(Photos: New York Times (Rivera) & Sports Illustrated (Fingers))

It’s a theme throughout this seven-part series, the importance of having a quality relief ace in post-season baseball. There is no role in which a player has the “hero or goat” possibilities more often in October than in the role of a closer. A position player might literally, in an entire series, have just one or two late inning at bats in which they alone can determine the outcome of the game and sometimes they may have none at all. A closer has the chance, in about half of their appearances, to turn a victory into defeat (or a tie game) with just one swing of the opponents’ bat.

As an example, in the 1998 World Series, Mariano Rivera faced ten batters in the 8th or 9th inning (over three games) in which a home run by the Padres’ batter would have either tied the game or given them the lead. This did not occur in any one of those at bats and Mariano saved three games in the Yankees’ four-game sweep. Simply because New York was usually in the lead, Derek Jeter did not have a single 8th or 9th inning at bat in which he alone could alter the game’s outcome.

Rivera’s closer counterpart on San Diego, Trevor Hoffman, only had the chance to face three batters with the outcome of the contest in the balance. Unfortunately, entering Game 3 with the tying run on first base in a one-run game in the 8th, Hoffman walked the second batter he faced (Tino Martinez) and then yielded a three-run home run to Scott Brosius, the decisive blow in what would be a 5-4 Yankees win. In that pivotal game, which essentially ended the Padres’ chances in the series, Rivera entered the bottom of the 8th in a similar situation. There were two runners on and a 2-run lead to protect. Rivera yielded a sacrifice fly to Greg Vaughn but ended the threat by striking out Ken Caminiti. The Sandman then pitched a scoreless 9th to wrap up the save.

deadspin.com

Even if he had pitched his entire career without appearing in a post-season game, Rivera would still be hailed as the greatest relief pitcher in this history of the sport. No matter what statistic for regular season performance you choose, Rivera is at or near the top. His post-season record (5 championships, an 8-1 record, 42 saves with just 5 blown saves, a 0.70 ERA in 141 innings) is merely frosting on the cake. Still, it’s a whole lot of frosting, so much that if you ate it all you would be in a sugar coma for a week.

Rivera wasn’t perfect. There was the Sandy Alomar home run to right field porch at Yankee Stadium in the 1997 ALDS, the Luis Gonzalez broken-bat bloop single to win Game 7 of the 2001 World Series for Arizona (Rivera’s only October loss), and the blown save in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS in Boston (the Dave Roberts steal/Bill Mueller single). We remember these moments the way you might remember a lunar eclipse. They were so infrequent and unexpected that they are memorable for their rarity.

Was Rivera lucky that he came up with the Yankees with Jeter and Andy Pettitte and played for an owner willing to spend money through free agency or trades for multiple big-money players to help win those titles? Of course he was. He would not have won five rings with any other team during the years he pitched (1995-2013). But it’s also a highly likely that the Yankees would not have won seven pennants and five titles during those years with any other pitcher entrusted to close out all the big games. Jeter, Pettitte and the other Yankees sporting championship rings were exceptionally fortunate to have their teammate named Mariano.

 

The value of post-season performance is one of the eternal Hall of Fame debates at any position. Some writers put a lot of stock in October numbers, others just look at it as “extra credit” or a tie-breaker. I’m in the school of thought that post-season performance deserves an enormous amount of weight when evaluating the totality of a player’s career. For some players, it’s not needed. Ernie Banks didn’t need to have a post-season resume to be a Hall of Famer. Reggie Jackson didn’t need to be Mr. October to be Cooperstown worthy. But for some players, it’s critically important.

New York Yankees pitcher Red Ruffing had a career record of 273-225 with a 3.80 ERA, which is the highest ever for a Cooperstown inductee. That record is a little worse than Tommy John’s (288-231 with a 3.34 ERA) but Ruffing is in the Hall and John is not. You see, Ruffing was also one of the top starting pitchers on teams that won six World Series championships; he went 7-2 with a 2.63 ERA over 10 appearances in seven different World Series match-ups. For me, that’s the difference and that’s his ticket.

