By Rob Ficiur
Last week I wrote about the four NHL teams completed the Impossible Comeback; fall behind 3-0 in a series and comeback to win the next four games. In NHL playoff history 178 teams have been down three games to zero. Only four of those 178 teams (2.2% of the trailing teams) came back to win the series. Mathematically the chances of winning four consecutive games are ? x ? x ? x ? = 6.25%. This week’s column will look at the teams in Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association that have made the Impossible Playoff Comeback.
1. Basketball – In NBA history zero teams have come back from being down 3-0 in a series to win. Three teams came close. The 1951 New York Nicks, 1994 Denver Nuggets and the 2003 Portland Trail Blazers fell behind 3-0 and won the next three games forcing a Game 7. None of these teams were able to complete the Impossible Comeback. (Which is why I termed it the Impossible Comeback).
In NBA history there have been 81 times when a team has fallen behind in a series 3-0, and yet 0% have made the comeback. (Remember that mathematically speaking 6.25%, or about 5 of those series should have had a team rally and comeback.) Why is hockey at 2.25% and basketball at 0%? I believe that there is one major reason why no basketball team has come back.
In playoff basketball the margin of victory is often less than three points. When two teams are scoring 200 points (combined) in one night, this is around 1% of the points. It appears that winning four close games has proven to be impossible because a bounce here or there and a different team wins. Even one hockey goal games; the margin of one goal is about 12% if there are six goals in a game.
2. Baseball – In Major League Baseball only the 2004 Boston Red Sox have ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a series. Those Red Sox are also the only Major League baseball team to force a Game 7 after being down 3-0.
Why are there so few comebacks in baseball? I believe there are two factors that make Impossible Comebacks in Baseball…almost impossible. First, baseball has only two playoff rounds with seven game playoff series, while hockey and basketball have four. During one playoff year the NHL and NBA have 15 seven game playoff series; baseball has 3 series that can last seven games. With one-fifth as many series means there are only three series not fifteen that can have a comeback an Impossible Comeback.
Second is pitching. In baseball starting pitching is everything. A team expects their ace to throw two games in a series. As weaker pitchers are used a comeback (or stopping a comeback) is less likely. In basketball and hockey the team’s best players can put in as many minutes as needed, but starting pitchers play one out of four games.
Baseball’s only Impossible Comeback team, the 2004 Boston Red Sox are an interesting team to look back on. The 2004 American League Championship Series pitted two evenly matched teams; the New York Yankees with 101 wins and the Boston Red Sox with 98 wins.
When the Red Sox lost Game #3, at home 19-8, an Impossible Comeback was only on the minds of the most faithful Red Sox fans. Prior to 2004, the Yankees had won the been in five of the last eight World Series’ and were champions four times. The champs wouldn’t blow that big a lead…no they couldn’t!??
Game #4 in Boston went into extra innings. When David Ortiz (then 28 years old) hit a home run in the bottom of the twelfth inning something changed. Boston won Game #5 in 14 innings. They trailed Game #5 for seven innings before tying it in the 8th. After the teams returned to New York for Games Six and Seven, the Red Sox never trailed again. When the Sox won Game #7 (in New York) 10-3 they completed baseball’s only Impossible Comeback with an exclamation mark.
The Red Sox set another Major League Baseball record. With their four game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, the Red Sox set a baseball record by winning eight consecutive playoff games in a row. (The Red Sox who were so close to elimination never trailed in their last six games.
From 2004 to 2013 the Boston Red Sox have won three World Series titles. David Ortiz is the only to be part of all three Boston championships. Their Impossible Comeback in 2004 began with his home run.
Impossible Comebacks, in all their different circumstances, is what makes sports so entertaining (and nerve racking) to watch; and memorable to relive down the road.