With the NBA and NHL playoffs in full swing, we’ve seen some remarkable victories and heartbreaking failures. And because it’s Game of Thrones season, it only seems fitting that this week at The Comeback we take a long look at the latter. Here are the franchises with the most torturous postseason histories in all of sports.
Ralph Russo of the Associated Press made a comment on Twitter about the Washington Capitals and how fans of the team may be the most tormented in sports. Fellow AP writer Noah Trister backed the idea, throwing out that it’s indeed the Caps have the roughest playoff history in all of sports.
But really? All of sports? Wouldn’t several teams and fanbases in the NFL, NBA, NHL and college sports stake similar claims to suffering? Then there’s baseball. Do any teams and fans suffer like in baseball, with talks of curses and reminders of decades-long postseason and championship droughts? Let’s take a closer look at this.
Though you can surely guess at least one of the teams on this list, here are the five MLB teams that have suffered the most in postseason history.
5. Washington Nationals
The Nats might seem like too much of a newcomer to postseason play compared to other franchises that have suffered like the Astros, Brewers, Mariners and Padres. But since moving to D.C. for the 2005 season, the Nationals took approximately six seasons to become contenders. When the team finally developed into a championship-caliber team in 2012 (arguably a year ahead of schedule), Washington lost a tough five-game series to the Cardinals in the divisional round. The loss was especially painful because of how that decisive Game 5 played out.
The Nats went into the ninth inning with a 7-5 lead, only to see closer Drew Storen suffer one of the worst postseason meltdowns in recent memory. Storen actually retired two of the first three batters he faced, but two walks gave the Cardinals an opportunity they would not squander. With two singles and a stolen base, St. Louis scored four runs to take a 9-7 lead and a shell-shocked Nats team couldn’t recover despite Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman batting in the ninth. Storen never fully regained the team’s trust as closer.
Two seasons later, Washington was a strong World Series favorite, finishing with 96 victories, compiling a +131 run differential and winning the NL East by 17 games. But in the postseason, the Nats lost three one-run games to the eventual World Series champion Giants, unable to muster much offense against outstanding pitching, especially from veterans Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson. (Madison Bumgarner only pitched once in the four-game series.)
But though it could be a stretch, the Nationals get on this list because of perhaps the greatest postseason what-if in baseball history, occurring during their previous incarnation as the Montreal Expos. In 1994, the Expos had the best record in MLB at 74-40, led by outfielders Larry Walker and Moises Alou with outstanding pitching from Ken Hill and Pedro Martinez, and a shutdown bullpen fronted by John Wetteland and Mel Rojas. But the MLB players went on strike in mid-August and commissioner Bud Selig decided to cancel the rest of the season, postseason included.
Perhaps the Expos would have lost in the NL playoffs or World Series. But they never got the chance, and that question has lingered for more than 20 years.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
Some might object to the Pirates being on this list, since the team has won
two five World Series championships. Led by Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, Pittsburgh most recently finished on top in 1971 and, perhaps more notably, in 1979 with the “We Are Family” team that the city still views with adoration.
Since the 1970s, however, Pirates fans have experienced a whole lot of postseason pain. That’s when the team qualified for the postseason, by the way. Prior to winning a NL wild-card bid in 2012, Pittsburgh went 20 years without getting to the playoffs. But before that 20-year drought, the Pirates also suffered three consecutive losses in the National League Championship Series, the final two of which were seven-game series versus the Atlanta Braves. The 1992 NLCS loss might have been the most painful, with the Braves scoring the winning run on Sid Bream (a former Pirate) just beating Barry Bonds’ throw to home plate. A team with Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla, managed by Jim Leyland, was then broken up and Pittsburgh didn’t see the postseason for two decades.
The past three seasons have been painful for Pirates fans as well. Though the team hasn’t won a division title, Pittsburgh got into the playoffs with wild-card bids. But MLB’s new postseason format requires the wild card winners to face each other in a one-game playoff. During the past two years, the Pirates and star Andrew McCutchen have gotten a bad draw, having to face one of baseball’s best pitchers in those games. In 2014, the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner pitched a shutout, holding Pittsburgh to four hits. Last season, Jake Arrieta shut the Pirates out, allowing five hits. After one game, a team with 98 regular season victories was finished.
If the Pirates make it to the postseason this year, they’ll likely have to go the wild-card route yet again. Can they beat an ace in a one-game playoff or could they earn a lucky draw this time around?
3. Atlanta Braves
The Braves are another team that had a World Series breakthrough, winning a championship in 1995. But so much more was expected from a team that won 14 division titles in 15 seasons and made it to five World Series during that span. Atlanta lost in the NLCS four times, while not making it out of the divisional round five times, despite a rotation topped by three Hall of Fame pitchers in John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, along with impact hitters like Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Fred McGriff.
