John Lackey and the Top 10 Red Sox Pitching Performances of the Last 30 Years
In anticipation of the start of the World Series, I was talking to a friend about the respective pitching staffs of the Red Sox and Cardinals, and whether we can expect Boston starters to continue to pitch as well as they've pitched in the first two rounds of the post-season. He asked whether I believe John Lackey’s performance in Game 3 of the ALCS was the best outing by a Red Sox pitcher in recent history.
I answered no, and rattled off seven or eight games I thought were better outings. But as the night progressed, I continued to ponder his question. I thought about the word "best," and all that particular word entails.
In a baseball context, do we simply define the word as meaning the result of each individual at-bat, accumulated over several innings and analyzed in a vacuum? Or does the word encompass context such as regular season vs. post-season, divisional series vs. ALCS vs World Series, pivotal games, deciding games etc? We live in a world saturated with context, so the consideration of that question should have a more expansive context than I initially provided.
And in consideration of everything that was at stake for his team, it is arguable Lackey’s outing is one of a handful of performances that should be in the discussion as “the best” outing by a Red Sox pitcher in this generation (I will define a generation as 30 years, so I will limit my discussion to 1983-2013).
Pedro Martinez and the No-Hitters
When all was said and done, I identified 10 games that I believe should be considered the best pitching performances by a Red Sox pitcher in either a starting role or in long-relief. Readers will almost certainly point to some other outings, but these are the games I remember as being particularly noteworthy.
My list contains a great number of performances by Pedro Martinez. If this troubles you, it shouldn't. His dominance of this discussion is deserved. He is one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the sport, and we got to watch him every five days. His 1999 and 2000 campaigns are two of the greatest seasons in the history of baseball (in consideration of the proliferation of PEDs and the explosion of offense in the era) and arguably ARE the two greatest seasons by a pitcher in the history of the sport!
As I began the compiling this list I started with the no-hitters. It wasn't so long ago that Red Sox Nation had to wonder whether it would ever enjoy another no-no by a Sox hurler. Dave Morehead’s gem had been so long ago—when I was just a lad and before I had embraced the game. When the new millennium began it had been a full quarter-century since a Sox hurler had done the trick. Then, in short order, Red Sox pitchers rattled off four no-hitters in seven seasons (all caught by the under-appreciated Jason Varitek).
It seemed logical to me that a list of “the best” performances would include all four no-hitters, but that isn’t the case. In context, there were games of greater importance against better lineups that deserved inclusion on my list of the Top 10 best performances—ahead of the no-nos. So while each of them was an outstanding outing, only one of them made my list of the ten “best”.
(NOTE: My analysis includes a built-in prejudice that an outstanding outing has to include, among other things, a strike-to-ball ratio of at least 2-to-1).
A Handful of Honorable Mentions
These pitchers failed to achieve the desired 2-to-1 (minimum) strike-to-ball ratio in these performances, so the outings were eliminated from conversation for that reason. Yes, I know it is somewhat arbitrary, but there has to be SOME means for paring the list from 15 to 10 and the 2:1 threshold accomplished the task.
Hideo Nomo, 4/4/01, at Baltimore Orioles: 9 IP, 0 R, 0 H, 3 BB, 11 K, 110 pitches (69 K, 41 balls)
Clay Buchholz, 9/1/07, vs Baltimore Orioles: 9 IP, 0 R, 0 H, 3 BB, 9 K, 115 pitches (73 K, 42 balls)
Jon Lester, 5/19/08, vs Kansas City Royals 9 IP, 0 R, 0 H, 2 BB, 9 K, 130 pitches (86 K, 44 balls)
Pedro Martinez, 8/29/00, at Tampa Bay Rays 9 IP, 0 R, 1 H, 0 BB, 13 K, 110 pitches (71 K, 39 balls)
Derek Lowe, 10/27/04, Game 4 of WS at St Louis 7 IP, 0 ER, 3 H, 1 BB, 4 K, 85 pitches (54 K, 31 balls)
No. 10: Pedro Martinez at NY Yankees, 5/28/00
The Red Sox had been drubbed by the NY Yankees in the 1999 ALCS, 4 games to 1.
The following year they got off to a slow start in April, falling behind in the standings by as many as four games.
