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AMY SANCETTA/Associated Press
No MLB postseason series lead is safe.
According to Matt Kelly of MLB.com, there have been 14 instances in history when a team has blown a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series. Those 14 losing teams make up our list of contenders for the title of worst playoff collapse in MLB history.
Most can probably guess which team will occupy the No. 1 spot in these rankings, but we’ve ranked all 14 of them to paint a full picture of epic playoff collapses through the years.
Teams are ranked based on when they exited the postseason race and the expectations surrounding their playoff run.
Will another team be added to this list in 2021?
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Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
14. 2020 Atlanta Braves: Lost to Los Angeles Dodgers in NLCS
After finishing the regular season with the best record in baseball, the 2020 Dodgers swept the Milwaukee Brewers in the Wild Card Series and the San Diego Padres in the NLDS.
The runaway freight train came to a screeching halt when the Atlanta Braves seized a 2-0 series lead in the NLCS and pulled within one win of a World Series berth with a 10-2 victory in Game 4, but the Dodgers stormed back with three straight wins to avoid the upset and pave the way for a World Series title.
13. 1996 St. Louis Cardinals: Lost to Atlanta Braves in NLCS
An 88-win Cardinals team swept the Padres in the NLDS, and after losing to John Smoltz in Game 1 of the NLCS, they knocked around Greg Maddux (6.2 IP, 9 H, 8 R, 3 ER) in Game 2 and bested fellow Hall of Famer Tom Glavine in Game 3.
A three-run seventh inning propelled them to a 4-3 victory in Game 4 and put them on the brink, but Smoltz (7.0 IP, 7 H, 0 ER), Maddux (7.2 IP, 6 H, 1 ER) and Glavine (7.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER) rolled during the final three games of the series, while the Braves offense outscored the Cards by a staggering 32-1 margin.
12. 2007 Cleveland: Lost to Boston Red Sox in ALCS
After knocking off the wild-card New York Yankees in the 2007 ALDS, Cleveland saw its offense silenced by Boston ace Josh Beckett in Game 1 of the ALCS. However, the club stormed back with a 13-6 victory in Game 2 and rode veterans Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd to victory in Game 3 and Game 4 to move within one win of the Fall Classic.
It was Beckett again who brought Cleveland’s momentum to a halt in Game 5 with eight innings of five-hit, one-run, 11-strikeout ball, and the Red Sox offense exploded for 12-2 and 11-2 victories in the final two games of the series to complete the comeback. AL Cy Young winner CC Sabathia went 0-2 with a 10.45 ERA in the series.
11. 1985 Toronto Blue Jays: Lost to Kansas City Royals in ALCS
In the postseason for the first time in franchise history, the 1985 Blue Jays won 99 games with Jesse Barfield and George Bell leading the offense and Dave Stieb anchoring the pitching staff. Squaring off against the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS, Stieb threw eight shutout innings in Game 1, and the Blue Jays walked off on Royals closer Dan Quisenberry in Game 2 to seize control of the series.
However, the Royals were seemingly a team of destiny—they’ll make another appearance on this list—and Danny Jackson’s complete game shutout in Game 5 with Kansas City facing elimination turned the tides. After a 5-3 Royals victory in Game 6, the trio of Bret Saberhagen, Charlie Leibrandt and Quisenberry outdueled Stieb in Game 7 to complete the series comeback.
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10. 2012 St. Louis Cardinals: Lost to San Francisco Giants in NLCS
It took a Wild Card Game victory and a Game 5 win over the Washington Nationals in the NLDS for the 2012 Cardinals to reach the NLCS after they won just 88 games during the regular season, but that is exactly the type of Cardinals team that has gone on postseason runs in the past.
After splitting the first two games of their NLCS matchup with the San Francisco Giants, the Cardinals took a commanding 3-1 series lead before Giants pitching clamped down. Barry Zito (7.2 IP, 6 H, 0 ER) had arguably his best start in a San Francisco uniform in Game 5, followed by dominant performances from Ryan Vogelsong (7.0 IP, 4 H, 1 ER) and Matt Cain (5.2 IP, 5 H, 0 ER) to send the Giants on to an eventual World Series sweep of the heavily favored Detroit Tigers.
9. 1986 California Angels: Lost to Boston Red Sox in ALCS
The Angels took a 3-1 series lead in the 1986 ALCS with a comeback victory in Game 4, erasing a 3-0 deficit in the bottom of the ninth before Bobby Grich delivered the walk-off RBI single in the 11th.
