The World Series is almost upon us. We have witnessed a fantastic postseason so far, between the Cubs putting their unlucky history to the test and the Miracle Mets pitching their way past Kershaw and the Dodgers. The Toronto Blue Jays, led by Jose Bautista and his "Bat Flip Heard Around the World", are making their GM Alex Anthopoulos look like a genius for his mid-season moves. And the Kansas City Royals are proving to the world that they are by no means a fluke.
Last season, the Royals ran into some bad luck against the Giants' red hot southpaw Madison Bumgarner, whose workload surpassed any other pitcher's in postseason history. They returned this spring with a vengeance, and finished the season with 95 wins led by center fielder Lorenzo Cain and an ensemble of emerging young stars. They pushed their way past an even younger, hungry Houston Astros team and currently are facing off against Canada's team. It has been safe to say this postseason has gone smoothly, however, it was last year too until Bumgarner came to town.
There have been several memorable postseason performers in recent years; players who have been capable of carrying their teams on their back and into the promised land. This week on Ten for Tuesday, I compiled a list of the top ten best modern postseason performances baseball has had to offer.
Before I begin, let me make two things clear: this list will not delve into anything prior to World War II, as it is too difficult to compare a player from that era with someone today. Christy Mathewson was unhittable in the 1905 World Series, but who knows how he would have fared against professional hitters from today's game. By no means do I wish to take away from their legendary performances, so I decided to exclude them entirely. Also, it will take more than just a single game for someone to make this list. Don Larsen missed the cut, as well as Bobby Thomson, Aaron Boone, Carlton Fisk, Joe Carter, Kirk Gibson, Luis Gonzalez, and Bill Mazeroski.
Ten Best Individual Single-Season Postseason Performances
Honorable Mentions -
Albert Pujols (2004), Sandy Koufax (1965), Nelson Cruz (2011), Jack Morris (1991), Johnny Bench (1976)
As usual, it was difficult to leave any of these names off the Top 10. Sandy Koufax may have made the cut if he managed to win all three of his World Series starts, which was more because of a lack of offense than anything else. I hate to take anything away from Koufax, but the following pitchers had even better luck. Nelson Cruz did most of his damage in the 2011 ALCS against the Tigers, slugging 6 home runs throughout the 6 game series. He hit two more in the World Series, but also made a major defensive mistake that proved costly to his Texas Rangers.
10 - Randy Johnson, 2001, Arizona Diamondbacks
One half of the dynamic duo that took down my Yankees, it was safe to say "The Big Unit" came up big when it mattered most. He wasn't always the consistent ace he needed to be in October, but in 2001, Johnson was at the top of his game. He lost his only start in the NLDS against the Cardinals, but he only allowed 4 runs over the 33.1 Innings he pitched the rest of the way. Let's not forget that he was the first ace southpaw to make an appearance out of the bullpen in Game 7 after pitching the night before. He did everything the Diamondbacks needed him to do, and then some, which resulted in his part-ownership of the World Series MVP Award.
9 - Curt Schilling, 2001, Arizona Diamondbacks
The other Co-MVP of the 2001 World Series, Curt Schilling was slightly more consistent than Johnson that fall. Schilling started 3 Games in the World Series (two of which on 3 days rest) after owning the Cardinals and Braves. In total, he dealt 48.1 innings, which was a postseason record until Madison Bumgarner came along, and won 4 games. He would go on to pitch in many other big games before calling it a career after winning his 3rd World Series with the Red Sox in 2007.
8 - David Freese, 2011, St. Louis Cardinals
The 2011 Postseason was the best I've ever watched live, and much of it was thanks in part to David Freese's clutch hitting. Freese may never amount to the player he was that October, but his name and story will forever be entranced in every Cardinal fan's memory. His first two playoff series were explosive, as he drove in 14 runs combined against the Phillies and Brewers. He took home NLCS MVP honors, but was not satisfied.
In Game 6 of the World Series against the Texas Rangers, Freese crushed a game tying two run triple to save St. Louis' season. He wasn't content then, either, until he won that game in extra innings with a walkoff solo home run. Freese also knocked in his MLB record 20 and 21st RBI's in Game 7 en route to a Cardinals world title.
7 - Orel Hershiser, 1988, Los Angeles Dodgers
Kirk Gibson may be the face you automatically think of when 1988 comes to mind, but Orel Hershiser owned the opposition every time he took the mound. Continuing one of the best pitched seasons of his generation, "Bulldog" truly earned his nickname after leading the Dodgers to their most recent World Series championship. Hershiser started 5 games for LA, winning three total and delivering an ERA just above 1.00 against both the Mets and the powerhouse Oakland A's offense. Any man who could shut down the Bash Brothers (Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco) like he did is worthy of a placement on this list.
6 - Reggie Jackson, 1977, New York Yankees
"REGGIE, REGGIE, REGGIE!" Mr. October was one of the first shoo-ins that came to mind when I decided to look into this particular topic. You often hear about how certain players seek the limelight and perform well under pressure in comparison to others, and Jackson was one of those guys. He claimed to have been the "straw that stirred the drink" upon his arrival in New York, and frequently fought with manager Billy Martin about his playing style. His turbulent, quick-tempered mindset was not what the Yankees wanted, but was what they needed.
