Anything can happen in October. Anyone can be a hero in the right moment. All it takes is one pitch or one swing to etch yourself into the annals of sports lore.
That’s the beauty of baseball.
Game One of the 2021 World Series begins in just a few hours. 30 teams fought all season for this opportunity. Just two remain. Who of the Astros and Braves will forever endear themselves to their respective franchises?
We may have to wait until Game Seven on Nov. 3 to find out. 40 World Series featured a winner-take-all Game Seven. Five times that climactic contest ended in walk-off fashion.
The first happened in 1924 with Earl McNeely of the Washington Senators. The most recent occurred in 2001 when Luis Gonzalez and the Diamondbacks triumphed over Mariano Rivera. In 1961, Bill Mazeroski won it all with arguably the biggest home run in baseball history.
Those are three of the five Game Seven walk-offs. Today, we will look at the other two: 1991 and 1997.
First up: Florida Marlins vs. Cleveland Indians.
Oct. 25, 1997 – Game Seven of the ’97 World Series
It’s pretty hard to win a World Series. 30 teams fight each year for that honor, but only one comes out on top.
In fact, six franchises (Padres, Brewers, Rangers, Mariners, Rockies and Rays) do not have a championship to their name. A few of those teams have existed for fifty years, yet they still have never triumphed through the gauntlet of October baseball.
The Marlins are not like most teams. They have been around for 29 seasons, never finishing in first in their division. They only have only finished above .500 seven times. Despite this overall lackluster performance, they have made the playoffs three times. The result? Two World Series championships.
No. 1 came back in 1997. In June of that year, Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear. A week later, the first “Men In Black” debuted in theaters. And in October, the Marlins played in their first NLDS.
This Florida team was a hodgepodge collection of both youth and experience. Leading the offense (whose team wRC+ of 99 ranked t-13th) were three late-20s/early-30s bats in Bobby Bonilla (124 wRC+), Moises Alou (127 wRC+) and Gary Sheffield (138 wRC+). Combine this with a borderline top five pitching staff (fourth best ERA at 3.83) headlined by the 32-year-old Kevin Brown (150 ERA+) and 22-year-old Liván Hernández (128 ERA+), and you got a playoff-caliber team with the second-best record in the National League (92 – 70).
Up first in the playoffs was a quick NLDS showdown between the Marlins and Giants. San Francisco scored first in every single game, but Florida always came back, winning a quick three-game series sweep.
Next up: the Braves with the best pitching staff in all of baseball. How any team could overcome a dominant rotation headlined by three Hall of Famers in their primes (Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz), beats me. But baseball is strange. It’s also a plus when your young budding ace pitches to one of the most absurd strike zones in history.
Six games later, and the Marlins emerged with their first NL Pennant in just fifth season. They had just beaten the best pitching staff. Now, they needed to silence arguably the best offense in baseball. On to the World Series to face the Indians.
This Cleveland lineup was as complete as they come. Three .320+ hitters. Three 30+ HR, 100+ RBI mashers. Four double-digit base stealers. Perhaps the best infield defense in the league. There’s hardly a weak spot in this dynamic one through nine.
Game Two saw Cleveland crush Brown to the tune of six runs, evening up the series at 1 – 1.
Up next came an offensive bloodbath in Game Three. Four lead changes in the first four innings.
At their high point, Cleveland carried a 7 – 3 lead in the fifth. But back-to-back two-run innings by Florida tied the game by the seventh. Finally, a monster seven-run barrage in the ninth gave the Marlins a seemingly insurmountable a 14 – 7 lead. But in the bottom half of the inning, Cleveland staged their own two-out, four-run rally to bring the tying run on deck. Unfortunately their comeback stopped right there as Florida came out with the win.
Both teams went tit-for-tat, with neither winning two games in a row. Ultimately, the series became tied 3 – 3 and they headed back to Pro Player Stadium in Miami for Game Seven — the 33rd winner-take-all game in baseball history.
Cleveland struck first — a two-RBI single from Tony Fernández in the third.
Try as they might, the Marlins struggled to score, even with multiple RISP opportunities. Ultimately their first run came on a leadoff first pitch solo shot from Bonilla, who is projected to earn the 22nd highest salary on the Mets next year at $1.19 million.
Fans in Florida were running out of nails to bite as the game entered the bottom of the ninth with the Marlins still trailing 2 – 1. Alou slapped a leadoff single to center. Then, Johnson pushed him over to third a right-field single of his own. And with one out, Craig Counsell crushed a sac fly to right field to tie the game.
Just like that, Game Seven was going into extra innings.
Marlins closer Robb Nen struck out the side in top of the 10th, while a couple seeing eye singles from the Marlins in bottom half of the inning made things interesting. Unfortunately for them, the game kept going into the 11th.
Cleveland went down 1-2-3. Florida did not.
Two outs, bases loaded. Up next: 21-year-old Edgar Rentería.
The budding speedy contact hitter was the youngest player on the entire roster. He had struggled up to that point in ’97, slashing .277/.327/.340 (80 OPS+) in the regular season and going 15-for-65 (.230 average) with eight walks and one HBP in the postseason. But Rentería had a secret weapon up his sleeve: he was clutch. That year, he already had five game-winning hits in the ninth inning or later. Could he provide No. 6?
Cleveland’s Charles Nagy delivered a first pitch strike. Then came the second pitch.