They took a 5-2 lead into the top of the ninth inning in Game 5, but two-run home runs from Don Baylor and Dave Henderson turned the game on its head. The Angels answered with a run in the bottom of the ninth to force extra innings, but Henderson delivered the game-winning sac fly in the 11th. The Red Sox rolled from there, coming away with 10-4 and 8-1 victories to close out the series.
8. 2003 Chicago Cubs: Lost to Florida Marlins in NLCS
The 2003 Cubs ousted a 101-win Braves team in a hard-fought, five-game NLDS and won three straight NLCS games against the Florida Marlins after an extra-innings loss in Game 1. Budding Marlins ace Josh Beckett threw a two-hit shutout in Game 5, but the Cubs still had two chances to clinch their first World Series trip since 1945.
With a 3-0 lead heading into the eighth inning of Game 6, the Cubs saw everything fall apart. The infamous Steve Bartman incident was followed by a costly error from shortstop Alex Gonzalez, and the Cubs imploded as the Marlins plated eight runs in the inning to force Game 7. With ace Kerry Wood on the mound and a 5-3 lead through four innings, the Cubs still had a chance, but the Marlins struck for six runs in the middle frames, and the North Siders were sent packing.
7. 1958 Atlanta Braves: Lost to New York Yankees in the World Series
With six titles in the previous eight years, the New York Yankees were heavily favored in the 1957 World Series when they were upset by Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn and the Milwaukee Braves.
The two teams met up again the following year, and the Braves again seized an early 2-0 series lead behind strong starts from Spahn and Lew Burdette. The Braves were shut out in Game 3, but Spahn returned the favor with a two-hitter on three days’ rest in Game 4. It was Spahn and Burdette on the mound for six of the seven games for the Braves, and the Yankees hitters figured things out later in the series to rip off three straight wins en route to a title.
6. 1985 St. Louis Cardinals: Lost to Kansas City Royals in World Series
Remember the 1985 Royals team that came back from down 3-1 in the ALCS to beat the Blue Jays? They also faced that same deficit in the World Series against the Cardinals.
A complete game from Bret Saberhagen in Game 3 was all that saved the Royals from getting swept, but the Royals took charge over the final three contests. Danny Jackson threw a complete game in Game 5, Charlie Leibrandt outlasted Danny Cox and the Royals benefited from a controversial call from umpire Don Denkinger in Game 6, and Saberhagen closed things out with a five-hit shutout in Game 7.
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The 1979 Baltimore Orioles led the majors with 102 wins. The middle-of-the-pack offense was led by Eddie Murray and Ken Singleton, but the pitching staff paced the American League with a 3.26 ERA, and co-aces Dennis Martinez and Mike Flanagan combined for 34 complete games and eight shutouts.
After moving past the California Angels in four games in the ALCS, they met up with Willie Stargell and the legendary “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Orioles built a 3-1 series lead behind 24 runs from the offense through the first four games, but their bats went silent after that, and the pitching staff couldn’t shoulder the load.
The Pirates won 7-1, 4-0 and 4-1 in the final three games, with the Orioles tallying just 17 hits during that stretch. The Pirates closed out the series in Baltimore, and prior to the 2014 San Francisco Giants they were the last team to win a Game 7 on the road.
Stargell was the star of the series, going 12-for-30 with four doubles, three home runs and seven RBI for the Pirates, adding World Series MVP to a season that already included regular-season NL MVP and NLCS MVP honors.
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Walter JohnsonSporting News Archive/Getty Images
With 417 career wins and a 2.17 ERA in 5,914.1 innings, not to mention an MLB-record 110 shutouts and 164.8 career WAR to rank second on the all-time list, Walter Johnson has a strong case as the greatest pitcher in baseball history.
That’s what made the 1925 Washington Senators’ collapse so improbable.
After a brilliant start in Game 1 (9.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 10 K) and an equally impressive showing in Game 4 (9.0 IP, 6 H, 0 ER, 2 K), the Senators had a 3-1 series lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Pirates took the next two to force a Game 7, but the Senators still had an ace up their sleeve in Johnson pitching on three days’ rest.
The Senators led 4-0 before Johnson even took the mound, but the legendary hurler couldn’t protect that lead, ultimately allowing 15 hits and nine runs (five earned) in a complete-game effort as the Pirates came away with a 9-7 victory to keep Washington from repeating as World Series champions.
