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October 14, 2006

Playoff Prospectus

The Best and Worst of Mets and Cardinals Postseason Pitching

by Jim Baker

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With neither starting pitcher covering himself in glory in last night's NLCS Game Two, I thought it might be a good opportunity to look back at some of the best postseason starts in Cardinals and Mets history. The Mets' failure to take advantage of catching the St. Louis ace on a bad night is something they may well live to regret. Given the state of their starting pitching, a gift like that is not one readily discarded--not that the Cardinals have a lot of depth in that category. While it seems unlikely that the best-of lists presented below will have to be redrawn based on anything that happens in the 2006 postseason, there is always the off-chance that somebody like Anthony Reyes will have the game of his life tomorrow.

Keeping our minds open to that possibility, for our purposes, I'll start the meter in 1969 when the Mets first made the playoffs. I'm doing this for a couple of reasons:

  • Balance: Even with that start date, the Cardinals have half again as many playoff games as the Mets from which to choose. Throwing in all those World Series from the '20s, '30s, '40s, and '60s would make the ratio about three-to-one. That's a pretty hard basis for history-minded comparisons.
  • Use patterns: Starter lines from the old days look more impressive than they tend to nowadays, when starters are only expected to go seven innings, although the inclusion of the Mets' 1969 and 1973 appearances mitigates this somewhat. It may seem arbitrary to include the '69 Mets and not the '67-'68 Cardinals, but I had to draw the line somewhere, so I chose the divisional era.
  • Pandering: An appeal to the memories of readers in the all-important demographic that is only old enough to remember the games in question.

The best Mets playoff starts ever

1. Bobby J. Jones Game Four, 2000 NLDS vs. San Francisco: 9 1 0 0 2 5

On a team with a pitching legacy that includes Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, Al Leiter, and any number of other quality pitchers, it's a bit of an upset that their best playoff start was made by Jones, a man with a career DERA of 4.89. If you're going to throw the best game of your career, though, there are fewer better times than when there's an opportunity to clinch a playoff series in the bargain. Jones' performance was not a complete surprise-he'd had great starts in his career to that point, most notably a 10-K, one-run game against the Padres in 1998, and a three-hit shutout of the Expos in 1995.

His best game of 2000 had come on July 30, when he whiffed nine Cardinals en route to his only complete game of the year. While he got off to a very rough start that year and his ERA was over 5.00 on the season, he did settle down to log quite a few quality starts. Still, this was the best game of his life. He didn't allow the Giants a baserunner until the fifth inning, when Jeff Kent doubled after hitting a foul home run. Jones eventually walked two more to load the bases with two outs. In one of those moves that makes a manager look bad in hindsight, Dusty Baker chose to let pitcher Mark Gardner hit for himself. Jones got him to pop up, ending the threat. When Gardner allowed two more runs in the very next frame (he had already surrendered two in the first), he was hoisted for relief. That turned out to be the Giants' last best scoring chance, as Jones didn't allow another baserunner the rest of the way.

While I didn't weigh quality of opponent or offensive context in the selection of these games, Jones' performance came against a very good potent team. The Giants scored 925 times that year, behind only Colorado and Houston. The lineup included three players with stunning Equivalent Averages (EqA): Barry Bonds .362; Ellis Burks .341, and Kent .337.

Jones started both Game Fours in the NLCS and the World Series with nothing like his NLDS results. He was very bad against the Cardinals in a game the Mets won anyway, 10-6, and gave up a run in each of the first three innings against the Yankees, which was just enough for them to win.

2. Jon Matlack Game Two, 1973 NLCS vs. Cincinnati: 9 2 0 0 3 9

The 1973 Reds weren't quite the monsters they would become two years later, but Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez all had EqAs north of .300, and Cincinnati was second in the league in scoring to the Launching Pad-aided Braves. Johnny Bench and his .290 EqA was on hand as well. In the end, it wasn't that quartet of would-be Hall of Famers that gave Matlack trouble-he throttled the for four of them in all 20 of their at bats. The only Reds to reach base were Andy Kosco and Darrel Chaney. The former murderlized lefties in '73, but only had a handful of games left in his big league career; he had two singles and a walk. Chaney worked Matlack for two walks, but he had an OPS of 487 that year.

