If you’ve been paying attention to the NBA playoffs lately, you know that the Boston Celtics have somehow managed to climb out of an 0-3 hole with two straight victories and now take on the Miami Heat in a pivotal Eastern Conference Finals Game 6 in Miami Saturday night. Should the C’s win their third straight, Game 7 will be played in Boston Monday night, with a chance for NBA history to be made: No team has ever won a playoff series after being down 3-0, and the 150 teams that did face that deficit all lost, usually in Games 4 or 5.
While Celtics fans have finally seen their team show some chutzpah and guts after being relative no-shows in the series’ first three games, the C’s are still inherently untrustworthy. How else could you view a team that let an average Atlanta Hawks team take them to six games in the first round, allowed a one-dimensional Sixers team force a seven-game series, and during the regular season lost games to a 22-60 Houston Rockets team, lost by 19 late in the season to a 35-47 Wizards squad, and dropped all three matchups with the 34-48 Orlando Magic?
Nonetheless, there is no denying that the momentum has seemingly shifted to the Celtics’ side against the Heat, and it’s undeniable that the uber-talented but often underachieving C’s are prime candidates to set NBA history Monday night at TD Garden.
If it were to happen, it would be the third time that a Boston team was involved in such a historic turnaround. It has only happened four times in the NHL, never in the NBA, and only once in the long illustrious history of MLB. The Bruins were on the short end of history in 2010, when they gagged a 3-0 series lead against the Flyers, and of course the 2004 Red Sox team turned the tables on the Yankees in the ALCS with an improbable four-game rally.
Can the Celtics do it and advance to the NBA Finals? Who knows, but now that we’re on this subject, how about needling Yankee fans about that epic collapse nearly 19 years ago? Let’s take another ride in the Way-Back Machine to those four days in October that changed hardball history.
So how on earth did the Pinstripers choke away that series? After all, not only was New York 101-60 in the 2004 regular season, owning the second-best record in the majors behind the Cardinals’ 105 wins, but it had run roughshod in the ALDS with three straight wins over the Twins, then took another three in a row to build that 3-0 cushion against Boston — culminated by the Saturday-night massacre in which the Yankees had crushed the Red Sox, 19-8, at Fenway, no less.
And things didn’t look promising for a Boston comeback Sunday in Game 4 either, as the Sox were down, 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth, with their 7-8-9 hitters facing the game’s premier (and future Hall of Fame) closer, Mariano Rivera.
Lordy, this game (and series) should have been in the bag for the Yanks, and would have marked their seventh AL pennant in nine seasons.
And this Yankees team was indeed loaded, with numerous Hall of Fame-caliber players in their primes on a team that had won World Series titles in 1996, ’98, ’99, and 2000. Think about it: Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, and to a lesser extent, Ruben Sierra, Tony Clark, and Miguel Cairo; then you had pitchers Mike Mussina (another future Hall of Famer), Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, Kevin Brown, and in the bullpen, Tom Gordon, Paul Quantrill, and Rivera.
In fact, New York had six of the majors’ highest-paid players, while Boston only had two on its roster in Pedro and Manny.
So let’s take a visit back to the seventh inning of Game 4 of that 2004 ALCS, with the Yankees having just taken a 4-3 lead — because at this point in the series, everything began to shift for the Bronx Bombers, and their previously vaunted offense began to take a plunge.
A team that had scored 19 runs just the night before would score just nine over the next 38 innings.
Let’s break down the Yankees’ lineup individually to see who could be blamed for that team’s epic collapse — as mentioned, the only time an MLB playoff team blew a 3-0 series lead in the history of the game.
The captain had hit .262 during the regular season, and was just 3-for-15 (.200) with five runs scored to this point in Game 4, and really didn’t pick things up the rest of the way, duplicating his 3-for-15 output, with only a base-clearing double in Game 5 of any real note. So Jeter was at least consistent, but in four prior World Series, he had hit .353, .353, .409, and .346, so he was accustomed to the pressure of performing on baseball’s biggest stage, but he was fairly irrelevant for New York in this series.
