On the biggest stage, even some of the best athletes can crumble under pressure.
Whether it’s a starting pitcher who gets shelled, a closer who blows a save or a cleanup hitter who goes 0-for-5, it’s all par for the course – well, almost. Every once in a while, a player, team or even an umpire can come along and screw up at the absolute worst possible moment to change the outcome of a series.
A number of postseason errors and poor performances have gone forgotten by most fans. Sure, they’re in the record books, but there are only a few that ended up costing a team a playoff series, or even a World Series.
Many would say these guys just couldn’t handle the pressure, which may be true. But what’s more likely is that they just got unlucky. Everyone makes a mistake here and there, lets a lead get away from them or just fails to put away a team.
These players, umpires and full teams just picked the worst time and place to screw up.
Here’s the most memorable postseason choke jobs in MLB history.
1. Fred Snodgrass
Center fielder drops fly ball, allows deciding run - Game 8 of 1912 World Series (New York Giants vs. Boston Red Sox)
When the World Series was still a fledgling institution, the New York Giants squared off against the Boston Red Sox in what is widely thought to be the first great World Series. The tense, highly contentious Series went to a deciding Game 8 (Game 2 was called on account of darkness, ending in a 6-6 tie) after the Giants took Games 6 and 7 to knot everything up. The final game didn’t disappoint, as a brilliant pitcher’s duel emerged as the game went along.
Eventually, it was Smoky Joe Wood and Christy Mathewson respectively taking the mound for the Red Sox and Giants in the tenth inning with the score tied, 1-1. A Giants run in the top of the inning put them three outs from World Series victory, but that’s where Fred Snodgrass comes in.
Mathewson got the leadoff hitter, Clyde Engle, to hit a lazy fly ball to Snodgrass in center field. He camped under it, got his glove on it and let it trickle to the ground, turning an out into a double. This is the more well-documented mistake, but ironically, there was a second error in the inning that truly sealed the Giants’ fate. With one out and runners at first and third, still clinging to the 2-1 lead, Mathewson got Boston hitter Tris Speaker to hit a foul pop fly between home plate and first base.
Even though Mathewson, the catcher and the first baseman all could have caught it, no one took the initiative and the ball fell harmlessly between them. With new life, Speaker ripped a single to tie the game and the next hitter won the World Series with a sacrifice fly. These poorly timed errors paved the way for the Red Sox to be the powerhouse of the 1910s, winning three more championships before the decade was over. The Giants remained contenders, but wouldn’t win another World Series until 1921.
2. Hank Gowdy
Catcher gets foot trapped in his own mask on foul popup – Game 7 of 1924 World Series (Washington Senators vs. New York Giants)
In 1924, another great World Series culminated in some embarrassing errors and bad luck costing the Giants a championship. The Senators looked dead as they came up for the bottom of the eighth, trailing 3-1. However, they put together a rally by loading up the bases with two outs for player-manager Bucky Harris, who tied the game with a single to left. The score remained 3-3 into the bottom of the twelfth – the Senators riding the arm of the great Walter Johnson from the ninth inning on.
With one out and the bases empty, Washington’s Muddy Ruel popped the ball straight up into foul territory. Giants’ catcher Hank Gowdy tossed his mask aside, followed the ball in the swirling wind and inexplicably got his foot caught in his own discarded mask. Unable to shake himself free, the ball fell to the ground unscathed.
Naturally, Ruel took the opportunity to slam a double into left field. From there, Johnson reached first base on an error and the Senators’ Earl McNeely hit a hard grounder to third base that took a freakishly high, unplayable hop that went for the Series-winning hit.
3. Mickey Owen
Dropped third strike - Game 4 of 1941 World Series (New York Yankees vs. Brooklyn Dodgers)
In the first of many Subway Series between the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers, Brooklyn came within one strike of tying the Series up at two games apiece in Game 4. Well, one caught strike, that is.
The Dodgers’ star reliever, Hugh Casey, was making quick work of the hard-hitting Yankee lineup, defending a 4-3 lead and facing down Tommy Henrich with two outs and no one on in the top of the ninth. Casey was too much for Henrich, getting him to swing and miss at a curveball for strike three. However, the game wasn’t over, since the pitch glanced off catcher Mickey Owen’s glove and bounded toward the backstop. Henrich broke out of the box and made it to first easily, and the rest of the inning featured a ruthlessly quick and efficient Yankee rally to make the Dodgers pay.
