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October 16, 2007
Starting Well is Two-Thirds of Half the Battle
During the National League Championship Series last season, we took a look at the best all-time postseason starts of the two participants, the Cardinals and Mets. With the outstanding outings of Josh Beckett and Fausto Carmona in the American League Division Series, I thought it would be a good opportunity to do the same for the Red Sox and Indians and see how those two starts stack up against their teams' historical record. While bemoaning the fact that the two are not scheduled to meet head-to-head, let's glance backwards.
For purposes of this bit of list making, I'm going to confine the main argument to the postseason since 1995. For one thing, in the interest of symmetry, I wanted to keep the number of games for the two teams about equal. Since three-round postseasons began, Cleveland has played 64 playoff games and Boston 52. Cleveland sat out the two-round era, during which time Boston played 32 playoff games. During the straight-to-the-Series era (1903 & 1905-1968), Boston had another 46 games while Cleveland had 17.
The demands on starting pitchers in those previous eras were different as well. Outings prior to 1995 will be discussed, but when assigning the best, we'll choose from our most recent times.
The Indians' Best Postseason Starts
Fausto Carmona, Game Two, 2007 ALDS vs. Yankees: 9 3 1 1 2 5
If this version of Carmona shows up later in the ALCS--provided the Indians don't take the next two games and render another start unnecessary--it will be time to turn out the lights in Boston. During the regular season, the Yankees averaged 10 hits and four walks per game, so holding them to a third of that total in a complete game was an impressive feat by Carmona.
The Indians' postseason legacy prior to the mid-'90s renaissance is a brief one. It consists of 17 World Series games played in 1920, 1948, and 1954. How does Carmona's effort hold up against the best starts from those two very different eras? Pretty well, actually. The best Game Score was achieved by Duster Mails in Game Six of the 1920 World Series, with an 83; Carmona had an 80. Rookie wonder Gene Bearden scored an 81 against the Boston Braves in Game Three of the '48 Series.
Mails' outing came against a Brooklyn Robins team that scored 300 runs less than did the 2007 Yankees. In fact, they only managed eight runs in a seven-game series (while the Indians were averaging three). Stan Coveleski's three starts against Brooklyn in that Series are all in the Indians' top 10 postseason Game Scores. The '48 Braves were an above-average offensive team. In spite of playing in a pitcher's park, they averaged 4.80 runs per game. Again, though, the '07 Yanks were at 5.98 per.
If you wish to debate the choice for the top spot and argue that Colon deserves top billing because he struck out twice as many men and didn't allow any runs, I think that's valid; he loses out here because he didn't finish the game, while Carmona went nine innings. Colon was up to 122 pitches when Charlie Manuel didn't send him out for the ninth inning, opting instead to have Bob Wickman finish out the 5-0 victory. You'd like to give Colon more credit for beating a team that was fresh off a 116-win season, except that Carmona's vanquishee actually outscored the 2001 Mariners 968 to 927.
Orel Hershiser, Game Two, 1995 ALDS vs. Red Sox: 7 3 0 0 2 7
Hershiser had three starts that could all be rated as high as third on this list. His Game Two outing in the ALCS the same year against Seattle was nearly as good, except that he allowed a run. Two years later, he throttled the Orioles for seven innings in Game Three of the ALCS, allowing just one more hit and walking one less batter. He also had some pretty grim outings in this era, but none quite so bad that he'll show up on the all-time worst list that we'll get to below.
The Red Sox' Best Postseason Starts
Josh Beckett, Game One, 2007 ALDS vs. Angels: 9 4 0 0 0 8
One of the reasons I've chosen not to compare the pitchers across eras is that modern starters are not expected to go the whole route, while previous generations were. When a current pitcher does go all nine and comes up with a decent strikeout total in the process, he's going to go right to the head of the class. This outing resulted in an even better Game Score than Beckett's Game Six clincher against the Yankees in the 2003 World Series--87 to 84.
Looking to the past, how does it rate against the efforts of those who threw when the ball was dead or the mound was higher? Not that bad, actually. Because Beckett went the distance, he can compete with his Boston better than most. Bill Dinneen probably pitched the most dominant game in Boston postseason history in the second World Series contest of the 20th Century--he shut out the Pirates on three hits and whiffed a very latter-day total of 11 men. He didn't victimize the great Honus Wagner, but he did hold him hitless. Jim Lonborg's one-hitter in Game Two of the 1967 World Series (he lost the no-hitter with two outs in the eighth on a Julian Javier double) would also have to rate higher, but not by much, since Lonborg only struck out four men.
