1. Josh Beckett, Game Seven of the 2003 NLCS
There a number of iconic moments that have turned playoff games and series that in the haze of time, we tend to forget happened in Game Six of a series, rather than Game Seven. Carlton Fisk's home run won Game Six for the Red Sox in the 1975 World Series, but it was the Reds who prevailed in Game Seven. In 1986, Bill Buckner… well, that was a Game Six, as well. Game Six of the 2011 World Series is a classic, and included a walkoff home run, but the Cards had to come back and win the next night in Game Seven. And yeah, the Steve Bartman Game in 2003 was a Game Six. The next night at Wrigley, the Marlins and the Cubs faced off in a Game Seven that few people actually seem to remember
In that Game Seven, the Cubs, powered by a pair of home runs by Kerry Wood (you read that right) and Moises Alou had taken a 5-3 lead after three innings. But the Marlins needed some help. Starter Mark Redman was pulled after three, giving way to Brad Penny who pitched a scoreless fourth. In the top of the fifth, Penny was lifted for pinch hitter Brian Banks, who walked to kick off a three-run rally to put the Marlins up 6-5. In something of a surprise move, the Marlins went to Josh Beckett in the bottom of the fifth, three days after he had pitched a complete-game shutout (and thrown 115 pitches) in Game Five of the series. Beckett threw four innings of relief, his only blemish being a pinch-hit home run by Troy O'Leary, and that was after the Marlins pushed across a run in the sixth and two more in the seventh off Wood, Kyle Farnsworth, and Dave Veres. When Beckett exited the game after the eighth, he left a 9-6 Marlins lead that Ugueth Urbina shepherded the rest of the way home. It's impossible to do the counter-factual and ask what would have happened if Beckett had not been available that night. But may I suggest that a series that is best remembered for a kid with an old Walkman should instead be remembered for Beckett's performance? —Russell A. Carleton
2. Pedro Martinez, 1999 ALDS
Count me among the many who hate the overwrought narratives that pollute postseason play and take away from genuine competitive moments and big time spots that the playoffs are naturally inclined to produce. High-leverage at-bats feel big on their own and seldom need help in delivering tension.
However, do not mistake the above sentiment as a rejection of all narratives because I love a real and accurate narrative that signals a truly historic or career defining moment.
Enter the 1999 ALDS between the Red Sox and the Indians as one Pedro Jamie Martinez sought to push his Red Sox to the ALCS after a masterful regular season campaign. Martinez established himself as the alpha pitcher in baseball in his second year as a Red Sox. He posted a 243 ERA+, a 0.92 WHIP an 8.46 K:BB ratio and won the pitching triple crown all during the height of the steroid era in the beefy AL East.
The playoffs started poorly for him in 1999 however as he left Game One with a back injury and his return to postseason play was in doubt. The Red Sox lost the first two games of the ALDS before blowing out the Indians in Games Three and Four setting the stage for an unlikely comeback for Martinez. With the game tied at eight Jimmy Williams went to an ailing Pedro Martinez in their time of need and Martinez responded with six innings of no-hit, eight strike out baseball. He flashed all of the brilliance he'd shown during the regular season as he put his career on the line for a shot at baseball glory.
The game was a turning point in the series to be sure, but more importantly, it cemented Pedro Martinez's spot as a walking legend, and it is a defining moment in what will surely be a Hall of Fame career. —Mauricio Rubio
3. Mike Mussina, Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS
First of all, my selection of Mike Mussina wasn’t meant to offend anyone. However, no matter the intention, it was met with a visceral response from a colleague. Why might that be? Well, the situation looked downright dire for the Yankees. After 25 meetings in 2003, the Red Sox and Yankees still had to play Game Seven of the ALCS to settle the score. Boston took an early lead on a two-run home run by Trot Nixon and throwing error by Enrique Wilson, who the Yankees only kept around due to his success in a small sample against Pedro Martinez. In the fourth inning, Roger Clemens allowed a leadoff home run and was pulled in favor of Mussina with two men on and still nobody out. Not only is the Yankees season on the line, but people are thinking they just watched Clemens walk off the field for the last time.
When Mussina, who had already started big games in the playoffs for both the Yankees and Orioles, entered the Yankees win expectancy was eight percent. Unfettered, Mussina struck out Jason Varitek on three pitches, finishing him with a hellacious curveball. Three pitches later he got Johnny Damon to ground into an inning-ending double play. In the fifth, he allowed two hits before striking out David Ortiz and getting out of trouble. In all, his three scoreless innings kept the deficit from growing and allowed for the Yankees to comeback late.