From there, a Joe DiMaggio single was followed by a 2-RBI double by Charlie Keller to give the Yanks the lead, then a walk by Bill Dickey and a Joe Gordon double made it 7-4. Owen’s mistake and the Yankees’ capitalization on it seemed to break Brooklyn’s spirits, as they went down weakly in the bottom half of the inning and lost the Series the next day.
4. New York Yankees
Yanks fail to finish job against Pirates - Game 7 of 1960 World Series (Pittsburgh Pirates vs. New York Yankees)
Although not a traditional choke job, the Pirates defeating the Yankees in the 1960 World Series was a perfect David vs. Goliath story. The Yanks pounded the Pirates in Games 2, 3 and 6, winning every game by 10 runs or more, while Pittsburgh eked out victories in Games 1, 4 and 5. Game 7 was a seesaw battle, one of the most exciting every played, and for a moment, it appeared New York was poised to finish the job in the top of the eighth, when they tacked on a couple insurance runs to take a 7-4 lead.
However, there was life in the Pirates yet, as they teed off on Yankee relievers Bobby Shantz and Jim Coates in the bottom half of the inning. Hal Smith capped a five-run rally with a two-out three-run homer to give the Pirates a 9-7 lead heading into the ninth. The Yanks didn’t go down quietly either, tying the score, but it proved to be in vain, as Bill Mazeroski led off the bottom of the ninth with a walk-off home run.
In the end, the Yanks were on the losing end of the series despite outscoring the Pirates by a whopping 55-27 margin. It often comes down to execution in the clutch, and as impressive as three blowout World Series victories may be, you still need that fourth win, and it doesn’t matter how you get it.
5. Don Denkinger
Incorrect call by umpire - Game 6 of 1985 World Series (Kansas City Royals vs. St. Louis Cardinals)
Not every historic playoff mistake has come from the players. Every once in a while, the men in blue make a crucial bad call that changes the outcome of a playoff series. Even earlier in this postseason, in the Braves-Cardinals Wild Card Game, we saw umpire Sam Holbrook make an awful infield fly call on a ball that made it well out into left field. When the ball dropped to the turf, Holbrook’s call effectively stifled a potential eighth inning rally by the Braves, who trailed 6-3 and would end up losing by the same score.
The worst missed call, however, goes to Don Denkinger, who was umpiring at first base in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. The Cards led the series 3-2 and took a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth. The mistake came on the first play of the inning, when reliever Todd Worrell got the Royals’ Jorge Orta to hit a harmless-looking bouncer to first base. Jack Clark, the Cards’ first baseman, moved to his right to grab the ball, then flipped it to Worrell covering first.
Denkinger called Orta safe, but replays showed Orta was out by a good half step. Kansas City went on to load the bases with one out, when pinch-hitter Dane Iorg came through by dunking a single into right field, barely scoring the winning run on a play at the plate. The Royals rode the momentum of the 2-1 walk-off win to an 11-0 demolition of the Cardinals in Game 7, taking home the title with at least partial thanks to Denkinger.
6. Bill Buckner
Error by first baseman - Game 6 of 1986 World Series (New York Mets vs. Boston Red Sox)
Possibly the most famous, or infamous, error of all time is the one Bill Buckner suffered in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Buckner is, of course, remembered for letting a routine ground ball off the bat of Mookie Wilson go right through his legs at first base to end the game, with the Mets’ Ray Knight coming around to score the winning run from second, ending the game in the tenth inning with a 6-5 Mets victory. Much like the Royals in the previous World Series, the Mets carried their good fortune into the next game, taking the series with an 8-5 win.
In Buckner’s defense, in the bottom of the tenth, the Mets had already rallied back from a two-run deficit with two outs and no one on to tie the score, so his making the play on the grounder would have only given Boston another shot to win the game in the eleventh.
Relievers Calvin Schiraldi and Bob Stanley have each avoided blame all this time, despite Schiraldi’s giving up three straight singles to breathe life back into the Mets before Stanley threw a wild pitch that tied the game. Regardless, Buckner’s error will remain the main example of just how bad a postseason mistake can be for your baseball legacy.
