Ranking the World Series of the 21st Century

The connection between past and present is more durable in baseball than in other sports, and the link is particularly apparent during the World Series. We’ve had nearly 120 of these now, and the classics are a constant presence in contemporary broadcasts. Seemingly every inning, we hear about great games from earlier eras or learn how X is the first player to do Y in the World Series since 1950-something.

If there’s any problem in this connection with the past, it’s that so much of the discourse focuses on the games from the so-called Golden Era at the expense of more recent history. To an extent, that’s a function of time; however great the 2016 World Series may have been, it’s difficult to place those games into historical perspective. Sometimes, memories must marinate.

But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Below, I recounted each of the World Series’ from the 21st century, and attempted to rank them from least to most compelling. It’s a subjective list — could it be anything else? — but however you order it, it’s clear that we’ve had our share of great matchups lately. More than anything though, at the dawn of the 2019 World Series, it’s worthwhile to take a look back at the previous 19 matchups. After all, we had a lot of fun back then. It’d be a shame if we forgot the details.

19. 2007: Red Sox over Rockies in Four

Entering the series, Colorado was the best story in sports. With a record of 77-72, the Rockies were 6 1/2 games out of first with barely two weeks to play in the regular season. From there, they took 12 of 13 down the stretch, won a one-game playoff, and swept consecutive series to reach their first championship.

Reality struck immediately. Dustin Pedroia led off the bottom half of Game 1 with a homer over the Green Monster and the Sawx boat-raced their guests 13-1. Games 2 and 4 were one-run contests, but this was ultimately a matchup between the best team in the American League and a .500ish squad no longer riding a historical hot streak, and it felt like it.

Series Minutiae: Bobby Kielty only hit one homer during the regular season and had just one at-bat in the series, but it was a big one: His solo shot in Game 4 proved to be both the winning run in the game and the last at-bat in his big league career.

18. 2012: Giants over Tigers in Four

The best club from San Francisco’s dynasty dispatched the Tigers in a mostly forgettable sweep. Pablo Sandoval homered three times in the first game of the series, the first two of which came off of Justin Verlander. Verlander, who had been brilliant all year long and a force in the playoffs, barely played a part, throwing just four innings in Game 1. Game 4 went to extra innings, and NLCS MVP Marco Scutaro singled home Ryan Theriot with the winning run. Games 2-4 were all close, but Detroit was held to just six runs all series.

Series Minutiae: Delmon Young led the Tigers in OPS; Prince Fielder went a measly 1-14.

17. 2004: Red Sox over Cardinals in Four

Blasphemous to have such a historically significant series this far down the list? Not in my book. St. Louis scored nine times in an 11-9 Game 1 slugfest and then only three more the rest of the way. Derek Lowe, Curt Schilling, and Pedro Martinez allowed 10 hits and a single unearned run in their 20 innings of work. Keith Foulke continued his stellar postseason, appearing in all four games, throwing five innings of one-run ball, and fielding a groundball of modest historical import in the finale.

Series Minutiae: Tim Wakefield started Game 1, becoming the first knuckleballer to start a series contest since Bob Purkey in 1961. For what it’s worth, Purkey would have liked me to mention that he threw other pitches as well.

16. 2018: Red Sox over Dodgers in Five

I’m just here to pick on the Red Sox (ducks). The games were mostly close and Craig Kimbrel was shaky enough to make any late Boston lead a dramatic proposition. Unfortunately though, the defining image from this series is an eternally deadlocked Game 3 stretching into its eighth hour. There was good defense and heroic pitching performances, but you never want game length and pace of play to take up so much oxygen in the championship series.

Series Minutiae: The aforementioned Game Three ended at 3:30 in the morning Boston time.

15. 2008: Phillies over Rays in Five

We’ve reached that stretch in the mid-aughts where the Fall Classics weren’t very, well, classic. At least Harry Kalas got to call it.

Philadelphia triumphed in five for their first title in 28 years. Carlos Ruiz had the rare walk-off infield single to win Game 3, which shifted the momentum of the series firmly in Philly’s favor. The Phils won a blowout the following night and took Game 5 later that month — you may remember that that game was played over a total of three days after a deluge forced an extended rain delay in the sixth inning. Brad Lidge extended his perfect string of save opportunities to 48 with two more in the World Series.