They righted the ship in early May, going 13-4 in the first couple of weeks and jumping into first place for a few days. But in the days leading up to the first series of the year against the Yankees, they lost four of five games and fell back into a first-place tie with the hated Bronx Bombers.
The ESPN Sunday Night games were an eagerly anticipated showdown between Sox ace Pedro Martinez and former Red Sox—now Yankees ace—Roger Clemens. Yankee Stadium was raucous. Martinez and The Rocket matched each other pitch-for-pitch, each man shutting down the opposing offense throughout the contest. The game went to the ninth inning scoreless.
With two out in the top of the inning, Sox 2B Jeff Frye hit a ground ball single to keep the inning alive, setting the stage for heroics by RF Trot Nixon, who launched a 2-1 pitch from Clemens into the bleachers in the House That Ruth Built. It was up to Martinez to hold the lead in the bottom of the frame.
Pedro had retired 10 straight Yankees batters as he toed the rubber for the start of the inning, but he soon discovered that securing those last three outs would be an enormous struggle. He jumped ahead of leadoff hitter Chuck Knoblauch (0-2) before hitting him with a pitch. Derek Jeter then grounded a single into right field to bring the winning run to the plate in the person of Red Sox killer Paul O’Neil. But the Red Sox ace struck him out on three pitches. Clean-up hitter Bernie Williams then launched a long fly to right field that was corralled by Nixon, but it was deep enough to advance Knoblauch to third base. Jeter stole second base with Jorge Posada at bat. Two pitches later—in an uncharacteristic loss of command—Martinez hit his second batter of the inning, loading the bases for 1B Tino Martinez. But Martinez got Martinez to hit a slow roller to Frye for the final out of the contest.
Final line: 9 IP, 0 R, 4 H, 1 BB, 9 K, 128 pitches (89 K, 39 balls)
No. 9: Curt Schilling at Oakland, 6/7/07
The Red Sox had cruised through the early part of the 2007 season amassing a 10 game lead in the AL East standings when they arrived in Oakland for a four-game set with the Athletics in early June. But the BoSox struggled against the A’s, dropping each of the first three games in closely contested affairs (5-4, 2-0, 3-2). The club looked to Schilling to salvage the final game of the set before departing for Arizona.
It was an early Thursday afternoon contest in bright sun at Alameda County Coliseum. Schilling was facing what can be characterized as an unimpressive A’s lineup, but it was a group that had historically given Red Sox pitchers "fits". He took a perfect game into the fifth inning but lost the "perfecto" when SS Julio Lugo allowed A's 1B Dan Johnson to reach on an error.
It was an error that likely cost Schilling a perfect game.
The Sox ace retired the final batter of the fifth inning, and then retired the side in order in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. In the ninth inning, he retired CF Mark Kotsay and C Jason Kendall on weak grounders to shortstop, bringing leadoff hitter Shannon Stewart to the plate for the fourth time. (By right, Kendall should have been the 27th and final out of a perfect game, and Stewart never should have had a chance to grab a bat again).
Schilling peered into catcher Jason Varitek—who had already backstopped a pair of ho-hitters in his career—and shook him off. It was a decision he would regret. Schilling approved of Variteks' next signal and threw his pitch. The A’s left fielder lines the first pitch into right field for a clean single.
The big righty would later lament shaking off Varitek… who would catch No-Hitter No. 3 later that season (Clay Buchholz on 9/1) and No-Hitter No. 4 the next year (Jon Lester). If not for Lugo’s miscue, ‘Tek might have had one for the thumb!
Final line: 9 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 0 BB, 4 K, 100 pitches (71 K, 29 balls)
No. 8: Derek Lowe vs Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 4/27/02
The long drought between no-hitters for the Red Sox franchise had ended the previous April.
When Hideo Nomo took the hill for his first start as a Red Sox pitcher on April 4, 2001, it had been nearly 36 years since Dave Morehead tossed a no-hitter in September, 1965. Some Sox hurlers had come close in the ensuing years, but none of them had closed the deal. Nomo did just that, shutting out the Orioles that day in Baltimore. A generation of Red Sox fans who had never seen their club on the winning end of a no-no celebrated the accomplishment—not knowing when they might ever see another one. If ever.
They didn’t have to wait very long. Just 54 weeks later, it happened again.
