Ranking the 10 Most Legendary World Series Performances Ever

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistOctober 25, 2017

Ranking the 10 Most Legendary World Series Performances Ever

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    David Ortiz dominated the 2013 World Series for the Boston Red Sox.
    David Ortiz dominated the 2013 World Series for the Boston Red Sox.Elsa/Getty Images

    Everyone on the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros has the opportunity to join a long and decorated line of World Series heroes. 

    While no MLB superstar can single-handedly lead a team to greatness—just ask Mike Trout—many icons have lifted their squads to glory in the best-of-seven championship format. One scorching week in June will be forgotten by July, but October greatness lasts forever.

    This assortment of all-time Fall Classic performances judges players for the entire series rather than the most memorable moments and individual games. Multiple big games are valued more than one iconic catch, home run or even start.

    The series' circumstances, however, factored into the selections and order. A huge showcase received bonus points for an unforgettable clutch game, especially those that occurred in Game 7. Yet a signature play was not a prerequisite.

    In two cases, a pair of teammates made the cut together since they were collectively too remarkable to deny. One iconic duo may have ranked higher if it had not dominated so much in a one-sided sweep.

    Although most of the honorees played for the winning side, one player broke those rules in defeat. He may have captured the top spot had his team earned another victory.


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Honorable Mentions

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    Don Larsen, New York Yankees (1956)

    If this was an appraisal of single-game performances, Don Larsen would headline the list. Some readers will still express dismay over the Yankees hurler missing the cut despite throwing the only perfect game in postseason history.

    His first start, however, was far less memorable. When presented an early 6-0 lead in Game 2, the Brooklyn Dodgers chased him out in the second inning and rallied to win, 13-8.

                       

    Lew Burdette, Milwaukee Braves (1957)

    As a 30-year-old making his World Series debut against the Yankees, Lew Burdette won all three starts and threw complete-game shutouts in Games 5 and 7. Having scored 23 runs during the series, the Braves needed every bit of his clutch pitching.

                            

    Bill Mazeroski, Pittsburgh Pirates (1960)

    Bill Mazeroski owns the only Game 7 walk-off home run in World Series history. Although the Yankees outscored them 55-27, the Pirates ended the series with a play that would factor prominently on any list highlighting specific World Series moments.

                       

    Mickey Lolich, Detroit Tigers (1968)

    Three days after winning an elimination Game 5, Mickey Lolich outdueled Bob Gibson by allowing one run in a complete game. The lefty yielded five runs over three starts, all Tigers victories, to defeat the defending-champion St. Louis Cardinals despite Gibson breaking his own World Series record with 35 strikeouts. 

                  

    Brooks Robinson, Baltimore Orioles (1970)

    In addition to tallying nine hits (including two doubles and two home runs), Brooks Robinson cemented his status as one of baseball's greatest defenders ever during 1970's Fall Classic triumph over the Cincinnati Reds.

                        

    Gene Tenace, Oakland Athletics (1972)

    At the time a role player who batted .225 in 258 regular-season plate appearances, Gene Tenace carried the Athletics to a 1972 championship. In a seven-game series where the A's claimed each win by one run, the catcher clobbered four of their five homers and drove in nine of their 16 runs.

                     

    Willie Stargell, Pittsburgh Pirates (1979)

    Down 3-1—no, the Golden State Warriors were not the first team to relinquish such a lead—the Pirates completed their comeback with a major boost from Willie Stargell. The 1979 regular-season and National League Championship Series MVP also earned World Series MVP honors by collecting four hits—most notably a go-ahead homer in the sixth inning of Game 7.

                     

    Billy Hatcher, Cincinnati Reds (1990)

    Billy Hatcher, a career .264 hitter, went 9-for-12 with four doubles and seven consecutive hits en route to Cincinnati sweeping Oakland. His .750 batting average remains a World Series record.

                     

    Jack Morris, Minnesota Twins (1991)

    Pitching on three days' rest, Jack Morris fired 10 shutout innings in Minnesota's 1-0 Game 7 victory over John Smoltz's Atlanta Braves. He allowed three runs in as many starts for the Twins, who claimed their third and most recent championship.

                   

    Hideki Matsui, New York Yankees (2009)

    Hideki Matsui went 8-for-13 with three home runs in New York's last Fall Classic triumph. Hurting his cause, the designated hitter didn't start any of three road games against the Philadelphia Phillies. He did, however, hit a pinch-hit homer in Game 3.

    Relax, Yankees fans. The team is still well-represented.

10. Barry Bonds, San Francisco Giants (2002)

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    Barry Bonds reached base 21 times and hits four home runs during the 2002 World Series.
    Barry Bonds reached base 21 times and hits four home runs during the 2002 World Series.Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    Barry Bonds didn’t make the first draft. After all, his San Francisco Giants lost the 2002 Fall Classic in seven games to the Los Angeles Angels. Troy Glaus received MVP honors for his three home runs.

