The Big Three, Pt. 3

The third and final installment of our look at the Sox' top three starters in each of their previous postseason appearances. This segment includes the entirety of the Wild Card era, from the division championship in 1995 all the way to last year's ALCS appearance.

1995

  • Tim Wakefield, 165
  • Roger Clemens, 116
  • Erik Hanson, 115

Wakefield caught lightning in a bottle after the Sox claimed him off waivers from Pittsburgh, but the gaudy season-ending numbers belied the fact that the knuckler had lost its magic by September. Wakefield had a 5.60 ERA in his last 10 starts, seven of them being absolute bombs (5 ER or more). Clemens, meanwhile, was recovering from injury, and trending in the opposite direction: a 2.88 ERA in the final two months of the season and a nearly 9.0 K/9. Hanson was good more often than he wasn't, while Zane Smith and Vaughn Eshelman (Yankee killer!) rounded out the rotation. Rookie Aaron Sele also took the Sox by storm that year (159 ERA+ in six starts).

Game 1 featured a strong start by Clemens… until he blew a 2-0 lead and gave up three runs in the sixth. The Sox rallied to tie, but Cleveland took it in 13. Hanson pitched a complete game in Game 2, giving up four runs, but Orel Hersheiser pitched a three-hit shutout. Wakefield made it into the sixth inning of Game 3, and then he was shelled. 

The Sox had a chance in Game 1, but not really any in the other two games. One does not win a playoff series with Tim Wakefield and Erik Hanson among your top three, and Clemens had yet to prove he could dominate in the postseason.

1998

  • Pedro Martinez, 163
  • Bret Saberhagen, 119
  • Tim Wakefield, 103

1999

  • Pedro Martinez, 243
  • Bret Saberhagen, 170
  • Pat Rapp, 122

From the ace seemingly overshadowed in the playoffs by lesser lights we move to the ace standing alone. 

Martinez was phenomenal in 1998 and superhuman in 1999. If the Red Sox had Bret Saberhagen from five years earlier, they might have won a couple World Series, but they didn't. They had reclamation-project Saberhagen, and while he was surprisingly good in the regular season, he wasn't by any stretch the second ace you like to see from a playoff squad. A league-average Wakefield in '98 and Pat Rapp in '99 tell you all you need to know about the depths of these squads, which were carried by Pedro, Nomar, Mo and spare parts. Pete Schourek was the No. 4 starter in '98, putting up decent numbers in limited work.

Nevertheless, Sabes had a 2.87 ERA in his final 17 starts of 1998, and posted the second-highest ERA+ of his career in 1999. The '98 divisional series opened with a win, the Sox' first playoff win since Game 5 of the 1986 World Series. Martinez wasn't brilliant, but he was good enough for the win as the Sox' bats came alive. After that, however, it was all downhill: Wakefield was shelled in Game 2, Saberhagen was outdueled by Charles Nagy and a ninth-inning rally fell short in Game 3, and Schourek was excellent in a duel with Bartolo Colon until Tom Gordon blew it in the eighth.

For the first time since the dead-ball era, the Sox actually outpitched their playoff opponent. But Pedro only pitched once, Wakefield was bad, and the bullpen was shaky. Saberhagen and Schourek, on the other hand, gave the Sox all they could have hoped for.

In 1999, a back injury forced Martinez out of Game 1 after just four innings. The series, for all intents and purposes, was over. Saberhagen was shelled, Mercker was shaky, Derek Lowe was anything but a shutdown reliever. But the Sox, improbably, overcame all that, and we all know what happened in Game 5, as the recovering Pedro Martinez relieved a shaky Saberhagen/Lowe combination with five no-hit innings as the Sox rallied for the series win. It was the kind of moment Clemens never seemed to manage.

Going into the ALCS, the Sox knew this much: Against Cleveland, Saberhagen was destroyed twice,Mercker and Lowe pitched poorly, and Ramon Martinez was decent, leaving exactly one pitcher with any chance of beating the Yankees. And he had just thrown 10 innings in three days, so he wasn't starting Game 1.

