In Major League Baseball's postseason, coming back from a two-games-to-none deficit falls strictly in the easier-said-than-done category—even more so when it's a five-game set, as in the Division Series.
"We just went through a week of backs against the wall, so it's not new to us," Rays manager Joe Maddon said after Game 2, per Howard Ulman of the Associated Press (via the Boston Globe). "It's going to be difficult."
That's the exact opposite of the position a team wants to be in only two games into the postseason, but as Maddon also pointed out, "We've been in this boat in the past and we've forced Game 5s in those situations, also." In fact, Tampa Bay pushed the Texas Rangers to a fifth game in the 2010 ALDS after dropping the first two.
There are a few approaches and strategies the trailing team can employ to help with the winning part and avoid the going home part.
Three Is Easier Than Four
While the task at hand is a backs-against-the-wall challenge, the manager, coaches and players first need to establish the big-picture mentality by acknowledging that things could be worse.
After all, coming back from down 0-2 in a five-game set is much more doable than trying to overcome a three-games-to-none deficit in a seven-gamer.
Consider that in the entire history of MLB's postseason, only once has the latter been done. Of course, that famously came in the 2004 American League Championship Series, when the Boston Red Sox shocked the New York Yankees by winning four straight after dropping the first three.
Comparatively, since the Division Series round was added to baseball's postseason in 1995, a club has stormed all the way back to win the series after losing the first two on five occasions, most recently just last October when the San Francisco Giants did it to the Cincinnati Reds in the NLDS—and then went on to win the World Series.
It's certainly not a regular occurrence, but five times in 18 years isn't as bad as you might've thought initially, right?
Just Get to Game 5
The "just get to..." refrain is a common one in the playoffs, and it serves as a rallying cry of sorts for the trailing team.
The point here is that instead of treating the situation as a need to win three consecutive games against one of the top eight teams in the sport, the mentality should be to win two straight in order to reach the decisive fifth and final contest where anything can happen.
Find a Gem
This isn't snap-your-fingers-and-it's-done easy, but again, it brings the focus down from winning even two straight games to merely getting one impressive pitching performance.
The reason it's incredibly important that at least one of the three straight W's comes on the strength of seven or eight stellar innings from a starter is that it's difficult to count on getting reliable relief efforts more or less every time out.
Having a hurler own the opposition for one game allows the down-but-not-yet-out club to save its bullpen when needed for any key spot in the other two games. In short, the pitching gem can be a huge equalizer.
For instance, in their quest to get out of an 0-2 hole, the Rays have to hope that right-hander Alex Cobb, who's arguably been their best pitcher the past two months, can toss, say, seven innings of one-run ball in Game 3 on Monday. That's more or less what he did in winning the AL Wild Card Game over the Cleveland Indians last Wednesday.
When a team is in this position, there's an enormous amount of pressure to deal with.
One simple enough way to relieve some of that? Push a run (or three) across the board before the opposition does in Game 3—and ideally, in Games 4 and 5 too. This is crucial because it can help to shift the momentum, even if only a little bit, and it also prevents the starting pitcher from feeling like he has to be perfect.
And who knows? Sometimes that happens anyway, as it did in 2001 when the Yankees plated the first run of Game 3 against the Oakland Athletics in the fifth inning, which righty Mike Mussina made count by throwing seven scoreless frames for the victory.
Own the Opportunities
This applies to every aspect of the game, but mostly to baserunning and hitting.
On the basepaths, players should be looking to make something happen. This doesn't mean running recklessly or irresponsibly, but it does apply to getting into scoring position whenever reasonably possible, like, say, tagging up from first base on a deep fly ball or taking the extra base on a pitch in the dirt.
In the batter's box, the team absolutely cannot squander at-bats with runners on base—and especially in scoring position. Generally speaking, generating a "productive out" is not necessarily, well, all that productive, but that's mainly from the point of view that encompasses a full season or a scenario in the early innings of a game.
In certain hitter-pitcher matchups and depending on the number of outs, though, when one run can tie or win a game in the late innings, there is merit to at least putting—or yes, even bunting—the ball in play to move a runner into scoring position (even more so if the alternative is a potential strikeout).
While the losing club cannot afford to give the other team extra outs on defense, if the reverse happens, that's when it needs to be taken advantage of to make the opposition pay. Just like the Rays did in Game 4 back in 2010:
All Arms on Deck
In any do-or-die game, every pitcher needs to be ready to go at least an inning under just about any circumstance—even if that means only two days' rest for starters or appearances in three straight games for relievers.
One of the more famous examples of this happening in a two-games-to-none comeback in a Division Series came when the Seattle Mariners' Randy Johnson—having thrown 117 pitches over seven dominant innings only two days prior in Game 3—entered Game 5 in the ninth inning and proceeded to throw three more innings to get the win in the 11th over the Yankees.
This also occurred in Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS when Pedro Martinez, who started Game 1 but suffered an injury, was used for a whopping six innings of masterful, hitless relief to secure a wild 12-8 win over the Indians and put the Red Sox in the ALCS.
Throw Out Tradition
Essentially, this means the trailing team has to do whatever it takes to win the game that's being played. A loss and there is no tomorrow, so trying to hold anything back or pull any punches for a theoretical game that may or may not be played in the future isn't the way to go.
In a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the sixth inning? The manager should turn to the best reliever in the pen to get out of it, even if that means using up the closer.
Need a big knock with runners on the corners while down a run in the fifth against a tough left-hander? Pinch-hit a lesser-known righty bat who handles southpaws for the big-name lefty slugger who can't touch southpaws.
Those are just the sort of things that Maddon, one of the more progressive-thinking managers in the sport, won't be afraid to do to help the Rays overcome a pair of ugly losses in Boston to start the ALDS. The fact that the series shifts to Tampa might also help, but just forcing a Game 5—let alone winning it—is still going to be easier said than done.
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