More recently, before the front office decided to take a wrecking ball to the roster and rebuild, the Braves went through a stretch of five seasons during which they finished first or second in the NL East and qualified for the postseason three times. Despite twice winning 94 or more games, Atlanta couldn’t make it out of the divisional round. In 2012, they lost the inaugural NL Wild Card Playoff to the Cardinals, thanks largely to an eighth-inning infield fly call on a ball that dropped into short left field that cost the Braves a chance to rally from a three-run deficit.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez could never wash that stain out of his résumé and was finally, mercifully fired early in the season after never being able to lead some extremely talented teams to the NLCS or World Series. With the rebuild that the Braves are currently undergoing, it could be several years before Atlanta sees the postseason again and has a chance to either add to its playoff misery or start a new era that helps to forget past failures.
2. Cleveland Indians
The Tribe does have two World Series championships in its franchise history, winning the title in 1920 and 1948. Since then, however, it’s been a long, dry slog for the Indians, despite having one of the best teams in MLB during the mid-1990s. For a seven-year stretch from 1995 to 2001, Cleveland won six AL Central titles, but lost twice in the World Series and once in the ALCS. The Braves are certainly grateful for that 1995 World Series loss, as it provided the one championship in a 15-year run of success that should have yielded more.
But two years later, the Indians suffered a particularly stinging loss. The Tribe lost in seven games, taking the loss in 11 innings on a walkoff hit by Edgar Renteria off Charles Nagy. Even worse, the loss came to the then-Florida Marlins, an expansion team that had only been in existence for five seasons. A World Series championship after only five seasons? Whatever happened to a team building toward success and paying its dues? Cleveland hadn’t been the World Series in 40 years, then here comes a team with that expansion team smell still on it to beat them for a championship.
The Indians followed that up by making the playoffs in three of the next four seasons, but twice couldn’t get out of the divisional round. In the 1998 ALCS, Cleveland lost to a Yankees buzzsaw that won 114 games in the regular season and swept the Padres in the World Series.
Nine years later, the Tribe won 96 games and made it back to the ALCS in 2007. They even took a 3-1 series lead over the Red Sox in that series, but proceeded to get crushed in the next three games by a combined score of 30-5. Boston went on to sweep the Rockies in the World Series, while the Indians took a downward plunge into rebuilding mode. Cleveland lost the AL Wild-Card Playoff to the Rays, 4-0, in 2013, but with one of the best starting rotations in MLB, the team could return to the postseason and attempt to add some glory to this pain.
1. Chicago Cubs
Was there any doubt as to which team would be No. 1 on a list of baseball teams that have suffered the most postseason torture? The Cubs practically invented the term. Maybe you’ve heard that this team hasn’t won the World Series since 1908 and hasn’t been back to the Fall Classic since 1945. The Cubs have been to the postseason six times during the past 71 years, providing some hope to their fans and baseball fans throughout the world that the franchise’s long, perhaps billy goat-fueled curse would finally end.
But of those postseason failures, the Cubs’ loss in the 2003 NLCS to the Florida Marlins typifies how the fortunes of the team are viewed by fans throughout baseball. The Cubs held a 3-2 series lead going into Game 6, with Wrigley Field ready to celebrate a return to the World Series. In the eighth inning, they had a 3-0 lead. A win seemed all but inevitable. It was only five outs away. Luis Castillo, the third Marlins batter of the inning had worked a three balls, two strikes count against Mark Prior before hitting a foul ball toward the left field stands. Outfielder Moises Alou approached ready to make the catch. But at least two other fans in the stands, who should have known better, had the same idea.
Steve Bartman reached out over the rail, getting his hands on the ball before it could get to Alou’s glove and preventing the Cubs left fielder from making the catch. Alou was furious, ready to throw his glove to the ground. He couldn’t believe that a fan — and a home fan, at that — would prevent him from making the catch and securing the second out of the inning. Bartman was escorted from the stands for his own personal safety and has lived a life of seclusion ever since. The Cubs couldn’t recover from the near-out. The next three Marlins batters reached base, with Miguel Cabrera reaching on an error by Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez and tied the game at 3-3. Florida went on to score five more runs, as neither Prior nor reliever Kyle Farnsworth could get anyone out and the Cubs suffered a stunning loss.
No one seems to remember that the Cubs still had a chance to win the series in Game 7. And Gonzalez has strangely been let off the hook by history and memory, while Bartman continues to live in relative anonymity. (He reportedly remains in the Chicago area, so he didn’t go into exile. But he’s never been heard from again.)
The Cubs have been to the postseason three more times in the past 12 years, twice getting swept in the divisional series. Last season, the Cubs were swept out of the playoffs again, but won 97 regular season games and made it to the NLCS before running into a formidable New York Mets rotation. Though there was some hope that 2015 might have been their year — and there would have been some beauty in that, since it was 70 years since their last World Series — perhaps the Cubs’ ascent was one season ahead of schedule. This year, the Cubs are the heavy World Series favorite and currently boast the best record in MLB.
Will their postseason torture finally end in 2016? Or will there be more misery to add to this list and keep the Cubs solidly in the No. 1 spot among baseball’s most tortured playoff teams?