And so the Sox lost in five games — but in none of the games was the starter the culprit. There was the one win by Martinez in a stellar Game 3 (while Clemens was shelled); the four losses came in games started by Mercker (blown by the pen), Ramon Martinez (ditto), Saberhagen (good start, not as good as Andy Pettitte's), and Mercker (zero run support).

A rotation of Pedro Martinez and a series of reclamation projects did as expected against Cleveland — poorly. Yet the Sox still managed to win. Then they actually fared well against New York, but the Sox lost four games that were close (though the pen allowed bunches of late runs in Games 4 and 5). Them's the breaks. 

2003

  • Pedro Martinez, 210
  • Tim Wakefield, 114
  • Derek Lowe, 104

That's it. No other pitcher who started a game for the Boston Red Sox in 2003 had an ERA+ over 100. John Burkett, Casey Fossum and Jeff Suppan — all with ERA over 5 — were the next three on the depth chart. How again did this team come one Grady Little away from the World Series?

It didn't look good when the bullpen blew a lead for Pedro in ALDS Game 1, and it really didn't look good when Wakefield was rocked (how many times have I said this? October is not kind to Wake) in Game 2. But Lowe was dominant in Game 3, and Burkett and the pen were good enough in Game 4 for the bats to get back into it. That left Martinez in Game 5, and he pitched well, picking up the win.

In the ALCS, something happened to Wakefield's knuckleball, and he was excellent in Game 1, throwing six shutout innings. Lowe was not as good in Game 2, and Martinez was outpitched by Clemens in the wild Game 3. But then Wakefield shut down New York again to even the series. Lowe pitched well in Game 5, but not as well as David Wells, and that left the Sox' hopes in the hands of John Burkett. Well, he sucked, but so did Andy Pettitte and the Yanks' bullpen, and the Sox went to the infamous Game 7. 

The box score tells a story, that Martinez didn't pitch particularly well, but those of us who saw it know Pedro was dominant that game, and that it should have been enough to send the Sox to the World Series. 

Despite their mediocre regular seasons, the starters behind Pedro acquitted themselves quite well in the 2003 postseason — Lowe pitched well, Wakefield rallied to dominate the ALCS, and the bats rescued Burkett. Martinez, meanwhile, wasn't overpowering — that phase of his career was over — but he was good enough to win two series for the Sox. It's just unfortunate the manager was only good enough to win one.

2004

  • Curt Schilling, 150
  • Pedro Martinez, 125
  • Bronson Arroyo, 121

Schilling was brought in for one purpose, to win a World Series for Boston, and he helped put the Sox in position to get there, thanks to his stellar 2004, the final year of his stellar four-season run that will likely land him in the Hall of Fame. Martinez was no longer the pitcher he once was, but he was still well above average. He ended the year badly, however, giving up 18 earned runs 17.1 innings over his final three starts. Meanwhile, Arroyo came out of nowhere to post his best season in Boston. Behind them, Tim Wakefield was exactly league average, while Derek Lowe posted his worst Red Sox season.

The Sox swept the Angels in the ALDS, as Schilling dominated Game 1, Martinez was strong in Game 2, and Arroyo had a good Game 3 (though the bullpen blew it and left it to David Ortiz to bail them out with a walkoff).

The ALCS was a different story. Schilling had injured his ankle in the division series, and as a result, had nothing against the Yankees in Game 1. Martinez pitched well in Game 2, but couldn't outpitch Jon Lieber, and Arroyo was bombed out of Fenway in Game 3. The Sox were done. Lowe started Game 4, but couldn't give the Sox the dominating performance they needed. That ultimately came from the pen, who held the Yanks scoreless for six innings between Dave Roberts' steal and David Ortiz's home run. In Game 5, Martinez allowed three six-inning runs that looked to finish off the Sox for good, but again they rallied, with the bullpen posting eight scoreless innings, the last three by Wakefield, until Ortiz could win this one, too. In Game 6, Schilling and his bloody sock were in control, forcing Game 7, in which Lowe delivered a solid, series-clinching start.

