Ranking the 7 Most Surprising Postseason Starts in MLB History Since 1947
Every once in a while, baseball throws an Easter Egg past all of us. An unheralded player does something in a moment of time that causes us to scratch our heads and wonder, why? How?
That's the beauty of sports in a cliched sense: The absolute lack of a script sometimes leads to amazing moments.
For the purpose of this list, there have been starting pitching performances that came out of the blue.
Some you are going to remember. Others you might have to mentally go back to recall. A couple you may never have heard of.
Either way, that's what makes the game so much fun. Ultimately, they all get remembered in history.
So let's start with lucky number seven and count our way down...
7. Tim Wakefield, Pittsburgh Pirates 1992 NLCS Game 3
Down 2-0 and headed back home, the 1992 Pittsburgh Pirates were being written off as an inferior team to the powerful Atlanta Braves. Having been outscored 18-6 in the first two games, the Pirates placed their fading fortune on the right arm of rookie knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield.
Over the course of the two hours and 37 minutes of that Game 3, Wakefield would baffle the Braves with a nasty knuckler that would keep him in the majors for the better part of 20 years.
Going the distance, he outpitched Tom Glavine 3-2 to keep the Pirates alive in a series that would be remembered for years to come.
His final line: nine innings, five hits, two runs and three strikeouts.
Without Wakefield's gem, Francisco Cabrera, Sid Bream and Barry Bonds may never have been intertwined.
But one thing is for sure: Wakefield helped Pittsburgh take Atlanta to the limit by perplexing the Braves.
6. Dave Stewart, Toronto Blue Jays 1993 ALCS Game 6
Dave Stewart had forged a reputation as a big game pitcher with the Oakland A's. So when the defending champion Toronto Blue Jays acquired the veteran in the winter of 1992, many saw it as a natural case of the best getting better.
Instead, Stewart regressed, posting an ERA of 4.44 and looking more like the pitcher who imploded in 1991 (5.18 ERA) than the one who won 20 games in an amazing four straight years.
Entering the 1993 ALCS, the Blue Jays were slight favorites against the Chicago White Sox, but more for their explosive offense than their pitching.
Over the course of the series, Stewart would personally change that narrative. His best performance would come in the clincher in Chicago's Comiskey Park.
Against a very good White Sox lineup featuring league MVP Frank Thomas, Stewart would silence a boisterous crowd, throwing 7.1 innings and allowing just two runs on four hits as the Blue Jays would advance with a 6-3 victory.
What made it even more surprising was the way Stewart again regressed in the World Series. He went 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA in two starts, though the Blue Jays would dramatically defend their title on Joe Carter's immortal home run in Game 6.
5. Barry Zito, San Francisco Giants 2012 NLCS Game 5
What Barry Zito did in Game 5 against the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals to keep his San Francisco Giants alive in this year's NLCS was simply amazing.
Seven-and-two-thirds shutout innings on 115 pitches.
Six strikeouts and just a single walk.
Zito baffled the Cardinals and sent the series back to San Francisco while looking like the pitcher the Giants had hoped they were acquiring in 2007.
Surprising is putting it mildly.
Zito did have a solid postseason pedigree (3.45 career postseason ERA entering), but if anyone tells you they expected this, they're lying. Especially in light of his shaky start against the Cincinnati Reds in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS.
But the scope of this start goes beyond the game. This could very well be the game that saved not only the season, but also a championship for the San Francisco Giants. Heading back home to AT&T Park, they were saved by the player many had the least amount of faith in.
That alone is worth a ton, all things considered.
4. Josh Fogg, Colorado Rockies 2007 NLCS Game 3
Coors Field. If you're a baseball person, it is either complete agony or utter ecstasy depending on if you pitch or hit. It is certainly not the ballpark one expects a pitcher to turn in his best start.
But that's exactly what happened in the 2007 postseason.
For the surging Colorado Rockies, they had returned home having won their amazing 18th and 19th straight games (including the regular season) and led the Arizona Diamondbacks 2-0 in the NLCS. On the hill for Game 3 was a 10-game winner Josh Fogg.
Don't let the win total fool you.
Fogg did not have a particularly good season: His ERA was 4.94, and he had been relegated to the bullpen in the Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Taking the mound against former playoff hero Livan Hernandez, it seemed to be an advantage for Arizona to get back into the series.
Instead, Fogg threw six great innings of one-run ball. Though he allowed seven hits and a walk, Fogg consistently kept Arizona's offense off the board.
Only a Mark Reynolds solo home run in the fourth inning prevented a scoreless outing. When Colorado struck for three runs off Hernandez in the sixth, Fogg exited and would wind up being a 4-1 winner.
The next day, Colorado won its 21st straight game to reach the World Series for the only time in franchise history.
3. Bob Wolcott, Seattle Mariners 1995 ALCS Game 1
The 1995 Seattle Mariners are mostly remembered for their amazing comeback to catch the then California Angels to win the American League West and then their comeback from being down 2-0 to the New York Yankees in the ALDS.