When this game and series are discussed, much like when the baseball hall of fame is discussed, Mussina seems to get lost in the shuffle. For a while he was regularly referred to in the media as “Mr. Almost” for coming close but never winning the Cy Young award and World Series or throwing a perfect game despite coming close. There, of course, were other heroes in this era and in this game. It’s perhaps easier to remember Aaron Boone’s home run, Jorge Posada’s bloop double, or Mariano Rivera’s dominant three innings of relief. For once, I’d like to give Mussina, who had the highest WAR besides Barry Bonds, Clemens, and Greg Maddux on this year’s ballot, his due. —Nick Shlain
4. Curtis Leskanic, Game Four of the 2004 ALCS
The Steal. Big Papi. The Bloody Sock. Big Papi again. The Slap. Johnny Damon's Game Seven. The 2004 ALCS was so loaded with dramatic, enduring storylines that it’s easy to lose some of the more critical trees for the forest. But the Red Sox cathartic climb out of the grave required contributions from the entirety of their 25-man playoff roster, perhaps none bigger or more unheralded than those of a journeyman middle reliever on the very last legs (and last attached shoulder muscle fibers) of his career.
We all remember the details of Game Four: down three games to none the Sox trailed the Yankees into the bottom of the ninth before staging an improbable rally against the Great Mariano Rivera to send Fenway into a frenzy and the game into extra innings. With two on and two out in the top of the 11th Terry Francona summoned Mike Myers to face Hideki Matsui. Myers had thrown 42 pitches during two mop-up innings to close out Game Three the night before. He couldn't locate the strike zone with clearly diminished stuff, leading to a probably-best-case-scenario four pitch walk to load the bases.
Enter Leskanic. He too had been lit up the night before to the tune of three runs in a third of an inning. Now all he had to do was try and get Bernie Williams out with the bases loaded and the season on the line. After sneaking a rolling 82-mph slider into the strike zone with his first offering he doubled up with the pitch, mercifully generating just enough additional bite to induce a weak fly out to center and end the inning.
With no other options Francona sent him back out to pitch the 12th, and after a single and a groundout there he stood, eyeball to eyeball, with the most irrationally terrifying Yankee of them all, Tony Clark. The go-ahead run on second. A throwing shoulder duct taped together with paper clips and anti-inflammatories. Nothing but #want left in the tank. He missed badly with a 91-mph fastball, yanking it right into Clark's happy zone down and in. But somehow, some way, Clark missed it and harmlessly popped to left. With the help of an epic Jason Varitek frame job he went on to strike out Miguel Cairo to end the inning, setting the stage for David Ortiz's heroics.
The rest, as they say, was history. And so was Curtis Leskanic's big league career. The loopy 82-mph slider he got Cairo to chase was the last pitch he ever threw in a big league uniform. It was a pitch, however, that earned him a Win and helped swing the series that produced the greatest comeback in baseball history. —Wilson Karaman
5. Sparky Lyle, Game Four of the 1977 ALCS
He had a relief season for the ages, winning 13 games in 137 innings on his way to an American League Cy Young Award. But even taking into account for a different era when relievers pitched far more than they do now, Lyle had not entered earlier than the fourth inning during any regular season game that year with the exception of a postseason tune up at the end of the season. The defending AL champions were down 2-1 to the Kansas City Royals in the 1977 ALCS and had to win two games in a row or go home. The Yankees jumped out to an early 4-0 lead in the third but the Royals came right back against Ed Figueroa, making it 5-3 in the bottom of the fourth. Dick Tidrow was brought in to presumably be the multiple inning savior, but then allowed another run and a walk between an out. With two outs in the fourth, Lyle was brought in to stop the damage.
He got George Brett to lineout to left. And then Lyle pitched…and pitched…and pitched. The Royals put two base runners on the rest of the way but never threatened.
In his account of the 1978 Yankees season, Lyle talked about that game:
As I was warming up in the bullpen…when pitching coach Art Fowler called from the dugout and asked how I looked Fred (Stanley) told him “Sparky ain’t got nothing. Billy (Martin) brought me in anyway, and when I…threw my warm-up pitches, my slider…started to work right, and for the next five innings it was the Royals who didn’t have nothin’.