Despite leading off with Schilling and Martinez, the Sox' staff put up an abominable 5.87 ERA, though much of that was thanks to the 19-8 drubbing in Game 3. Still, neither ace could stop the Yankees in the first two games, and Arroyo was awful. It was left to the Nos. 4 and 5 starters to rescue the Sox — Wakefield by eating innings in Games 3 and 5, Lowe in Game 7, while Schilling simply threw with guts in Game 6.

The World Series went much more smoothly. Well, except for Game 1, when Wakefield was chased in the fourth, rescued by the Cardinals' own incompetence as the Sox won the game. Schilling was outstanding in Game 2, even with blood still seeping through his sock, Martinez was dominant in Game 3, and Lowe shut down the Cardinals in the clinching Game 4. The three combined for exactly one earned run in their World Series starts.

2005

  • Tim Wakefield, 109
  • David Wells, 102
  • Bronson Arroyo, 100

Ugh. The aging Red Sox stumbled into the playoffs, relying almost solely on their offense to carry them, and it showed. Matt Clement had been awful since being hit in the head with a line drive (though the real culprit was his demolished shoulder), posting a 5.46 ERA in 21 starts since June. Wells had been mediocre, Arroyo could not recapture his 2004 magic, and Schilling, recovering from ankle surgery, had posted a 5.08 ERA since rejoining the rotation Aug. 25. That left Wakefield as the de facto ace.

This was a tired team, and it showed in the playoffs. Clement was rocked in Game 1, a blowout loss. Wells unraveled following a key error in the fifth inning of Game 2, giving up all five runs and turning a 4-0 lead into a 5-4 defeat. Wakefield, who pitched the best, couldn't hold a 2-2 Game 3 tie into the sixth and took the series-ending loss. The starters were bad, but they weren't helped by an offense that scored a total of nine runs in the three games.

2007

  • Josh Beckett, 145
  • Curt Schilling, 122
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka, 108

After missing the playoffs in 2006, the Sox returned with a vengeance. Josh Beckett finally fulfilled his promise, with a Cy Young-caliber season, and Schilling figured out how to pitch with reduced velocity, but behind them it seemed thin. Matsuzaka struggled to adjust to the big leagues and got worse as the year went on (7.14 ERA his final eight starts). Jon Lester, recovering from cancer, was still wild and untested on the big stage, though he had put up a 3.34 ERA in September. And, as always, there was Wakefield, providing league-average pitching.

Beckett had a reputation as a postseason pitcher, and did he ever prove it in 2007. He threw a four-hit shutout to open the ALDS, then Matsuzaka labored through four-plus innings in Game 2, but the Sox rallied to tie, and won it in the ninth on Manny Ramirez's blast. That left Game 3 for Schilling, who threw seven dominant innings to clinch the sweep.

The ALCS was again not so easy. Beckett started it with a strong Game 1 in an easy Sox win, but then Schilling was hit hard in Game 2, an extra-inning loss in which Lester was the Sox' eighth pitcher, and Matsuzaka again couldn't go five innings in a Game 3 defeat. Wakefield and Manny Delcarmen gave up seven runs in the fifth inning of a 7-3 Game 4 loss, putting the Sox deep in the hole. Thankfully, Game 5 was Beckett's, and he was dominant for eight innings. Then Game 6 was Schilling's, and he was solid through seven. That left Matsuzaka, who was good enough for five and left the remaining four for the offense and bullpen in an eventual 11-2 win.

That set Beckett up for another Game 1 start, and again he was phenomenal, shutting down Colorado through seven. Schilling was just as good through five in Game 2. Matsuzaka was shaky as ever, but shut out the Rockies through five, and the offense picked up the struggling bullpen. And Lester made his first postseason start in Game 4 of the World Series, pitching five shutout innings before turning it over to the pen for the win and the sweep.

