Game 7. For a sports fan, it’s hard to find two better words (or one better alphanumeric phrase if we want to get technical). That’s what lies ahead of the baseball world on Monday night, as the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros will play for the right to represent the American League in the World Series.
This will mark the 14th time that the American League pennant will be decided in a winner-take-all game. So, what kind of legacy do the Rangers and Astros have to live up to? And where do the first 13 games rank on our list? Before we delve into those, let’s go over two key points of clarification.
One, we’re looking only at American League Championship Series games and American League championship tie-breaker games. This does not include any end-of-season tie-breakers after 1969, as those were only for division titles or wild card spots. On that note, it also doesn’t include any Division Series Game 5s or Wild Card games.
Two, this is not a ranking of great series, only their final games. And on that note, from 1969-1984, the American League Championship Series was a best-of-five. So, on this list, we’ll go over five Game 5s, seven Game 7s and one single-game tie-breaker.
What kind of legacy does it have to live up to? To answer that, let’s rank the first 13.
13. 1986 ALCS, Game 7: Boston Red Sox 8, California Angels 1
The drama in this series was in Game 5 when, with the Red Sox down to their final strike, Dave Henderson drilled a two-run lead to put Boston ahead. While the Angels tied the game in the bottom half of the inning, the Red Sox won in extra innings to keep the series going. Now, you may be wondering, why are we talking about Game 5 instead of Game 7? That’s a fair question with a simple answer. Game 7 was a complete dud.
Game 6 was also a dud, with the Red Sox winning 10-4. But at least in that case, there was a brief moment of tension when the Angels jumped out to a 2-0 lead. In Game 7, the Red Sox scored three runs in the second and four more in the fourth to open up a 7-0 lead. The Angels trailed 8-0 before finally scraping a run across in the eighth inning.
Years later, the Red Sox would win another ALCS Game 7 decisively (also after coming back from a 3-1 deficit), but that game was generally much tighter than the score indicated. That was not the case in 1986.
12. 2004 ALCS, Game 7: Boston Red Sox 10, New York Yankees 3
One of the most anticipated Game 7s ever was also one of the most anticlimactic. The Red Sox won three straight highly intense games to erase a 3-0 deficit and force a Game 7 — which was a complete blowout. Boston led 2-0 after one inning, 6-0 after two and 8-1 after four. That score remained until the bottom of the seventh, which is when the only nerve-wracking part of the game took place.
The Red Sox used Pedro Martínez out of the bullpen, which did not go well. New York scored twice against Martínez and still had only one out with a runner on, bringing the Yankee Stadium crowd to life. Just two hitters away from turning the lineup back over, things were close to getting interesting. But Martínez settled in, retiring John Olerud and Miguel Cairo to end the inning. Boston got those two runs back, scoring once in the eighth and ninth innings and New York never threatened again.
11. 1948 American League tie-breaker: Cleveland Indians 8, Boston Red Sox 3
A Boston win coupled with a Cleveland loss on the final (planned) day of the regular season set up the first of its kind, at least in the American League, with the Indians and Red Sox squaring off at Fenway Park for all the marbles. The game that followed was a letdown.
Both teams scored a run in the first inning and the score remained 1-1 until the fourth. Cleveland’s Ken Keltner belted a three-run home run to open up a 4-1 lead, chasing Boston starter Denny Galehouse from the game in the process. The Indians added one more in the fourth and another in the fifth to go up 6-1. The Red Sox narrowed the gap to 6-3 with two runs in the sixth inning but would get no closer. Cleveland added a run in the eighth and another in the ninth to seal the victory.
10: 2017 ALCS, Game 7: Houston Astros 4, New York Yankees 0
Houston broke through with a run in the bottom of the fourth inning. It looked like New York might respond in the top of the fifth inning when Greg Bird led off with a double. Then, with only one out and runners on the corners, Todd Frazier hit a slow chopper to third baseman Alex Bregman. Bregman’s throw home was perfectly placed and Brian McCann tagged Bird out.
