Few managers in baseball history boast a resume as long and illustrious as Dusty Baker. Over his 23 seasons as a big-league skipper, Baker has racked up more regular-seasons wins (1,892) than all but 14 others, and he recently became the first manager ever to shepherd five different clubs into the postseason.
Yet, despite all the accolades - he's all but guaranteed to be feted in Cooperstown one day - Baker's managerial career still feels like one defined more by failure than success. Famously, Baker has yet to lead a team to a World Series title in nearly a quarter-century of managing in the big leagues, and it has felt in recent years like the postseason only begins in earnest once Baker's team is ousted in excruciating fashion. Long before agreeing this past winter to helm the disgraced Houston Astros following a two-year hiatus, Baker had endured more October heartbreak than any one man should.
And the Astros, bless their hearts, have kept Baker's tradition of agonizing autumns alive in 2020.
After sweeping the Minnesota Twins in the best-of-three wild-card round and pummelling the Oakland Athletics in the best-of-five, the Astros are on the verge of being swept by the Tampa Bay Rays in the best-of-seven league championship series thanks in part to a stunning defensive breakdown from All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve. Plagued, evidently, by a case of the yips - a sudden and inexplicable inability to throw the baseball - Altuve committed three grievous errors over the course of Games 2 and 3, with two of those gaffes leading to multi-run innings for Tampa Bay that dramatically changed the complexion of each game and ultimately factored heavily into Houston's current 3-0 series hole.
Yes, the Astros mustered little offense in three games against Tampa Bay, putting up a total of five runs against that vaunted staff, but Altuve's disastrous defensive work nevertheless played a pivotal role in setting the stage for yet another regrettable ending for Baker.
Determining where Altuve's meltdown ranks on the list of October calamities that Baker has presided over isn't easy considering the sheer volume and the fact that Houston could technically come back and win the pennant. That's highly improbable, though, so we gave it a shot, ranking them - in this non-exhaustive list - from least to most hellish.
Johnny Cueto was at the top of his game in 2013. The year prior, he finished fourth in National League Cy Young voting. The year after, Cueto came in second, behind only Clayton Kershaw. And had he not missed nearly two-thirds of the 2013 campaign due to a variety of injuries, he likely would've cracked the top five in three consecutive seasons: Between his numerous stints on the injured list that year, Cueto authored a 2.82 ERA with a 1.06 WHIP over 11 starts. He was particularly dominant against the Pittsburgh Pirates, too, limiting them to one run - and a microscopic .079 batting average - in 12 1/3 innings against them. Naturally, Baker, then in his sixth and final season at the helm in Cincinnati, started Cueto for his club's do-or-die wild-card game at PNC Park. And, sure enough, he faltered. Cueto, who was visibly rattled by the pumped-up, highly partisan crowd, didn't make it out of the fourth, serving up four runs on eight hits - including a pair of second-inning solo shots from Marlon Byrd and Russell Martin - and one walk in an eventual 6-2 loss. It was just the second time all year that Cueto allowed more than three runs in an outing.
In 2012, the Reds enjoyed their finest season since the halcyon days of the Big Red Machine, capturing a division title with the second-most wins in the National League (97). Their best-of-five division series against the San Francisco Giants got off to an auspicious start, too, with the Reds winning consecutive games at AT&T Park. Upon returning to Cincinnati, however, the Reds imploded. In Game 3, their offense shriveled up, mustering only one run against Ryan Vogelsong and a parade of relievers in a 2-1, extra-innings loss. In Game 4, the Reds got blown out, losing 8-3 despite chasing Giants starter Barry Zito in the third inning. Then, in the decisive Game 5, Baker afforded Mat Latos far too long a leash, leaving the right-hander in to serve up a fifth-inning grand slam to Buster Posey even after five of the previous six batters had reached base and pushed Latos' pitch count above 90. The Reds lost 6-4. The Giants went on to win the World Series.