    Even in defeat, Bonds was by far the most valuable player on the field.

    Following 2001’s record-setting 73 home runs, the Giants outfielder batted .370/.582/.799 during the regular season. In his only career World Series appearance, the all-time home runs leader reached base 21 times in 30 plate appearances with a record 13 walks (seven intentional).

    Along with an absurd .700 on-base percentage, he went 8-for-17 with two doubles and four home runs.

    San Francisco's pitching staff couldn’t do its part, allowing 99 baserunners and 41 runs. Russ Ortiz surrendered five runs in the first inning of Game 2. He stayed in for the second to relinquish two more in what became a crushing 11-10 loss.

    Perhaps the series also would have unfolded differently if Giants manager Dusty Baker optimized Bonds’ walks in the No. 2 hole rather than batting him cleanup ahead of catcher Benito Santiago. Ranking No. 10 instead of No. 1—and not receiving the ring that eluded him his entire career—is enough of a punishment for the team falling short.

9. Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, New York Yankees (1928)

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    Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit a combined seven home runs during 1928's sweep over the St. Louis Cardinals.
    Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit a combined seven home runs during 1928's sweep over the St. Louis Cardinals.Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

    It turns out facing Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth is incredibly difficult. 

    The Cardinals somehow managed to circumvent both legendary sluggers in 1926, upsetting the Yankees in seven games despite The Bambino smashing three home runs in Game 4.

    Ruth, a career .326/.470/.744 hitter in 10 World Series appearances, had his best showing in 1928. In a lopsided sweep, The Sultan of Swat went 10-for-16 with three doubles and nine runs scored. He once again went yard three times in Game 4.

    Gehrig, meanwhile, reached base 12 times in 17 plate appearances. The Iron Horse clobbered four home runs and drove in nine runs.

    This dominance carries the least drama of any inclusion. New York outscored St. Louis 27-10 and won all four games by at least three runs. Nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander surrendered 11 runs in two starts against New York's Murderers' Row. 

    Gehrig's 1.727 slugging percentage remains the best in World Series history. Ruth, who was playing through an ankle injury, places third behind Matsui at 1.375. There were no singular clutch moment to prevail the test of time, but the best duo bludgeoning every baseball in sight is still legendary.

8. Christy Mathewson, New York Giants (1905)

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    Christy Mathewson threw three complete-game shutouts in the 1905 World Series.
    Christy Mathewson threw three complete-game shutouts in the 1905 World Series.Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

    Starting pitchers going nine innings was normal in 1905. Throwing a shutout every time? Not as much.

    In the second World Series of MLB's modern era, all five games between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Athletics ended in a shutout. Christy Mathewson did all the work in three of New York's four victories.

    The ace led the Giants to the NL pennant with a 1.28 ERA in 338.2 innings. He sustained that dominance into the World Series by throwing three complete-game shutouts in six days. 

    Mathewson yielded just 13 hits and one walk while recording 18 strikeouts. For good measure, he added two hits and a walk at the plate.

    "Mathewson was the greatest pitcher who ever lived," Athletics manager Connie Mack said, via Bridget Bielefeld of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. "He had knowledge, judgment, perfect control and form. It was wonderful to watch him pitchwhen he wasn’t pitching against you."

    Any modern pitcher who threw 27 scoreless innings would probably draw the No. 1 spot. However, Mathewson gets docked for playing in the segregated dead-ball era. The Athletics were an above-average offense despite accruing a .648 OPS, which would have ranked last in 2017. 

7. David Freese, St. Louis Cardinals (2011)

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    After hitting a game-tying home run with two outs in the ninth, David Freese hit a walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series.
    After hitting a game-tying home run with two outs in the ninth, David Freese hit a walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series.Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Albert Pujols hit three home runs in Game 3 of the 2011 World Series. Yadier Molina drove in nine runs during St. Louis' seven-game triumph over the Texas Rangers. Lance Berkman reached base 16 times. 

    None of them earned MVP honors. David Freese did for saving the series twice.

    Texas had St. Louis down to its final strike in Game 6. Facing elimination, the third baseman tied it with a triple off the right-field wall.

    After each team scored two runs in the 10th, Freese blasted a walk-off homer in the 11th, prompting Fox broadcaster Joe Buck's to replicate his father's famous line of, "We will see you tomorrow night."

    Looking to avoid more heart-stopping suspense, he started Game 7 with a two-run double in the opening frame. Freese finished with three doubles, a triple, a home run, five walks and a 1.160 OPS.