In Ruffing’s era (1924-1947) starting pitchers were almost all that mattered when it came to post-season baseball. As we saw in the first two parts of this series, it was commonplace for the best starters in the first half of the 20th century to perform double duty as relief pitchers, even during the regular season. Two of the greatest hurlers of all-time, Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander, had their finest post-season moments when coming out of the bullpen.

In today’s game, we gasped when Madison Bumgarner, on two days of rest, came out of the pen to pitch the final five innings of Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, New York Yankees starter Allie Reynolds (essentially Ruffing’s successor) pitched out of the bullpen six times in the process of helping earn his six championship rings. Reynolds, though primarily a starting pitcher during his career, saved four different World Series games and amazingly, to this day, is tied for the third most World Series saves in MLB history (behind only Rivera and Rollie Fingers).

Baseball started awarding World Series MVP Awards in 1955. The first recipient was the Brooklyn Dodgers’ starter Johnny Podres. From that year through 1968, the World Series MVP was a starting pitcher in 11 out of 14 Fall Classics. Although reliever Larry Sherry of the Los Angeles Dodgers was the MVP of the 1959 World Series (the first relief pitcher so honored), starting pitching ruled. The October heroes included Hall of Famers Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, and Sandy Koufax. And the Detroit Tigers’ Mickey Lolich closed out the pre-LCS era (in 1968) with three complete game victories, besting the great Gibson.

In the early 1970’s, relief pitchers became the rock stars, sometimes greater than the starters who preceded them on the mound in post-season games. The first post-World Series Sports Illustrated cover that I ever saw (in 1975) featured a jubilant Cincinnati reliever Will McEnaney in the arms of catcher Johnny Bench. The cover after the ’74 Fall Classic (the third straight title for the Oakland A’s) had four images, the most prominent face belonging to the Series MVP (Fingers).

Sports Illustrated

 

Athletics Nation

The tall, handlebar-mustachioed Fingers was the first nationally recognized post-season stopper. Fingers, in part perhaps because of his handlebar ‘stache, was arguably the team’s second or third biggest star during their three-year title run, behind only Reggie Jackson and (perhaps) Catfish Hunter.

While the flamboyant and ultra-powerful Jackson would eventually become the most famous of the bunch and earn the nickname “Mr. October,” (a moniker conferred upon him in 1977 by Yankees’ teammate Thurman Munson), it was Fingers who was, pound for pound, the most valuable member of the A’s for the totality of their three World Series titles.

One of the most useful tools to measure post-season performance is WPA, Win Probability Added (See Glossary). If you’re skeptical of some of the advanced metrics, hear me out on this one. It’s fairly easy to understand.

The short version is that WPA measures each at bat in terms of how it adds or detracts from the player’s team’s chances of winning the game. If you’re a pitcher, every out increases your team’s chances to win, every base-runner decreases those odds. What this means is that WPA is context-dependent. A 1-2-3 inning in a game where your team is winning 10-0 is essentially meaningless in terms of increasing the win probability. On the other hand, a scoreless 9th inning in a one-run game is immensely valuable.

In the 1972 World Series, Fingers earned what today we would call a “hold” in Game 1 of the Series, a save in Game 2, a win in Game 4, a loss in Game 5 and a save in Game 7.

In Game 7, Fingers entered in the bottom of the 8th with a 3-1 lead with no outs and two runners in scoring position. In that situation, according to the game log on Baseball Reference, the A’s had a 57% chance of winning the game. Rollie allowed a sacrifice fly but otherwise got out of the inning with the team still up 3-2. With a one-run lead now entering the 9th inning, the A’s odds increased to a 86% chance for victory, thanks to Fingers holding the lead in the 8th. With WPA, Fingers got 0.29 WPA “points,” by adding a positive 29% to the chances of winning (from 57% to 86%). Essentially, 0.29 WPA means a 29% “Win Probability Added.”

In the bottom of the 9th, since the A’s failed to add to their lead in the top of the inning, the odds of winning dipped slightly to 83%. Fingers then tossed a scoreless 9th, increasing the odds from 83% to 100%, Game Over! That’s another 0.17 WPA for a total 0.46 WPA for the game.

