We’ll hear a lot in tonight’s broadcast of World Series game 5 about the 1985 Royals coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win the title. Or, more accurately, we’ll hear about all the teams since then who haven’t come back from down 3-1. There’s a good reason for this. It’s not easy.
All other things equal, a team down 3-1 has a 12.5 percent chance to win three straight games. Momentum and talent differences exposed in the first four games often make that chance feel more like 1 percent. In the 2010 Rangers’ case, I think it’s a little higher.
In game 1, the Giants solved the Cliff Lee mystery no better-hitting postseason team over the last two years could solve, knocking him out in the fifth inning and scoring 11 runs by the time the game was over. With ace Tim Lincecum on the mound tonight against the suddenly-human Lee, Giants fans must be thinking about finishing it off tonight. To me, it’s hard to imagine Lee coming back from that humbling outing and getting knocked around again in an elimination game. The Rangers’ bats have been silent all series, but there are a lot of bats in the middle of that lineup capable of stringing together a walk and a homer, which may be all it takes to get Cliff Lee a win tonight.
The biggest obstacle for the Rangers (aside from the 7th and 8th innings in every game, where their bullpen has been clearly inferior) may be Matt Cain pitching at home again in a potential game 6. CJ Wilson was excellent in game 2, but not perfect, and if Cain is again able to pitch effectively deep into the game, and the Giants can get into the dregs of the Texas pen again, this series may be over in 6. Then again, there’s no reason to save a pitcher’s arm in game 6 of the World Series, and Ron Washington (whose bullpen management had been questionable all month) might be willing to stretch Wilson out for 140 pitches if he pitches well. And isn’t it likely, at some point, that the far superior offense in this series will wake up and start slashing doubles all over the field, even against the Giants’ deck full of aces?
If the Giants can force a game 7, they get to reemploy their biggest starting pitching advantage of the series, with Colby Lewis opposing Jonathan Sanchez (and Madison Bumgarner and Jeremy Affeldt and everyone else Bruce Bochy feels like throwing into the fire in the middle innings of a winner-take-all game. Rangers fans would have to feel confident with Lewis on the mound in game 7, particularly after he sliced up a much more potent Yankee lineup in game 6 of the ALCS.
Maybe the most important element in the Rangers’ case is the Giants’ ghosts. Willie Mays was a rookie the last time the Giants won a title. Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Will Clark, Matt Williams, and Barry Bonds have come and gone since, without a championship. The last time the Giants got this far, they had a 5-run lead in the 8th inning of a potential clinching game 6 and decomposed over the next 11 innings. The World Series before that, there were more games postponed by earthquakes than Giants wins. In 1993, the Giants won 103 games and didn’t even make the playoffs, since the 104-win Braves also played in the NL West for some reason. As my friend Hoffer noted, the Giants may have been favorites to at least make the Series two more times in the Bonds era (2000 and 2003), but lost in the Division Series both times. The roster may have turned over entirely since the last crushing blow, but we’ve seen the ghosts of players past haunt future teams in playoff games many times before.
Sure, the Giants may end the series and the baseball season tonight, but to do so, they’d have to beat Cliff Lee, the Rangers’ superior bats, and a little bit of Scott Spiezio, Barry Bonds’s head, and the San Andreas Fault.
Realistically, the Rangers probably have something like a 55 percent chance to win tonight, 48% in a potential game 6, and 58% in an unlikely game 7, all of which equates to a 15 percent shot at a title. It’s not great, but isn’t that a lot better than the odds we would have given them in April?