We are reader supported. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Also, as an Amazon affiliate, we earn from qualifying purchases.
Among all the major sports leagues, Major League Baseball seems to have an inordinate number of comebacks ~ whether in overcoming a runs deficit in game, a games deficit in a series, or even career comebacks. It makes us wonder, what were the top 10 biggest comeback in MLB history, and what happened?
Unlike other sports, baseball does not have a time limit, making big single-game comebacks rather unusual. Instead of a last-second touchdown, basket, or goal, baseball has memorable rallies. It means a team going on a roll and getting a number of hits in a row, and a bunch of needed runs in an inning or over several innings. Baseball games are determined by who scores the most runs with 27 outs, regardless of clocks.
There is much drama during these rallies and comebacks, which tend to be stretched out time-wise due to multiple time-outs and pitching changes. Outcomes of baseball games can shift due to momentum ~ like a team getting several key hits in a row ~ and managers know this so they often try to do anything to break up the timing or rhythm of the opposing team.
Managers can even use time outs to make the next batter take a breather and think about the situation ~ akin to NFL coaches calling timeout just before a kicker attempts a field goal to “freeze” him.
- 1 Gaffes, Zany Strategies in Baseball
- 1.1 10. Rick Ankiel, Pitcher to Home to … the Outfield?
- 1.2 9. 12-Run Baseball Comebacks ~ Modern Era
- 1.3 8. 12-Run Baseball Comebacks ~ 20th Century
- 1.4 7. Orta Safe at First! (or Was He?)
- 1.5 6. Roberto Clemente: Pirates Win on Most Unusual Play
- 1.6 5. World Series Shifter: Gibson Walks Off Game 1
- 1.7 4. Merckle’s Bonehead Blunder Costs Pennant
- 1.8 3. Flood Gate through Buckner’s Legs Opens
- 1.9 2. The A’s-Cubs World Series Comeback
- 1.10 1. Red Sox Steamroll Yankees to Break the Curse
Baseball is a very cerebral game, where mental tricks have been known to cause crazy and unusual situations in game play.
Other comebacks could be caused by single-player gaffes, huge chokes by pitchers or entire teams, or a player’s commendable comeback from major injury.
Let’s inspect the history of the MLB for best comebacks in a regular season game, a postseason game, a series, and a career. Here we’ll also provide insight into the most memorable comebacks on the last out.
Not all great “comebackers” in MLB history came from teams. A definition of “comeback” is “to regain a former or normal state.” This applies often to players recovering from an injury then returning to the ball field. Over several years, Rick Ankiel did just that ~ and then some!
Ankiel was a star pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals with a seemingly endless career ceiling. The lefty had potential to be among the greatest ever, scouts said. His MLB career began extremely well, and he was chosen to start the first game of the team’s divisional playoff series against the Atlanta Braves ~ quite an honor for such a young player.
It went disastrously when Ankiel suddenly forgot how to throw strikes. He left the game with the team ahead, but in his next outing he revealed what later would be described as a fluke mental malady. It meant the end of his playoffs; and the condition continued early the next season so he was demoted to the minor leagues to figure things out.
In the minors, Ankiel blew out his elbow and required major surgery that kept him off the field for almost two years. When he returned, so did the wildness, finally to a point where he had to quit pitching.
But the Cardinals agreed to let him try something rare: for a pitcher to come back to the majors as a position player. Ankiel went back to the minors to learn how to play outfield and remember to hit, and his dedication came to fruition, as in 2007, about 7 years after the playoff disaster, Ankiel returned to the Cardinals as an outfielder.
A decent power hitter with a very powerful arm from the outfield, Ankiel went on to play 7 more seasons as a fielder, with the Cardinals then 5 other teams. He became only the third player ever in the MLB (after Babe Ruth and Shohei Ohtani to have struck at least 70 home runs as a batter and won at least 10 games over a career.
The Major League record for biggest deficit overcome is 12 runs, shared by 3 teams, most recently twice this century. The last was the 2016 Seattle Mariners, who raced to 5 runs in the 6th inning and 9 runs in the seventh inning to overtake the stunned San Diego Padres.
