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MLB's 20 All-Time Hurlers We'd Pick to Start in One Must-Win Game

Ely SussmanCorrespondent IDecember 18, 2016

MLB's 20 All-Time Hurlers We'd Pick to Start in One Must-Win Game

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    When a team's season comes down to a must-win game, there is no margin for error.

    Without getting off to a strong start, you're finished.

    Managers of the 2012 contenders would be elated to have access to any of these past and present hurlers.

    Generally, pitchers who triumph in pressure matchups share two qualifications—experience and excellent command. Their objective is not necessarily to toss a perfect game, but to keep it competitive.

    After considering all the top starters in MLB history, I've settled on the 20 most trustworthy.

Justin Verlander

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    Justin Verlander's eight career postseason starts haven't been particularly pretty (3-3, 5.57 ERA, 1.55 WHIP). He did, however, last nearly eight innings in winning Game 162 of the 2009 regular season, a performance that propelled the Detroit Tigers into a one-game playoff.

    The right-hander can regularly stretch out beyond 120 pitches, so he's a good bet to provide lengthy outings.

    Verlander famously throws with more velocity as the night progresses. As a result, his earned run average and OPS-against are lowest once he gets beyond the sixth frame.

John Smoltz

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    John Smoltz excelled under pressure from his first postseason run. He tossed a complete-game masterpiece to clinch the 1991 National League Championship Series. The next year, he drew the same assignment and gutted out six solid innings in an Atlanta Braves victory.

    His strikeout ability developed later in the decade. Nothing frustrates opposing batters more in must-win games than an inability to put the ball in play.

Ron Guidry

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    Practically every game was a must-win during the strike-shortened 1981 season.

    Fortunately for the New York Yankees, Ron Guidry pitched consistently well down the stretch. He allowed three or fewer runs in each of his last 14 appearances.

    Then in the playoffs, "Louisiana Lightning" helped his team advance with a solid start in the winner-take-all fifth game of the ALDS.

    Guidry is particularly qualified because of his tendency to attack the strike zone (633 walks in 2,392.0 innings pitched, or 2.4 BB/9).

Christy Mathewson

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    This New York Giants ace took strike-throwing to another level, especially in October.

    In more than 100 career postseason innings, Christy Mathewson allowed merely seven unintentional walks. Not surprisingly, his earned run average was 0.97.

    He forced opponents to take advantage of his mistakes and they rarely could.

Walter Johnson

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    Walter Johnson spent his entire career with the Washington Senators.

    Though they were often non-competitive, Johnson did plenty to distinguish himself as king of the sport''s dead-ball era. At the velocity he threw, the baseball could only be heard on its journey to the plate, not seen.

Orel Hershiser

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    Studying the array of pitches and arm angles utilized by Orel Hershiser was a fool's errand. There were simply too many.

    Bulldog had the entire league guessing incorrectly in 1988 as he put together an all-time outstanding campaign.

    It culminated in a championship for the Los Angeles Dodgers, with considerable credit going to Hershiser, who clinched the pennant with a complete-game shutout in Game 7 of the NLCS.

Sandy Koufax

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    Sandy Koufax pitched to a .766 winning percentage during the 1962-1966 seasons. That's just hard to fathom.

    His famous curveball was impossible to square up. It became lethal as he matured and learned to throw it to a precise spot.

    He kept the bases empty and therefore never found himself in danger of giving up a crooked number.

Pedro Martinez

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    An identical .766 winning percentage was owned by Pedro Martinez from 1997 to 2003.

    The similarities he shared with Sandy Koufax didn't end there.

    He also refined a particular off-speed pitch—the changeup—and hardly allowed anyone to get out of the batter's box.

Warren Spahn

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    Playoff hopefuls that lack a competent bullpen would drool over Warren Spahn. He perennially led the big leagues in complete games and victories.

    The winningest southpaw in major league history incorporated intellect into his pitching.

    Taken from Baseball Almanac's list of his famous quotations, Spahn once said, "Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing."