Series Minutiae: Jamie Moyer became the oldest pitcher to appear in an NLCS game when he started Game 3 against Los Angeles. He wasn’t the oldest to pitch in a World Series game though: that mantle still belongs to another Philadelphian, Jack Quinn, who did so in 1930.

14. 2006: Cardinals over Tigers in Five

A sloppy matchup between the 83-win Cardinals and an upstart Tigers team no one saw coming. This one had a few weird storylines: Anthony Reyes, who wasn’t particularly good in his rookie campaign, was given a surprise start in Game 1, and responded with eight innings of two-run ball. Kenny Rogers and his pine tar hand followed, but the enduring theme of the series was defensive fragility from Detroit. The Tigers made eight errors and more or less literally threw their title chances away. This was also the series where David Eckstein won MVP honors — he hit .364 and won Game 4 with an eighth-inning double — and Adam Wainwright locked down the final two games on the mound.

Series Minutiae: Detroit’s eight errors were very concentrated: Five were made by pitchers (one in each game) and three by Brandon Inge.

13. 2010: Giants over Rangers in Five

Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum met to kick off one of the most hotly anticipated Game 1 pitching matchups in recent memory. Naturally, neither escaped the sixth, and they surrendered 11 runs between them. Lee got hit harder though, and the Giants took the first one en route to a comfortable 4-1 series win. Madison Bumgarner spun the first gem of his World Series career, and Lincecum locked down the tilt with eight runs of one-run ball in the final. Edgar Renteria, a small part of the club’s regular season’s success, hit .412 and belted the decisive homer in Game 5 to earn MVP honors.

Series Minutiae: Pablo Sandoval, the hero of the 2012 World Series and an instrumental figure in the 2014 team as well, played just one game in this matchup – benched in favor of Renteria and Juan Uribe.

12. 2015: Royals over Mets in Five

Kansas City’s band of contact hitters put the bat on the ball just enough to get past New York’s murderous rotation. Much like in the 2000 World Series (see No. 10) a bullpen meltdown in Game 1 helped spark a questionable decision to send a tiring starter to the mound in the ninth inning of Game 5. In this case, Matt Harvey lost his shutout and the Royals then scored five times in the 12th to bring the title home. Eric Hosmer’s daring dash to the plate tied the score in the ninth and will likely go down as the decade’s best play on the bases.

Series Minutiae: Salvador Perez earned his MVP award, hitting .364/.391/.455 with good defense as he played all but one half-inning of the series. That one-half inning? The final one; Drew Butera caught Wade Davis’s final pitch of KC’s first championship in 30 years.

11. 2005: White Sox over Astros in Four

This is probably the most entertaining sweep in World Series history. Game 2 in particular was a rollercoaster: Paul Konerko gave the Sox a two-run lead with a seventh inning grand slam, only to see Jose Vizcaino’s single knot it up with two outs in the ninth, which in turn set up punchless Scott Podsednik’s walk-off blast in the home half. Game 3 went 14 innings, a dramatic tilt that ended with Mark Buehrle’s first (and only) career save. The finale was another one-run game that ended on a bang-bang play at first; I still expect Orlando Palmeiro to be safe every time I watch the replay.

Series Minutiae: Everyone remembers that Podsednik didn’t homer at all in the regular season, but many forget that his walk-off in Game 2 was actually his second of the postseason; he also homered in Game 1 of the ALDS.

10. 2000: Yankees over Mets in Five

A sneaky-good five game Subway Series here, and not just because of the Piazza-Clemens fireworks. Each game was decided by two runs or fewer and Game 1 was an all-time classic: The Yanks gave Armando Benitez another Bronx nightmare, tying the score off of him in the ninth before Jose Vizcaino’s single won it in the 12th. A two-out ninth inning rally off a tiring Al Leiter — allowed to throw 142 pitches — gave the Yankees the lead for good in Game 5. Mike Piazza’s game-ending fly stayed in the air for what felt like a minute; it just didn’t sail far enough.

Series Minutiae: At 87-74, the 2000 Yankees had the fewest wins among any of their championship squads.

