MLB teams overcome a 3-1 deficit more often than you probably realize

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Editor's note: This story has been updated since its original publication.

It's a familiar, understandable story: A team goes up 3-1 in a best-of-seven postseason series and nearly everyone declares the series over. It makes perfect sense: With only one more win between that team and a championship — and with three chances to win that one game — it definitely seems like a safe bet.

Yet, as baseball often reminds us, there really aren't any safe bets. 

Since 1979, MLB teams have overcome a 3-1 postseason deficit 10 times. One of those teams even did it twice in the same postseason. Some teams just find another gear when facing elimination, while others take advantage of mistakes, collapses or their opponents' bad luck. Sometimes it's a mix of everything. The point being, until that fourth win is secured, there's always hope. And sometimes all it takes is one play.

Here's a look back at the most recent teams to turn a series around when it seemed most bleak.

MORE: 14 postseason oddities you might not know about

1979 Pirates

The "We Are Fam-a-lee" Pirates sure didn't look like a championship team after four games of their World Series against the Orioles. Their pitching let them down big time and their offense had trouble getting big hits. But everything changed in Game 5, so much so that people in Pittsburgh still talk about it. The Pirates for a strong pitching performance from Jim Rooker, an unlikely source at the time, and rode that high to wins in Games 6 and 7 back in Baltimore — holding the Orioles to two total runs over the final three games.

1985 Royals (twice)

The League Championship Series went to a best-of-seven format in 1985, and the Royals immediately showed why that was probably a good idea. After falling behind 3-1 in that series to the Blue Jays, Kansas City outplayed Toronto decisively over the final three games to win the pennant. Then, after getting into a 3-1 deficit to the Cardinals in the World Series, the Royals again stormed back to win three straight behind excellent pitching (KC held St. Louis to just two runs over the final three games), timely hitting and, yes, some help from umpire Don Denkinger. In all, they outscored the Cardinals 19-2 in Games 5-7.

1986 Red Sox

Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS was, as ABC broadcaster Al Michaels said in the moment, "one for the ages." The Angels led the series 3-1 against the Red Sox, took a 5-2 lead into the ninth inning, held a 5-4 lead with two outs and were one strike away from going to the World Series. But then baseball happened. Well, baseball and Dave Henderson. Henderson hit Donnie Moore's third 2-2 pitch into the left field seats for a two-run homer that gave the Sox a 6-5 lead. If that didn't kill the Angels' momentum, it certainly died after they tied the game in the bottomn of the ninth but stranded the pennant-winning run at third after having him there with just one out. The Sox then went ahead for good in the 11th inning to send the series back to Boston, where they won Games 6 and 7 easily.

MORE: 14 players who own unfortunate postseason records

1996 Braves

The Cardinals seemed in total control against the World Series champion Braves through the first four games of the 1996 NLCS. After losing Game 1 in Atlanta, they beat Greg Maddux in Game 2, squeezed out a win against Tom Glavine in Game 3, then won 4-3 against the Braves' bullpen in Game 4 to go up 3-1 with a chance to win the pennant in front of the home crowd in Game 5. The Braves weren't having it. Their offense exploded early in Game 5 on the way a 14-0 win to send the series back to Atlanta. Maddux was more Maddux-like in Game 6 as the Braves won 3-1. Then the offense exploded again in Game 7, scoring 15 runs and sending the Braves back to the World Series.

2003 Marlins

Don't read this part, Cubs fans.

(Giving you time to scroll down quickly ...)

Still here? OK, but I don't mean to hurt you. I'll make it quick.

The Cubs took a 3-1 lead into Game 5, but were shut out on the road in Miami. They were up 3-0 in the eighth inning at home in Game 6, five outs from the World Series. But (I really hate to do this), there was a double, a foul ball that wasn't caught, lots of other bad stuff, and the Marlins eventually scored eight runs to win. Game 7 didn't work out either. 

2004 Red Sox

I don't really need to explain this one, do I?

Well, for the sake of the youngsters out there, I'll sum it up quickly: The Red Sox became the first team in MLB history to overcome a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. And they did it against their arch rivals. In many ways, this win was bigger than when they won the World Series a week later, ending an 86-year championship drought. It also produced this all-time great headline.

2007 Red Sox

Three years after their miraculous comeback against the Yankees, the Sox pulled off a similar feat against the Indians. Oddly, this series, despite going the distance, was only mildly competitive. Said another way, it was a series of mostly convincing wins on both sides. Consider: The Sox won Game 1 at home by a 10-2 score. Then Cleveland won the next three with scores of 13-6, 4-2 and 7-3. Then Boston won the final three 7-1, 12-2, 11-2. Baseball is weird. 


2012 Giants

The Giants defied the odds twice in 2012. First, they overcame an 0-2 deficit in their best-of-five NLDS against the Reds, then they rallied again in the NLCS against the Cardinals. In that series, their early losses were thanks to mediocre pitching and a failure to hit with runners in scoring position (they were 4 for 18 in the three losses). But the last three games were defined by great pitching, as starters Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain, along with help from the San Francisco bullpen, held the Cardinals to one run over those final 27 innings. The offense also found its grove, scoring 20 runs across Games 5-7 to win the pennant.

2016 Cubs

The winner of the 2016 World Series was going to break a long drought. The Cubs hadn't won in 108 years and the Indians hadn't won in 68. So, no matter what, the losing team's fan base was going to talk about curses and an unchangeable, sad destiny. Indians fans were quite happy when the team pulled out to a 3-1 series lead as the Cubs just seemed out of sorts. But the roles soon reversed. The Cubs got hot and the Indians couldn't recover, despite a thrilling Game 7 that took 11 innings before the Cubs finally — after more than a century — were the last team standing.

2020 Dodgers

The Dodgers were heavy favorites heading into their NLCS matchup with the NL East champion Braves, but after falling down 3-1 in the series it looked as though it would be another postseason disappointment for Los Angeles. But the Dodgers powered their way back into the series with a come-from-behind win in Game 5, a Game 6 win that included a fruitful Will Smith vs. Will Smith matchup, and another comeback win in Game 7 that was fueled by timely homers from Kiké Hernández and Cody Bellinger. Not to mention that series MVP Corey Seager had a historic offensive performance, right fielder Mookie Betts made some sensation plays to deny the Braves, and Atlanta had a few mental lapses that proved costly. 

The lesson, as always in baseball, is never give up hope. No matter how bad things look, a rally could be imminent.

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