Tom Glavine

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    Tom Glavine was utterly unhittable (33 H in 58.0 IP) in five World Series, even though he was only on the winning side of one.

    Leads can evaporate when pitchers depend too much on fly balls, but the left-hander routinely recorded most of his on the ground.

Jerry Koosman

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    Jerry Koosman thrived in desperate situations. He embraced the pressure even better than teammate and future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver.

    When the "Miracle Mets" of 1969 fell behind in the World Series, for example, Koosman responded with a two-hit masterpiece. He reappeared in Game 5 and wrapped up the matchup.

    The postseason seemed like a pipe dream for the 1973 club through 120 regular-season contests (54-66 record). But Koosman rose to the occasion. He won six of seven decisions over his final 10 starts while maintaining a 1.30 ERA.

Carl Hubbell

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    The man who fanned Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin in succession during the 1934 MLB All-Star Game was not shy about challenging batters of any caliber.

    Carl Hubbell modeled his game after Christy Mathewson's by typically walking only a few dozen per season.

    He prevented a sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees in 1937 with a complete game six-hitter. That lineup, by the way, included Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig.

Roger Clemens

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    We could take shots at Roger Clemens' integrity all day, but there may not be a tougher competitor in baseball history.

    In eight attempts, a couple of which came after his 40th birthday, the seven-time Cy Young winner never lost a World Series start.

Lefty Gomez

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    The expanded postseason format of the last couple decades tends to jumble a team's rotation. For that reason, Lefty Gomez would be a terrific asset to present-day managers.

    He was actually at his best when starting on fewer than three days' rest! The Hall of Famer pitched to a lower earned run average and higher winning percentage under such circumstances.

    Like Roger Clemens, he also had a spotless record in the Fall Classic (6-0, 2.86 ERA).

Babe Ruth

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    Major League Baseball has never seen another pitcher like Babe Ruth. He possessed enough strength and skill when batting to help his own cause and even win games singlehandedly.

    Ruth smashed countless pivotal home runs, but also excelled as a postseason pitcher in limited opportunities (3-0, 0.87 ERA, 0.94 WHIP).

Matt Cain

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    Here's a fascinating stat—Matt Cain is the National League's active leader with 58 straight starts of five-plus innings.

    His stuff could be awful and it would still translate to a decent performance.

    Examples of Cain in top form include his 21.1 scoreless innings during the 2010 postseason as well as his 14-strikeout perfect game on June 5, 2012.

Curt Schilling

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    The fraternity of starting pitchers with undefeated records in must-win MLB playoff games is already pretty exclusive. Even so, Curt Schilling stands out.

    He was given the ball with his team facing elimination on five occasions and never failed to amaze. In each individual effort, he pitched to a sub-1.00 WHIP.

    As impressive as anything is that his first and final pressure-packed outings were separated by 14 seasons!

    Opponents could never put away a Schilling-led team, regardless of whether they went up against the new full-time starter version (1993, Philadelphia Phillies) or impending retiree (2007, Boston Red Sox).

Whitey Ford

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    Whitey Ford peaked in the early 1960s. Both his regular-season and October stats began to reflect his new-found ability to locate pitches.

    He couldn't have been better against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds in the 1960 and 1961 World Series. In four starts, he picked up as many wins and didn't concede a single run.

Bob Gibson

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    Any confidence that a batter could have heading into a must-win game went for naught once he looked up to see Bob Gibson on the mound.

    Hoot was a master intimidator. He deflated you with his excellent repertoire, up-and-in location and basic presence.

    His mean-guy shtick helped him strike out a record 17 Detroit Tigers in the 1968 Fall Classic.

Andy Pettitte

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    Experience is an extraordinary teacher and no starter has amassed more of it in the MLB playoffs than Andy Pettitte.

    His poise under the brightest lights ought to be commended.

    The southpaw has pitched more efficiently and effectively in the twilight of his postseason career. Consider his 5-1 record and 2.84 ERA compiled over his 10 latest October outings.

    New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi won't hesitate to use him when a victory is desperately needed.

     

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