9. 2009: Yankees over Phillies in Six

Johnny Damon’s baserunning in the ninth of Game 4 remains one of the most daring escapades seen on a ball field in recent memory. Stealing second in a high-leverage situation is risky enough: To have the presence of mind to leap off the bag and take third on a shifted infield when the ball was right there? Inspiring. It may have mattered too: With the go-ahead run standing just 90 feet from the plate in a tied game, Brad Lidge could no longer afford to spike a slider. Instead, he drilled Mark Teixeira and then Alex Rodriguez lined a double, which effectively gave the Yanks the game and the series.

This was also the series where Cliff Lee became CLIFF LEE. His two wins cemented his status as an October weapon and made him one of the game’s dominant storylines over the next two seasons.

Series Minutiae: This isn’t minutiae so much as an excuse to reminisce about Lee’s almost indifferent popup catch in Game 1:

8. 2013: Red Sox over Cardinals in Six

Between Game 3’s controversial ending on an obstruction call, Jonny Gomes’s go-ahead homer late in Game 4, Kolten Wong getting picked off with the tying run at the plate later that night, and four close games in a row, everything was set up for an all-time classic. It just lacked the big finish. The Red Sox rolled up six early runs on the previously unassailable Michael Wacha, and John Lackey pitched around small patches of trouble in an anticlimactic Game 6.

Series Minutiae: Xander Bogaerts hit a triple in Game 3, which made him the youngest player to hit a three-bagger in World Series play.

7. 2003: Marlins over Yankees in Six

With a 3-2 series lead and ace Josh Beckett on schedule to throw Game 7, manager Jack McKeon opted to play a hunch and instead started Beckett in Game 6. There wasn’t much science behind the decision: McKeon simply played to win the game at hand and wanted his best pitcher on the hill. “”He’s just got that mystique that the great pitchers have,” he said by way of explanation. Teams (mostly) don’t do things like that these days, but the plan worked. Beckett tossed a shutout, etching his name into World Series lore and giving the Marlins — 10 games under .500 in mid-May — the most shocking title of the century.

Series Minutiae: This was the most recent series in which the losing team outscored the winners, which the Yankees did 21-17.

6. 2014: Giants over Royals in Seven

The inverse of the 2005 series: Seven games, but not a whole lot of good ones. In a battle of two Wild Card teams that nobody saw coming, the Royals and the Giants slogged through several lopsided games in what appeared like a march to a forgettable Fall Classic… until Game 7.

In the finale, the Giants jumped out to a 3-2 lead as each side’s starter collapsed. From there it was a battle between Ned Yost’s elite bullpen and Madison Bumgarner’s unyielding dominance. Bumgarner’s five shutout innings — just three days after he’d thrown nine shutout frames — made for an all-time World Series moment, but we’ll always wonder how different things would have been had Alex Gordon sprinted out of the box on his live drive to center with two outs in the ninth.

Series Minutiae: This remains the only non-shortened season with a World Series matchup between two teams with fewer than 90 regular season wins.

5. 2002: Angels over Giants in Seven

Only this low because of the Rally Monkey. The series featured a ton of runs, including six from the Angels with their backs to the wall down 5-0 in the seventh of Game 6. Dusty Baker tempted fate by giving starter Russ Ortiz the game ball on his way off the mound, almost single-handedly spawning a generation of superstitious sports fans across California. Rookie John Lackey spun five tidy innings in Game 7 and a third-inning bases-clearing double from Garrett Anderson put the Angels ahead for good.

Series minutiae: Bobby Richardson remains the only player from a losing team to win World Series MVP honors, but he should have been joined here by Barry Bonds. In his only series, Bonds hit .471/.700/1.294, with 13 walks and four homers, including one off Troy Percival that still may not have landed yet.

4. 2017: Astros over Dodgers in Seven

Everyone loves an underdog, but there’s something to be said for a series where the league’s two best teams duke it out for seven games. For a minute, it looked like this would be Clayton Kershaw’s finest postseason hour. He tossed seven innings and struck out 11 in a Game 1 win, and was working with a 4-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth in Game 5. From there, chaos. The Astros and Dodgers traded runs and leads in a seven-dinger, 25-run fireworks show that culminated in Alex Bregman’s dramatic walk-off single. Houston split the remaining games in Los Angeles to take the title, and while Charlie Morton’s four-inning save in Game 7 wasn’t quite Bumgarner-esque, it made for a nice moment on its own merits.

