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October 19, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

The (Elimination) Gamers

by Jim Baker

While contemplating whatever happened to the concept of teams not making personnel moves during the playoffs so as not to siphon attention away from the action on the field (I'm looking at you, Yankees, Braves, and Reds), I thought we'd take a look at the best elimination games of all time in light of Josh Beckett's performance last night with the gun to his team's head. I used the following parameters:

  • Best-of-seven and best-of-nine series only; no best-of-five;
  • The pitcher's team must be trailing in the series; no Game Sevens where both starting pitchers are facing elimination;
  • Game Scores figure prominently in the selection process.

Best Elimination Game Performance While Receiving Money to Fail

Eddie Cicotte, White Sox; Game Seven, 1919 World Series (9 7 1 1 3 4)

From the too little/too late department, Cicotte stymied the Reds and put the White Sox within one game of forcing a ninth game. This outing was in the wake of his getting hammered in Game One and making a couple of very suspicious errors in the Sox's 2-0 loss in Game Four. Perhaps not so curiously, only 13,923 fans showed up in Cincinnati to see this possible clincher. Lefty Williams, Cicotte's co-conspirator on the starting staff, did his best to make the fix stick in the deciding game in Chicago the next day, surrendering hits to four of the five men he faced; the inning ended with the Sox trailing 4-0. It might be argued that had the clean Sox pitchers that followed Williams managed to keep the Reds scoreless, the Sox could have won the game, since they scored five runs. Of course, four of those came when the score was already 10-1 in the eighth, and when co-conspirators Buck Weaver (double), Joe Jackson (double), and Chick Gandil (triple) could swing away with impunity.

Best Elimination Game Performance in the Braves Dynasty

Steve Avery, Braves; Game Six, 1991 NLCS (8 3 0 0 2 8)

Given that the Braves were eliminated in all but one year of their 1991-2005 dynasty, there were a lot of opportunities for greatness. The best outing of this type was not crafted by Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, or John Smoltz, but by Avery, the often forgotten pitcher from the early segment of the Braves' rise to prominence. The tall lefty hooked up with Doug Drabek for a scoreless duel that lasted eight innings, after which the Braves scored in the ninth and Alejandro Pena closed out the win in relief. The Braves got another shutout the next night, meaning that they held the Pirates to one run over the last 27 innings of the series.

Best Elimination Game Performance in a Loss

Mike Mussina, Orioles; Game Six, 1997 ALCS (8 1 0 0 2 10)

Scott Kamieniecki had given Baltimore five-plus shutout elimination innings the game before to help save the Orioles'... er, bacon, but the O's still trailed the Indians three games to two when Mussina came up with this gem. It's easily one of the two or three best elimination game efforts ever, but unfortunately, the Orioles were stranding runners left and right against Charles Nagy, and lost 1-0 in the 11th in spite of getting 10 hits and five walks.

Best Elimination Game Performance with Superb Follow-Up

Bob Turley, Yankees; Game Five, 1958 World Series (9 5 0 0 3 10)

With the Yankees about to repeat their 1957 World Series loss to the Milwaukee Braves (which, it should be noted, Turley had staved off with an excellent elimination game performance in Game Six), Turley conjured up this gem in Game Five. He whiffed Hank Aaron twice, and nicely spaced the five singles and three walks he did allow. What impresses me even further, however, is what he did in the next two games. In Game Six, the Yankees scored two in the top of the 10th to go up 4-2. Ryne Duren, who had already thrown four innings entering the 10th, ran into trouble. He got two men out but allowed a run. When Joe Adcock singled Aaron to third, Yankees manager Casey Stengel called for Turley, who retired Frank Torre to close out the win. Granted, Torre is somewhat infamous as a non-power-hitting first baseman, but he did have a .309 EqA that year. In Game Seven, starter Don Larsen allowed a run in the bottom of the second and was in more trouble in the third on singles by Bill Bruton and Aaron. Not wanting things to get out of hand, Stengel called for Turley again. He got out of the inning with the Yankees' 2-1 lead intact. He later gave up a game-tying home run to Del Crandall, but that was the only run he allowed in 6 2/3 innings of relief just three days after his 10-K elimination game performance. The Yankees rallied for four runs in the eighth, and took the Series.