For the A’s three championships, on the fluctuating batter-by-batter odds of his team winning each individual game, nobody added more value to the team’s wins than Rollie Fingers, and it’s not even close.

WPA (Win Probability Added) for the Oakland A's (1972-1974) in Postseason
1972-74 PostseasonWPAStatistics
Rollie Fingers2.83-3, 8 Saves, 1.55 ERA
Catfish Hunter1.97-1, 1 Save, 2.24 ERA
Ken Holtzman1.26-2, 1.97 ERA
Blue Moon Odom0.83-1, 1.13 ERA
Gene Tenace0.5.188 BA, .361 OBP, 4 HR, 14 RBI, .704 OPS
Vida Blue0.41-4, 2 Saves, 3.79 ERA
Joe Rudi0.3.264 BA, 3 HR, 15 RBI, .713 OPS
Reggie Jackson0.2.245 BA, 2 HR, 10 RBI, .730 OPS
Sal Bando0.1.202 BA, 4 HR, 9 RBI
Bert Campaneris-0.2.273 BA, 3 HR, 11 RBI, 10 SB
Ray Fosse-0.3.179 BA, 2 HR, 7 RBI
Dick Green-0.7.143 BA, 0 HR, 3 RBI in 84 PA
Courtesy Baseball Reference

Starting with Fingers’ role with Oakland’s three titles, relief pitchers became among the top stars in post-season baseball.

Pinterest

The Yankees won the World Series twice in a row with Sparky Lyle playing a significant role in 1977 and Goose Gossage in 1978. The trend continued in 1979: Pittsburgh Pirates stopper Kent Tekulve, the bespectacled side-arming righty, saved both Games 6 and 7 of the Pirates’ come-from-behind 7-game series win over the Baltimore Orioles.

Tug McGraw is best known from his early career with the New York Mets and earned his second World Series title with the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies. Tug won on the mound for the Phils in their Game 5 and series-clinching Game 6 wins, tossing three innings of scoreless relief to win Game 5 and two scoreless innings in Game 6 to record the save.

The 1981 World Series (featuring Gossage and the Yankees against the Los Angeles Dodgers) was a rarity in that the team with the best relief ace lost. The Dodgers’ Steve Howe earned a win in Game 4 and a save in Game 6, tossing 6.1 innings of 1-run ball.

In 1982, the Fall Classic once again featured a future Hall of Fame stopper with the Cardinals’ Bruce Sutter. The 1983 World Champion Baltimore Orioles had a bullpen anchored by lefty Tippy Martinez, who had the best season of his career that year. In 1984, Guillermo Hernandez won the A.L. MVP and Cy Young on the powerhouse Detroit Tigers, who sailed through the post-season with just one loss. The 1985 Kansas City Royals, finally champions after so many disappointments in the 1970’s, featured one of the top relievers not enshrined in Cooperstown, Dan Quisenberry. The 1986 New York Mets outlasted the Boston Red Sox in one of the greatest Fall Classics of all time thanks in part to the 5.2 scoreless innings and 2 saves by lefty Jesse Orosco. The 1987 Minnesota Twins also had a top closer, Jeff Reardon, who was on the mound to save the 7th game of the World Series, despite an off-year by his standards.

 

1988 World Series Game 1 (USA Today)

The images burned in the brain about the closers of the last half century, needless to say, are not limited to images of handshakes and leaps into the catchers’ arms. There are also the images of pitchers with their heads down after giving up the lead or merely walking off the field after a loss. It was Dennis Eckersley who coined the term “walk off” to describe a home run by the opposing team so obvious that all you could do was walk off the field.  And it was Eck, of course, who threw the pitch that resulted in the most famous walk-off of the LCS era, Kirk Gibson’s improbable pinch-hit two-run blast in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. The image tapestry of Eckersley’s career includes the finger pointing after what he calls a “punch out” but also includes Gibson hobbling around the bases while he walked off the field.

When we remember Gossage, we remember him closing out the 1978 tie-breaker game, the ALCS and World Series but we also can’t forget George Brett’s towering blast in Game 3 of the 1980 ALCS or Gibson’s bomb at Tiger Stadium in Game 5 of the 1984 World Series.

