The greatest walk-off rally you never heard of

Baseball-Reference recently added a phenomenal feature to its site which allows you to look at the greatest comebacks in the timespan for which they have play-by-play data.

It is there that I learned of the baseball game between the Senators and Red Sox on June 18, 1961.

This was the first game of a doubleheader. The Senators had lost their last two games, but were a respectable 30-32. The Red Sox were 30-30. Neither would challenge the amazing 1961 Yankees for AL supremacy, but these were respectable squads at the time.

This game turned interesting in the fourth inning, when the Senators scored their first run and the Red Sox scored their first two. In the fifth inning, a two-run home run by first baseman Dale Long (who once homered in eight consecutive games) put the Senators ahead 5-2.

After six innings and more scoring by players you probably don’t know (Pete Daley and Don Buddin homered), the score was 7-5 in favor of the Senators.

In the ninth inning, the Senators got the insurance runs that most teams need. Centerfielder Willie Tasby hit a grand slam, one of a career-high 17 home runs he’d hit that season. Tasby had been on the Red Sox the previous season, so that home run must have felt pretty good. Heading to the bottom of the ninth, the Senators led the Red Sox, 12-5.

Pitcher Carl Mathias needed three outs for a complete game in what was his first start of the season. He got the first, coaxing a ground out from Vic Wertz. Buddin singled, but Billy Harrell struck out. At that point, trailing 12-5 with a man on first base and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the Red Sox win probability was .02 percent. Not 2 percent, but .02 percent.

The third out proved to be one of the most elusive in baseball history. Chuck Schilling (not Curt) singled. Carroll Hardy singled, scoring Buddin. Gary Geiger walked.

Mathias was removed in favor of Dave Sisler (son of George) with the score 12-6. But Sisler may not have been ready to enter. We say that because he walked the first two batters, forcing in two runs. Although a closer look shows that Sisler walked 7 batters per 9 innings, so that wasn’t that surprising a result.

Now, the score had gone from 12-5 to 12-8 and the Red Sox had the bases loaded and the tying run at the plate with two outs. Catcher Jim Pagliaroni would face Sisler with the game on the line.

Thanks to the wonderful SABR-written bio of Pagliaroni, I can tell you that two years later, Pagliaroni would get some coaching from Dave Sisler’s father, a Hall of Famer. I can also tell you that Pagliaroni sounds like a pretty good guy. He worked closely with the MLBPA as a player rep, raised money for the Baseball Assistance Team and MLBPA Alumni Association, as well as the ALS Association, where his connection was being the catcher for Catfish Hunter’s perfect game. He was also a partner in a renewable energy project development company.

It’s often said that good things happen to good people. That day, they happened for Pagliaroni in a big way. As you might guess, he hit a grand slam to tie the game, 12-12.

Wertz, up for the second time in the inning walked, leading to Sisler being pulled in favor of Marty Kutnya. That didn’t help. Buddin singled, advancing Wertz to second base, where he was replaced by pinch-runner Pete Runnels. Russ Nixon pinch-hit for Harrell, which made sense given that Harrell was hitting .176. Sure enough, Nixon singled in Runnels with the winning run. Final score: Red Sox 13, Senators 12.

As if that wasn’t enough, Game 2 of the doubleheader went 13. There were no furious Red Sox comebacks in this one, just a walk-off home run by Pagliaroni(!) in the bottom of the 13th.

The Red Sox finished the season a rather unmemorable 76-86, so this game is just a footnote in another of the many seasons of frustration from 1919 to 2003.

The poor Senators took awhile to win another game. They ended up losing 10 straight. The Washington team that went 30-30 in its first 60 games went 31-70 in its last 101. Ouch.

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