Spectacular Postseason Performances
A Guest Blog By Fanspeak Contributing Writer Willypops
Certainly the major sports news topic in recent days has been the no-hitter tossed by the Phillies Roy Halladay against the Cincinnati Reds in Game 1 of their National League Divisional Series matchup. I’ve listened to quite a bit of debate on where Halladay’s feat ranks against previous individual postseason performances. Since I’m a “mature” sports fan, I always like to look at how things used to be. Indeed, I’ve posted a few blogs here on fanspeak under the heading “Nostalgiaspeak” (found under the “More” tab). So I think it’s only fitting that I take a look at some other past outstanding performances in MLB postseason play.
I took a cursory look at the information on Baseball Reference.com, limiting my review from 1940 to the present. Not that I go back that far – I was born in 1953. And not that there is any other particular significance to 1940. I just thought, what the heck, 70 years is a pretty good sampling. I also limited my review to one-game pitching performances. I realize there have been individual at-bats (World Series-ending homers by Bill Mazeroski in the 1960 and Joe Carter in 1993 and Bobby Thomson’s 1951 playoff game ”shot heard round the world”) or great fielding plays (catches by Willie Mays and Ron Swoboda) that were truly spectacular. Numerous players have put up amazing numbers, either hitting or pitching, throughout a particular postseason or series. But I think that it’s the single game, dominating pitching performance of the nature of Halladay’s, that stands out above the rest.
Taking a look at Halladay’s no-hitter, it almost seemed effortless. The only thing that kept him from throwing a perfect game was an 5th inning walk on a 3-2 count. He almost always pitched ahead in the count and rarely even went to three balls in any count. It didn’t seem like any extraordinary fielding plays were needed to preserve the no-hitter as is often the case. In short, it was a brilliant performance. What is truly amazing is the fact that this gem was thrown in his first-ever appearance in the postseason!
In the debate over whether Halladay’s no-hitter was the most spectacular individual postseason performance, the first comparison drawn is to Don Larsen’s perfect game for the Yankees against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. Before Halladay’s game, it was the only no-hitter ever thrown in postseason play. With the Series knotted at two games apiece, there was some question if Larsen would even be given the start in Game 5. He had only lasted 1.2 innings in his previous Game 2 start. But Manager Casey Stengel decided to go with Larsen and the rest, as they say, “is history”.
But no-hitters aside, there have been plenty of masterpieces thrown in the postseason. There’s one game in particular that some people are suggesting was even more impressive than Larsen’s or Halladay’s. That is Jack Morris’ performance for the Twins against the Braves in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. It was a 10-inning, complete game, 1-0 shutout. While he did give up 7 hits, it is argued that to go out in the 7th and deciding game and pitch 10 innings of shutout ball, giving his team the opportunity to clinch the series in walk-off fashion in the bottom of the 10th, puts his performance right up there for consideration as the best postseason performance ever.
But going back a bit further in history, a compelling argument could be made for another 10 inning, complete game, 1-0 shutout. It also occurred in the 1956 World Series, in Game 6, one day after Larsen’s perfect game. Unheralded Clem Labine got the start for the Dodgers with his team now trailing the Yankees in the Series, three games to two. Similar to Morris’ game, Labine scattered 7 hits and kept the Dodgers in the game. What was really impressive was the fact that he had to out-duel Bob Turley of the Yankees, who himself pitched 9.2 innings of shutout ball until Jackie Robinson hit a single to drive in Junior Gilliam to give the Dodgers the win. The win kept the Dodgers’ hopes alive, although the Yankees did prevail in Game 7.
When considering other memorable World Series games, near the top of the list has to be the one-hitter turned in by Jim Lonborg of the Red Sox against the Cardinals in Game 2 of the 1967 Series, a 5-0 shutout win for Lonborg . He took a no-hitter into the 8th inning, giving up a double with two outs in that inning. His only other blemish in that game was a 7th inning walk. Of course the Cardinals went on to win the Series four games to three, keeping the “Curse of the Bambino” alive.
Speaking of World Series 1-hitters, there was the performance turned in by Claude Passeau (who?) of the Chicago Cubs in Game 3 of the 1945 Series. He pitched a 3-0 shutout against the Tigers, giving up the only hit in the 2nd inning. He also walked a batter in the 6th inning who was immediately erased on a double play so Passeau only faced 28 batters that day, one over the minimum. The Tigers went on to win that Series and what is additionally noteworthy is that it is the last time that the Cubs appeared in the World Series.
Another pitcher who tossed a 1-hitter in a World Series game was Bill Bevens of the Yankees against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He threw it in Game 4 of the 1947 Series. But this wasn’t your ordinary 1-hitter type of game. For starters, Bevens lost the game on the only hit he gave up, a two-out, two-run, walk-off double by Cookie Lavagetto. Why was it a TWO-RUN walk-off double you say? It turns out that Bevens gave up 10 walks that day! The Dodgers were able to manufacture a run in 5th inning on two of those walks, a sacrifice bunt and a fielder’s choice. Nonetheless, the Yankees took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the 9th. It was the first time (and the only time other than Larsen’s game) that a pitcher took a no-hitter into the 9th inning in a World Series game. Two walks by Bevens set the stage for Lavagetto’s game winning hit. The Yankees did however go on to win that Series in 7 games.
Some other impressive World Series pitching performances, albeit not quite up to the challenge of those games discussed above, include 2-hit shutouts thrown by Warren Spahn of the Braves against the Yankees in Game 4 of the 1958 Series and Whitey Ford of the Yankees against the Reds in Game 1 of the 1961 Series. Additionally there was the Game 1, 4-0 shutout of the Tigers turned in by Bob Gibson of the Cardinals in the 1968 series. While he did give up 5 hits, he struck out 17 batters that day. A truly dominant performance.
In addition to Halladay’s no-hitter, there have been some impressive non-World Series performances as well. Chief among those would be the Braves’ Kevin Millwood 1-hitter against the Astros in Game 2 of the 1999 NLDS, and Bobby Jones’ 1-hitter for the Mets against the Giants in Game 4 of the 2000 NLDS, which clinched that Series for the Mets. And who can forget the 1-hitter tossed by Roger Clemens of the Yankees against the Mariners in Game 4 of the 2000 ALCS in which he struck out 15 batters. Some have argued that, taking all factors into consideration, that stands as the most dominating postseason pitching performance. Not being a Clemens fan, I of course would discount that one since we really don’t know how much “help” he had that day??
So, which one deserves to be considered the most spectacular postseason performance? In my mind, I think that the two no-hitters and the Morris and Labine 10-inning complete game shutouts are the top candidates. Two games are in the more current time frame and two were from a different era. Three of the games were World Series games and Halladay’s was the first game of the postseason. It all depends on how you weigh the different factors applicable to each game. To me, a World Series game carries greater weight than a non-Series game. Vitally important too, is what that particular performance meant to the pitcher’s’ team at that given point in time. And I think you have to give great weight to how the accomplishment relates to baseball’s established standards of excellence (ie. no-hitter vs. 7-hit shutout).
Which is the best? While Labine’s 10-inning, 1-0 shutout win kept his team alive in the World Series it does not equal Morris’ similar shutout that gave the Twins the title. And although in most any other scenario, a no-hitter trumps a 10-inning complete game shutout, I think the fact that Morris performed his feat under the pressure of pitching in the 7th game of the World Series makes his accomplishment just a little more impressive than Halladay’s postseason-opening no-hitter. I know that Larsen’s accomplishment “only” gave his team a 3-2 lead in the Series, but I have to go with his performance as being the best of the bunch. After all, what is better than perfection?