Spitting the bit.
Laying an egg. Failing the test. Choking. Major League Baseball has made heroes of players who otherwise would have faded into obscurity. And it’s made goats of players who should be remembered for much more.
In general, though, we remember the heroes more than the goats. We remember those involved in singular events (Merkel, Buckner and Pesky spring to mind, all unfairly tarred by World Series disasters), but perhaps no player more affects the game in which he plays than the starting pitcher. He can pitch his team to victory, keep his team in the game, or take the club and the crowd out of it.
In the wake of Josh Beckett’s and Curt Schilling’s respective gems this week — with Beckett’s established as one of the best in the postseason’s recent history — I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the other end of the spectrum: Those pitchers who were asked to lead their team into battle, and tripped over their shoelaces instead.
I started objectively — a straight list of the lowest postseason game scores ever. But statistics can only show so much. An egg means much more in the World Series than a divisional series. It means even more if you’re the team’s ace, if it’s a potential elimination game, and especially if it’s a Game 5 or Game 7. And a poor performance by a starter is magnified if his team later rallies to make a game of it.
So the following Top 10 (or Bottom 10, if you will), roughly follows the 10 worst game scores, but I’ve mixed it up to account for context.
1. Todd Stottlemyre, St. Louis Cardinals, 1996 NLCS Game 5 v. Atlanta
- 1 IP, 9 H, 7 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, Game Score: 8
The Cardinals were up three games to one when Stottlemyre took the hill hoping to provide St. Louis its first National League pennant in 10 years. The 14-game winner (110 ERA+) anchored a strong starting staff that also consisted of Andy Benes (111) and Donovan Osborne (121). Stottlemyre had already won Game 2, pitching six strong innings and striking out eight. Tony LaRussa brought him out on three days’ rest to nail down the series in Game 5 against the Braves’ John Smoltz.
Obviously, that strategy backfired. Marquis Grissom blooped a single on the first pitch of the game. On the fifth pitch, Mark Lemke doubled. Chipper Jones doubled them home, and Fred McGriff drove him in with a single. The Braves led, 3-0, on 13 pitches and no outs. After Ryan Klesko and Javy Lopez obliged Stottlemyre by striking out and grounding out respectively, Stottlemyre appeared to be righting the ship. Until Jermaine Dye singled, and Jeff Blauser smashed a two-run triple. The ninth batter of the inning, Smoltz, grounded out to end the carnage.
But Stottlemyre wasn’t done, and neither were the Braves. Grissom, Lemke and Jones each stroked singles, plating a run and booting Stottlemyre from the game, leaving Danny Jackson to pour gasoline on the 6-0 fire. Jackson induced a line-drive double play, but Klesko followed with an RBI single, closing Stottlemyre’s book. The Cardinals were down 7-0 after two, and lost 14-0. The Braves won Game 6, 3-1, then crushed Osborne for six runs in the first inning of Game 7 on their way to a 15-0 pennant-clinching victory.
2. Russ Ortiz, San Francisco Giants, 2002 World Series Game 2 v. Anaheim
- 1.2 IP, 9 H, 7 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, Game Score: 9
Ortiz was another above-average National League starter (14 wins, 105 ERA+), and he was one season away from 21 wins. The Giants had a young, effective staff, led by Jason Schmidt, who had won Game 1 with five decent innings. Ortiz would not be able to follow suit.
Grit Eckstein led off the bottom of the first with a gutsy single to right, followed up quickly by Darin Erstad (RBI single), Tim Salmon (single) and Garret Anderson (RBI single). Two runs, four hits, 11 pitches. After Troy Glaus flied out, Brad Fullmer (RBI single) and Scott Spiezio (RBI single) kept chipping away. Then Fullmer, now at third, inflicted the final indignity — he stole home on the front end of a double steal with Spiezio.
What made Ortiz’s performance all the worse for San Francisco was that the Giant bats had begun to slam Kevin Appier. Ortiz took the mound in the second down just 5-4. Eckstein pushed a bunt to third for a leadoff single, and one out later, Salmon ripped a homer, pushing the lead to 7-4. Inexplicably, Dusty Baker continued to leave Ortiz out there until Glaus doubled with two outs.
The Giants lost Game 2, 11-10. Had Ortiz thrown just poorly, as opposed to horribly, the Giants would have won the game, and the Angels’ rookie starter John Lackey would not have even had the chance to make modern baseball history in Game 7.
