Tuesday, October 6, 2015

New York vs. Houston in the Postseason

The Yankees and Astros both squandered seven-game leads in their divisions and now find themselves in a one-night, lose-and-go-home Wild Card Game on Tuesday.

This will be the first time the Yankees have played the Astros in the postseason. The only other teams the Yanks have never faced in the playoffs are the White Sox, Expos/Nationals, Blue Jays, Rockies and Rays.

The Masahiro Tanaka-Dallas Keuchel showdown will be the fifth postseason meeting between New York City and Houston teams in the four major professional sports.

(Logos from SportsLogos.net)

Let's start with one of the greatest playoff series of all time.

1986 NLCS

The 1986 New York Mets were a dominant team. With a 108-54 record, they won the NL East by 21.5 games and were 12 games ahead of baseball's second-best team, the Houston Astros. Houston clinched the NL West in style, with a no-hitter by that year's Cy Young winner, Mike Scott.

They were underdogs against the Mets, but Scott was the equalizer for them. He kept it up in Game One, outdueling Dwight Gooden 1-0 with a complete-game five-hit shutout. He struck out 14 and walked one, good for a Game Score of 90 (the 11th such start in postseason history, now 21 total).

Scott frustrated his former team, and the Mets even accused him of scuffing the baseball. From Gordon Edes (then of the L.A. Times):
Carter--perhaps Scott's most outspoken critic--demanded that plate umpire Doug Harvey check the ball after Carter swung at and missed an 0-and-1 pitch in the first inning.
Harvey's inspection turned up nothing untoward, and he returned the ball to Scott as the fans rose and yelled some criticism of their own--directed at Carter, of course.
"His pitches had more movement than any balls I've seen all year," said Carter... 
..."The bottom dropped right out of it," Carter said.
"There wasn't any rotation on the ball. It's like a dry spitter, or something. . . .
"People feel he does use some substance. I don't know for sure. But if he does do it, you have to tip your hat to him."
The Mets evened the set in Game Two, touching Nolan Ryan for five runs in as many innings. Bob Ojeda scattered ten hits in going the distance as New York won 5-1.

Game Three at Shea Stadium featured a couple of big comebacks that those Mets became so famous for. The Astros scored twice in the top of the first and added two more in the second on Bill Doran's home run off Ron Darling. It was still 4-0 until the sixth, when a pair of singles and a Craig Reynolds error at short put the Mets on the board and sent Darryl Strawberry to the plate as the tying run:

His three-run homer tied the game, but the Astros took the lead right back in the next half-inning. Doran led off with a walk and Billy Hatcher bunted him over to second, but third baseman Ray Knight threw the ball away, allowing Doran to take third. Denny Walling drove in the go-ahead run with a groundout and it was 5-4 Houston.

That 5-4 score held into the bottom of the ninth. Wally Backman started the inning with a bunt single against Astros closer Dave Smith.

Backman moved to second on a passed ball, but pinch hitter Danny Heep couldn't advance him as he flied out to center. Still, the tying run was in scoring position and the winning run came to the plate in Lenny Dykstra.

There have been 48 walk-off home runs in postseason history, but Dykstra's was the first of only three that were hit while trailing. Kirk Gibson's hobbled game-winner in the 1988 World Series and Joe Carter's 1993 World Series clincher were also come-from-behind shots.

Mets radio voice Bob Murphy had a great call of Dykstra's home run.

It was back to Scott in Game Four and he threw another gem, holding the Mets to three singles in nine innings as the Astros tied the series with a 3-1 win.

The scuffing allegations continued, but Mets third baseman Ray Knight had enough of the controversy:
"I've never heard more discussion about one pitcher and one pitch in all my 16 years of baseball. My whole philosophy about it is there isn't a damn thing you can do about it. He's going to do whatever he does. You have to get that out of your mind and start thinking, 'What approach is best suited to hit this pitch?; and then you have to make adjustments at the plate."
Game Five was pushed back a day due to rain before Gooden and Ryan had a great pitching duel. In nine innings, Ryan allowed one run on two hits with one walk and 12 strikeouts. Doc threw ten innings of one-run ball, but the score was still 1-1 and it became a bullpen battle.

Houston's Charlie Kerfeld and New York's Jesse Orosco both went six-up, six-down in two innings of relief. Kerfield came back out for the 12th and got into trouble. Backman hit a one-out single, and although Kerfield picked him off, the pitcher threw the ball away, allowing Backman to reach second. The Astros elected to intentionally walk Keith Hernandez to set up the double play with Gary Carter coming up.