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Bob GibsonHerb Scharfman/Getty Images
The 1968 St. Louis Cardinals had Bob Gibson at his absolute peak.
The right-hander went 22-9 with an absurd 1.12 ERA in 304.2 innings to win Cy Young and MVP honors, paving the way for the mounds to be lowered in an effort to level the playing field.
The Cardinals ace had already dominated the 1964 (3 GS, 2 CG, 3.00 ERA, 27.0 IP) and 1967 (3 GS, 3 CG, 1.00 ERA, 27.0 IP) World Series, winning MVP honors in both of those previous trips to the Fall Classic, so the odds seemed to be stacked against the Detroit Tigers in 1968.
Gibson was his usual dominant self in Game 1 (9.0 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 17 K) and Game 4 (9.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 10 K) to help the Cardinals take a 3-1 series lead, but Mickey Lolich picked up his second win of the series in Game 5 and returned on two days’ rest for a Game 7 showdown with Gibson.
The pair traded zeroes for six innings before the Tigers struck for three runs in the top of the seventh behind a two-run triple from Jim Northrup and an RBI double from Bill Freehan.
The Tigers added an insurance run in the ninth and the best the Cardinals could do was break up the shutout with a single run in the bottom of the ninth. Gibson and Lolich each tossed three complete games in the series, but Lolich got the last laugh with a gem in Game 7.
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Rajai DavisDavid E. Klutho/Getty Images
Would the Chicago Cubs have broken their curse if Mother Nature had not intervened?
After a hard-fought NLCS victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, the North Siders came out flat in the World Series, and a Cleveland team that had gone 7-1 in the first two rounds of the postseason took full advantage.
The Cubs offense was shut out in Game 1 and Game 3, and a 7-2 victory in Game 4 put Cleveland on the brink of the franchise’s first World Series title since 1948.
However, a three-run fourth inning for the Cubs in Game 5 held up in a 3-2 victory, and they jumped on Cleveland starter Josh Tomlin for six earned runs in 2.1 innings in Game 6 to force a final game in Cleveland.
They struck first with a solo home run from Dexter Fowler to lead off the game and built a 6-3 lead going into the bottom of the eighth inning. Jon Lester gave up a two-out single in his fourth inning of work out of the bullpen, and manager Joe Maddon called on closer Aroldis Chapman for a four-out save.
Chapman promptly allowed an RBI double to Brandon Guyer and a two-run home run to Rajai Davis, and just like that, the game was tied. After both teams failed to score in the ninth, the skies opened up and there was a 17-minute rain delay.
“That rain delay was the most important thing to happen to the Chicago Cubs in the past 100 years. I don’t think there’s any way we win the game without it,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo told reporters.
With an opportunity to regroup following the crushing eighth inning, the Cubs came out rejuvenated and scored two runs in the top of the 10th. Cleveland cut the deficit to one in the bottom of the 10th, but Mike Montgomery recorded the final out, and the Cubs pulled off the comeback from down 3-1.
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Chuck Solomon/Getty Images
Only once in baseball history has a team come from behind 3-0 in a best-of-seven series.
In fact, the Houston Astros forced a Game 7 in the ALCS last year after losing the first three games, and that’s the only other time a team has managed to force the series to go the distance.
With that in mind, the No. 1 spot on this list is a no-brainer.
The Red Sox won the head-to-head matchup by an 11-8 margin during the 2004 regular season, but it was the Yankees who won the division title by three games, setting up a heavyweight clash between the two bitter rivals.
It was all Yankees through the first three games, including a 19-8 offensive explosion in Game 3 to take a commanding series lead.
The Yankees led 4-3 going into the ninth inning in Game 4, but a Kevin Millar walk, a Dave Roberts steal as a pinch runner and an RBI single from Bill Mueller changed everything. The game went to extra innings, and David Ortiz won it on a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 12th, giving the Red Sox another day of life.
Ortiz provided the big hits again in Game 5, homering as part of a two-run eighth inning that knotted things up at 4-4, and then delivering the walk-off single in the bottom of the 14th inning.
By that time, momentum belonged to the Red Sox, and the “bloody sock” start from Curt Schilling in Game 6 all but sealed it. In Game 7, the Red Sox scored six runs through the first two innings and cruised to a 10-3 victory.
It’s the worst playoff collapse in baseball history—and arguably all of sports history.
All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.