Chase Headley grounded out to end the inning and for all intents and purposes, that was it for the Yankees. José Altuve put the Astros up 2-0 in the bottom of the fifth inning with a solo homer. Later in the inning, Brian McCann drilled a two-out, two-run double to put Houston up 4-0. That was more than enough, as only two more Yankees reached base for the remainder of the game.
9. 1985 ALCS, Game 7: Kansas City Royals 6, Toronto Blue Jays 2
Timing was not an ally of Toronto’s. The Blue Jays won their first division title in 1985 and jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the ALCS over Kansas City. In every previous ALCS, a 3-1 lead would have ended the series. But in 1985, it just meant a big lead. The Royals won a pair of two-run games to force a Game 7, then completed the comeback.
An RBI single from Jim Sundberg in the second inning and a solo home run from Pat Sheridan in the fourth gave Kansas City a two-run lead. Toronto cut the lead to 2-1 in the bottom of the fifth inning with an RBI triple from Willie Upshaw, but the game wouldn’t stay that close for long. A three-run triple from Upshaw and an RBI single from Frank White in the sixth inning blew the game open. The Blue Jays managed an RBI groundout in the ninth inning but otherwise, never seriously threatened.
8. 1973 ALCS, Game 5: Oakland Athletics 3, Baltimore Orioles 0
Quite similar to Game 7 in 2017, Game 5 in 1973 remained scoreless through the opening innings. The A’s finally broke through in the bottom of the third with an RBI single from Joe Rudi. In the fourth inning, Vic Davalillo then drove in Gene Tenace with an RBI triple, then scored on an RBI single from Jesús Alou. That gave the A’s a 3-0 lead, which was two more than Catfish Hunter needed.
Baltimore did manage to make some noise against Hunter, getting one hit against him in each of the final five innings. But Baltimore couldn’t get more than one runner on, meaning the potential tying run never got beyond the on-deck circle after the fourth inning.
7. 2007 ALCS, Game 7: Boston Red Sox 11, Cleveland Indians 2
How can this game, the most lopsided final score on the list, be so high? Trailing 3-1 in the series, the Red Sox won Games 5 and 6 decisively to force a Game 7. Early on, it looked like Game 7 would also be a blowout, as Boston scored a run in each of the first three innings to go up 3-0. But the Red Sox bats went silent in the middle innings and Cleveland scored in the fourth and fifth to trim the lead to 3-2. Then came the seventh inning and with it, the biggest “what if” in the series.
With Kenny Lofton on second base and only one out, Cleveland’s Franklin Gutiérrez hit a ball over third base. The ball hit off of the wall and bounced into shallow left field. With Manny Ramirez still several steps from fielding the ball as Lofton rounded third, it seemed likely that Lofton would score the tying run, probably without a throw. But third base coach Joel Skinner held Lofton up.
From there, the game unraveled for Cleveland. With even a sacrifice fly, the next Indians hitter, Casey Blake, could have that decision largely irrelevant. Instead, he hit into an inning-ending double play. The Boston bats then came to life again, with Dustin Pedroia hitting a two-run home run in the seventh inning. In the eighth inning, an RBI single from Mike Lowell, a three-run triple from Pedroia and a two-run homer from Kevin Youkilis turned the game into a blowout.
Despite the relatively drama-free finish, this was a close game for most of it and should have been tied as late as the seventh inning. This was a much better game than the final score would suggest.
6. 2008 ALCS, Game 7: Tampa Bay Rays 3, Boston Red Sox 1
A year after overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS, Boston looked ready to do it again. Pedroia homered to give the Red Sox a 1-0 lead only two hitters into the game, but that was all that Tampa’s pitching would allow. The Rays tied the game on an RBI double from Evan Longoria in the fourth inning, then took the lead on a single from Rocco Baldelli an inning later. A Willy Aybar home run in the seventh inning gave Tampa a 3-1 lead.
But while the Red Sox didn’t score after the first inning, they had chances. In fact, Boston had a runner reach base in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings. In the seventh and eighth innings, two Red Sox hitters reached base. One swing of the bat could have tied the game or even given Boston a lead. But the Rays, who had lost 90 or more games in every season of their existence until 2008, neutralized every threat and held on for a tight victory.