Reggie didn't end up as "Mr. October" overnight. He actually batted only .125 in 18 at bats in the ALCS against the Kansas City Royals. It wasn't until Game 3 of the World Series when his bat started to pick up the pace. But once he started, he could not be contained. Jackson homered in Games 4 and 5, and then delivered a mammoth three home run performance in Game 6 that captivated the hearts of New York for years to come. After his career defining game, Reggie Bars must have tasted a little better.
5 - Lew Burdette, 1957, Milwaukee Braves
Lew who? Burdette is not a household name, but after his miraculous 1957 World Series performances, he really should be. He was an above average pitcher for 18 seasons; a majority of which came with the Braves. The Yankees were the best team in the league during the 1940's and 1950's, and had a team filled with superstars from the top of their roster to the very bottom. They were the reigning champions going into the '57 Series, but were not prepared for what Lew was about to do.
In Game 2, Burdette allowed 2 earned runs while throwing a complete game and ultimately being awarded the win. You would think you would be more prepared for a pitcher the second time around after seeing him for an entire game, but Lew would beg to differ. He shut out the Bronx Bombers in Game 5 in a 1-0 Braves victory, and then finished the job in Game 7, once again shutting out one of the best lineups ever recorded. Considering the series went a full seven games, it goes to show just dominant Burdette was to be able to prevent the Yankees from exploding three separate times.
4 - Carlos Beltran, 2004, Houston Astros
So far, every player on this list has been part of a World Series winning team the year they dominated. Until now. Carlos Beltran became somewhat of a mythical figure in 2004 with the Houston Astros after being traded for at the Trade Deadline in a three team deal. Houston's stars Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, and Jeff Bagwell were integral to winning a Wild Card spot, but it was Beltran that took the weight off their shoulders and guided them into the Championship Series. In the Division Series, he hit four home runs; even winning Game 4 with a walkoff blast. He kept up his heroics the next round, smashing four more pitches into the seats, but it was not enough for the Astros to advance.
Regardless of the outcome, Beltran's performance should not be forgotten. His impact on the Astros lineup was unparalleled by just about any midseason acquisition any team has ever made. He was rewarded for his efforts months later to the tune of $119 million dollars from the Mets. His postseason legacy continued in future years, and he is now known as "Señor Octubre".
3 - Madison Bumgarner, 2014, San Francisco Giants
One of the hardest things to do when creating a list is to make sure to avoid using a recency bias. But yeah, what we all saw a year ago was good enough for the third greatest single season postseason performance in modern history. "Mad-Bum" was nothing short of epic for the Giants last fall, delivering every single time he was called upon (even if his appearance wasn't planned). When all was said and done, Bumgarner won 4 games after pitching a record 52.2 innings and striking out 57 batters. He threw a complete game shutout against the Pirates in the Wild Card Game to start their magical run and closed out the final game of the World Series after being called upon on short rest.
And the scariest thing of all: he is only 26 years old. His past may be near impossible to match, but we haven't seen the last of Bumgarner in October. That, my friends; is a dangerous thing.
2 - David Ortiz, 2004, Boston Red Sox
David Ortiz has been the most dangerous playoff hitter of our century, as far as I'm concerned. Albert Pujols has also been lethal, but Ortiz is a one man wrecking crew. "Big Papi" began to pick up the pace in 2004, when he hit 41 home runs and led the Red Sox to a Wild Card spot for the second consecutive year. In the playoffs, he was even better; batting .409 with 5 home runs and 23 RBI over the course of some of the greatest games ever played. In Game 3 of the ALDS against the Angels, Ortiz delivered a walk off home run. He hit 2 more walk offs in the famous ALCS series against the Yankees in Games 2 and 5. He was named MVP of the ALCS after the Sox completed a remarkable series comeback win. And he kicked off the World Series with a three run blast that the Red Sox never looked back from; winning their first World Series in 86 years and breaking the dreaded "Curse of the Bambino".
Ortiz ranks among the top 10 All Time in postseason plate appearances, runs scored, hits, total bases, doubles, home runs, RBI, and walks. As a Yankee fan, it's difficult to root for the guy, but I can't deny how talented he is. He's a Hall of Famer in my book.
1 - Bob Gibson, 1967, St. Louis Cardinals
When the word "dominant" is mentioned, several names should come to mind in baseball. One of them better be Bob Gibson. This former Cardinals hurler was responsible for the pitcher's mound being lowered by 5 inches in 1969 just to make it more of a fair fight for opposing hitters! Gibson had made a name for himself by 1967, appearing in 3 All Star Games and winning two Gold Gloves. He was a gifted athlete who once starred for the Harlem Globetrotters before focusing in on baseball. He wasn't afraid to make a statement on the mound when he felt it was necessary to invoke fear in the opposition; even if it meant intentionally hitting batters.
In July of 1967, Gibson suffered a gruesome fractured fibula injury, and his outlook for the remainder of the season was in question. He returned on September 7th to help St. Louis win the NL Pennant, and his legacy was on the precipice. In his three games started against the Red Sox, Gibson completed all 3 and finished with a 1.00 ERA. He earned three victories and was the MVP of the World Series when the Cardinals finished off the Sox.
Gibson would go on to win the Cy Young in two of the next 3 years and pitched very well in the 1968 World Series. He would be elected into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1981.
It's too early to tell if anyone will make a lasting imprint on the playoffs the way these men have. Daniel Murphy and Kyle Schwarber have put their power on display so far, and Jacob deGrom has won two crucial games for the Mets. If their streaks continue, this list may need to be revised. But the beauty of the postseason is that you never really know what to expect.
Enjoy the last few games of what has been another spectacular year.