Former reliever Derek Lowe, who spent the previous 2 plus years as the team’s closer, returned to the rotation and took the Fenway Park mound for the Saturday afternoon contest against the Devil Rays. It was a woeful Rays lineup that opposed him that day (cleanup hitter Toby Hall was hitting .222 when the day started). He was one of six D-Rays batters with batting averages under .250 at the time.
Lowe dismantled the Rays that day.
He issued a leadoff walk to 2B Brent Abernathy in the third inning. Otherwise, he was perfect. He struck out six, and needed just 97 pitches (66 were strikes) to dispose of his opponents.
Final line: 9 IP, 0 ER, 0 H, 1 BB, 6 K, 97 pitches (66 K, 31 balls)
No. 7: Roger Clemens vs Seattle Mariners, 4/29/86
April 29, 1986. A day that will live in infamy in my personal history. The Seattle Mariners were in town to face the Red Sox. My friend and I had tickets to the ballgame. It was a cold, raw night in Boston. The Red Sox were going to win the game, but it seemed obvious the game wouldn’t be much fun. Too cold. Better to stay home and watch the game on my brand new 36” RCA television, with an Irish Coffee in hand and a refill available any time I wanted it.
My buddy called. “I think I’m gonna punt the game tonight."
“Yeah, me too. Won’t be any fun sitting there, freezing our (fannies) off.”
Yup, I actually said that!
The starting pitcher that night was a young Texan named Roger Clemens. As the world knows he made history by striking out 20 Mariners in the game. He was brilliant. Yes, he gave up three hits—two singles and a solo home run to DH Gorman Thomas—and for a while the outcome of the game was in doubt. But he struck out 20 batters and did so without issuing a walk.
I watched the game on television. By the fifth inning I was lamenting my decision to stay home.
Despite his unfolding heroics, Clemens and the Red Sox trailed the game as it entered the bottom of the seventh inning. RF Dwight Evans resolved the issue when he hit a three-run home run off Mike Moore in the bottom of the frame.
The remaining question was whether Clemens would set a new record for strikeouts in a game. He did. And I saw everything from the comfort of my couch.
Final line: 9 IP, 1 ER, 3 H, 0 BB, 20 K
No. 6: Roger Clemens at Detroit Tigers, 9/18/96
This was Clemens’ second 20-K performance. And again, he achieved the milestone without walking a single batter. He faced a markedly better lineup this time around. While he allowed five hits in the contest—all singles—he kept the Tigers off the scoreboard, so this game gets the nod as being slightly better than his 20-K performance against the Mariners.
He allowed a single to 2B Alan Trammell in the second inning, then struck out five consecutive batters. Later in the game he would strike out five consecutive batters once again. A streak that was broken up by a single and then followed by three more consecutive strikeouts.
He struck out SS Travis Fryman with his 151st pitch to end the ballgame. That is not a typo. 151 pitches.
And that was in the days before he discovered PEDs!!
What a horse.
Final line: 9 IP, 0 ER, 5 H, 0 BB, 20 K
No. 5: Pedro Martinez vs NY Yankees, 10/16/99 (Game 3 of 1999 ALCS)
Some readers may wonder how five performances can be better than a pair of 20-K games. It is a fair question,but games are weighted based on context—including the quality of the other team’s lineup and the magnitude of the ballgame.
Here, the Red Sox trailed the NY Yankees 2-0 in the 1999 ALCS when the teams arrived at Fenway Park for Games 3, 4 and 5 of the series. The outcome of the series was still very much in doubt.
This was Pedro vs Roger, Round 1.
The Rocket signed with the Yankees the previous off-season. It was his first season in pinstripes, and Red Sox Nation was full of vitriol for its former ace. The traitor. The Fenway Park area was abuzz all afternoon. I WAS at this ballgame, and the anticipation among The Faithful was greater than at any other time I can remember—other than prior to the 1986 World Series games in Boston.
The Sox pummeled Clemens and the Yankees, 13-1. Pedro surrendered a one-out single to Derek Jeter in the first inning but retired the side without yielding a run. After the Red Sox scored two runs off Clemens in the bottom of the inning, Martinez responded by striking out the side in the top of the second inning. The fans became more amped up, and the fans’ energy fed the offense (which scored two more runs in the bottom of the second inning). Pedro then whiffed two more Yankees in the top of the third inning, including SS Derek Jeter to end the frame. Fans screamed, “No-mar’s bet-ter” as the Clemens took the mound for the bottom of the third inning.