5. 1972 ALCS, Game 5: Oakland Athletics 2, Detroit Tigers 1
This was not only the first ALCS to reach a winner-take-all game but the first to not result in a sweep. It looked as though the A’s would win the series in four games when they scored two runs in the top of the tenth inning in Game 4. Only, Detroit answered with three runs in the bottom of the inning to force a Game 5. The Tigers couldn’t quite find that Game 4 magic in what was an instant classic in Game 5.
Detroit drew first blood with a run in the bottom of the first inning. Oakland quickly answered with a run of its own in the top of the second inning, but it was costly. Reggie Jackson successfully stole home as part of a double steal but was injured in a collision with catcher Bill Freehan. That sidelined Jackson for the remainder of the game and, in the event of an A’s victory, the World Series. Oakland struggled offensively without Jackson but did just enough to win.
George Hendrick reached on an error to lead off the fourth inning. He later scored on a two-out single from Tenace. The throw from left fielder Duke Sims beat Tenace, but Freehan couldn’t maintain control of the ball on his tag of Hendrick. A’s pitcher Blue Moon Odom handled the fourth and fifth innings before giving way to Vida Blue. The Tigers singled off of Blue in each of the final three innings but couldn’t mount a sustained rally.
4. 1982 ALCS, Game 5: Milwaukee Brewers 4, California Angels 3
As the Tigers had done 10 years earlier, the Brewers forced a Game 5 after losing the first two games. Unlike Detroit, though, Milwaukee completed the comeback. What unfolded was a game that had drama right down to the final pitch.
Both teams scored in the first inning. The Angels retook the lead with a run in the third inning, then added to it with another in the fourth. The Brewers got one of those runs back in the bottom of the fourth, courtesy of a solo home run from Ben Oglivie, cutting the lead to 3-2. That score remained until the seventh inning when Milwaukee loaded the bases for Cecil Cooper. Cooper delivered a two-out, two-run single to put the Brewers ahead 5-4.
In the top of the eighth inning, California’s Don Baylor was robbed of an extra-base hit when center fielder Marshall Edwards made a leaping catch against the wall. That catch loomed large when the following hitter, Doug DeCinces, delivered a single. Ron Jackson opened the ninth inning with a single and pinch runner Rob Wilfong got to second on a sacrifice bunt, which also turned the lineup over. But leadoff man Brian Downing grounded out as did Hall of Famer Rod Carew, ending the game.
3. 1977 ALCS, Game 5: New York Yankees 5, Kansas City Royals 3
Any Yankees fans are probably going to enjoy the rest of this list. Despite a tumultuous season, the Yankees repeated as American League East champs in 1977 and got into an ALCS rematch with the Royals. As was the case the previous year, the series went the full five games and ended with a familiar result.
The volatile relationship between manager Billy Martin and slugger Reggie Jackson was a focal point throughout 1977, Jackson’s first in New York. The pair were center stage before Game 5 even began as Martin decided not to start Jackson. The move was easily defensible, as Jackson struggled against Kansas City starter Paul Splittorff but it opened Martin up to a lot of second-guessing if things didn’t go well. For most of the game, it looked like that would happen.
New York quickly fell behind when the Royals scored two runs in the first inning. The first of those runs came on an RBI triple from George Brett, a play that concluded with Brett and Yankees third baseman, Graig Nettles, throwing punches. Nobody was ejected and Brett scored on an RBI groundout. Both teams scored in the third inning and the score remained 3-1 until the eighth inning.
Willie Randolph led the eighth inning with a single, which chased Splittorff from the game. After a one-out single from Lou Piniella, Martin sent Jackson to the plate to pinch hit for Cliff Johnson. Jackson delivered an RBI single, cutting the deficit to 3-2. Paul Blair and Roy White led off the ninth inning with singles, turning the lineup over. Blair scored on an RBI single from Mickey Rivers to tie the game, while a sacrifice fly from Willie Randolph gave New York a lead. The Yankees got one more run on an error.