3. Mordecai Brown, Chicago Cubs, 1906 World Series Game 6 v. Chicago
- 1.2 IP, 8 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, Game Score: 12
No one had a better year then Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown in 1906. The ace of an impressive Cub squad whose starters held the top three spots in ERA that year, Brown won 26 games. His 1.04 ERA was good for a career-best 253 ERA+, the eighth-highest single-season mark ever. Always a dominant pitcher, 1906 could still be considered Brown’s breakout season — the first of six straight where he won 20 games and five straight with an ERA below 2.00 and an ERA+ above 150.
Brown was a tough-luck loser in Game 1 of the crosstown World Series against the White Sox, falling 2-1. He returned on two days’ rest to throw a two-hit shutout, winning the game 1-0 and tying the series at two games apiece. After the Sox won an 8-6 slugfest in Game 5, Cubs player-manager Frank Chance turned to Brown a third time in six days in an attempt to force a seventh game.
Pitching on just one day of rest, Brown clearly didn’t have it. He took a 1-0 lead with him to start the bottom of the first, but the hits came quickly: A leadoff single, a forceout, another single, an RBI double, a groundout nailing the runner at the plate, and a two-run double before a groundout ended the three-run outburst.
The second inning was worse, however, and it all occurred after Brown quickly recorded the first two outs. A walk sandwiched by two singles loaded the bases, then George Davis lined a two-run single to left. Another single reloaded the bags, and Brown’s day was done. Unfortunately, his line was not — reliever Orval Overall (proud owner of one of the best names in baseball history) allowed an infield single, then walked Patsy Daugherty to force in the fourth and final run of the inning before striking out Billy Sullivan. The Cubs lost, 8-3, with Overall giving up just one more run the rest of the game.
Don’t feel too badly for Three-Finger, though. Brown redeemed himself by pitching the Cubs to World Series titles in 1907 (in which he won the clincher) and 1908.
4. Woody Williams, St. Louis Cardinals, 2004 World Series Game 1 v. Boston
- 2.1 IP, 8 H, 7 ER, 3 BB, 1 K, Game Score: 11
Williams was merely a league-average pitcher in 2004, and it was his misfortune that it was the National League during a decade in which the Senior League has been decidedly junior. The aging Williams was a year removed from 18 wins. Neither team, each coming off seven-game series, had the option of which starter would open the series.
When it was all done, Williams had averaged more than 10 pitches for every out he recorded. It started with a 10-pitch at-bat to Johnny Damon in the bottom of the first that ended with a double. Williams hit Orlando Cabrera with a pitch, and Damon advanced to third on a Manny Ramirez flyout. David Ortiz made the baserunning moot with a three-run bomb. On the next pitch, Kevin Millar ripped a double, and one out lter scored on a Bill Mueller single.
Williams allowed two more baserunners in the second, but squirmed free of the jam. He was not so lucky in the third. With the score 4-2 Boston, Williams started by getting Trot Nixon on a groundout. It would be the last out he’d get, as Mueller walked, Doug Mirabelli singled, Mark Bellhorn walked and Damon singled to score Mueller. That chased Williams, but reliever Danny Haren was little better, allowing two of the three inhereted runners to score, seemingly giving the Red Sox a comfortable cushion.
Instead, the Cardinals rallied to tie the game in the eighth, and lost by two. Just giving up five runs would have been enough to keep his team in the game. Instead, the Cardinals were swept in four games.
5. Gil Heredia, Oakland Athletics, 2000 ALDS Game 5 v. New York
- 0.1 IP, 4 H, 6 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, Game Score: 17
Having beaten up Roger Clemens to force a decisive fifth game, the Oakland A’s turned to Heredia, a journeyman reliever who had finished his first season as a starter at age 33. He was average, at best, but an average performance likely would have us talking about the Yankees’ eight straight seasons without a title this year
Instead, Heredia bombed, recording only one out — on a sacrifice fly by Bernie Williams with the bases loaded. Chuck Knobaluch scored on the play, and Derek Jeter and Paul O’Neill advanced when Heredia walked David Justice to reload the bags. Tino Martinez cleared the bases with a double, and a Jorge Posada single chased Heredia after just seven batters. Martinez and Posada scored against reliever Jeff Tam, closing the book on Heredia’s postseason.
Despite trailing 6-0 after the first, the A’s fought back for five runs against Andy Pettitte. Just a slightly better performance by Heredia would have sent the Athletics to the ALCS.
6. Bartolo Colon, Cleveland Indians, 1999 ALDS Game 4 v. Boston
- 1 IP, 6 H, 7 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, Game Score: 13
There were few pitchers more promising in the late 1990s than Bartolo Colon, who by 1999, his third season in the game, had been named to an All-Star team and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. An 18-game winner that year, his age 26 season, Colon would fulfill some — but never really all — his promise, winning 20 games twice and a Cy Young once.