The Rocket lasted just one more batter. He was pulled after surrendering a single to leadoff hitter Mike Stanley. Fenway Park went crazy. “Ro—gerrr!” “Ro—gerrr!” DH Brian Daubach homered on the second pitch from reliever Hideki Irabu. Fenway Park got even louder.
Fans chanted “Where is Roger?” Others responded, “He’s in the shower!”
Martinez cruised. He was pulled after seven innings with the club leading 13-0. He allowed just two hits and issued two walks while striking out a dozen Yankees—Jeter, O’Neil, Tino Martinez and Ricky Ledee all whiffed twice. The Bronx Bombers never threatened, they never got a base runner as far as second base when he was in the game.
Pedro was their daddy. For now.
Final line: 7 IP, 0 ER, 2 H, 2 BB, 12 K
No. 4: Pedro Martinez at NY Yankees, 9/10/99
The game was played at Yankee Stadium in the midst of a mid-September pennant race. The Red Sox had cut three games off the Yankees divisional lead during the prior 10 days, and Martinez was taking the mound in the first game of a three game series in the hopes of cutting into the lead even further. He was opposed by Yankees southpaw Andy Pettitte.
Martinez responded by delivering what is arguably the best start of his Red Sox career.
Martinez pitched a complete-game one-hitter, the one hit being a two-out home run to DH Chili Davis in the second inning. It was the only Yankees offensive highlight of the evening. He struck out 17 batters and did not walk a batter.
Pettitte held the Red Sox scoreless for the first five innings, so Martinez HAD to be good. The home team (and its fans) understood that Pedro was more than good that night—he was brilliant. Pettitte could not afford a mistake. But in the top of the sixth he walked SS Nomar Garciaparra and then surrendered a two-run home run to 1B Mike Stanley.
It was only the sixth inning, but the game was effectively over. The Yankees never had another base runner. Martinez struck out nine of the final twelve batters to face him, including the side in order in the seventh and ninth innings.
He set the tone for the series, which the Sox would sweep.
All of this in Yankee Stadium.
Final line: 9 IP, 1 ER, 1 H, 0 BB, 17 K, 120 pitches (80 K, 40 balls)
No. 3: John Lackey at Detroit Tigers, 10/15/13 (Game 3 of the 2013 ALCS)
It was not the most over-powering performance by a Red Sox starter in the last thirty years, but when you consider what was on the line it is arguably the best start by a Red Sox pitcher in recent memory.
The Red Sox were shut out in Game One of the ALCS—at home. They managed to win Game Two of the series, prevailing in large part thanks to one swing of the bat by DH David Ortiz. Through two games the offense had been impotent. Red Sox hitters struck out at a record-setting pace over the first two games of the series… and the Tigers starter in Game Three was Justin Verlander—arguably the best pitcher in the AL. He had been on a roll.
The Red Sox sent Lackey to the mound. He had struggled in road games all season, and he had to know runs would be in short supply. And it was Game Three—always the pivotal game in a 7-game series, and even more so when your club has dropped one of the first two games in its own ballpark. He HAD to come up big in this game. And he did.
Of course, the offense had scored very few runs for him all season, so Lackey was used to a lack of run support. But the fact of the matter was that ANY mistake in this game might have sent the Red Sox to defeat.
Lackey gave his club the performance of his career, at least that portion of his career in a Red Sox uniform. No runs. Four hits. No walks. Eight strikeouts.
The Tigers got a runner to third base on two occasions: in the first inning with two outs, in the fifth inning with one out. On both occasions, Lackey bore down and got the outs he HAD TO have. He struck out Omar Infante for the second out in the fifth inning, with the tying run just 90 feet away. It was the biggest out of the ballgame and could prove to be the biggest out of the team’s season.
I considered rating this performance lower due to the fact Lackey did not pitch further into the game (he pitched just 6 2/3 innings), but, with the odds against him, in the face of adversity and against an unyielding opponent, he did everything he needed to do while he was in the game.
And this outing was one of the key reasons that his ballclub has a return engagement in the World Series.