This might be a box score that should be framed and placed on the desk of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner to illustrate the point that when a pitcher has got it working, even a stacked lineup is doomed.

3. Mike Hampton Game Five, 2000 NLCS vs. St. Louis: 9 3 0 0 1 8

While the Mets were getting one of their best playoff outings ever, the Cardinals were getting one of their worst. Pat Hentgen left in the fourth inning trailing 6-0 after walking five and surrendering seven hits. Meanwhile, Hampton was cruising, allowing just three singles, including one to Hentgen; his only walk was to 2006 Detroit playoff hero-in-the-making Placido Polanco. His follow-up against the Yankees in the World Series did not go well, and not a lot has gone right for Hampton since then, unless you count getting a contract that made him richer than an oil sheik's cousin.

Honorable mention: It wasn't a start, but Nolan Ryan entered Game Three of the 1969 NLCS with the Mets trailing the Braves 2-1, and proceeded to throw seven innings of quality ball while his mates rallied for a 7-4 clinching win. It's one of the better postseason relief appearances ever, although certainly not as good as Pedro Martinez's six no-hit innings against the Indians in 1999.

The best Cardinals playoff starts ever

1. Bob Forsch Game 1, 1982 NLCS vs. Atlanta: 9 3 0 0 0 6

After a 14-year absence, the Cardinals returned to the postseason for the first time in the era of divisional play. Bob Forsch got them going with a bang by throwing their best playoff performance ever since. Tonight's game is the 100th playoff outing for St. Louis since reentering the postseason in 1982 and nobody has quite come close to matching what Forsch did in that very first game back. He scattered three singles, including two to Claudell Washington, but he wiped himself out on one of those occasions on a failed steal.

Another reason for not including the pre-'69 era is that it's not especially fair to compare the environment in which Chris Carpenter works to that of Bob Gibson. We probably won't see the likes of Gibson's famous 17-strikeout performance in Game One of the '68 World Series again. How safe is that record? Considering that the strikeouts alone would require a minimum of 51 pitches, probably pretty safe indeed. It seems unlikely a modern manager would allow a pitcher to throw the number of pitches necessary to whiff 17 batters in a postseason game, although the right combination could create such an opportunity:

  • World Series only
  • Late in a series, perhaps a potential clincher
  • Older pitcher

If the game were to come late in the series, then the manager wouldn't need to think in terms of the pitcher's next start. And it would have to be World Series game because chances are, the pitcher's manager would have an eye on the immediate future if it were any earlier in the playoff process and not let him go the innings necessary to rack up those kind of K numbers. I also say older pitcher because there will be less concern about the pitcher's career and less chance the manager will be opening himself up for charges of arm abuse. (As for the first criterion, the score wouldn't matter so much if it were a Game Six or Seven of the World Series.) So, Gibson's record is unbreakable given most circumstances (and remember that very few pitchers ever came close even in an era when they were expected to finish what they started), at least until a 41-year old strikeout pitcher gets the call for Game Seven of the World Series and whiffs eight of the first nine hitters while his team goes up 6-0. Then he would be free to pursue the record at his leisure…OK, let's just call it unbreakable.

2. John Tudor Game Four, 1985 World Series vs. Kansas City: 9 5 0 0 1 8

Tudor on a St. Louis mound was never a bright prospect for opponents. In all, he was 35-10 at Busch while wearing the birdy see-saw. With this fine outing, he put the Cardinals ahead a seemingly-insurmountable three games-to-one. At the time and in hindsight, the Royals lineup je faced doesn't seem especially imposing. They finished the season next-to-last in runs scored in the American League. They neverthelesss outscored the Cardinals in the Series, without even counting the regrettable 11-0 Game Seven result.