Best Elimination Game Performance That Was Not Even the Pitcher's Best Performance in that Series

Jim Lonborg, Red Sox; Game Five, 1967 World Series (9 3 1 1 0 4)

As good as Lonborg was in Game Five, keeping the Sox alive after falling behind three games to one, he had been even better in Game Two, when he allowed just one hit. He very nearly pitched a two-hit shutout in this game, but Roger Maris belted a home run with two outs in the ninth.

Best Elimination Game Performance in the Process of Getting Swept

Brandon Backe, Astros; Game Four, 2005 World Series (7 5 0 0 0 7)

It's a thankless task being asked to save your team when trailing three games to none. Backe was up to the challenge, though, holding the White Sox under five runs for the first time in the Series. His opposite number, Freddy Garcia, pitched equally well, however, and when it came time for the bullpens to take over, Brad Lidge allowed the deciding run. An argument could also be made in this category for Dodger Don Drysdale's outing in Game Four of the 1966 World Series against the Orioles, but I figured a shutout in the 2005 context was more impressive than Drysdale's one-run effort in the scoring wasteland that was the '66 Series.

Best Two Elimination Game Performances in the Same Postseason

Danny Jackson, Royals; Game Five, 1985 ALCS (9 8 0 0 1 6) and Game Five, 1985 World Series (9 5 1 1 3 5)

Jackson would go on to pitch in the postseason with five different teams, but his first appearances would be the most memorable. Called on twice with his team trailing three games to one, Jackson came up big both times; 1985 was the first year for the best-of-seven format in the League Championship Series, and the Royals made it memorable by coming back on the Blue Jays. That was his only start of the LCS, but he was called on for Game One of the World Series and acquitted himself well despite not receiving any support. The Royals scored just nine runs in the first four games (six coming in their lone win), setting the stage for Jackson's second great elimination game outing of the playoffs in Game Five, and of course the subsequent umpiring infamy in Game Six.

Best Elimination Game Outing That Really Didn't Have To Be As Great As It Was

Whitey Ford, Yankees; Game Six, 1960 World Series (9 7 0 0 1 5)

Ford has three very fine elimination game outings to his credit. In addition to this one, he kept the Yankees alive with a good Game Six in 1955 against the Dodgers, and pitched well against the Dodgers in Game Four eight years later, only to be outshone by Sandy Koufax, who completed the sweep. The reason Whitey didn't have to be as sharp as he was in this game is that the Yankees came up with a dozen runs off of Bob Friend and five other Pirates pitchers. Other well-spun elimination outings that had a lot of room for error were John Stuper against the Brewers in Game Six of the 1982 World Series (13-1), Denny McLain against the Cardinals in Game Six of the 1968 World Series (also 13-1), and John Smoltz against the Cardinals in Game Five of the 1996 NLCS (14-0).

Absolute Best Elimination Game Performance Ever

Josh Beckett, Marlins; Game Five, 2003 NLCS (9 2 0 0 1 11)

Last night's performance conjured up memories of this game from four years ago, which is a good thing lest we forget that, without that performance, the Cubs' infamous meltdown in Game Six would not have been possible. Beckett now has the two highest strikeout totals in elimination game history. Last night's game could have probably been even more impressive from a counting stat perspective, but there was no reason to leave him in any longer. In fact, I was a little surprised he pitched the eighth with the Sox leading 7-1.

Beckett's Game Score last night was 78, which ranks eleventh all-time in games of this nature, just behind Lefty Grove's outing in Game Six of the 1931 World Series. Placing the top 10 in order, we have Beckett's Marlins game at number one followed by these games mentioned above: Mussina, Turley, Avery, and Lonborg. Tied with Lonborg is Clem Labine of the Dodgers in Game Six of the 1956 World Series against the Yankees. Tied in the next spot are Curt Schilling of the Phillies against Toronto in Game Five of the 1993 World Series, and Hippo Vaughn of the Cubs in Game Five of the 1918 Series against Boston. These are followed by Whitey Ford's 1955 game mentioned above and Grove.

People are starting to call Beckett "Big Game," but saving your team when it's down goes beyond that, because all postseason games are "big." Two outings of this quality in this situation from one pitcher requires he be given a nickname of more messianic proportions.

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