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The Best Comebacks of 2021

Reliving 2021's best rallies, as measured by wWE%.

Full disclosure: when I wrote the first draft of this piece, the lockout was still going strong. My introduction, which is thankfully no longer relevant, was all about how in times as dark as the lockout, fans should be comforted by remembering that baseball is a sport where comebacks are always possible and hope always remains.

Still, my main point stands: in baseball, it’s never too late for a comeback. There’s no ticking clock, and as long as there’s a single out left, there’s no deficit that can’t be overcome. If a team is still on the field, they can still stage a comeback. It’s fundamental to the spiritual core of the sport: no matter how bad things might look for your team, there is still hope. Even if it’s just a minuscule amount, it’s there. It always is.

This list is of the best comebacks of 2021, as measured by wWE (winning team win expectancy). In other words, these were the five games where the team that ultimately won had, at some point in the game, the lowest odds of winning. In other other words, these were the games where things seemed darkest until hope won out.

Maybe in celebrating these games we can all feel a little bit of extra hope this Spring as we gear up for another blissful 162-game season.

 

5. June 12th, Seattle @ Cleveland

 

This one started ugly for Cleveland, with Triston McKenzie walking four of the first (and only) six batters he faced, handing the ball over to the bullpen in the top of the first already down a run. The offense was quiet through the early innings, as Seattle added to their lead with a Jake Fraley two-run bomb and a solo shot from Dylan Moore. Cleveland entered the eighth inning down 4-0 and technically started their comeback then, with Cesar Hernandez smashing a Kendall Graveman slider 400 feet to center.

The real comeback didn’t start until the ninth. The first two Cleveland hitters ground out, and Bradley Zimmer was brought in to pinch-hit. With one out remaining, no one on base, and down three runs, Cleveland’s wWE bottomed out at .051%. Zimmer started the rally with a rally of his own, drawing a walk after falling behind 1-2. Josh Naylor followed Zimmer up with another walk, and Bobby Bradley cut the deficit to two runs with a single. The hero of the ninth, however, was René Rivera who came back from 0-2 to smash this not-quite-outta-here double to tie the game.

The game remained tied until the bottom of the tenth when Harold Ramirez rolled a 53-MPH groundball straight to the mound. What should’ve been an easy out at the plate was instead overthrown, and Hernandez slid in safe. The classic extra-inning walk-off fielder’s choice.

What’s most fun about this comeback is who was responsible for it: in a top-heavy Cleveland lineup, it was Bradley Zimmer, Bobby Bradley, René Rivera, and Harold Ramirez who saved the day. Anything is possible.

FINAL SCORE:  Cleveland 5, Seattle 4 in 10.

 

4. July 29th, Washington at Philadelphia 

 

This comeback was the second game of an epic doubleheader in Philadelphia, as Max Scherzer started the day by pitching six one-run innings in what would become his final Nationals start in game 1. Game 2 started promising for the Nats as well, with seven runs scored in the first three innings. The Phillies made up some ground with three solo shots: one from Rhys Hoskins in the bottom of the third, and back-to-back bombs from Andrew McCutchen and Alec Bohm in the fourth.

Cutch cut the deficit to three runs with a fifth-inning single, but that was all the Phills got until the very last possible moment. When Brad Miller came up to bat with two outs in the bottom of the seventh (remember, it was a doubleheader) the Phillies’ win expectancy was down to 0.47%. Miller swung at the first pitch he saw, looping a single into left field to extend the game. Two walks and another single later, J.T. Realmuto scorched a grounder through the diving infield and tied the game up.

The Nationals regained the win expectancy edge in the top of the eighth with a Jordan Zimmermann RBI single, but the Phillies train was moving too fast to be stopped or even slowed down. With one out, the Nats chose to intentionally walk Jean Segura, and then made the fatal mistake of walking Aaron Nola (yes, that Aaron Nola) to load the bases for Brad Miller. And then Brad did this:

Yep. That is a 105.8 MPH, 425-foot, absolutely demolished walk-off grand-slam home run to complete the fourth-most unlikely comeback of the year. I believe the technical term for such a play is “it doesn’t get much cooler than that.”

FINAL SCORE:  Philadelphia 11, Washington 8 in 8.

 

3.  July 20th, Chicago Cubs at St. Louis

 

The Cubs actually drew first blood in this one with a Nico Hoerner RBI groundout in the second inning, but the Cardinals tied them up in the thirdrd inning and then seemingly blew it all open with five more runs over the following few innings. The Cardinals’ fifth run of the game came on this 110.7 MPH laser from Tommy Edman:

The Cubs entered the top of the ninth inning still down 6-1, but their lowest win expectancy (0.44%) technically came when the Cards came up to bat in the bottom of the eighth. Those Cards struck out in order, and the Cubs had three outs left to score at least five runs. Three outs ended up being plenty.