Tudor had already thrown almost 300 innings to that point, and held Kansas City to five hits. His biggest test came in the seventh inning when, while holding a 3-0 lead, he surrendered two singles and his only walk to load the bases with two outs. Regular Royal DH Hal McRae, sitting because the game was in the National League park, was called on to pinch-hit. It's hard to imagine a starter being allowed to continue in similar circumstances these days; surely, a lefty like Tudor would get hooked to face the righthanded McRae. As it was, Tudor induced him into a force grounder to third, and then retired six of the final seven batters for the win.

3. Woody Williams Game Five, 2004 NLCS vs. Houston: 7 1 0 0 2 4

That the third-best Cardinals playoff start of the Divisional Era is not a complete game is a function of when the bulk of St. Louis' postseason action has come. Since taking a hiatus from the playoffs in the late '80s and early '90s and then returning to the October wars in 1996, no Cardinal pitcher has thrown a complete game. We could probably just as easily have picked Danny Cox's shutout clincher against the Giants in the 1987 NLCS, but he did surrender eight hits, and besides, it's nice to have a more recent game on the list.

Williams' major achievement was shutting down Carlos Beltran. He got him out three straight times after Beltran had managed to homer in every game up to that point. The only hit he allowed was a Jeff Bagwell single in the first. That the Cardinals only managed one hit themselves against Brandon Backe, or that the St. Louis bullpen eventually lost the game in the ninth, does not detract from Williams' performance.

Honorable mention: Aside from the Cox clincher mentioned above, John Stuper-a rookie starting with his team on the verge of elimination-nearly pitched a shutout in Game Six of the 1982 World Series. He entered the ninth with a two-hitter against a very robust Milwaukee lineup, but lost his shutout on a wild pitch. That his teammates had scored 13 runs certainly helped make that pretty irrelevant.

Worst Mets starts:

Ron Darling, Game Seven, 1988 NLCS: 1 6 6 4 0 2
Shoddy fielding didn't help, but this one was over by the second inning. Three of the six worst Mets playoff starts ever came in this series.

Al Leiter, Game Six, 1999 NLCS: 0 2 5 5 2 0
These Mets were the first team ever to battle back with two wins after being down 3-0 in a best-of-seven. Leiter seemingly sucked all the drama out of the comeback with his disastrous first inning, but what he really did was set the stage for one of the wildest postseason games ever.

Jerry Koosman, Game Two, 1969 NLCS: 4.2 7 6 6 4 5
The Mets had scored in every inning and were cruising for the Koos 9-1 when he suddenly fell apart with two outs in the fifth. You can't blame a guy too much for giving up a three-run bomb to Hank Aaron, though.

Worst Cardinals starts:

Todd Stottlemyre, Game Five, 1996 NLCS: 1 9 7 7 0 1
The Cardinals have had some pretty bad starts, but this one beats them all. In Stottlemyre's defense, his outfielders misplayed a ball with two out in the first, and the bullpen allowed one of his runners to score. Take those two runs away…and it's still about the worst playoff start they've had in recent times. The final score was 14-0. Three days later, Donovan Osborne staked the Braves to a 6-0 lead on their way to a 15-0 clincher, but Osborne misses this list because he was yanked before he could do more damage.

Matt Morris, Game One, 2002 NLCS: 4.1 10 7 7 4 2
The Giants even gave Morris an out in the first with an ill-advised sac bunt. On a day like this, all gifts are welcome.

Woody Williams, Game One, 2004 World Series: 2.1 8 7 7 3 1
In spite of this reversal of fortune for Williams from his fine NLCS work, this was actually the closest the Cardinals came to having a lead in this Series. He left runners in the hands of today's Oakland starter Danny Haren, only to have them all score to leave a 7-2 deficit as his legacy. His mates tied it at seven and then again at nine before finally losing 11-9. They never managed as much as a tie in the Series again.

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