On the Road Again? No Better Place to Be for Game 7

As I’m sure you heard last night, this 2019 World Series was the first best-of-seven postseason series in the history of major North American sports where the road team won all seven games. Pretty remarkable. What’s also remarkable is how well road teams have fared in winner-take-all Game 7’s over the past decade. Not all that long ago you could bet your house on the home team in Game 7. Not any more.

When the Pittsburgh Penguins won Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final they were the first team in any of the North American major men’s sports leagues to win a Game 7 of a championship round on the road since, fittingly, the Pittsburgh Pirates won Game 7 of the World Series on the road in 1979. For nearly 30 years, no road team won a championship round Game 7 on the road.

For the Penguins, they were the first NHL team to win a Stanley Cup Final Game 7 on the road since 1971. During the 38 years in between, road teams were 0-6 in Stanley Cup Final Game 7’s. Since 2009, road teams are 3-0 in Stanley Cup Final Game 7’s.

The San Francisco Giants got Major League Baseball road teams off the Game 7 schneid in 2014, when they defeated the Kansas City Royals in Game 7 of the World Series in Kansas City. In between the 1979 Pirates and 2014 Giants, road teams were 0-9 in World Series Game 7’s. Since 2014, road teams are 4-0 in Game 7 of the World Series.

More recently, the Cleveland Cavaliers got NBA teams of the Game 7 scheid when they defeated the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. The last NBA team to win Game 7 of the Finals on the road had been the Washington Bullets in 1978. In the 38 years between, road teams went 0-6 in Game 7’s. The 2016 NBA Finals was the last NBA Finals to go seven games.

Across all three leagues (because the NFL, obviously, does not play series), no road team won a Game 7 in the 1980s (0-for-7) or the 1990s (0-for-4). Road teams were nearly blanked in the 2000s (1-for-8), too, until the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins won the Cup in Detroit. That means road teams lost a mind boggling 18-straight winner-take-all Game 7’s. They’re 7-3 this decade, and have won the most recent Game 7’s in all three leagues. That includes the last NBA Finals Game 7, the last three Stanley Cup Final Game 7’s and the last four World Series Game 7’s.

After losing 18-straight Game 7’s from 1982-2006, road teams in all three leagues are 8-3 in championship round Game 7’s since.  So what changed? Some ideas:

  • Air travel is much easier today than it was in 1984 when the Lakers had to fly to Boston for a Game 7 in the (presumably 94°) Boston Garden (the NBA still followed a 2-2-1-1-1 format at that time). The Cleveland Cavaliers probably had a bit of an easier time flying to the Bay Area in 2016 when they defeated the Warriors on the road in Game 7.
  • With more players changing teams more frequently, there may be less of a home-field advantage.Justin Verlander didn’t pitch in Game 7 on the road in in 2017, but hear me out. He got traded from Detroit to Houston on August 31st that year. If he had pitched in Game 7 of the World Series in LA, would it have been much different for him than if he had pitched in a Game 7 in Houston? He was traded there less than two months earlier. I know that athletes don’t live like us, but his pad in Houston in October 2017 was probably more like Ryan Bingham’s condo than he would care to admit. He probably wasn’t rolling out of bed in a mansion in Houston at that time before he rolled up to the ballpark.

    Derek Jeter, on the other hand, had quite the home field advantage. In 80 career playoff games at home he hit .332 in with 12 home runs and 29 RBI in 322 at bats. In 78 road playoff games, he hit .284 with just 8 home runs and 27 RBI in 328 at bats. Playing for one team for 20 years gets you a really nice routine, I suppose.

  • It seems as if home teams have been awfully tight at home in Game 7’s recently. The Bruins at home against the Blues just four months ago seems like a pretty good example of that. I don’t know how/why the psychology of playing at home would change over the last decade, but maybe fans tweeting on their phones all game and taking selfies has changed the energy levels in these venues? That would certainly seem to hurt the home teams more than the road teams.
  • A combination of point #1 and #3. With air travel being easier (and cheaper) than ever, maybe more fans are following their teams on the road for Game 7? I bet the Boston Garden was 98% Celtics fans in 1984’s Game 7. What percentage of Minute Maid Park last night was Nationals fans? I’m not sure, but I bet it was substantially more than 2%. That could certainly change the vibe of a building, too.

Whatever the reason, one thing is certain. Boy am I glad I don’t bet on baseball.

 

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