I have learned now that while those who speak about one’s miseries usually hurt, those who keep silence hurt more.
-Dmitri Young, possibly
Here’s the thing when your favorite baseball team blows a 3-1 playoff series lead: You can feel it happening, in fact you KNOW it’s happening well ahead of time. Usually just a couple of minutes into Game 5. And while advanced notice is often appreciated, that is not true in this case. This is a twisted version of dead man walking that lasts for several days. With it comes brief, fleeting bouts of delusion in which you think there’s still some chance for clemency but in your heart of hearts you know it’s not coming and that just makes the entire thing worse.
I fear the 3-1 collapse so much that I’m going to say something that’s truly very stupid: I sometimes irrationally think that a 2-2 series tie is better than a 3-1 lead. Psychologically, that is. Because with the 3-1 lead comes the anxiety of Game 5. Because if you don’t win Game 5, then holy crap you have to win Game 6. Because if you don’t win Game 6 then Game 7 is simply out of the question. In fact, I think it’s a rule. (Yes, if you’re tied 2-2 in a series then Games 5 and 6 are also sort of must wins, even more so, of course, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. Why that is, I don’t know. I’m not here to argue that this makes sense.)
Actually, I will. It’s the Cardinals’ fault. They have blown four 3-1 leads in best of seven series – 1968 World Series, 1985 World Series, 1996 NLCS, 2012 NLCS – and it’s left a mark. That’s the most blown 3-1 leads in all of baseball and the second most in all of professional sports behind the Washington Capitals, who are the proud owners of five. I wasn’t alive in 1968. I was 6-years-old in 1985, but didn’t stay up to watch the World Series games and as far as I’m concerned that season ended with Ozzie Smith’s home run in Game 5 of the NLCS.
But 1996 and 2012 are different. I was plenty coherent when the Cardinals blew sure-fire chances for a trip to the World Series at the hands of the Braves and the Giants, respectively, and it was a horrible experience both times. With the Cardinals currently sandwiched between a series with these two teams, I thought it time to find out once and for all which 3-1 collapse really was the worst. Let us embrace the misery together.
The relevant details
In the bottom of the 8th inning in Game 4, Brian Jordan hit a solo home run off of Greg McMichael to give the Cardinals a 4-3 lead. It proved to be the winning run and gave the Cardinals a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Braves.
This was also their last lead in 1996. From there the Cardinals were outscored 32-1. I’m going to repeat that so you can take it in again: 32 to…1. That -31 run differential would have wiped out 59 percent of the Cardinals’ run differential for the entire 1996 season. That is not a lie.
Why it was so bad
The Braves were six years into full dynasty mode, and had the Cardinals been competent at all after Game 4 then they would have pulled off an exciting upset and gone on to face the Yankees in the World Series. And that’s a World Series I’ve been waiting for my whole life. The two teams with the most World Series titles in each league facing off against each other – a fact that was true in 1996 and remains true today – but it wasn’t meant to be. Three times since then (2000, 2004, 2012) the Cardinals and Yankees have both been in their respective league championship series but they still haven’t met in a World Series since 1964.
Also, it was Ozzie Smith’s last season. My hero. Perhaps yours, too. And he had to take his final bow as a player in the batter’s box at old dumpy Fulton County Stadium in the 6th inning while down 10-0.
It was still a nice moment but it would have been so sweet to see him get one last trip to the World Series.
Lastly, why was it so bad? Did I mention 32 to 1? In those three games the Braves also got 46 hits, which is a lot.
Why maybe it wasn’t that bad
This was the Cardinals’ first trip to the playoffs in nine seasons, and there was a part of me that was just happy that they were there. This was only an 88-74 team, hardly a juggernaut. The Braves were the better team anyway. In Games 5, 6, and 7, the Cardinals were up against John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine, respectively. All three of those guys are now in the Hall of Fame. Donovan Osborne, Mike Morgan, and Alan Benes are not.
And let’s be honest, had they advanced the Cardinals probably weren’t beating the Yankees.
The relevant details
Adam Wainwright pitched seven innings of vintage four-hit, one-run ball in Game 4 to give the Cardinals a 3-1 series edge over the Giants. Similar to 1996, the Cardinals wouldn’t have a lead in a baseball game again until April 2013. The Giants went on to outscore the Cardinals 20-1 in Games 5, 6, and 7. For those keeping track at home, the Cardinals were outscored 52-2 combined in the last three games of the 1996 and 2012 NLCS. Let’s all go grab a drink.
Why it was so bad
Like the 1996 Cardinals, the 2012 Cardinals finished the season 88-74, but according to their BaseRuns record they were probably better than that. Unlike 1996, even though the Giants were a 94-win team and the NL West champs, the Cardinals weren’t overmatched (this, too, is backed up by BaseRuns). But in Game 5 the Cardinals were shut out by a washed up Barry Zito and a few bullpen arms. Then, they couldn’t win the Chris Carpenter – Ryan Vogelsong game. I don’t really want to talk about Game 7.
Just know, had the Cardinals somehow managed to win one of those final three games, they would have gone on to face a decent-to-good Tigers squad who the Giants managed to dispose of in four games. I’m not saying that the Cardinals would have absolutely swept the Tigers or even beaten them, but I’m not saying they wouldn’t have either. One thing’s for sure, the 2012 Tigers weren’t the 1996 Yankees and had the Cardinals gone on to the World Series and beaten the Tigers (like they probably would have) then they would have been the first team to win back-to-back World Series titles since the Yankees in 2000. That type of stuff is reserved for mortals, man, and the Cardinals were right on the precipice. But they blew it.
There was also this:
And, in the 6th inning of the final game when it was by that point pretty well out of hand, Giants pitching man Matt Cain took out retribution on Matt Holliday for a take-out slide that happened five games prior. I still seethe with anger when I see it.
(If it’s any solace, Cain had a 5.23 ERA in approximately 365 innings pitched following this event leading up to his retirement at the end of 2017.)
Why maybe it wasn’t that bad
Game 7 of the 2012 NLCS occurred less than a year after Game 6 of the 2011 World Series and only ten days after the Cardinals and Pete Kozma stunned the Nationals. To put it another way, they had just won the World Series the season before with help from one of the craziest games ever played, and then followed that up the next season by knocking off the best team in the National League in another one of the craziest games ever played (although not quite as crazy). No matter the circumstances, was anything back then really that bad?
There’s probably a decent argument to be made (and now that I think about it, plenty of people have made it) that Cardinals fans were still the luckiest people on earth in late October 2012. And I’d say things felt worse at the conclusion of the 2005 NLCS when eight Cardinals postseason appearances had come and gone without a World Series title to show for it versus 2012. Someone really should have taught the 2005 Astros how to properly blow a 3-1 series lead.
They were both terrible and after this publishes I don’t want to think about the 1996 or 2012 NLCS ever again. But taking into account how long it had been since the Cardinals had won or even been in the postseason and the insulting run differential, there is a pretty clear winner. So congratulations to the 1996 NLCS 3-1 collapse. You truly were the worst.