Baseball's Greatest: Top 10 postseason walk-off home runs
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On Monday night, with Game 3 of the American League Division Series between Boston and Tampa Bay tied 4-4 in the bottom of the 9th inning, and with a loss meaning the end of his team's season, Rays catcher Jose Lobaton turned on an 81 mph splitter from the Red Sox' Koji Uehara and drove it over the wall in right-centerfield. It landed in a tank of live rays that the team keeps out there, and extended Tampa Bay's season by one more night, though it would lose Game 4.
Lobaton's home run is unlikely to be remembered among the greatest ever, but he has joined an impressive and small list of men who went deep when it mattered most. His was just the 46th walk-off home run in postseason history.
The list does not include Bobby Thomson, whose homer against the Dodgers in 1951 forever linked him with Emerson ("Here once the embattled farmers stood/ And fired the shot heard round the world"), nor Bucky Dent, whose stunning blast against the Red Sox in 1978 earned him a less poetic nickname, at least around New England. If you're being technical -- which we are -- both of those homers came in the regular season, during tiebreaking play-in games.
Of baseball's many memorable walk-off postseason home runs, then, here are the 10 greatest. (NOTE: All videos from MLB.com)
You know how we just said we're being technical? There is a limit. Ventura's 15th inning, bases loaded, game-winning blast against the Braves on Oct. 17, 1999 will forever be known as the Grand Slam Single. He took Atlanta reliever Kevin McGlinchy's 2-1 pitch deep over the '371' sign at Shea Stadium for what would have been the first ever walk-off grand slam in postseason history. But his jubilant Mets teammates surrounded him just after he passed first base, preventing him from advancing any farther. The record book recorded it as a single and says the slam never happened, but we know it did.
9. Ozzie Smith, St. Louis Cardinals, 1985 NLCS, Game 5
Smith was known for many things -- his defensive sorcery, his Opening Day backflips -- but hitting for power was not among them, particularly not from the left side. In 2,573 career regular season games, he hit just 28 home runs, five of them lefthanded.
The greatest magic act, then, for the Hall of Famer nicknamed "The Wizard" might have come on Oct. 14, 1985. Facing Dodgers righty Tom Niedenfuer with one out in the bottom of the ninth and the game tied 2-2, Smith pulled a 1-2 pitch over the rightfield wall. "Go crazy, folks!" announcer Jack Buck said -- it would not be the Buck family's last great postseason call -- as Smith rounded the bases with his right arm raised. The Cardinals put away the Dodgers two days later, and advanced to the World Series, which they lost to the Royals. (Watch video.)
8. David Freese, St. Louis Cardinals, 2011 World Series, Game 6
Freese had one of history's great postseasons in 2011 -- in 18 games, the 28-year-old St. Louis-area native had hit five homers and drove in 21 runs for his hometown team -- but it peaked on Oct. 27. The Rangers led the series 3-games-to-2, and had a 7-5 lead with two outs in the bottom of the ninth when Freese tied the score with a two-RBI triple.
The Cardinals again fell behind by two runs in the 10th, but evened it up once more, again setting the stage for Freese, the first batter in the bottom of the 11th. He took a full-count pitch from Mark Lowe deep to center, inspiring Fox TV announcer Joe Buck to mimic a famous home run call his father made for another home run on our list.
St. Louis would win the series the next evening, and there was no doubt who was its MVP. (Watch video.)
The 30-year-old Boone had just five hits, four of them singles, through the first 31 at-bats of what would prove to be his only postseason. He didn't enter Game 7 until the eighth inning, as a pinch-runner, after the Yankees had earlier in the frame gotten to Red Sox starter Pedro Martinez to tie the score at 5-5.
Boone remained in the game at third base, and led off the bottom of the 11th inning against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. He took Wakefield's first pitch deep to left, joining Dent among those who conspired to extend the Curse of the Bambino -- if only, in this case, for one more year. (Watch video.)