The 1977 postseason is mostly remembered for Reggie Jackson’s three homerun game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series in Game Six, and rightfully so. But without Lyle’s incredible relief performance, it is entirely possible that the Yankees lose Game Four and go home. In another universe, the Royals first World Series appearance was not in 1980 but in ’77 against the Dodgers. But Lyle put an exclamation point on his signature season, and turned the series around for the Yankees. Jackson had the World Series heroics, but Lyle’s incredible performance set the stage. —Mike Gianella
6. Blix Donnelly, Game Two of the 1944 World Series
Though largely forgotten today, little-used rookie reliever Blix Donnelly played a significant part in the St. Louis Cardinals' 1944 World Series victory.
After losing Game One of the series to the neighboring Browns, the Cardinals found themselves in a tight battle the following afternoon. Deadlocked 2-2 after seven innings, Cardinals manager Billy Southworth sent laboring starter Max Lanier back to the mound to start the eighth. Mike Kreevich led off with a double, and with the heart of the Browns order due up, Southworth summoned Donnelly. The right-hander, who had thrown two scoreless innings in a 2-1 loss the previous day, calmly struck out the side.
Donnelly worked three more innings, allowing two hits and no runs while striking out seven. With Donnelly in the on-deck circle in the bottom of the 11th, pinch hitter Ken O'Day singled Ray Sanders home for the game's decisive run. From there, the Cardinals went on to take three of the next four games, securing their second championship in three seasons. The entire Cardinals pitching staff deserves credit for holding down the Browns—they allowed just twelve runs in six games—but it was Donnelly's long relief effort in game two that changed the balance of the series.
Donnelly's role in the World Series was as unlikely as it was vital. The 30-year old Minnesota native spent years toiling in local industrial leagues before an umpire—of all people —helped him draw interest from Superior in the Class D Northern League. From there, Donnelly spent nine long years in the minors, including seven in St. Louis' famously deep farm system. Even then Donnelly may not have reached the majors if he hadn't been declared 4-F during World War II. Fortunately for Cardinals fans, Donnelly was able to stay stateside and help St. Louis win its fourth World Series title. —Brendan Gawlowski
7. Randy Johnson, Game Five of the 1995 ALDS
What? You thought I was going to talk about that other Randy Johnson post-season relief appearance that earned him a win in a game that sent the Yankees home? Everyone remembers that one already–and it was only four outs. In 1995, the Mariners and Yankees were tied two games apiece in the American League Divisional Series, and the memory most etched into the national consciousness from this night is the Edgar Martinez double down the line off Jack McDowell that scored a hustling Ken Griffey to win the Mariners the game in the bottom of the 11th inning. But the road to the bottom of the eleventh was just as fascinating.
The Mariners were down two runs headed into the bottom of the eighth, and a tiring David Cone gave up a homer to Griffey before walking in Alex Rodriguez later in the inning, who was just a 20-year-old pinch-running for Tino Martinez. In the top of the ninth, Norm Charlton came back to the mound. He was the Mariners' closer and he had pitched in the previous two games, along with throwing a stunning four innings in Game Two. He allowed a double to Tony Fernandez and a walk to Randy Velarde before Lou Pinella had seen enough. Rather than go to a right-hander against a lefty-heavy Yankee lineup, he summoned the Big Unit, who had won Game Three just two days earlier, tossing 117 pitches over seven strong innings. The Yankees were 70 percent favorites to win the game, on the road, and here's what Johnson did to the next six batters:
Strikeout, pop out, pop out, strikeout, strikeout, strikeout.
Unfortunately, the game wasn't over at that point, as Mariano Rivera and Jack McDowell matched zeroes in the bottom of the ninth and tenth innings. In the eleventh, Johnson came out for his third inning of work and showed a chink in the armor. He allowed a walk to Mike Stanley (who was pinch run for by Pat Kelly and then bunted over by Tony Fernandez. Then that pesky Velarde came up and grounded a single through the hole between short and third for a run, and advanced to second on the throw. That was enough. Johnson struck out pinch-hitter Jim Leyritz, intentionally walked Bernie Williams and punched out Paul O'Neill to end the frame. The two-run double happened about four minutes later and the Mariners moved on, but the game may have never reached that point if not for Randy Johnson. —Bret Sayre
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