As it turned out, the 1-2 punch of Beckett and Schilling, with assists from Matsuzaka and Lester, was good enough to win the Sox' second World Series in four years — much like Schilling and Martinez, with an assist from Lowe, had been good enough in 2004.

2008

  • Daisuke Matsuzaka, 159
  • Jon Lester, 144
  • Josh Beckett, 115
  • Tim Wakefield, 112

Matsuzaka and Lester were finally living up to the promise they each showed in 2007, though Daisuke seemed to like his results as strenuous as possible. A bigger concern, however, was Beckett, who had battled injuries and fatigue all year and limped into the postseason with just a 4.56 ERA in his final eight starts. Behind them, Wakefield was having his best season in years, but he had posted a 6.09 ERA in seven starts after returning from the disabled list in late August. The fifth-starter role fell to Paul Byrd, who was league average in eight starts after Clay Buchholz imploded, Bartolo Colon bailed and Justin Masterson proved more effective in long relief.

The Sox faced the Angels yet again, and again Lester was brilliant, with seven strong innings in Game 1. Matsuzaka walked the tightrope again, giving up three runs in five innings, but he got the win in Game 2. Beckett was alarmingly subpar in Game 3, which the Sox would lose in 12 innings. Lester was dominant again, however, in Game 4, with seven shutout innings, as the Sox bats picked up the bullpen to win the game, and the series, in the ninth.

Game 1 fell to Matsuzaka, and he was impressive, throwing seven innings in a 2-0 shutout of Tampa Bay. Bckett, however, was not, and he was crushed in a game the Sox lost in extra innings. Lester was not as imprssive as he had been, giving up five runs in five innings in a Game 3 loss, and Wakefield was pounded in Game 4. Matsuzaka returned for Game 5, but he faltered, as well, leaving it to the offense to stage an historic rally to win the game. A clearly injured Beckett labored through five innings in Game 5, keeping the game close enough for the Sox to rally and win it in the sixth.

Unfortunately, no miraculous comeback this year. Lester was very good in seven innings in Game 7, but two runs allowed was one more than Matt Garza allowed the Sox.

All three of the Sox' top pitchers laid at least one egg in this postseason, though Lester clearly pitched the best while Beckett was more injured than we realized. Had Beckett been healthy, the results would have been clearly different.

What have we learned?

Well, as for the initial question of where the three of Beckett, Lester and Buchholz rank, we'll have to wait and see. Their numbers right now are comparable to 2008 and 2004, but Matsuzaka was an enigma in '08, and both Beckett and Buchholz are better than Arroyo in '04. 1999 makes a strong case, but again, Pat Rapp? Bret Saberhagen? We're dealing with something of an uncertainty. If Beckett has indeed put it all together, his ERA+ could rise in two or three starts, while Lester's and Buchholz's show every indication of doing the same.

On my Facebook status, I wrote that I thought these might be the best since 1918. That may still be true (though 2004 certainly makes a great case). Check back in three weeks.

If I wanted to spend another hour on a fourth part, I could look at how predictive regular season success for the top three starters has been of postseason success. I'll let you draw your own conclusions from these three posts and finish by saying this: It sure can't hurt.

4 comments… add one

  • “Martinez was phenomenal in 1998 and superhuman in 2009.”
    Slip? ;P

    Lar September 17, 2009, 3:33 pm
  • Ah, yes. Thanks, Lar. I was really just checking to see if anyone was really reading through these.

    Paul SF September 17, 2009, 4:17 pm
  • > superhuman in 2009
    I like to think I wouldn’t have minded if the Yanks took a chance on him in 09, but that’s hindsight.

    attackgerbil September 17, 2009, 4:23 pm
  • > reading through these
    Yes, and it is fascinating stuff.

    attackgerbil September 17, 2009, 4:41 pm

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