The two walk-off wins at Shea gave the Mets a 3-2 series lead heading back to Houston. It might not have been an elimination game for the Mets, but with Scott slated to start a seventh game, Game Six had the feel of a winner-take-all game and would go down as one of the most thrilling contests in playoff history.

Houston scored three runs in the bottom of the first, and Bob Knepper kept it at 3-0 as he took a two-hit shutout into the ninth. The Mets finally broke out when Dykstra opened the inning with a triple and Mookie Wilson singled him home. Two batters later, Hernandez knocked an RBI double that cut it to 3-2 and took Knepper out of the game. Smith entered to record the last two outs, but full-count walks to Carter and Strawberry loaded the bases before Knight's sacrifice fly tied the game.

It was the ninth inning, but the Mets and Astros were just getting started. Roger McDowell posted five scoreless innings of one-hit ball to get New York through the 13th. For the Astros, Smith and Larry Andersen kept it 3-3 into the 14th.

The Mets rallied in the top of the 14th, with Backman's single off Aurelio Lopez driving in Strawberry from second to put the Mets three outs away from the World Series. Orosco relieved McDowell and struck out Doran to open the bottom of the 14th, but Hatcher roped one off the left-field foul pole for a game-tying home run.

Tied once again, the game carried through the 15th and into the 16th inning. At the time, it became the longest game in playoff history by innings (since passed by two of 18-innings in the NLDS: Game Four in 2005 and Game Two in 2014). 

The Mets rallied off Lopez again in the 16th. Strawberry led off with a double and scored on Knight's single. Jeff Calhoun came in and uncorked two wild pitches, the last of which brought home Knight for a 6-4 lead. Dykstra added another insurance run with an RBI single and they sure would need it.

Down 7-4 with three outs left in their season, Houston stormed back against Orosco. Davey Lopes worked a one-out walk and after Doran singled, Hatcher's base hit cut it to 7-5. After a groundout, Glenn Davis kept the Astros alive with an RBI single that made it 7-6 and put the tying run at second and the winning run at first.

The next batter, Kevin Bass, battled Orosco to a full count.

After 16 exhausting innings, the Mets held on for a 7-6 victory to clinch a trip to the World Series. As Jeff Pearlman details in his book, "The Bad Guys Won!" the Mets and their wives destroyed the plane on their trip back to New York.

It didn't get much easier for the Mets as they faced the Red Sox in the World Series. They pulled off a surreal comeback in the tenth inning of Game Six and then came back from 3-0 down in Game Seven to win the franchise's second championship.

1975 NBA First Round

The NBA postseason expanded from eight teams to ten for the 1974-75 season with the fourth and fifth seeds in each conference playing a best-of-three series.

The Houston Rockets actually played in the Central Division of the Eastern Conference in their first years since merging from the ABA to the NBA. Led by point guard Calvin Murphy and power forward Rudy Tomjanovich , they rode a .500 record to the team's first NBA playoff berth.

Their fifth-seeded opponent were the New York Knicks, who took advantage of the extra playoff spot and got in with a sub-.500 40-42 record. Two years removed from winning the championship, they still had Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe and Bill Bradley among others from their early-70s title runs.

In Game One, Murphy's 22 points lifted the Rockets to a 15-point home win in which they never trailed in the second half.

With a 1-1-1 format, the Knicks were at The Garden facing elimination in Game Two. New York were up by 12 after the first quarter and never looked back. Clyde Frazier scored 26 points and Jim Barnett added 15 off the bench to key an easy win. The Knicks were rolling by 21 after three before the Rockets made it a little closer before falling by ten points.

Game Three back in Houston was dominated by the home team. Tomjanovich scored a game-high 25 points as the Rockets routed the Knicks 118-86.

Houston's Eastern Semifinal opponent, the Boston Celtics, were 19 games ahead of them in the standings during the regular season and it showed. The Celtics wiped them out in five games, with the four victories by an average of 12 points.

1994 NBA Finals

After Tomjanovich finished his playing career with the Rockets in 1981, he joined the coaching staff before ascending to the top job in 1992. With the help of brilliant center Hakeem Olajuwon , the Rockets reached the NBA Finals in 1994.

The Chicago Bulls had won three straight championships, but the sudden retirement of Michael Jordan created a vacuum in the East. The Knicks knocked them out in seven games in the Conference Semis before outlasting the Pacers in the next round to reach the Finals.