7. Byung Hyun Kim and Mariano Rivera
Closers blow saves - 2001 World Series (Arizona Diamondbacks vs. New York Yankees)
Among many things, the 2001 World Series between the Yankees and Diamondbacks turned out to be a series filled with blown saves. Mariano Rivera successfully notched a two-inning save in Game 3 to finish a 2-1 win for the Yankees, but it was all downhill for the closers from there. In Game 4, Byung-Hyun Kim, the 22-year-old wunderkid from South Korea, was brought on to pitch the last two innings in a game Arizona led 3-1.
Kim put down the Yanks in order in the eighth, but a one-out single by Paul O’Neill and a two-out homer by Tino Martinez tied the game at 3 in the ninth. Kim was sent out again in the bottom of the tenth, when he gave up a walk-off home run to Derek Jeter. Kim’s nightmare recurred the next night, when he was sent out to protect a 2-0 lead then gave up a tying two-run shot to the Yanks’ Scott Brosius with two outs. New York eventually won the game in the twelfth.
The D-Backs turned the series around though, forcing a Game 7 with a blowout 15-2 win in the sixth game. In the final game, it was Rivera blowing a save, failing to hold onto a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning. Rivera committed a throwing error trying to get the lead runner out on a sacrifice bunt attempt and eventually gave up the game-winning bloop single to Luis Gonzalez. In the end, the ’01 Series was just a bump in the road for Rivera’s amazing career. For Kim, it was more of a roadblock – he would never enjoy much success past 2001.
8. San Francisco Giants
SF blows 5-0 lead in 7th inning - Game 6 of 2002 World Series (San Francisco Giants vs. Anaheim Angels)
The Giants may have just won the 2010 World Series, but they choked away a chance to end a long-standing championship drought (48 years at that point) in 2002 against the Anaheim Angels. The Giants built up a 5-0 lead heading into the bottom of the seventh, when starter Russ Ortiz was pulled from the game with a couple men on and one out. From there, Giants fans can blame it on the Angels’ Rally Monkey or the fact that Manager Dusty Baker gave the game ball to Ortiz as he left the mound, but it all went downhill from there.
A Scott Spiezio three-run shot cut the lead to 5-3, then a leadoff home run by Darin Erstad in the eighth brought the Angels even closer. Later in the inning, it was a two-run double by Troy Glaus with no outs that gave the Angels their 6-5 victory. As many teams have done, the ’02 Angels rode their Game 6 momentum to the title, taking Game 7 by a 4-1 score.
9. New York Yankees
Yanks blow 3-0 ALCS lead vs. Boston Red Sox – 2004
A shining moment for Red Sox Nation and a time to forget for Yankee fans, the Red Sox stormed back from a 3-0 deficit in the 2004 ALCS to advance to the World Series, in which they swept the Cardinals to break the Curse of the Bambino after 86 years. As it turned out, Games 4 and 5 were the tough wins for Boston. In the fourth, the Yanks took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth, when Kevin Millar led off with a walk.
The speedy Dave Roberts was sent in to pinch run, successfully stealing second base before getting knocked home on a Bill Mueller single to send the game into extras. David Ortiz ended the game on a walk-off two-run homer in the twelfth.
The New York bullpen failed again in Game 5, blowing a 4-2 lead by allowing two eighth inning runs. Ortiz again provided the heroics with a game-winning single in the fourteenth inning, ending one of the longest postseason games ever. Surprisingly, the Yanks went down more quietly when the series shifted back to the Bronx for the final two games, losing them 4-2 and 10-3 respectively. The Yankees remain the only MLB team to let a 3-0 lead slip away in a best-of-seven series.
10. Matt Holliday
OF loses fly ball into the gut… or below - Game 2 of 2009 NLDS (St. Louis Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers)
In a Division Series that ended in a quick Dodgers sweep, Cardinals fans will still blame left fielder Matt Holliday for turning the tide with his ninth inning error in Game 2. The Cards seemed poised to tie the series, holding onto to a 2-1 lead with the Dodgers down to their last out.
With no one on, James Loney hit a fly ball on a line toward Holliday, who lost the ball in the lights. The story goes that the fly ball hit Holliday in the gut, but upon video review, it may have, unfortunately, hit lower than that. Regardless, Loney made it to second on the play, which was followed up with a walk and a game-tying RBI single by Ronnie Belliard. After another walk to load the bases, Mark Loretta hit a walk-off single to give LA a 2-0 series lead.