For Seattle, it was sort of like deja vu from when the club was victimized by the same deficit erasure in 2001. The M’s took a third-inning lead, 12-0, over the Indians. Cleveland then reduced the lead to 12-2 before logging 3 runs in the seventh, 4 runs in the eighth, and 5 in the ninth (all with 2 outs!). It ended an 11-inning, 15-14 game for the Tribe.
Other 12-run comebacks in MLB history:
- June 18, 1911, the Detroit Tigers stormed back from a 13-1 deficit to beat the White Sox, 16-15.
- June 15, 1925, the Cleveland Indians claimed leads three separate times, 14-2, 15-3, and 15-4, before a 13-run bottom of the eighth inning by the Philadelphia Athletics stunned them.
Many MLB teams have overcome 11-run deficits, most recently in 1994 when the Houston Astros overcame an 11-0 deficit to win the game 15-12. In April 1976, future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt hit 4 home runs to boost his Philadelphia Phillies past a 12-1 deficit after 3 innings to go on and win in 10 innings, 18-16.
The 1985 Cardinals were an exceptional team, and it showed in the middle of the rare inter-state series that year with the Kansas City Royals. The Cards also on the mound had an exceptional closing relief pitcher, Todd Worrell, a flame-throwing rookie went 3-0 with a miniscule 2.91 earned run average.
Still, the Royals proved a pesky bunch. With Worrell on the mound poised to end the series in the final inning of Game 6, KC sent up pinch hitter Jorge Orta, an above-average hitter not known for exceptional foot speed. He struck a slow roller away from the bag to the first baseman, who tossed the ball back to Worrell running to cover the base for what could have been the final out of a stunning 1-0 game to end the series.
The Cards had scored the game’s only run the previous inning. At the end, Orta hit into what looked like a quick bam-bam play, with Worrell catching the toss and quickly kicking the base. He appeared to have made the play to record the final out.
But, alas, no. The umpire ruled Orta safe, even though television replays indicated otherwise. (Such a situation likely would not occur today with instant replays).
Instead of no runners on and only 2 outs remaining, the Cards now faced a runner on first with no outs when Steve Balboni singled, to put runners on the first two bases. A few plays later a passed ball moved runners to second and third base.
A 1-out intentional walk to load the bases brought up pinch-hitter Dane Iorg, who blooped a single to right field off Worrell, and the second-base runner barely beat the catcher’s tag to score and end the game.
The Cardinals would not recover. The next night in Kansas City, the Royals claimed their first world championship by pounding the Cards, 11-0 to take what was known as the “Show-Me Series” or “I-70 Showdown Series.”
Most baseball fans know the value of 4 or more runs ~ because if that’s your lead, it should take time for the other team to at least tie. One of the most exciting yet uncommon plays in baseball is the grand slam: a bases-loaded home run that knocks in 4 runs immediately.
About as equally rare is the inside-the-park home run. Yet, not only did Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente do the very rare ~ the inside-the-park grand slam! ~ he ended a dramatic comeback win for the Pittsburgh Pirates over the Chicago Cubs in 1956.
Perhaps the most famous inside-the-park grand slam was struck by Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente in July 1966. With his Pirates behind in the game, 8-5, and the bases full with no outs, Clemente drove a ball to the outfield wall. The 3 runners preceding him raced around to score. However, at third base Clemente’s manager gave the sign to top at that base and hold.
Despite having no outs, and chances for 3 batters to bring him in for the victory, Clemente kept running. Despite being fundamentally unsound, Clemente was safe, for the only walk-off game-winning inside-the-park grand slam. (Following the game his manager, known as a disciplinarian, opted not to fine the future superstar).
The Oakland A’s were heavily favored to win the 1988 World Series. And at the end of Game 1, they looked to take an early series lead. They were up 4-3 ~ powered by a Jose Canseco grand slam ~ when with 2 outs future Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley walked a batter.
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda countered by calling on his injured star, Kirk Gibson, to pinch hit. After a few mighty swings where Gibson appeared in pain on foul-offs, Eckersley tried to sneak a back-door slider past the ailing hitter.