The series was a matchup of two great centers in Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing and "The Dream" (28 pts, 10 reb) got the better of Ewing (23, 9) as the Rockets won the opener in Houston. Olajuwon scored 25 in Game Two, but the Knicks held him to one bucket in the fourth quarter and eked out an eight-point win.

In Game Three was in New York, and it turned the series. The Knicks trailed by 16 in the first half, but crawled back into it when their suffocating defense kept Houston from scoring for more than ten minutes during the third and fourth quarters.

Derek Harper 's tiebreaking jumper gave the Knicks the lead in the final minute, but rookie Sam Cassell knocked down a three-pointer with 32.6 seconds left to push Houston ahead again. He also sank four free throws that put the game away.

The night before Game Four was an eventful one at The Garden. The New York Rangers beat the Vancouver Canucks in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Final to claim their first NHL title since 1940. At halftime of the Knicks-Rockets game, Rangers captain Mark Messier brought out the Cup. Harper led the Knicks with 21 points and Charles Oakley added 16 with 20 rebounds as New York evened the series at 2-2.


Two days later, New York celebrated the Rangers with a championship parade down the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan. Game Five was that night at MSG, but it would soon be overshadowed in bizarre fashion.

Football Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson had recently been suspected of double-homicide and during the game, news broke that he was leading police on a car chase in Los Angeles. NBC cut away from its coverage of Game Five to show Simpson's white Ford Bronco rolling down the interstate.

(I'm very surprised there isn't more footage of this on YouTube)

The Knicks pulled out a 91-84 win to take a 3-2 series lead. Ewing had 21 points, 12 boards and eight blocks.

The Knicks were one win away from the title, but it would have to come at The Summit in Houston. The hosts led Game Six, but John Starks brought New York back with 16 points in the fourth quarter. The Rockets still clung to a two-point lead in the final seconds, when the Knicks could run one last play. Oakley inbounded to Starks, who went around a Ewing pick and put up a three-pointer that could've won the game. Olajuwon lunged and got a piece of it though, preserving the victory and forcing a seventh game.

Olajuwon showed why he was the league MVP in Game Seven. He posted a 25-10-7 line and added three blocks. Starks, still shaken by the missed opportunity three nights earlier, had a horrific game. He shot 2-for-18 from the field, with misses on all 11 tries from behind the arc. In an interview with CBS Sports, Starks said:
"I didn't go out there and play a relaxed game like I did in the six games before then," Starks said. "I just was thinking about that game for the last two or three days before (Game 7) started. And when I come into a game not relaxed like I normally am, I don't play as well. And obviously, it showed."
The Knicks were still within three with under three minutes remaining, but Olajuwon sank a hook over Ewing, and after a Ewing miss, Vernon Maxwell knocked down a three to put it away.

The Rockets won 90-84 to claim the first of back-to-back championships. Adding to his season MVP award, Olajuwon earned Finals MVP honors by averaging 26.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 3.9 blocks and 1.6 steals per game.

1991 NFL Wild Card

Led by Pro Bowl quarterback Warren Moon and All-Pro wide reciever Haywood Jeffires, the 1991 Oilers rode a 7-1 first half to an 11-5 record and the AFC Central Division title. The Jets beat the Dolphins in overtime in Week 17 to sneak into the playoffs at 8-8.

Houston opened the game with 16-play drive that ate up more than nine minutes and ended in Moon's 5-yard TD pass to Ernest Givins. Givins, who was playing with a broken nose suffered four weeks earlier, reeled in another TD pass in the second quarter that made it 14-7 Oilers. New York closed the first half with a field-goal drive, but couldn't draw any closer than 14-10. They drove to the Houston 7 in the third quarter, but Ken O'Brien threw an interception to Bubba McDowell and the threat was over.

Moon drove down to set up an Al Del Greco 53-yard field goal to get the lead back up to seven points. The next Jets drive went all the way to the Houston 3, but Al Smith and Jeff Alm stuffed Freeman McNeil on 4th-and-1 for a huge turnover halfway through the fourth.

The Jets had another chance to tie it in the final minutes after forcing a fumble by Moon, but the drive fizzled out at the Houston 22. The Oilers held on for a 17-10 win to advance to the Divisional round in Denver. Houston led by a point and had John Elway pinned at his own 2-yard line with 2:07 left, but he took the Broncos on a field-goal drive as Denver won 26-24 in the final seconds.

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