Lee Smith saved 478 regular season games but the #1 image on the brain is the walk-off home run by Steve Garvey in Game 4 of the ’84 NLCS, spoiling the chances for the Chicago Cubs to reach their first World Series in 76 years.

And, despite 601 career saves, it’s hard not to remember the games that Trevor Hoffman couldn’t save, such as Game 3 of the ’98 World Series (the Brosius home run) and the heartbreaking 2007 tie-breaker game at Coors Field in which he blew a two-run lead in the bottom of the 13th inning.

For every late-inning post-season hitting hero, there is a corresponding pitching goat. For Bobby Thompson there was Ralph Branca. For Bill Mazeroski, there was Ralph Terry, for Chris Chambliss there was Mark Littell, for Ozzie Smith there was Tom Niedenfuer, for Dave Henderson there was Donnie Moore, and so on.

When it comes to October baseball, relief pitchers take on a level of critical importance far beyond the regular season. There are two (fairly obvious) reasons for this. The first is that, because post-season baseball involves far more off days than in the regular season schedule, top relievers are able to appear in a vastly higher percentage of their team’s games. The second, of course, is that the stakes are so much higher. Blow a save in July, you live to fight another day. Blow a save in October, you might have blown your team’s chance to advance to the next round or capture a championship.

The year after Eckersley was burned by Gibson’s walk-off blast, he was on the mound to close out the lone 1989 championship for what could have been a multi-title dynasty in Oakland.

In Cincinnati, 1990 was the year after hometown legend Pete Rose was permanently banned from the game, Lou Piniella took over the Cincinnati Reds and immediately led the team to the post-season. The Reds featured a future Hall of Fame shortstop (Barry Larkin), a strong starting rotation led by ace Jose Rijo and a lights-out bullpen that is to this day heralded as the model for building a relief corps.

The triumvirate of Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton (dubbed the “Nasty Boys”) were what Larkin called the most valuable piece of the 1990 team. They all threw hard, they got outs and had a “don’t screw with me” demeanor.

Dibble (with a 1.74 ERA for the season) and Myers (31 saves and a 2.08 ERA) were both All-Stars and were co-MVP’s of the Reds six-game NLCS win against the Pittsburgh Pirates, combining for 10.2 innings of scoreless, 2-hit ball.

All told, between the NLCS and the Reds’ improbable four-game sweep of the Oakland A’s in the World Series, the Nasty Boys combined for 24.1 innings pitched in which they allowed a grand total of one run (a combined 0.37 ERA).

Although there were many other top shelf bullpens in the subsequent years, the heralded “three-headed monster” pen didn’t return until 2014-15, when the Kansas City Royals won two pennants and one World Series title.

The 2014 Royals had not appeared in the post-season since their title team of 1985 but, by virtue of the Wild Card system, found themselves in the playoffs, using a formula of defense, base running and bullpen dominance, featuring Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera.

ERA leaders among all MLB relief pitchers (minimum 60 IP)
Rank2014 Regular SeasonTeamERAERA+SO/9
1Wade DavisKC1.0039613.6
2Dellin BetancesNYY1.4027413.5
3Kelvin HerreraKC1.412807.6
4Greg HollandKC1.4427413.0
Courtesy Baseball Reference
Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland (espn.com)

Whether you rank them by ERA or park-adjusted ERA+, the Royals were hogging three of the best relief pitchers in all of baseball and that triumvirate might have led them to the World Championship were it not for the super-human efforts of Bumgarner in the World Series.

In 2015, the Royals did not have Holland for the stretch drive (he was lost to Tommy John surgery) but were able to replace him with Ryan Madson, a former closer in Philadelphia. The combined efforts of Davis, Madson and Herrera didn’t quite match what the troika did in 2014 but it was good enough to get them back to the World Series. Taking over as the designated closer after Holland went down, Davis had a superb overall campaign, posting a 0.94 ERA in 67.1 innings.

After the ’15 World Series, some teams started trying to deliberately replicate the Royals’ super-pen strategy, in particular the New York Yankees. In spite of the fact that the Yankees core was aging and the team was not really considered a post-season contender, GM Brian Cashman decided to trade for Aroldis Chapman even though he already had one of the best one-two punches in the game with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller.