Against a few tremendous foes, the ’97 Marlins had triumphed. And the young man from Barranquilla, Colombia emerged the hero.
Oct. 27, 1991 – Game Seven of the ’91 World Series
In the 90s, the Braves made it to a lot of World Series. Five to be exact. But unfortunately, they only walked away with one championship. That meant that Atlanta dealt with a lot of heartbreak that decade. And it all started in 1991 in their Fall Classic fight against the Minnesota Twins.
The two teams were pretty evenly matched up. To their credit, the Twins had a top-three offense littered with solid contributors, from the perennial MVP-candidate Kirby Puckett (119 wRC+) to a power-mashing duo of Chili Davis (139 wRC+) and Shane Mack (140 wRC+). The Braves had their own weapons in the brutalist slugger David Justice (141 wRC+) and 30-30 hitter Ron Gant (128 wRC+).
Pitching wise, Atlanta definitely had an edge, finishing with the third best ERA in baseball (3.49) thanks to Tom Glavine and their elite bullpen. Minnesota, meanwhile, had better top-end pitching talent, but not quite as much depth. They finished tied for eighth in ERA (3.69).
For the most part, this series was bitterly close. Game One went to the home team Twins by a score of 5 – 2, which was the second highest run differential of the entire series. The following game was even closer, with both teams remaining tied 2 – 2 as they entered the eighth inning. On the mound was Glavine, who led the NL with nine complete games that season. But one titan stood in his way: Scott Leius.
Minnesota earned that win, and they took a 2 – 0 series lead. On to Atlanta…
As soon as the Braves returned home, everything started breaking their way. Game Three was another bitterly close contest, the first extra-inning showdown of the series. In the bottom of the 12th, a blooping hit from Mark Lemke and a gutsy send of David Justice by third base coach Jimy Williams led to a cardiac arrest-inducing play at the plate.
Game Five gave fans a momentary reprieve from cardiac-arrest inducing climaxes as the Braves routed the Twins by a score of 14 – 5. The home team had won every game. And Atlanta now had a 3 – 2 series lead.
Did you think we were done with walk-offs this series? Not even close.
Back to Minnesota they went…
Game Six was another one-run nail-biter. The Twins held the lead at two separate points, but the Braves always came charging back to tie the score — first on a two-run homer from Terry Pendelton in the fifth and next with a fielder’s choice grounder from Ron Gant in the seventh.
Both teams struggled in the eighth… and then in the ninth… and finally in the tenth as well. In the top of the 11th, Atlanta managed a leadoff single, but ultimately couldn’t capitalize.
Bring on the bottom of the 11th. Kirby Puckett was the leadoff batter. He had already scored two of the Twins’ three runs that same game. If anyone on that Twins roster was going to save the day and force a Game Seven, it would be “Puck.”
Here’s Jack Buck with one of his most iconic calls:
Game Seven, here we come.
Morris had served the longtime workhorse for the Tigers. Smoltz was born in Detroit, and grew up watching and idolizing Morris. Now, these two future Hall of Famers shared the same mound. They would deliver an all-time classic duel.
Both pitchers had adrenaline coursing through their veins. They knew that they would never pitch in a game with higher stakes. In the first inning, the two aces showed they had handled their nerves and retired the opposing bats 1-2-3.
The innings ticked away as the scoreboard gradually filled up with zeros.
But then came the eighth inning. The score still sat 0 – 0. Lonnie Smith slapped a leadoff single. Then, Pendleton crushed a double into the gap in left-center. But a heads up IQ play from second baseman Chuck Knoblauch deceived the speedy Smith and prevented him from scoring.
A groundout from Gant and an intentional walk to Justice followed. Bases loaded, one out. How would Morris respond?
The crowd of 55,118 exploded. Minnesota’s time to respond.
In the bottom half of the inning, the Twins forced their own bases-loaded, one out situation, knocking Smoltz out of the game. In came Mike Stanton (no, not that Mike Stanton). How would Stanton respond?
Déjà vu all over again. To the ninth we go…
Morris (yes, he’s still on the mound) retires the side in order. Stanton struggles in the bottom half of the inning, allowing back-to-back leadoff singles. Alejandro Pena comes on in relief with no room for error. How would Pena respond?
You should know this motif by now. Yes, the Braves manage another double play in a huge situation. Then, Pena Ks Paul Sorrento, and both teams move on to the 10th.
For the first time since 1924, Game Seven of the World Series went to extra innings.
Morris refused to relinquish the mound, even at 118 pitches. This was the pinnacle of his career, and he wasn’t going to step out of the spotlight.
Top of the 10th: three up, three down. The Twins stepped up to the plate to face Pena again…
Dan Gladden started things off with a first pitch, bat-shattering blooping double.
Then, Knoblauch bunted him over to third. The winning run sat 90 feet away. Pena intentionally walked the next two batters to load the bases. Gene Larkin, the Twins utility player, stepped up as the pinch hitter.
“From the walk from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box, I was literally shaking.” Larkin said.
Atlanta didn’t just desire a double play, they absolutely needed one.
How would Pena and Larkin respond in the most critical moment of their respective careers?
For the first and only time in baseball history, Game Seven ended in walk-off fashion with a score of 1 – 0.
Morris (1o IP, 7 H, 0 R, 2 BB and 8 K) and Smoltz (7.1 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 1 BB and 4 K) gave their all. Both teams left everything on the field. But only the Twins walked away as World Series Champions.
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