Baseball’s highest-paid player was a beast in the first half of the series, going 7-for-17 (.411), with eight runs and five RBI; he went just 1-for-15 (.066) the rest of the way, with exactly zero runs scored or driven in. He also humiliated himself by whacking the ball out of Boston pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s glove while running to first on a groundout in Game 6, then pretended to be puzzled by the umpire’s “out” call for interference.
Like A-Rod ahead of him in the lineup, Sheffield had killed Boston early on, going 9-for-16 (.562) with seven runs and four RBI. Like many of his teammates, a switch got flipped midway through Game 4, and the rest of the way, Sheffield hit just .077 (1-for-13), without driving in or scoring a run, either.
The 30-year-old Japanese native was in his second season for the Yankees in 2004, and in the early part of the ALCS he was a sensation, going 11-for-19 with eight runs scored and a whopping 10 RBI, and in Game 3 he had gone 5-for-6 with two home runs and five runs scored and driven in. The rest of the way? Matsui posted Jeter-esque numbers, going 3-for-15 (.200), with just one run scored, and 0 RBI — from the cleanup slot.
The smooth center fielder was 36 in the fall of 2004, but he was having a solid ALCS for New York, going 7-for-19 (.368) with seven RBI before he joined his teammates in their collective free-fall, going 4-for-17 (.235) the rest of the series.
The veteran catcher was his usual dependable self the first part of the series (4-for-12, three runs scored), but he was virtually invisible the rest of the way, going 2-for-15 with just a single run scored in the last three-and-a-half games.
Ruben Sierra and Miguel Cairo
These two guys, down near the bottom of the order, were two Yankees starters whose numbers didn’t nosedive the second half of the series. Sierra was 3-for-9 (.333) with a pair of RBI to start off, and stayed reasonably hot the rest of the way, going 4-for-12 for the balance of the series. As for Cairo, the Yankees’ second baseman, he was just 2-for-11 (.189) to start the ALCS, but finished with a flourish, going 5-for-14 (.357), but too often the pair came up with no Yankee on the basepaths.
Ouch. The 6-foot-8 first baseman played sparingly at the beginning of the series, but got his first chance to play in Game 4, and went 2-for-3 in the early going with an RBI. But things went drastically downhill from there. Clark proceeded to go just 1-for-17 the balance of the series, and even worse, the one hit he did have was a scorched double to the right-field corner that, had it stayed in play, undoubtedly would have scored Sierra with the go-ahead run in the ninth inning of Game 5. Instead, it mystifyingly took a weird bounce into the right-field grandstand, and Sierra was forced to stop at third base — where he remained when Cairo fouled out for the third out of the inning. Instead of taking the lead, the game would go on another five innings until David Ortiz won the game with a bloop single in the 14th. You probably know the rest of the story.
Also worth noting in the Yankees’ historic collapse in terms of pitching: Kevin Brown (3.1 IP, 8 ER, 21.60 ERA), Tom Gordon (6.2 IP, 6 ER, 8.10 ERA), El Duque (5.40 ERA), Paul Quantrill (5.40 ERA), Javier Vazquez (6.1 IP, 7 ER, 9.95 ERA).
Through the first three-and-a-half games, New York outscored Boston 36-19; the rest of the way saw Boston outscore the Pinstripers by a 21-9 tally.
All these years later, it’s still unbelievable to think that such a powerful Yankee lineup would suddenly go silent, but it did, and though the Red Sox’ arms and bats had something to do with the overall turnaround in the 2004 ALCS, the main culprit in the Yankees’ demise was the players’ collective inability to rise to the occasion, and just finish the job.
Now let’s see if the eighth-seeded Heat will suffer the same fate, when an NBA Finals berth seemed a certainty just four days ago.