He walloped it into the right-field stands for the “walk-off win” (a term Eckersley invented later by saying all you can do after that is walk off the field) ~ propelling the underdog Dodgers to a series lead they would not surrender. They won the series 4 games to 1.
Some comebacks are created by unusual circumstances. In the case of the 1908 New York Giants, it occurred at the most inopportune time.
Entangled in a 3-team battle for the pennant, a game between the Giants and reigning champion Chicago Cubs was staged at the Polo Grounds on Sept. 23. The teams were tied for first place, with the Pittsburgh Pirates just 1.5 games back.
With runners on first and third base with 2 outs in the 9th and the score tied, Al Bridwell singled in the winning run, and Giants fans went crazy. With season’s end fast approaching, the Giants were in prime position to claim the pennant.
Not so fast. During the final play, first base runner Fred Merkle saw the winning run touch home plate and turned to return to the dugout before fans swarmed the field ~ before touching second base.
Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers noticed, and in the pandemonium he retrieved the ball, notified an umpire, and stepped on second base for the force out to end the inning and wipe out the run scored on a fielder’s choice. Game remains tied.
A protest resulted in the teams returning another day to conclude the match, a game which the Cubs eventually won. Not necessarily a true “comeback,” but certainly the Cubs came back from the brink of death ~ thanks not to a hit, but a heads-up fielder’s play.
The Giants played 16 more games, the Cubs and Pirates 10. In the end the Cubs beat the Pirates in a makeup game Oct. 4 to finally claim the pennant. They went on to win the World Series. “Merkle’s Boner” was later called the “the most controversial game in baseball history.” Merkle was 19 years old in that game and played another 10 years and reached 5 World Series. All of which his team lost.
The Boston Red Sox were 1 out away from winning their first world championship since 1986, and they had high-salaried Bob Stanley on the mound. Already ahead in the World Series, 3 games to 2 for the New York Mets, the sinkerballer just needed to get Mookie Wilson out to take the championship.
It was not to be. The speedy Wilson hit a slow roller right at first baseman Bill Buckner, who, upon seeing that Stanley would be late covering first for the toss, took a step forward toward the base when the ball took a strange hop. It missed his glove entirely, rolled through his legs, and slowly rolled to right fielder Dwight Evans as Ray Knight rounded third base with the winning run.
That tied the Series. The Mets staged another comeback the following night in Shea Stadium, overcoming a 3-run deficit to terrorize the Boston bullpen and claim the franchise’s second world championship.
The biggest postseason MLB win came in 1929, when the Philadelphia A’s fought back from an 8-run gap, to blast 10 runs in the seventh inning. Jimmie Foxx had the game-winning hit.
More recently, baseball fans might remember Game 4 of the 1996 World Series, when the New York Yankees were down 6-0 and facing a 3-0 deficit in the series. Jim Leyritz hit a 3-run home run off Mark Wohlers to tie a game the Bronx Bombers went in 10 innings, 8-6. They later won the World Series, the first of 4 championships in 5 years for the Yanks.
It’s hard not to marvel at something that had not occurred in the 135 years of Major League Baseball. In fact, until the miraculous comeback by the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship Series ~ both in individual games (4 and 5), and the series overall. Except for one comeback by hockey’s Toronto Maple Leafs in 1942, and the New York Islanders in 1975, no major sports team had come back from a 3-game deficit to win a 7-game series. It’s never happened in the National Basketball Association.
The Sox not only won 4 straight games to overcome the vaunted rival New York Yankees, but they also went on to sweep the subsequent World Series, winning a postseason record 8 games in a row to claim the club’s first championship since 1918.
The big moment came in Game 4, when the Sox entered the 9th inning down a run and facing an unimaginable sweep out of a season of great promise. Facing future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera, it looked hopeless, until Kevin Millar led off with a walk, pinch runner Dave Roberts stole second base, and Bill Mueller hit a first-pitch hard grounder past Rivera to tie the game.
The Sox won that game plus Game 5 in extra innings, both on hits by slugger David Ortiz. They eked out a 4-2 win in New York in Game 6, then bombed the Bronx Bombers 10-3 to make history.