In July, when the Yankees were hovering around the .500, Cashman decided to cash in, trading both Chapman (to the Chicago Cubs) and Miller (to Cleveland Indians) for a franchise-rejuvenating trove of eight players. Not coincidentally, the two former teammates were opponents in the 2016 World Series, ultimately won by the Cubs in spite of Chapman’s slip-up, blowing a 3-run lead in the 8th.

When Miller joined the Tribe, he became the fourth of a quartet of solid relievers, the others being Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero and designated “closer” Cody Allen, who was spotless in 10 October outings.

 

In between the year of the Nasty Boys and the super-pens of the last couple of seasons, post-season relief pitching was dominated by the great Mariano Rivera, who played a crucial role in five championships for the New York Yankees spanning fourteen seasons. Lest we forget, in 1996 Rivera was the set-up man for John Wetteland, who was the MVP of the World Series that year.

The 2002 post-season featured a 20-year-old rookie flame-thrower for the Anaheim Angels who had logged a grand total of five regular season outings, coming in each time when the team was losing. Francisco Rodriguez clearly made an impression on manager Mike Scioscia in those five outings (in which he struck out 13 and gave up no runs) and was added to the post-season roster. All told, K-Rod made 11 post-season appearances, posting a 1.93 ERA while being credited with five wins in relief. Rodriguez made a good tandem with four-time All-Star Troy Percival, who saved seven games in nine October outings.

In between the 7-game classics of 2002 and 2014, names like Keith Foulke in 2004, Adam Wainwright (2006), Jonathan Papelbon (2007), Brad Lidge (2008), Brian Wilson (2010), Sergio Romo (2012), and Koji Uehara (2013) made significant contributions to their teams’ title runs.

 

Earlier, when commenting on Fingers’ significant role in the A’s dynasty of the early 1970’s, we introduced the concept of WPA (Win Probability Added). This statistic, for relief pitchers, tells the true story about the impact that each of them had on the games in which they pitched. It tells that story much better than ERA. If you’re a closer and you enter the game with runners on base and those runners score, they don’t count against your ERA but they may have cost your team the game, a somewhat important thing.

Here is the list of the top 10 relief pitchers in post-season WPA (and also the numbers of many of the top relievers we’ve discussed in this series).

The chart below includes the ranks for each pitcher among the 563 in history that have pitched at least four games out of the bullpen in post-season baseball.

Career WPA (Win Probability Added) in Post-Season Games (min 4 games)
Post-Season as RP (Top 10)WPAGamesERASavesBL. SV
Mariano Rivera11.7960.70425
Rollie Fingers2.5302.3591
Mike Stanton2.4532.1011
Wade Davis2.1220.3340
Brad Lidge1.9392.18182
Andrew Miller1.8180.9810
Jeremy Affeldt1.8330.8600
Randy Myers1.7292.3580
Jonathan Papelbon1.6181.0072
Brian Wilson1.6170.0061
Notables
Tug McGraw1.3262.2482
John Franco1.1151.8811
Sparky Lyle0.9131.6912
Goose Gossage0.8192.8783
Bruce Sutter0.863.0030
Dennis Eckersley0.7282.05152
Francisco Rodriguez0.1262.9532
Lee Smith-0.448.4410
Jeff Reardon-0.7184.5763
Trevor Hoffman-0.8123.4642
Billy Wagner-0.91410.0331
Joe Nathan-1.0108.1012
Dan Quisenberry-1.2183.2133
Mitch Williams-1.6137.0034
Courtesy Baseball Reference

A few takeaways from this list.