But in 1999, he was far and away Cleveland’s ace, and after jumping ahead of the Red Sox 2-0 in that year’s ALDS, the Indians turned to Colon on three days’ rest. Colon didn’t have it, and the results were spectacularly awful for the Indians.
Colon coughed up a 1-0, first-inning lead in two batters — a walk to Jose Offerman followed by a John Valentin home run — then retired the next three. With the score tied in the second, and Sox starter Kent Mercker already out of the game, Colon lost it entirely. Mike Stanley and Jason Varitek led off with singles, followed by Darren Lewis’ RBI knock and Trot Nixon’s two-run double. Jose Offerman’s two-run homer knocked Colon from the game before he could record a single out in the frame.
The start set the tone for one of the most lopsided games in postseason history. Boston scored at least twice in seven of eight innings, swatting seven doubles, a triple and three homers en route to a 23-7 rout. The Red Sox completed the three-game comeback the next day.
7. Grover Cleveland Alexander, St. Louis Cardinals, 1928 World Series Game 2 v. New York
- 2.1 IP, 6 H, 8 ER, 4 BB, 1 K, Game Score: 10
Alexander, the future Hall of Fame starter, was easily one of the most dominant starters of his eras — he won at least 27 games six times between 1911 and 1920 (30 wins in three straight seasons, 1915-17), but he posted an ERA+ of no lower than 113 from 1921 (when he was 34 years old) to 1929. Unlike many pitchers, he thrived after the introduction of the live ball; ultimately he won 373 games, a total we will probably never see again.
Unfortunately, he could not solve the Yankees in 1928, his last full season in baseball. For that matter, neither could anyone else on the Cardinals. The Yanks used just three pitchers in sweeping the Cards out of the Series. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig combined for seven home runs and 13 RBI. They carried the team — no one else but Cedric Durst batted better than .250.
It was Gehrig who punished Alexander in Game 2. Durst led off the bottom of the first with a single. With one out, Ruth walked, setting up Gehrig for the three-run homer. He quickly recorded the next two outs, and when he took the hill in the second, the Cardinals had rallied against George Pipgras to tie the game. Alexander gave the lead back on a walk, sacrifice bunt and a Durst RBI single. In the third, the veteran starter fell apart, giving up a single to Ruth and walking Gehrig. Bob Meusel doubled Ruth home, and after a Tony Lazzeri strikeout, another walk loaded the bases for the Yankees’ bottom third: Benny Bengough, Pipgras and Ben Paschal. Each reached base — single, HBP and single — to drive in three runs, chase Alexander and seal the victory.
8. Tom Glavine, Atlanta Braves, 1992 NLCS Game 6 v. Pittsburgh
- 1 IP, 6 H, 8 R, 7 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, Game Score: 11
One would assume Braves fans felt confident going into Game 6 of the ’92 NLCS. Steve Avery had lost a chance to finish off the Pirates in Game 5, not even making it out of the first while giving up four runs. But Tom Glavine was taking the mound, fresh off a second straight 20-win season. He had pitched well in Game 3, outdueled by rookie knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
Bobby Cox brought Glavine back on three days’ rest to again face Wakefield for Game 6 and the Braves’ second chance to move to the World Series. Wakefield pitched a complete game. Glavine couldn’t get out of the second despite facing just three batters in the first. In the second, the Pirates sent 12 men to the plate. Glavine faced eight of them, and they all scored before he left the game. The big blows: a Barry Bonds solo home run, Don Slaught’s two-run double three batters later, a pair of defensive miscues on Jose Lind’s grounder and Wakefield’s bunt, a Gary Redus RBI double, and finally Jay Bell’s three-run homer that drove Glavine from the game.
Reliever Charlie Liebrandt recorded three outs over the next four batters, but only because Bonds made the third out trying to score from first on a single. The Braves finally won the do-or-die Game 7 in one of the better series finishes of all-time, avoiding an historic collapse with a three-run ninth capped by Francisco Cabrera’s pinch-hit, two-run single to win the game, 3-2, and the series, 4-3.
Glavine’s start was all the more remarkable because it was the second terrible start for him in the same series — an exceptionally rare feat (see below), particularly considering his status as a future Hall of Famer
9. Andy Pettitte, New York Yankees, 2001 World Series Game 6 v. Arizona
- 2 IP, 7 H, 6 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, Game Score: 17
Pettitte was (and is) well known for his steady if unspecatcular pitching. In 2001, he was in the middle of eight straight seasons with at least 13 wins. Although he never matched his career-best second season in the bigs (1996), Pettitte was an anchor of the late-1990s Yankee dynasty. He was elected to the 2001 All-Star team, but his pitching in that year’s memorable World Series left much to be desired.
