The Year in Sports: 2013's Most Epic Wins and Heartbreaking Losses

Bradley-Provodnikov, Manning-Brady, Nadal-Djokovic, an emotionally taxing Game Six, and more
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AP

The Atlantic's writers and editors pick the most memorable sports events of the year, from Wimbledon to the NBA Finals.


AP / Gene Puskar

Baseball
The Pittsburgh Pirates win their first postseason game since 1992
October 1

In 1992, the Pittsburgh Pirates won their third straight division title but lost to the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs. The next season, their first without superstar Barry Bonds, the Pirates finished with a 75-87 record. Nobody thought much of it. But the next year, 1994, the Pirates finished with a losing record again. And the next year. And the year after that.

For 20 consecutive seasons, a major-league record, the Pirates lost more games than they won. They changed owners. They changed general managers. They changed field managers, and went through hundreds of players. They even changed stadiums. It didn’t matter. Whatever the Pirates tried to do, it backfired—spectacularly.

But slowly, the Pirates began to turn their organization around, focusing on scouting and player development and investing in the amateur draft. In 2011 and 2012, the team began the season strongly but collapsed in the second half, finishing below .500 in each season. This year, it all came together for the Pirates: Buoyed by strong pitching and their dazzling center fielder Andrew McCutchen, later named the National League’s most valuable player, Pittsburgh finished 94-68 and bested the Cincinnati Reds 6-2 in a one-game playoff.

The Pirates’ dream season ended about a week later—they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Division Series. But with a team full of good, young players, they’ll be back. And this time, Pittsburgh fans won’t have to wait another 20 years. 


AP / Kirsty Wigglesworth

Men's tennis
Andy Murray defeats Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final
July 7

The most surprising thing about the 2013 Wimbledon final was the ease with which Andy Murray defeated Novak Djokovic.   

Prior to that match, Murray’s tennis career was, with the exception of one U.S. Open victory, characterized by a string of heartbreaking losses. Since making a surprise run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2008, Murray had played the role of Britain’s great tennis hope, the player who could finally return the Wimbledon championship trophy to its native land. But year after year, Murray faltered at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club. Critics labeled him a choker, a failure, a player with gobs of natural talent but without the mental wherewithal to win multiple Grand Slams.

Few would have been surprised, then, had Djokovic beaten Murray in 2013 and once again denied the Scot the title. Even the most optimistic British fans expected a hard-fought match.

It wasn’t to be. This would be the year when the Murray narrative shifted. The Scotsman walked onto Centre Court and calmly defeated Djokovic 6-4, 7-5, 6-4, becoming the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon. When Djokovic’s final shot hit the net, Murray didn’t fall to the ground, as is the unofficial custom for Grand Slam winners. He didn’t look surprised or overwhelmed. He threw off his cap and pumped his fists, looking very much like a tennis player comfortable in his own skin and ready to move on with his career.  


AP / Sue Ogrocki

Women's basketball
Louisville stuns Baylor in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament​
March 31

For almost the entire 2012-2013 season, the dominant question in women’s college basketball had been, Can anyone stop Brittney Griner and the Baylor Lady Bears from earning a second consecutive NCAA title? Griner had sparked debate over whether she was the best to ever play the women’s game, and by the time the Lady Bears met the Louisville Cardinals in the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the Bears had won 74 of their last 75 games.

“We heard that the only way we were going to win is if Baylor's bus didn't show up," Louisville forward Monique Reid said later.

But that was after she’d sunk the two most important, narrative-changing free throws of the year: Reid’s two points from the line pushed the Cardinals past the Lady Bears by one point for a startling 82-81 upset victory.

While the Baylor players wiped away tears in their locker room afterward, the Cardinals celebrated and posed for photos with NBA star Kevin Durant. But the real celebrity at the scene, make no mistake, was Louisville’s junior guard Shoni Schimmel, who provided one of the tournament’s most showstopping highlights: a behind-the-back three over Griner’s head (despite being, at 5’9”, almost a foot shorter than Griner).

Before the game, coach Jeff Walz had told his Louisville players, “If you come out and play scared, it's not going to matter.” Schimmel took that seriously, it seems, telling reporters later that her plan had simply been to “keep going at her”—Griner was human, after all. “I mean, she’s Brittney Griner,” Schimmel said. “But I’m Shoni Schimmel.”


AP / Elise Amenndola

Football
Tom Brady leads the Patriots to a comeback victory over Peyton Manning and the Broncos
November 24

Anytime Tom Brady meets Peyton Manning, the whole football world pauses to watch the two active quarterbacks with plaques reserved in Canton compete against each other. But after one half of Sunday Night Football in Week 12, Brady's Patriots looked incapable of scoring a point, much less overcoming a 24-0 halftime deficit. New England had committed three first-half turnovers and could not stop Manning and the high-powered Denver offense.

Whatever Brady and coach Bill Belichick said to the team at halftime, it worked. The Pats scored 31 points in the first 22 minutes of the second half, led by three Brady touchdown passes. Manning and the Broncos scored a late touchdown to force overtime, and the game seemed destined to be a tie. But Denver fumbled a punt late in OT, and three plays later, New England's Stephen Gostkowski kicked the winning field goal. The 24-point comeback was the largest in the Pats’ franchise history, and even the notoriously grouchy Belichick said afterward: "We'll enjoy this one."


AP / Elise Amendola

Baseball
The Red Sox defeat the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series
October 24

Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, Fenway Park. Eighth inning. The Red Sox trail the Tigers 5 to 1 and, having lost Game 1, look like they’re going back to Detroit down two games to none.

But, facing Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit, the Sox load the bases. And up steps David Ortiz, the (bearded) face of the franchise, the only player left from the Sox’ curse-busting 2004 World Series team.

Of course, it had to be Ortiz, a player known throughout baseball as “Big Papi.” Earlier in the season, on April 20th, the Red Sox held a pre-game ceremony honoring victims of that week’s Boston Marathon bombing. Flanked by Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, Papi addressed the crowd: “This is our fucking city!” he said. “Nobody can dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”

So the Red Sox did. After a dismal, last-place season in 2012, Boston rebounded to post the major leagues’ best record this year, behind a patchwork team that had no true superstar.

Except Ortiz, that is. And in Game 2, when his team needed him the most, he delivered a line-drive grand slam that tore through the air like a rocket, eclipsing the outstretched glove of Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter by inches. Hunter, for his part, flipped backward over the fence and landed on his head, where a nearby policeman—too busy celebrating—neglected to see if he was okay. A photograph of the incident, captured by the Boston Globe’s Stan Grossfeld, became the single most iconic image of the baseball postseason.

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