Images of Edgar Martinez's double and the joy of Ken Griffey, Jr. after scoring the winning run will last forever in the Pacific Northwest.
But few forget the game after that classic. Game 1 of the 1995 ALCS matched the underdog Mariners against a budding juggernaut: the Cleveland Indians.
Winners of 100 games in just 144 played, the Indians boasted a terrorizing lineup featuring the brooding, bashing Albert Belle (who became the first player to hit 50 home runs and 50 doubles in the same season).
Cleveland scored 840 runs in 144 games. Want some perspective? That would be 32 more than the league leader in 2012, the Texas Rangers. In 18 fewer games played.
To counter this lineup, Mariners manager Lou Pinella sent out an unheralded rookie making his seventh career start. His name was Bob Wolcott, and his selection, as I recall, was remembered with shock and almost bemusement.
As it turned out, the joke was on Cleveland. Wolcott pitched his finest game of his five-year career. In seven innings, he scattered eight hits but only allowed two runs, as the Mariners stunned the Indians 3-2 to win the opening game.
Ironically, Wolcott wouldn't pitch in the series again. Pinella employed a standard five-man rotation, and Chris Bosio was beaten in Game 5, 3-2. The Indians would win the series in six games and reach their first World Series in 41 years.
The Mariners are still waiting for their first Fall Classic appearance. But don't blame Bob Wolcott.
2. Johnny Podres, Brooklyn Dodgers 1955 World Series Game 7
When Johnny Podres took the mound for Game 7 of the 1955 World Series in Yankee Stadium, he wasn't just pitching for himself.
He wasn't just pitching for his Dodgers teammates. No, he was pitching for the entire tortured borough of Brooklyn.
The little brother that had been picked on, Brooklyn had faced the New York Yankees five times in the World Series.
Five times the Dodgers had lost.
Sending a rookie pitcher who had gone 9-10 in the regular season did not do much to engender confidence.
But Podres had gotten the Dodgers back into the series with a complete 8-3 win over the Yankees in Game 3. Now, with the series tied 3-3, he would be faced by Tommy Byrne.
Scoreless through three innings, Brooklyn scored first on a Gil Hodges single. Hodges hit a sacrifice fly off of reliever Bob Grim, and the Dodgers led 2-0.
In the fateful sixth inning, the Yankees put together a rally. After walking future Yankees manager Billy Martin, Podres watched Gil McDougald place a perfect bunt, and suddenly there were runners at first and second with Yogi Berra coming to the plate.
The switch-hitting Berra's appearance caused the Dodger outfield to shift to the right. Podres threw a pitch off the outside corner that Berra smashed for what appeared to be a double in the left field corner.
But out of nowhere, left fielder Sandy Amaros raced over and, sticking his glove out (on his right hand, which was so critical), snared Berra's shot. Instead of at least one RBI and runners on second and third with a one-run game, both runners had to return to their bases.
From there, Podres closed the door, going the distance and bringing Brooklyn its one and only world championship.
1. Don Larsen's Perfect Game, 1956 World Series Game 5
The no. 1 choice is the obvious one.
"On any given day, any given man can achieve perfection".
That has been the sentiment after Larsen's perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series.
A pitcher, who pitched for seven teams in a 14-year career, and whose career record was 81-91, threw the single greatest game in the history of Major League Baseball.
Don Larsen's gem lives on not just because it hasn't been done before.
When you consider the great pitchers who have pitched in the World Series—Koufax, Clemens, Maddux, Walter and Randy Johnson and Spahn, etc.—it is almost fitting that it came from a career journeyman.
The greats have a legend who is firmly established and untouched.
Larsen's legend is the antithesis of Ralph Branca: In one moment, you can be the best of all time. Even if it stuns everyone but yourself.
The Yankees won another World Series in 1956, but Larsen achieved immortality. Even if someone does throw a perfect game in the World Series, it will always follow his.
I chose seven because, obviously, it's a lucky number. That means there were performances that were worthy but didn't make the list.
At the top of this was the gem thrown by journeyman pitcher Bob Johnson of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the 1971 NLCS, Johnson took the mound for the pivotal Game 3 of a five-game series against the San Francisco Giants. Johnson, who went 9-10 during the year, was opposed by future Hall of Famer Juan Marichal.
In what turned out to be the highlight of his career, Johnson outdueled Marichal 2-1, throwing eight innings of one-run ball on just five hits. His only run allowed was unearned, as the righty kept a lineup featuring Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Bobby Bonds completely off balance.
The final line for Johnson: eight innings, zero earned runs, five hits, three walks and seven strikeouts.
Pirates closer Dave Giusti closed the door, and Pittsburgh went on to win the pennant and the 1971 World Series.
For his seven-year career, Johnson would win just 28 games.
Honorable mentions aside, there's something about the surprise performance.
Some (Wolcott) are remembered by a few here and there.
If you're lucky, you can have a moment like Don Larsen's that lasts a lifetime (and beyond).
If Barry Zito's performance catapults the Giants back to the Fall Classic, his current gem will certainly rise on this list over the course of time.
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