The series swung back and forth, Arizona leaping in front 2-0 on the backs of Curt Schilling and Randy johnson, the Yankees taking the next three. New York turned to Pettitte, who had lost a pitcher’s duel to Schilling in Game 1, to win the Yankees’ fifth championship in six years against Randy Johnson.
Pettitte opened by giving up a ground-rule double to Tony Womack, who scored on the very next pitch on a Denny Bautista single. A double play helped Pettitte get out of the inning without further damage. In the second, however, he ran into more trouble, giving up a single and a walk, inducing a groundout then intentionally walking Damian Miller to load the bases for Johnson, who complied with a ground ball. The Yankees couldn’t turn two but got the force at home, leaving the bases loaded for Tony Womack, who plated two with a single, and Bautista followed with another RBI hit before Luis Gonzalez struck out to end the inning.
Pettitte entered the third clearly on a short leash, and after walking Greg Colbrunn and giving up a long double to Matt Williams, he was pulled for Jay Witasik, whose performance was even worse. Witasik gave up four straight singles, struck out Womack, then alternated singles and doubles to the next four batters before striking out Reggie Sanders to end it. In the end, Witasik gave up eight runs in the inning — the first two charged to Pettitte.
The Yankees lost, 15-2, setting the stage for the epic Game 7 that ended New York’s string of incredible Octobers.
10. Brad Penny, Florida Marlins, Game 2 2003 NLCS Game 2 v. Chicago
- 2 IP, 7 H, 7 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, Game Score: 12
Penny was one of a trio of amazing Marlin youngsters in 2003. Josh Beckett broke through in the postseason, while Dontrelle Willis was spectacular in the regular season. Penny was outshone by both, despite pitching well himself in that year’s World Series, and really didn’t break out until 2007.
Penny followed an uneven Beckett performance in Game 1, which Florida won in extra innings, with an even outing — bad in all aspects. The series would move on to be defined by Steve Bartman and yet another epic Cubs’ collapse, but Penny’s start laid the foundation by giving the Cubs their first win.
There was no epic meltdown in Penny’s start. A one-out single to Mark Grudzielanek, followed by walks to Sammy Sosa and (one out later) Aramis Ramirez loaded the bases for Randall Simon, who smacked a two-run single before Penny extricated himself. In the second, it was much the same: A leadoff single, a sacrifice bunt, and a run-scoring Kenny Lofton single led to the third run, and Sosa’s two-out home run added the fourth and fifth. Ramirez led off the third with another homer, and Jack McKeon pulled Penny after Simon singled. Reliever Nate Bump allowed Simon to score and gave up a run of his own. That was more than enough support for Mark Prior, who took the win.
Special mentions (multiple starts, Game Score below 30, same postseason):
1. Tommy Greene, Philadelphia Phillies, 1993
- NLCS Game 2 v. Atlanta: 2.1 IP, 7 H, 7 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, Game Score: 15
- World Series Game 4 v. Toronto: 2.1 IP, 7 H, 7 ER, 4 BB, 1 K , Game Score: 12
2. Jaret Wright, Cleveland Indians, 1998
- ALDS Game 1 v. Boston: 4.1 IP, 7 H, 6 ER, 2 BB, 6 K, Game Score: 29
- ALCS Game 1 v. New York: .2 IP, 5 H, 5 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, Game Score: 22
3. Bret Saberhagen, Boston Red Sox, 1999
- ALDS Game 2 v. Cleveland: 2.2 IP, 5 H, 6 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, Game Score: 23
- ALDS Game 5 v. Cleveland: 3 IP, 6 H, 8 R, 7 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, Game Score: 24
4. Tom Glavine, Atlanta Braves, 2002
- NLDS Game 1 v. San Francisco: 5 IP, 10 H, 6 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, Game Score: 24
- NLDS Game 4 v. San Francisco: 2.2 IP, 7 H, 7 ER, 5 BB, 1 K, Game Score: 12
5. Chien-Ming Wang, New York Yankees, 2007
- ALDS Game 1 v. Cleveland: 4.2 IP, 9 H, 8 ER, 4 BB, 2 K, Game Score: 12
- ALDS Game 4 v. Cleveland: 1 IP, 5 H, 4 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, Game Score: 27