The Royals got the tying run to the plate in the ninth inning when Frank White singled with one out. That was quickly erased when Kansas City’s leadoff man, Freddie Patek, grounded into a double play, ending the game and series.
2. 2003 ALCS, Game 7: New York Yankees 6, Boston Red Sox 5
While Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS was never close, it would be hard to blame any of the Red Sox and their fans for feeling a strong (and seriously unwelcomed) case of déjà vu, particularly when Pedro Martínez was struggling. Martínez started Game 7 for the Red Sox in 2003 and for most of the game, things went well. Boston led 3-0 after two innings and 4-0 after four. The Yankees got two of those runs back, but a home run from David Ortiz in the top of the eighth put the Red Sox up 5-2. Then, things got weird.
Manager Grady Little sent Martínez back out for the bottom of the eighth inning. Derek Jeter delivered a one-out double, then scored when the next hitter, Bernie Williams, hit a single. That seemingly ended Martínez’s night, as little went to the mound. But Little left his fatigued ace in the game. Hideki Matsui followed with a ground-rule double. Williams and Matsui scored when Jorge Posada delivered a bloop double, tying the game. At that point, Little finally removed Martínez.
The Red Sox recovered reasonably well from there. Alan Embree relieved Martínez, getting one out before he was replaced by Mike Timlin. Timlin issued two walks (one intentional) to load the bases, but retired Alfonso Soriano to end the inning with the score still tied. New York went down in order in both the ninth and tenth innings, giving Boston a chance to recapture the game after such a brutal collapse.
But the Red Sox could not capitalize offensively. And after they went down in order in the top of the eleventh, Aaron Boone led off the bottom of the eleventh inning for New York and sent the first pitch he saw into the left-field seats. That home run sent the Yankees to the World Series and prolonged Boston’s misery against its rivals for one more year.
1. 1976 ALCS Game 5: New York Yankees 7, Kansas City Royals 6
Kansas City and New York alternated wins for the first four games of the series, setting up a winner-take-all games for the ages. The Royals drew first blood on a two-run home run from John Mayberry in the first inning. The Yankees didn’t stay down for long, though, tying the game in the bottom of the first on an RBI single from Roy White and a sacrifice fly from we’ll be talking about again shortly, Chris Chambliss.
An RBI single from Buck Martinez in the top of the second inning gave Kansas City a 3-2 lead. It was also the only offense the Royals generated for a while, as they recorded only three more hits until the eighth inning. New York, though, didn’t stay down for long and took the lead in the third inning on an RBI single from Thurman Munson and an RBI groundout from Chambliss, making the score 4-3.
Kansas City’s pitchers worked through jams in the fourth and fifth innings, keeping the deficit to one. But in the sixth, New York got an insurance run on an RBI single from Munson and another when Chambliss scored on a throwing error from George Brett. The Royals bats woke back up in the eighth inning when Al Cowens and Jim Wohlford singled to start the inning, bringing Brett up as the tying run.
Brett brought Yankee Stadium to nearly complete silence when he drilled the second pitch he saw from Grant Jackson into the right field seats, tying the game. Kansas City went down in order from there, though, as did New York in the bottom of the eighth. With two outs in the top of the ninth, the Royals mounted a mini-rally when Martinez singled and Cowens walked. But Wohlford grounded out to end the inning, leaving Brett in the on-deck circle. He never got back to the plate.
Chambliss led off in the bottom of the ninth inning and turned on it, sending it over the right-center field wall. Yankees fans, who were silent after Brett’s homer, were now in a state of euphoria. As Chambliss rounded the bases, fans flooded onto the field. Then, after struggling to get to third base, he went straight into the clubhouse without touching home.
A potential controversy could have ensued, due to Chambliss not touching home. At the time, there was no rule in place allowing provisions if home cannot safely be reached. While the umpires had already decided that the call would stand and nobody on Kansas City objected, Chambliss did later return to the field with the home plate umpire and touched where home plate was, as it had been taken by the fans rushing the field.
An argument could be made that our No. 2 and to a lesser extent, No. 3 games deserve the top spot. Ultimately, though, Game 5 of the 1976 ALCS is awfully hard to beat.