    "He knows how to hit," Mark McGwire, then working as the Cardinals' hitting coach, told MLB.com's Anthony Dicomo. "He's got ice in his veins, and I truly believe that's God-given. It's hard to tell somebody how to relax when they're in a pressure situation. I believe you either have it or you don't, and he's one that has it."

    Sure, a more skilled right fielder than Nelson Cruz—now a full-time designated hitter—may have instead stolen Freese's glory with a title-winning catch. The Cardinals third baseman also misplayed a routine popup earlier in the clumsily played classic. 

    But Freese—who had an even better NLCS with three doubles and three homers—delivered two iconic moments late into the same evening.

6. Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, Arizona Diamondbacks (2001)

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    Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling carried the Arizona Diamondbacks to their first championship in franchise history.
    Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling carried the Arizona Diamondbacks to their first championship in franchise history.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Is honoring Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling together a copout? Perhaps, but MLB could not choose either when declaring them co-MVPs for the 2001 World Series.

    The Arizona Diamondbacks were in their fourth season as an expansion franchise. They faced the Yankees, who had won four of the last five championships and defeated the 116-win Seattle Mariners to capture their fourth straight AL pennant.

    The Evil Empire had the Core Four and Roger Clemens, but Arizona boasted NL Cy Young winner Johnson and runner-up Schilling. Both aces needed to dominate to pull off a storybook upset.

    They did just that, combining to allow six runs over 38.2 innings with 45 strikeouts and five walks.

    Arizona could have clinched the series sooner had Byung-Hyun Kim not served up home runs in Game 4's ninth and 10 innings following seven strong frames from Schilling. After falling behind 2-0 because of both aces, the Yankees pulled ahead to 3-2 with a pair of extra-inning triumphs.

    Although Arizona scored 15 runs through four innings of a Game 6 rout, the Big Unit trucked along for seven frames. After all, there was no chance he'd pitch the next day anyway. Right?

    Rather than trusting a bullpen while trailing 2-1, Johnson surprisingly entered Game 7 in the eighth. He retired Chuck Knoblauch, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez and Jorge Posada in order.

    The offense rewarded his gutsy display by orchestrating a ninth-inning comeback against Mariano Rivera, who was so amazing that he remains the greatest closer of all time despite blowing a save in Game 7 of the World Series.

    Johnson's bullpen outing may be the most memorable moment, but Schilling made two of three stellar starts on short rest. Together, they dismantled the Yankees dynasty.

5. Reggie Jackson (1977)

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    Reggie Jackson solidified his legacy as Mr. October by hitting three home runs in a series-clinching Game 6 in 1977.
    Reggie Jackson solidified his legacy as Mr. October by hitting three home runs in a series-clinching Game 6 in 1977.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    What's a list of iconic World Series performers without Mr. October?

    A four-time champion and two-time Fall Classic MVP, Reggie Jackson hit .357/.457/.755 with 10 home runs on the grandest stage. He stamped the indelible nickname into immortality on Oct. 18, 1977, when he cemented yet another Yankees championship with three home runs against the Dodgers.

    New York trailed 3-2 in Game 6's fourth inning when the outfielder sent a three-run shot into orbit. He put the game out of reach with another shot the following frame before capping off the historic evening with an eighth-inning insurance blast.

    While that game certainly vaults him into the spotlight, he also finished the series with nine hits, three walks, 10 runs, eight RBI and five homers.

    At the time, he became the second player after Ruth to achieve a three-homer game in the World Series. Pujols and Pablo Sandoval since joined them in 2011 and 2012, respectively, but neither added any more pop.

    When first uttered, "Mr. October" was not meant as a term of endearment. Catcher Thurman Munson used the phrase sarcastically in response to his teammate criticizing manager Billy Martin. 

    Nothing eliminates tension quite like a championship.

4. Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles Dodgers (1965)

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    Sandy Koufax pitched a complete-game shutout on two days' rest to win 1965's Game 7.
    Sandy Koufax pitched a complete-game shutout on two days' rest to win 1965's Game 7.Elsa/Getty Images

    The 1965 World Series commenced with Sandy Koufax sitting out Game 1 to observe Yom Kippur. It ended with him carrying the Dodgers to their second title in three years.

    While the ace started a game later due to the Jewish Day of Atonement, the Dodgers fell behind 2-0 after committing three errors in their Game 2 loss to the Twins. They evened the slate before Koufax took the mound again for Game 5.

    He notched 10 strikeouts in a complete-game shutout against the 102-win squad. When Minnesota staved off elimination in Game 6, Koufax went back to work on just two days' rest.

    With the championship on the line, he once again collected 10 punchouts in a complete-game shutout. He allowed three hits (two singles and a double) and three walks, letting no baserunner advance past second in a 2-0 triumph.