It was the rare rally that started off with a K, as Patrick Wisdom struck out but advanced to first as the ball got away. The bad luck continued from there for the Cardinals: an infield single and a throwing error (plus three walks) scored some runs and left the bases loaded for Javier Báez.  El Mago then did what El Mago does and slapped a groundball straight up the middle, bringing the Cubs within one run.

Ian Happ finished the offensive rally five pitches later with a double up the first baseline and the Cubs brought in Craig Kimbrel (oh yeah, he was their closer still) to preserve the one-run lead. Kimbrel struck out Matt Carpenter, got Dylan Carlson to line out, and then froze Paul Goldschmidt with a fastball on the outside edge of the plate.

The fact that this rally started with a wild-pitch strikeout is just incredible. I wonder how many comebacks have started like that? It can’t be many. My sincere apologies to all Cardinals fans.

FINAL SCORE:  Chicago Cubs 7, St. Louis 6 in 9.

 

2. July 11th, New York Yankees @ Houston 

 

If you’re a Yankees fan and you hate the Astros, you may just want to skip this one. For the first few innings, the matchup was even, and the Astros entered the top of the eighth down only two very manageable runs. But Gary Sánchez blew the whole thing up by converting an 0-2 meatball into a three-run blast that bumped the Yankee lead to five runs.

The lead held through the bottom of the eighth and the Astros’ win expectancy sunk to 0.41% as the Yankees came up to bat in the ninth inning.  Sánchez ended the top of the ninth with a GIDP and the Yankees left in Domingo Germán to wrap things up. That was a mistake.

Yuli Gurriel started off the inning with a weak infield single. What came next was anything but weak. Kyle Tucker laced a double to deep left. And then Chas McCormick laced a double to deep left. And then, just to mix things up, Abraham Toro laced his following double to deep right, just evading Aaron Judge’s reach.

After another weak single (this one off the bat of Jason Castro) the Yankees finally got their first out of the inning. It didn’t matter, though. Because with two men on, one out, and his team down by two runs, Jose Altuve decided he had somewhere to be that night and needed to wrap things up:

Is Jose Altuve the most hated man in the Bronx? Hard to say for sure, but the three-run walk-off homer couldn’t have helped his popularity.

FINAL SCORE:  Houston 8, New York Yankees 7 in 9.

 

1. May 29th, San Diego @ Houston 

 

Now it’s Houston’s turn for heartbreak. Carlos Correa got the scoring started in the bottom of the fourth with a two-run shot off Yu Darvish, and the Astros extended their lead to 5-0 in the bottom of the fifth. The Padres were down 6-1 entering the top of the eighth when they started their rally, with three base hits cutting the deficit down to three runs.

It’s an understatement to say things looked bleak in the top of the ninth. After a Victor Caratini ground out and a Tommy Pham strikeout, their win expectancy bottomed out at 0.39%. And that’s when things got interesting. Manny Machado worked a four-pitch walk. Jake Cronenworth joined him on the bases with a double. And then who came up to bat? You guessed it, Fernando Tatis Jr. Tatis proceeded to then annihilate a ball into the upper reaches of Houston’s atmosphere to tie the game. Watch this baby sail:

The tie held through the bottom of the ninth and the game entered extras. If you think that’s where the fun ends with this one, though, you’re wrong. In a game where the Padres pulled off the biggest comeback of the season, the Astros managed to stage two rallies themselves in extra-innings. The Padres took the lead in the top of the 10th, but Correa wasted no time in evening up the score in the bottom. And then, down one in the 11th, the Astros tied the game again– this time on a ball four that got by Caratini with a runner on third.

Alas, all the Astros did was prolong their own suffering. In the top of the 11th, the Astros chose to intentionally walk Tatis. It was too little too late, however, as Wil Myers launched his own three-run shot. It wasn’t as monstrous as Tatis’, going oppo and just evading Kyle Tucker’s robbery attempt, but it got the job done.

The Astros went down quietly and in order in the bottom of the inning, ending the most unlikely comeback of 2021.

FINAL SCORE:  San Diego 11, Houston 8 in 12.

 


 

One random observation I had watching all of those comebacks is how often the definitive hit of the rally came on a pitch outside the zone: Harold Ramirez’s weak grounder to the mound, Brad Miller’s walk-off grand-slam, and Jose Altuve’s walk-off three-run shot all came on what-would-have-been called balls. It’s almost certainly just a coincidence, but for the sake of the narrative, I’m going to say it’s irrefutable proof that great baseball always finds a way.

Always.

 

Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@artbyMikeP on Twitter & IG)

Sam French

Brooklyn-based writer-- primarily of fiction, sometimes other stuff like baseball. Was once almost ejected from a rec softball game for employing too many infield shifts.

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