Jose Altuve, who won a Gold Glove earlier in his career, didn't commit a single throwing error during the truncated 2020 regular season. He graded out as plus by Statcast's outs above average, too. Clearly, though, even supreme defenders aren't immune to the yips. In Game 2 on Monday, after the Astros dropped the series opener, a shifted Altuve bounced the throw to first on a routine grounder from Ji-Man Choi with two outs in the bottom of the first - the first symptom of his new condition - to extend the inning and put runners at first and second. The next batter, Manny Margot, clobbered a three-run shot to left field that increased Tampa Bay's win expectancy to 78.4%, per FanGraphs. Two innings later, Altuve committed a similar error on a grounder from Brandon Lowe. The Astros eventually lost.
Then, in Game 3, his affliction reared its head again. With the Astros clinging to a one-run lead in the sixth, Altuve skipped his throw to second on a potential double-play ball off Lowe's bat, putting runners at first and second with nobody out and ultimately keying a five-run outburst for the Rays, who won 5-2. As Game 4 looms, the Astros' chance of winning the series, according to FanGraphs, sits at 3.8%.
After staving off elimination against the Chicago Cubs in Game 4 of the NLDS, the Washington Nationals - division champs for the second time in as many years with Baker calling the shots - looked poised early in the decisive fifth game to exorcise their demons and win their first-ever playoff series. A four-run explosion off Kyle Hendricks in the bottom of the second gave them a bit of breathing room, and the Nationals still had the lead when Baker summoned Max Scherzer, who would soon win a second straight Cy Young award, from the bullpen for the top of the fifth. But, in his first relief appearance in four years - and working on two days' rest following his masterful Game 3 start - Scherzer wasn't sharp, nor was the Nationals' defense behind him: After Scherzer retired the first two batters of the inning, the Cubs grabbed the lead via three consecutive hits (which were followed by an intentional walk), plus a passed ball, catcher's interference, and a hit-by-pitch. The Nationals' comeback attempt proved futile; they lost 9-8, and Baker wasn't retained for the 2018 campaign.
Almost 20 years later, Steve Bartman still bears the burden of the Cubs' iconic collapse in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series, and it just ain't right. The Cubs were plenty culpable themselves for turning their 3-0 lead into an 8-3 deficit in that fateful eighth inning and ultimately extending their since-broken curse. It wasn't Bartman's fault that Baker, then in his inaugural season with Chicago, left Mark Prior in past the point of exhaustion, forcing the doomed right-hander to throw 119 pitches even though he was clearly toast - and the Marlins were rallying - long before that point. It wasn't Bartman's fault that shortstop Alex Gonzalez failed to turn a routine chopper from Miguel Cabrera into the second out of the inning, loading the bases for Derrek Lee. It wasn't Bartman's fault that Kyle Farnsworth, who belatedly came on in relief of Prior, served up a three-run double to Mike Mordecai, who posted a .601 OPS that year, to quash any chance of a Cubs comeback. And it certainly wasn't Bartman's fault that the Cubs lost Game 7.
The Bartman game is commonly invoked as the single most crushing night of Baker's career, but it wasn't nearly as devastating as the disaster that was Game 6 of the 2002 World Series. In his 10th year with the Giants, Baker had stewarded his club - propelled by Barry Bonds, then at the height of his powers - within one win of its first championship since 1954, when the franchise was still based out of New York. And, with a 3-2 series lead on the Angels as the series shifted back to Anaheim, the Giants looked primed to end it in Game 6, carrying a 5-0 lead into the bottom of the seventh. But they couldn't. Felix Rodriguez, whom Baker summoned from the bullpen to relieve starter Russ Ortiz with two on and one out, served up a three-run homer to Scott Spiezio, the first batter he faced, to cut the Angels' deficit to two. Then, in the eighth, the two pillars of the Giants' bullpen faltered: Setup man Tim Worrell allowed a homer to Darin Erstad to lead off the inning, then surrendered consecutive singles - putting the tying run in scoring position - before Baker called for his closer, Robb Nen. He couldn't lock it down, either, though, giving up a go-ahead double to the first batter he faced, eventual World Series MVP Troy Glaus. The Giants went down in order against Troy Percival in the top of the ninth. They went on to lose 4-1 in Game 7.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.