, but their winter sports teams are shared by fans on both sides of the bay. I would have added any Houston-San Francisco meetings, but there haven't been any yet. Still waiting for an Astros-Giants World Series.

Monday, May 18, 2015

New York vs. Tampa in the Postseason

The New York Rangers are playing the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final in what should be a very exciting, tightly contested series. In the four major professional sports, it is the fifth postseason series between teams from the New York City metro area and Tampa.

2003 Devils d. Lightning 4-1 in East Semis
2004 Lightning d. Islanders 4-1 in East Quarters
Devils d. Lightning 4-2 in East Quarters
Rangers vs. Lightning in East Final
2007 Giants d. Buccaneers 24-14 in Wild Card

Let's take a closer look at each of the previous four New York-Tampa playoff meetings.

2003 East Semis

Through their first ten seasons of existence, the Tampa Bay Lightning averaged a .378 points percentage and reached the postseason just once (a 4-2 first-round loss to the Flyers in 1996). Things turned around under coach John Tortorella as Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and company won the Southeast Division in 2003. Despite losing the first two games at home to the Capitals, the Lightning came back to win their first-round series in six games to set up a meeting with the Devils, who dispatched Boston 4-1 in their opening set.

In Game One, Jamie Langenbrunner broke a 0-0 tie in the third period for the first of three New Jersey goals in a 3-0 victory. The Lightning led Game Two by a goal with ten minutes left, but Grant Marshall tied it up. Only two minutes into overtime, Langenbrunner became the hero again, scoring on Nikolai Khabibulin to give New Jersey a 2-0 series lead.

Back at home in Tampa, the Lightning raced out to a 3-0 lead in the first period of Game Three, but gave all three back in the second period. Dave Andreychuk put Tampa in front with a goal six minutes into the third, which was enough for a 4-3 win to bring them back in the series. The Devils answered with a 3-1 victory in Game Four to take control of the series.

Down 3-1, Tortorella benched Khabibulin for John Grahame in Game Five. Both teams scored in the first period, but both Grahame and Martin Brodeur held the opposition scoreless in the second and third...and overtime...and a second overtime. Finally, just past the midway point of the third overtime, Grant Marshall knocked in the game-winner to push the Devils into the Eastern Conference Final.

New Jersey outlasted Ottawa in seven games to reach the Stanley Cup Final, where despite Jean-Sebastien Giguere's Conn Smythe Trophy-winning performance, the Devils beat Anaheim 4-3 to lift their third Cup in nine years.

2004 East Quarters

The Lightning recovered the following season. St. Louis won the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player as the team racked up 106 points to secure the best record in the Eastern Conference. The 1-vs-8 first round matchup pitted Tampa Bay against the New York Islanders.

The first four games were all 3-0 decisions, with Khabibulin shutting out the Isles in Games One, Three and Four and Rick DiPietro winning Game Two. Tampa Bay had the Islanders on the ropes in Game Five, which headed to overtime tied at two. Only four minutes into the extra period, St. Louis slapped home the game-winner to win the series. 

The Lightning swept Montreal before edging the Flyers in seven games to advance to the Stanley Cup Final against Calgary. The Flames had a chance to win the series at home in Game Six, but St. Louis scored in double overtime force a Game Seven back in Tampa, which the Lightning won 2-1 for their first championship.

2007 East Quarters

The Devils were 47-24-8 and cruising to the Atlantic Division title when GM Lou Lamoriello fired head coach Claude Julien with three games left in the regular season so he could coach the team himself. Their first-round opponent was the seventh-seeded Lightning.

Zach Parise scored twice in the opener to help give the Devils the win in Game One, but Tampa Bay answered with two wins on tiebreaking third-period goals by Lacavalier and Vinny Prospal. The Devils were up 3-1 on their way to tying the series in Game Four, but St. Louis and Lecavalier scored to force OT. New Jersey recovered and won in overtime on Scott Gomez's goal that tied the series 2-2. Brodeur posted a 31-save 3-0 shutout in the fifth game before the Devils closed it out in Game Six. Brian Gionta scored twice in New Jersey's 3-2 win.

The Devils were upset in the next round, however, by the fourth-seeded Ottawa Senators. They were eliminated in a Game Five loss that was the final game played at Continental Airlines Arena.

2007 Wild Card

The New York Giants overcame an 0-2 start to go 10-6 and grab a wild card spot. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the NFC South at 9-7, getting home-field advantage despite their inferior record. Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia had beaten the Giants twice before in the postseason with two different clubs (2002 49ers, 2006 Eagles).

Earnest Graham's 1-yard touchdown plunge provided the only scoring of the first quarter, giving Tampa Bay a 7-0 lead. The Giants came back with touchdowns on consecutive possessions in the second, both by Brandon Jacobs (one receiving, one rushing).

Michael Spurlock fumbled the kickoff to start the second half, giving the Giants a short field for a 25-yard Lawrence Tynes field goal and 17-7 advantage. Corey Webster, who recovered the fumble, intercepted Garcia in the end zone on the next drive to thwart another Tampa Bay scoring chance. Ahmad Bradshaw keyed a 15-play, 92-yard drive in the fourth that put the game away. Eli Manning capped it with a 4-yard strike to Amani Toomer, making it 24-7 New York. A late TD trimmed the lead to ten, but the Bucs' last-gasp effort ended when Garcia was picked off by R.W. McQuarters.

The Giants moved on to face top-seeded Dallas in the divisional round. They knocked off the 13-3 rival Cowboys, then went to Lambeau and took down the 13-3 Packers in one of the NFL's coldest games ever to advance to Super Bowl XLII. They completed their miraculous run by beating the 18-0 Patriots 17-14 for one of the biggest upsets in sports history.