    The Dodgers won the NL pennant despite amassing a .647 OPS and a MLB-low 78 home runs. They hit above their regular-season norms in the World Series, but they only pieced together 24 runs in total and 10 in Koufax's three turns.

    With games scores of 88 in both Games 5 and 7, Koufax garnered serious consideration for the top ranking here. He might have gotten it with a stronger Game 2 start. 

3. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants (2014)

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    Madison Bumgarner led the San Francisco Giants to their third championship in five years with a five-inning save in Game 7.
    Madison Bumgarner led the San Francisco Giants to their third championship in five years with a five-inning save in Game 7.Elsa/Getty Images

    Not taking any chances in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, Giants manager Bruce Bochy pulled an ineffective Tim Hudson during the second inning. Even after receiving seven clutch outs from Jeremy Affeldt, the Giants needed to protect a 3-2 lead for five innings. 

    Former Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum moved to the bullpen for such a moment, but a back injury he aggravated in Game 2 knocked him out of the series. Perhaps out of desperation, Bochy turned to Madison Bumgarner, who won Game 1 and twirled a 117-pitch complete-game shutout three days earlier.

    Viewers—this one included—figured he work one or two frames. Maybe three, tops. Bumgarner instead preserved San Francisco's one-run edge for a five-inning save, the longest in World Series history. 

    Although he allowed just two singles, the drama intensified when Alex Gordon advanced to third on a Gregor Blanco error with two outs in the ninth. Bumgarner stayed in the game to retire Salvador Perez, who had eight hits during the series.

    "You know what? I can't lie to you anymore," Bumgarner said after the game, via ESPN.com. "I'm a little tired now."

    Even though MLB's archives will uncover many comparable displays of stamina from mound workhorses, such a feat had not been accomplished in years. A complete game is now rare enough, so it's unlikely any pitcher will ever again match his individual impact in a postseason series.

    His 21 innings may look light compared to Mathewson and countless others from past generations, but accounting for modern usage and Game 7's zero margin for error on short rest elevates him inches shy of the best pitching performance ever.

2. David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox (2013)

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    David Ortiz carried the Boston Red Sox to the 2013 championship.
    David Ortiz carried the Boston Red Sox to the 2013 championship.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    If David Ortiz makes the Hall of Fame despite spending his career as a designated hitter, he can thank his postseason success. He led the "cursed" Red Sox to three titles by batting .289/.404/.543 in 85 career postseason games and a torrid .455/.576/.795 in three Fall Classic triumphs.

    Nine years after sweeping St. Louis to snap its drought, Boston fell behind 2-1 and collectively batted .211/.291/.330 throughout the rematch in 2013.

    Every other Boston batter finished with an OPS below .600. Ortiz had a batting average of .688. 

    Facing a 2-1 deficit, Big Papi delivered three hits apiece in Games 4 and 5. The Cardinals then intentionally walked him three times in Game 6, leading to a three-run double from Shane Victorino. Although Carlos Beltran robbed him of a Game 1 grand slam, Ortiz finished the six-game set with 11 hits, eight walks, two doubles, two home runs and a 1.948 OPS.

    "I know great players are great, are more likely to be great in any moment, but it's hard to see him in those moments and not think that there's something different about him," then-Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said after Ortiz's dominant display, per ESPN.com. "He's locked in. We've seen him locked in before, but to do it on this stage and do it in so many big moments, I can't add anything more to the legend that's already there."

    Carrying a comatose offense to a title vaults his performance to the top spot among all hitters.


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1. Bob Gibson, St. Louis Cardinals (1967)

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    As broached in Lolich's Honorable Mentions section, Gibson set the World Series strikeout record in 1968, during which he yielded five runs over three starts. Perhaps that performance would have made this list instead if St. Louis scored a few runs in Game 7.

    It marked the second straight year he shined under the October spotlight.

    In 1967, the Cardinals ace contained the Red Sox to three runs in as many starts, all wins. He once again went the distance every time, including a 10-strikeout Game 7 started on short rest.

    While he allowed two runs in the winner-take-all bout, he took one score back with a home run.

    Although nothing tops the ensuing year's 17-strikeout gem tossed in Game 1, he opened 1967's Fall Classic with 10 punchouts. And oh yeah, he broke his leg three months earlier.

    In 2004, Cardinals catcher Tim McCarver compared Gibson's effort to his 1964 World Series MVP display, per the New York Times' Richard Sandomir.

    "Invincible. He was everywhere," McCarver said. "He just dominated the series, much more than in 1964. He was coming into the consciousness of baseball then, but in 1967 he had something to prove."

    Having notched a 1.89 ERA over nine starts, Gibson has to be considered one of the best World Series pitchers ever. Despite stiff combination from many worthwhile candidates, his 1967 run takes the tightly contested top spot.

                      

    All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.