One game that has to be mentioned is Babe Ruth's 14-inning complete game victory over the Brooklyn Robins in Game Two of the 1916 World Series. He surrendered just six hits, out-dueling Sherry Smith for the 2-1 victory. While hitless himself, he did drive in the one run in regulation. Rube Foster and Dutch Leonard (1915 vs. Philadelphia), Luis Tiant (1975 vs. Oakland), Dinneen (again vs. Pittsburgh in 1903), and Ernie Shore (1916 vs. Brooklyn) all had very successful outings, too, but none would probably pass muster against Beckett's trick versus the Angels.
Pedro Martinez, Game Three, 1999 ALCS vs. Yankees: 7 2 0 0 2 12
This was Boston's sole shining moment in the series, as it lost the other four games. On this night they smacked around Roger Clemens, chasing him in the third so that Hideki Irabu could come in and pitch batting practice. Martinez took his 13 runs of support in stride, striking out Derek Jeter, Paul O'Neill, and Tino Martinez two times each. I would point to this game as Exhibit #44,231A in the argument against those who believe in momentum. This game, coming with the Red Sox down 2-0, certainly seemed like a "momentum changer," what with the Yankees just flat out getting skunked at every turn. That they came back and won the next two games by a combined score of 15-3 put the kibosh on any sort of momentum change the 13-1 loss might have caused. Of course, those who follow the momentum star would simply say that New York regained it.
Pedro Martinez, Game Three, 2004 World Series vs. Cardinals: 7 3 0 0 2 6
A case can also be made here for Derek Lowe's outing the next night, the one that ensured the sweep for Boston. There really isn't much separating them, just a couple of extra strikeouts for Martinez. One outing that has to be mentioned, though, is Martinez's six-inning no-hit relief appearance against Cleveland in Game Five of the 1999 LDS. Had that been a start, it would have rated a Game Score of 77. It remains one of the great relief appearances ever made, especially considering it came in the midst of a slugfest and was a series clincher. Is it Pedro Martinez's finest hour?
The Indians' Worst Postseason Starts
Bartolo Colon, Game Four, 1999 ALDS vs. Red Sox: 1 6 6 7 1 1
The greatest offensive explosion in postseason history landed on the head of Mr. Colon, as the Red Sox warmed up on him in the first two innings and went on to put up a crooked number in seven of their eight times at bat, winning 23-7.
C.C. Sabathia, Game One, 2007 ALCS vs. Red Sox: 4.1 7 8 8 5 3
Sabathia walked only 37 men in the regular season, but if the Indians beat the Red Sox and go seven with Colorado, he might match that total in October. Running into two of the more patient teams in baseball hasn't helped, but some of this is on him, too.
Charles Nagy, Game Five, 1999 ALDS vs. Red Sox: 3 6 8 7 2 2
Staked to a 5-2 early lead by his mates, Nagy couldn't hold it, setting the stage for Pedro Martinez's dramatic entry an inning later.
The Red Sox' Worst Postseason Starts
While one might be tempted to say this outing took the Red Sox right out of their series with Chicago, they were very much in the next two games after losing the opener 14-2. Clement has barely been seen since, and one hopes he can make it back from his injuries so that this does not remain his last moment in the national spotlight.
Bronson Arroyo, Game Three, 2004 ALCS vs. Yankees: 2 6 6 6 2 0
It all seemed so certain three years ago tonight, didn't it? Since time began, a victory while up two games to none was the clincher. Might as well break out the champagne and goggles that very night. (Wait, they didn't wear goggles back in those days, did they? I guess men were manlier in the rough and ready days of 2004.) While Arroyo's tough start--including home runs allowed to Hideki Matsui and Alex Rodriguez--didn't help, Boston made up the six-run deficit he created. It wasn't until after Arroyo left that things got out of hand and wound up at 19-8.
Boston lost 13 playoff games in a row between 1986 and 1995, finally breaking the string in the first game of the 1998 ALDS. In the midst of all that was this Disaster Start by Boddicker, who coughed up a 5-0 lead via home runs by Mark McGwire, Carney Lansford, and Ron Hassey.
You don't see a lot of very low Game Scores from antiquity. With teams scoring less, there was a less likely chance of a starter getting blown out early. The Giants tagged Smokey Joe but good in the first inning, and might have had more if the opposing pitcher, Jeff Tesreau, hadn't been caught stealing to end the opening frame. This was Wood's 34-5 season. After 344 regular season innings and another 18 earlier in the Series, his arm had finally run up the white flag. He was never the same on the mound again, and eventually drifted into the life of an outfielder. (While a Game Seven, there had been an earlier tie; the Red Sox beat Christy Mathewson the next day to take the Series.)