6. Chris Chambliss, New York Yankees, 1976 ALCS, Game 5
Chambliss' shot leading off the bottom of the ninth of a double-elimination game against the Royals has become famous for what happened after he hit it. Hundreds of joyous fans swarmed onto the field at Yankee Stadium, impeding his progress around the bases and forcing him to fight through them, while warding off their efforts to snatch his helmet, in an effort to reach home plate.
He eventually had to run for the dugout instead (he later returned, with police protection, to step on where home plate once was), but umpires later clarified that it technically didn't matter. What mattered was that the Yankees had reached their first World Series since 1964 thanks to their 27-year-old first baseman's homer, the first pennant-winning, walk-off home run in postseason history. (Watch video.)
You remember Pudge's efforts to wave his blast, with which he led off the 12th inning on Oct. 21, fair, as he hopped sideways down the first base line. You remember that it clipped the inside of Fenway Park's leftfield foul pole, high above the Green Monster. You remember how the moment changed the way that sports are televised. But you might also remember that the next day, the Reds beat the Red Sox 4-3 to take the championship -- and this is the only reason why the home run by the 27-year-old future Hall of Famer doesn't rank even higher on this list. Context matters.
Jack Buck's radio call -- "I don't believe what I just saw!" -- as the 31-year-old Gibson hobbled around the bases, pumping his fist, has become almost as memorable as the home run itself, but the degree of difficulty of Gibson's feat should not be overlooked. He had injuries in both legs and a stomach virus that would limit him to this, his only plate appearance of the Dodgers' five-game win over the Oakland A's.
Perhaps more notably, the homer came off future Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley, who that season had a 2.35 ERA, a 0.87 WHIP and a league-leading 45 saves. But Gibson worked a full count against Eckersley and muscled a 3-2 slider over the rightfield wall, thereby setting the tone for one of history's most surprising World Series upsets. (Watch video.)
The 5-foot-8 Puckett told his club, which was trailing the Braves 3-games-to-2 heading into the evening of Oct. 26, that he would carry them, and that is exactly what he did. In the top of the third, he made a sensational catch of a Ron Gant fly ball in left-centerfield, leaping high up the wall to save a run. He also nearly hit for the cycle, with a triple in the first, a single in the eighth and, with the game tied at 3-3 in the bottom of the 11th, the lead-off, game-winning home run off of Charlie Leibrandt that lands him high on this list.
"And we'll see you tomorrow night," said Buck, the bard of the walk-off, words that would be echoed by his son two decades later. (Watch video.)
In Game 7, Jack Morris' 10-inning, 1-0 shutout put away the Braves for good.
Phillies closer Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams saved 43 games during the regular season that year but had struggled in the playoffs, blowing three of the six opportunities with which he'd been presented. That doesn't take away from the enormity of the blast by the 33-year-old Carter, one of his generation's more unsung sluggers (he was in the midst of a stretch of 11 seasons in which he hit between 24 and 35 home runs).
Philadelphia led 6-5 in the bottom of the ninth, but the Blue Jays had runners at first and second with one out. On a 2-2 pitch, Williams almost fell off the mound as he threw a fastball, but Carter was steady as it arrived at the plate. He pulled it to leftfield, as the sound of the crowd in SkyDome began to crescendo. Soon, fireworks were exploding, as a helmetless Carter rounded second base. He had hit a walk-off homer to win the World Series -- Toronto's second championship in a row. Only one postseason home run has ever been greater. (Watch video.)
Mazeroski had a nice career -- seven All-Star Games, eight Gold Gloves, 2,016 career hits -- but it was what he did at age 24 on Oct. 13, 1960, that made him a Hall of Famer. He became the first -- and still the last -- player to win a World Series Game 7 with a walk-off home run, and he did it against the powerful and heavily-favored Yankees.
This was a see-saw game in which the Pirates took a 4-0 lead in the second inning. Then the Yankees scored seven straight through the top of the eighth, only to allow five Pittsburgh runs in the bottom of that inning to fall behind 9-7. New York, though, tied the game in the top of the ninth. Mazeroski led off the bottom half against Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry with the score 9-9. He hit a 1-0 pitch over the wall in left, sending the Forbes Field crowd into disbelieving hysterics and his own name into baseball history.