When a team goes down 3-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series in MLB, the presumption is that their season will soon end. That’s an informed presumption, as only one team — the 2004 Red Sox in the ALCS against the Yankees — has ever surmounted such a deficit. 

That brings us to the 2020 Astros and their efforts to overtake the Rays in the ALCS. The Rays leaned on sparkling defense, timely hitting, and perhaps a bit of good fortune to barge to a 3-0 lead over Houston. The Astros, though, eked out one-run wins in Game 4 and 5, and now we’re left pondering whether they’ll become the second team in MLB history to forge such a miracle. 

As Game 6 — yet another elimination tilt for Houston — looms, let’s put what the Astros are trying to accomplish and have already accomplished in perspective. Here are three things to think about as Dusty Baker’s squadron tries to survive for yet another day and force a Game 7. 

1. We might be overdue for a 3-0 comeback

In all, 38 best-of-seven postseason series in MLB have started out 3-0 — from the 1907 World Series between the Cubs and Tigers to the current series of note between Tampa Bay and Houston. Only one of those series, as noted above, ended with a comeback by the team down 3-0. Stated another way, teams have come back from down 0-3 to win the series in question just 2.6 percent of the time. 

If you assume two teams that meet in the postseason are equally matched — not an unreasonable assumption — and use the coin-flip method to determine the likelihood of a team ripping off four straight wins. That should happen 6.25 percent of the time. However, maybe we should whittle down our assumptions just a bit. The team up 3-0 in a postseason series probably tends to be the better team by most standards of measurement. As well, there may be a compounding psychological “penalty” that comes from being down 3-0 and facing such long odds that makes it more difficult to come back. 

Speaking of which, the team with the better record in the regular season wins in a postseason series a bit more than 54 percent of the time. Since there’s not much of a home field advantage in the 2020 playoffs, let’s round that down to 54 percent. So if we accordingly give the Astros a 46 percent chance of winning each game, that gives them a 4.5 percent chance of winning four straight. While the odds are still long, 4.5 percent is significantly higher than 2.6 percent. That’s another way of saying that we probably should’ve seen more than on 0-3 comeback in 38 attempts at it. That’s especially the case in a sport like baseball, in which there’s so much built-in compression and randomness. To be sure, this a minor factor, but maybe Houston’s odds were never quite as long as they seemed. 

2. The Astros are already in rare company

Here’s how teams going down 0-3 have fared the rest of the way in those series: 

  • 30 of 38, or 78.9 percent, got swept. 
  • Another five teams lost 4-1. 
  • Just three teams — the 1998 Braves in the NLCS, the 1999 Mets in the NLCS, and 2004 Red Sox in the ALCS — lasted at least six games.
  • Only the 2004 Red Sox forced a seventh game, which they of course won. 

The 2020 Astros become the fourth team out of now 39 to force a Game 6. Among teams to go down 0-3, they’re already walking among the (admittedly lesser) gods. 

3. The Astros are no longer down 3-0

At risk of sounding obvious and pedantic, let’s note that the Astros are no longer tasked with coming back from 0-3 in the most immediate of senses. After Game 3, they needed to win four straight over the AL’s best team during the regular season. At this writing, however, they now need to win two straight games over the AL’s best team, which they’ve already done. This is not quite “gambler’s fallacy” territory, in which prior results have no bearing on future results, but there’s a certain truth to this way of thinking about things. That certain truth can be found in the numbers: Teams down 3-2 in a best-of-seven series have gone on to win that series 30.5 percent of the time. Yes, the Astros are still probably going to lose the ALCS to the Rays, but 30.5 percent amounts to vastly better chances than what they had after Game 3 and 4. 

So will the Astros pull it off? Probably not, but that “probably” is much less emphatic than it was a mere 48 hours ago. 

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