Ten Greatest Comebacks in MLB History: #4

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Ironically enough, number four on the Baseball-Reference list of comebacks also takes place in 2001. In another odd bit of coincidence, it takes place between a dominant team and a not-so-dominant one. Yet a third space and time-bending oddity are that the lacking squadron is the subject of this comeback. So…this writer is wondering whether he should even bother with this article. A simple copy and paste from the previous one would work. All that needs to be done is switch some team names and statistics. Job done! Well…actually, no. The fun thing about comebacks is the sheer uniqueness of each one. All stories must be told and this is no different.

July 28, 2001: Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Houston Astros

Perhaps the most unique thing about this story is that it happens in a doubleheader. Considering the rapidity with which most of these games are wont to be played, comebacks are generally rare. However, another unique aspect is that it features an early-2000s Houston Astros starting lineup without Jeff Bagwell. Other than that, there’s a who’s-who of talented players on both sides of the game. So, let’s dive in and examine the two teams on a much closer level.

2001 Houston Astros

The 2001 Houston Astros were fast on their way to a division title, led solely by their offense. Only one of their regular starters finished outside of the double-digit column in home runs. They tore baseballs apart to the tune of a .271 team average. Their 208 homers ranked fourth in the league. They were a curious team, as their strikeout total was exactly on league average. However, they were also very patient, posting the fourth-highest walk total in the league. Players like Lance Berkman, the aforementioned Bagwell, and Moises Alou led the way. Craig Biggio, Richard Hidalgo, and Vinny Castilla all played important roles as well.

Unfortunately, their pitching left a lot to be desired. A 4.37 ERA was 10th in the league and they gave up over 1,400 hits. That said, they also finished third in strikeouts and had the fourth-lowest walk percentage in the league. Roy Oswalt, while not considered the ace, had the best season of all the starters (2.73 ERA, 170 ERA+, 1.059 WHIP). Bullpen-wise, the Astros had two of the best relievers in the game. Octavio Dotel was excellent as the setup man (2.66 ERA, 175 ERA+). Once he was finished, closer Billy Wagner would come in and shut opponents down (2.73 ERA, 39 saves). However, the rest of the ‘pen wasn’t able to come close to these numbers.

2001 Pittsburgh Pirates

We now move from one of the best teams in the league that year to the statistical worst. The 2001 Pittsburgh Pirates were a troubled squad, to say the least. They hold the dubious distinction of being the only NL team to lose 100 games that season. It was so bad that General Manager Cam Bonifay was fired midway through June. However, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t good parts to this clunker of machinery. Aramis Ramirez and Brian Giles both had excellent seasons, hitting over .300 with 30 homers. Outfielder John Vander Wal posted a respectable .278 average with a 111 OPS+…and that’s about it for the offense.

The pitching was even worse. Only one team had a worse ERA and the entire staff had an ERA+ of 90. A combined WHIP of over 1.400 sealed this team’s fate. Closer Mike Williams and part-time reliever Mike Lincoln were the only bright spots. Rotation-wise, the Pirates held an “ace” in Todd Ritchie who only won 11 games. They had the lowest quality start percentage in the NL that season (36%). Their bullpen was somehow more of a liability, with three regular relievers posting ERAs between five and seven. One of their big problems was allowing inherited runners to score. 91 inherited runners scored, leading to the league’s highest percentage in that category. Times were tough, to say the least.

The Game

So when Saturday, July 28 rolled around, it must have been a foregone conclusion that the Astros would sweep both games of the doubleheader. The sun shone down upon PNC Park as Houston strode to bat in the first inning. Young Bronson Arroyo, in his second season, would face them down. This was long before the days when he’d both be considered an All-Star caliber starter and be circulated through the league via trade. Houston countered with rookie Roy Oswalt, who was in the middle of one of the greatest first-year pitching performances ever. He’d finish with 14 wins, a sub-3 ERA, and a monumental 170 ERA+. Finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting and fifth in Cy Young Award voting was the icing on the cake.

The two young pitchers were set to duke it out, trying to see which one was the better first-year hurler. It all started quietly enough, with back-to-back sides set down in order. Then, Castilla launched the first second inning offering over the left-center field wall. The Pirates quickly tied the game in the bottom of the frame on a Kevin Young RBI single. Things remained quiet until the fifth when Castilla picked up his second homer. This was of the three-run variety, putting Houston on top 4-1. Once more, things quieted. However, this was simply the calm before the storm.

A Unique Story in the World of Comebacks

One of the other unique things about this entry in our comebacks list is its focus on the latter innings. Usually, there’s a decided flow to how comebacks and their stories work. One team scores a bunch of runs in five or six innings in a row. Either that or they score 10 in one frame. Then, the feisty, punchy eventual winners storm back with likewise scenarios. However, as we know, comebacks can happen in any fashion. This game would wind up proving that as we shift to the eighth inning. By this point, the score was 4-2 Houston. It seemed like a very normal game. There are a million copycats every season all throughout baseball. Then…the floodgates open.

Castilla picked up his third homer of the game to lead off the eighth. This one came off of Pittsburgh reliever Omar Olivares. It was now 5-2 in favor of the Astros. Later in the inning, Orlando Merced picked up an RBI, making it 6-2. Bagwell would be called upon to pinch-hit, but Merced was caught stealing second. The Pirates went down in order to Astro reliever Michael Jackson. However, the thrilling part of the game came after the Astros put up two more runs in the ninth. Julio Lugo and Berkman both capitalized on RBI situations, seemingly sealing Pittsburgh’s fate. Down 8-2, the Pirates looked to be smooth criminals and steal a win away from Houston.

Comebacks: A Ninth Inning to Remember

Jackson managed to get Ramirez and Vander Wal on five pitches to open things. However, Young doubled on the very next offering. Two pitches after that, second baseman Pat Meares put a ball into the left-field bleachers. This made it 8-4 and the Pirates had life. Pinch hitter Adam Hyzdu put up a single before center fielder Tike Redman walked. The next batter, shortstop Jack Wilson, picked up an RBI hit. It was 8-5, and Houston manager Larry Dierker went to his bullpen. Thus entered Wagner, one of the greatest closers of all time. He promptly hit catcher Jason Kendall with a pitch to load the bases. Up stepped Brian Giles, who deposited a walk-off grand slam into the right-field seats. Against the grain, the Pirates had come all the way back.

Comebacks: At Any Time

Baseball-Reference gives the Pirates a 0.02% chance of winning in the bottom of the ninth. It certainly appeared as if this would come to fruition. However, in the comebacks game, appearances can be incredibly deceiving. Nobody gave Pittsburgh a chance to defeat the mighty Astros in this one, yet they did. On a day when runs were scored in clumps, Pittsburgh had the biggest clump of all, capped off by one of the most exciting moments in all of baseball. The walk-off home run is always fun, but a walk-off grand slam holds so much more. It’s the pinnacle of single-second moments in our sport. Comebacks by themselves are interesting, however, when this is the end result, it makes them downright amazing.

Main Photo:

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Players Mentioned:

Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Moises Alou, Craig Biggio, Richard Hidalgo, Vinny Castilla, Roy Oswalt, Octavio Dotel, Billy Wagner, Aramis Ramirez, Brian Giles, John Vander Wal, Mike Williams, Mike Lincoln, Todd Ritchie, Bronson Arroyo, Kevin Young, Omar Olivares, Orlando Merced, Michael Jackson, Julio Lugo, Pat Meares, Adam Hyzdu, Tike Redman, Jack Wilson, Jason Kendall