Series Minutiae: Game 7 starters Lance McCullers and Yu Darvish threw just four combined innings — the fewest total for any starters in a Game 7 in baseball history.

3. 2011: Cardinals over Rangers in Seven

Throughout baseball history, Game 6 has featured some of the sport’s most iconic moments. Such was the case in 2011, where the Cardinals late rally and walk-off homer deserves every bit as much historical recognition as Game 6s from 1975, 1986, and 1991. Down two runs and facing elimination in the ninth, the Cards rallied. Albert Pujols, in what could have been his final at-bat in St. Louis, doubled, and after a walk and a strikeout, hometown hero David Freese tripled just over Nelson Cruz’s glove in right to tie the game. After Josh Hamilton hit a two-run homer in the 10th, the Cardinals staged another rally, with Lance Berkman again tying the game after being down to his final strike. Freese walked it off in the 11th, where Joe Buck echoed his father’s famous “We will see you tomorrow night” call in what might be his finest moment as a broadcaster. The rest of the series was good too, but Game 6 might be the game of the decade.

Series Minutiae: Mark Lowe, who gave up Freese’s homer, didn’t have much World Series success. In four games across 2010 and 2011, he recorded four outs and allowed seven runs, good for a rarely-seen-in-the-wild 37.80 ERA.

2. 2016: Cubs over Indians in Seven

A storybook series, one impossible to do justice in a single paragraph. Four things from Game 7 will haunt Cleveland fans forever. The first is Corey Kluber, who had been impossibly good but ridden very hard all postseason, departing after four innings having allowed four runs and not recorded a strikeout; what could have been had he had his good stuff one more time. The second is Andrew Miller, who allowed two runs in relief; like Kluber, he ran out of gas at the worst possible time. The third is that Cleveland couldn’t in turn capitalize on a tiredAroldis Chapman’s diminishing stuff: By his own admission, Chapman had nothing in the tank, but he retired the heart of Cleveland’s order 1-2-3 in the ninth. The fourth is that Michael Martinez, the feeblest hitter on the team, was forced to bat with two outs and a man on in the 10th. An incredible game, even without considering the historical context.

Series minutiae: With two hard-luck franchises in relative proximity battling for a title in a winner-take-all game, tickets were always going to be pricey. How expensive? Try $39,000 for a pair.

1. 2001: Diamondbacks over Yankees

The ‘04 Red Sox and ‘16 Cubs drew slightly more eyeballs on television, but in the wake of 9/11, it’s hard to imagine we’ll see a more culturally resonant World Series for some time. And what a series it was: Randy Johnson’s shutout. Roger Clemens and Mariano Rivera striking out 13 D-backs in the first series game in New York since the tragedy. Tino Martinez’s ninth-inning homer off of Byung-Hyun Kim; Derek Jeter’s Mr. November dinger an inning later. Scott Brosius’ ninth-inning shot the following night. Alfonso Soriano’s walk-off single. The D-backs launching double after double off Andy Pettitte in Game Six. Schilling vs. Clemens. Soriano’s 8th inning homer. Randy Johnson out of the bullpen. Mariano Rivera vs. Luis Gonzalez. Just a special series, perhaps the very best of all time.

Series Minutiae: Johnson is the only pitcher this century — the only since Mickey Lolich in 1968, even — to win three games in one World Series.

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motown oden
4 years ago

“Down two runs and facing elimination in the ninth, the Cards rallied. Albert Pujols, in what could have been his final at-bat in St. Louis, doubled, and after a walk and a strikeout, hometown hero David Freese tripled just over Nelson Cruz’s glove in right to tie the game”

What has always seemed to get lost is that the Rangers took Endy Chavez, a far superior defender, OUT of the game (he had pinch hit in the top half, making last out) and left in Cruz. That move cost the Rangers the WS. Just as bad as leaving in Buckner, if you ask me.

4 years ago
Reply to  motown oden

Then again, Cruz himself may have made the catch had he not been playing too far in, in anticipation of rushing in for a celebration that would never happen.

Antonio Bananas
4 years ago
Reply to  motown oden

as someone who grew up in missouri around the insufferable “best fans in baseball”, this is one of my worst memories in life.