  • The chasm between leader Rivera and 2nd place Fingers is enormous but, of course, it’s due in large part to the volume of opportunities; the added round of the Division Series and the Yankees’ long-term annual spot in the playoffs gave Mo over three times as many October games pitched as Rollie. In all 96 of those opportunities, 90 times he helped his team; just 6 times he didn’t. That’s insanely great. As a point of comparison, Joe Nathan, a terrific regular season closer, pitched in 10 post-season games and had a negative impact in 7 of those games.
  • Mike Stanton was the primary set-up man for the Braves World Series teams of 1991 and 1992 and Rivera’s set-up man from 1997-2001. In his first 43 post-season appearances, his ERA was 0.97, a microscopic number close to Mariano’s.
  • You might be really surprised to see Lidge on this list since the indelible images of his career are of, when he was with Houston, the moon-shot home run given up to Albert Pujols in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS and the Scott Podsednik walk-off in Game 1 of the World Series of the same year. But Lidge was also the closer for the great Philadelphia teams from 2008-2011. In post-season games with the Phillies, he saved 12 games, blew none and had a 1.77 ERA.
  • Despite his ring with the 1985 Kansas City Royals, Quisenberry had a poor post-season record. He was in negative WPA territory 7 times out of 18 games, blew three saves in six chances and, most notably, blew two leads in the Royals’ 1980 World Series loss to Philadelphia.
  • And, continuing the Phillies theme, Mitch Williams is on this list for one reason. Sorry to say, but his WPA is the worst for a relief pitcher in the history of post-season baseball. He blew saves and lost two games in the 1993 World Series. Those losses happened to occur in the two most famous games of that post-season, the Blue Jays 15-14 win in Game 4 and the Joe Carter walk-off three-run home run in Game 6, which turned a potential 6-5 Philadelphia win into a 8-6 defeat and a 2nd consecutive championship to Toronto.

By the way, if the 2007 tie-breaker game between San Diego and Colorado were considered a post-season game (today it would have been the Wild Card Game), Hoffman’s blown save combined with his other October miscues would put him at the flat bottom of this list, behind even the Wild Thing.

You might be interested to see that there are so many big names near the bottom of this list.

In the bottom 20 of post-season relief pitcher WPA, most of the names are ones that a serious fan would know (depending on your age): Hoffman, Dave Smith, Drew Storen, Don Stanhouse, Dave Stewart (as a reliever with the Dodgers before his excellent starting pitching career in Oakland and Toronto), Ron Reed, Billy Wagner, Sean Doolittle, Donnie Moore, Nathan, Darren Holmes, Armando Benitez, Jose Valverde, Bob Stanley, Jonathan Broxton, Quisenberry, Rawly Eastwick, Tom Niedenfuer, Gene Garber and Williams.

Many of the names on the bottom of the list were the primary closers for their teams. Because these pitchers were considered the best (or 2nd best) on their teams, they were used to close out the games or pitch in high-leverage tie games. As you look through those names, I’m sure you’ll remember many of the moments and the opponents that put them on this list. When your team is leading in the 9th inning (or extras) and you’re on the mound, you’re supposed to win that game. If you fail, WPA will punish you severely, sometimes unfairly. WPA just counts what happened. So, when a ball goes through the legs of your first baseman in the bottom of the 10th inning of World Series game, that counts against the pitcher. Sorry about that, Bob Stanley.

 

Finally, when it comes to post-season relief pitching, an ode to Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.

We began this series on relief pitching by showcasing the role that Madison Bumgarner (a starter) played in the 2014 World Series title for the San Francisco Giants. As we noted, it was actually a regular occurrence in the first half of the 20th century for a starting pitcher to be used in relief in post-season baseball but its been fairly rare in the LCS era, with most of the starting pitcher usage coming in elimination games.

Catfish Hunter, Orel Hershiser, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens and Clayton Kershaw all have had memorable moments out of the bullpen in October but none had an impact quite like Johnson, who had two such moments.

Seattle Times

Randy Johnson was the most fearsome pitcher of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. At 6 feet 10 inches tall, ragged long hair and a menacing scowl, he was the ultimate workhorse ace in an era where they started to disappear. The Big Unit completed 100 games in his career, won 303 games overall, threw a no-hitter, a perfect game and recorded more strikeouts than any pitcher in baseball history other than Nolan Ryan.

Johnson started 603 regular season games and 16 more in the post-season but it was his work out of the bullpen in which he made his mark in two of the games that MLB Network recently ranked as among the 20 greatest of the previous 50 years.