Final line: 6.2 IP, 0 ER, 4 H, 0 BB, 8 K, 97 pitches (66 K, 31 balls)
No. 2: Pedro Martinez at Cleveland Indians 10/11/99 Game 5 of 1999 ALDS
As with Lackey’s outing before and Schilling's to follow, Martinez’ performance is rated this highly as much for the context of the game as it is for the performance itself.
The Red Sox lost each of the first two games of the best-of-five ALDS in Cleveland before winning both games in Boston, including a 23-7 whitewashing of the Indians in Game Four. Now, the teams were back in Cleveland for the deciding game. The starting pitchers in the contest were Bret Saberhagen (BOS) and Charles Nagy (CLE). The pair had squared off in Game Two of the series, which was won by Nagy and the Indians, 11-1.
Nagy was a longtime nemesis of the Red Sox…and due to the fact Saberhagen had been roughed up in Game Two it was understood Manager Jimy Williams would have him on a short leash. Williams would have to use yank on the leash quickly as Saberhagen was hit early and often—yielding five earned runs in one-inning-plus. He was relieved by Derek Lowe, who wasn’t much better—surrendering three runs of his own in the third inning before being pulled in favor of Martinez.
Meanwhile, Nagy was proving to be no mystery to the Red Sox hitters. The Red Sox scored a pair of runs in the first inning and then five more runs in the third inning to take a 7-5 lead. After Lowe surrendered the lead in the bottom of the third, the offense again responded with a run off Nagy in the fourth inning.
The offensive explosion that commenced in Game Four had continued into Game Five.
Hoping to prolong the Red Sox season, Williams turned to Martinez to quiet the Indians offense. Pedro had started Game One of the series and pitched very well, but had to leave the game after four innings due to a back injury. He had not pitched again in the series.
Pedro pitched six innings of no-hit ball, notching the win in relief. He allowed three walks, two of which were of the unintentionally intentional variety (pitching around the ever-dangerous Manny Ramirez and Roberto Alomar while the game was still deadlocked at 8-8).
OF Troy O’Leary was the other hero of the day for the Red Sox. He hit a grand slam in the third inning to give the club a short-lived lead. He then launched his second home run of the contest—a 3-run homer—in the top of the seventh inning to put the visitors ahead for good.
At that point, the game was essentially over. Martinez’ year-long dominance of the American League continued over the last three innings, as the Indians failed to get the ball out of the infield.
Martinez would then record the team’s only win in the ALCS (Performance No. 5 on this list), capping an extraordinary season in which he would win the AL Cy Young Award and finish second in the MVP voting (when two voters inexplicably left him off their MVP ballots all together). In a season that was arguably the greatest campaign any pitcher has ever put together, the ALDS and ALCS outings were his crowing achievement.
Final line: 6 IP, 0 ER, 0 H, 3 BB, 8 K
No. 1: Curt Schilling at NY Yankees, 10/19/04 the Bloody Sock Game
As much as I respect what Lackey and Pedro accomplished, both outings remain dwarfed by what Schilling accomplished in Game Six of the 2004 ALCS and the amazing circumstances under which he achieved success. I’m not sure anything will ever supplant Schilling’s perch atop this list.
Schilling took the mound in his team’s third consecutive “win or go home” game. He pitched with a torn tendon sheath in his right ankle—a condition that required a break-through medical procedure the previous day just to get him on the Yankee Stadium field. He pitched with blood seeping through his stocking.
It was his first season in a Red Sox uniform. Shortly after agreeing to the trade from Arizona to Boston and signing a contract extension, he declared to the media, "I'm not sure I can think of any scenario more enjoyable than making 55,000 people from New York shut up."
This was his chance to do just that.
And he delivered on the promise. He was a knight in shining armor. In every sense, he was a baseball hero. His performance in this contest was the stuff of mythology.
Despite being hobbled, he went seven innings, allowing one run on four hits and no walks. He struck out four Yankees batters. The one run he gave up was on a solo home run by CF Bernie Williams, with the Sox up 4-0. It proved to be a thoroughly inconsequential run…and does not diminish in any way what he accomplished that evening.
It shall forever be one of the most incredible accomplishments in Red Sox history, and one of the most amazing stories in baseball history.
Final line: 7 IP, 1 ER, 4 H, 0 BB, 4 K, 99 pitches (67 K, 32 balls)