On August 20, 1995, the Seattle Mariners were 53-53 and 12 1/2 games behind the California Angels in the American League West. The M’s proceeded to play 26-13 ball the rest of the way, ultimately erasing the Angels’ advantage and defeating them in a one-game tie-breaker the day after the conclusion of the regular season. Johnson, Seattle’s ace, did his part, going 5-0 with a 1.37 ERA in seven starts (all team wins) to put them into the playoff. Then, in that tie-breaker game, pitching on three days rest, he threw a complete game 3-hitter with 12 strikeouts in the team’s 9-1 win, which put the Mariners in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

In the American League Division Series, the Mariners would face the most celebrated October team in MLB history, the New York Yankees, but it was the Bronx Bombers’ first post-season outing since 1981. The Yankees, the Wild Card team in the first year of the new format, won the first two games of the ALDS at Yankee Stadium. Pitching again on 3 days of rest, the Big Unit gave Seattle what it needed in Game 3, a 7-inning outing of 2-run ball in a 7-4 victory. Thanks to an 8th inning grand slam by Edgar Martinez, the M’s won a hard-fought 11-8 victory in Game 4, setting up the winner-take-all Game 5.

With the team trailing 4-2 in the 7th ininng, M’s manager Lou Piniella summoned his former Nasty Boy, team closer Norm Charlton, into the game. The M’s wound up tying the game in the 8th with a Ken Griffey Jr. solo home run and a bases loaded walk issued by Yankees’ starter David Cone. In the top of the 9th, Charlton yieled a leadoff double and a walk and so, with Wade Boggs coming up to the plate, Piniella summoned his Big Unit to bail out Charlton. Johnson, pitching on one day of rest, promptly struck out Boggs and then got Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill to pop out.

After striking out the side in the 10th, Johnson walked the lead-off batter in the 11th. After a sacrifice bunt, Randy Velarde scored the go-ahead run with a ground ball single to left field. Johnson then struck out two of the last three batters to get out of the inning. In the bottom of the 11th, of course, Edgar Martinez famously hit a two-run double off Jack McDowell to give the Mariners the ALDS series win.

The Mariners seemingly ran out of gas after the emotional regular season and ALDS triumphs. They lost in 6 games in the ALCS to the Cleveland Indians, with Johnson being outpointed by veteran Dennis Martinez in the climactic Game 6.

The Sporting News

Johnson’s next October outing out of the bullpen came in 2001, in Game 7 of the World Series. The Big Unit was pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks and, again, the opposition was the New York Yankees, this version being the one that had won four of the five previous Fall Classics. The D’Backs did not have a superstar closer but they had two great starters, Johnson and Curt Schilling. The D’Backs had a 2-1 series lead but, in back to back games at Yankee Stadium, closer Byung-Hyun Kim gave up game-tying 9th inning home runs to Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius, not to mention the Derek Jeter “Mr. November” tater that ended Game 4.

Back in Phoenix, with Johnson on the mound, the Diamondbacks lit up Andy Pettitte in Game 6, ultimately winning 15-2. In Game 7, Schilling had pitched seven innings of shutout ball but then yielded a solo home run to Alfonso Soriano. After a strikeout and a single, manager Bob Brenly replaced Schilling with Miguel Batista, but just for one batter. With two outs in the inning, for the second time in his October career, Johnson was summoned from the bullpen. He got Chuck Knoblauch to fly out and then retired the side in order in the top of the 9th. As we all remember, in the bottom of the 9th, Luis Gonzalez hit a bloop single off Mariano Rivera to win the game for Johnson and the Diamondbacks.

Randy Johnson won 303 regular season games and seven more in the post-season but none of those wins were greater than his two forays out of the bullpen to save the day.

 

In Part Seven of this series on the history of relief pitching, we’ll look at which legends of October deserve to share space on the wall in Cooperstown that features Johnson’s Hall of Fame plaque. We’ll draw conclusions on how many relievers belong in the Hall and to what degree post-season glory deserves to shape a Hall of Fame resume.

Before that, in Part Six, we’ll tackle the tricky question of how to properly assess the careers of the multi-inning firemen of the 1970’s and ’80’s to the one-inning closers in the decades the have followed.

Click here to continue to Part Six.

Thanks for reading.

Chris Bodig

Leave Your Thoughts, Comments or Snide Remarks