Justin Verlander was pretty amazing Thursday night in his complete game shutout victory over the Athletics in game five. If you boil it down far enough, that start was the best postseason start ever. Boil it down, as in: he collected eleven strikeouts against five baserunners with no runs in a complete-game deciding win in American League playoff game. He was the first person to hit all of those benchmarks at the same time. He set the strikeout record for complete-game-shut-out winner-take-all-wins.
The crazy thing, though, is how well his game five performance stacks up even if you relax each of those determining factors.
If you zoom out a little and focus on games pitched in deciding postseason games — even losses — with double-digit strikeouts, he’s already in elite company.
In 1997, Randy Johnson threw a complete-game, 13-strikeout, two-walk gem of a game four for the Mariners against the Baltimore Orioles. He also gave up three runs and lost the game. The Mariners lost the series 3-1. Charles Nagy did something similar for the Indians against the Orioles the year before. He struck out 12 in six innings (two walks and two earned runs) in a game four for them. Of all people, Roberto Alomar hit a single for Baltimore in the ninth, though. The Indians lost the game and the series in the twelfth… when future Indian Roberto Alomar stuck the knife in further with a home run. Roger Clemens pitched well that world series game seven loss against the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001 (6.1 innings, 10 strikeouts, one walk, seven hits, one run). Mike Mussina struck out ten against no walks and one hit in eight innings for the Orioles against the Indians in 1997! The Orioles lost the series when Tony Fernandez went deep off of Armando Benitez in extras. (Benitez, oh Benitez.) John Candelaria in 1975 “helped” the Pirates get swept by the Reds with his game three effort in 7.2 innings. 14 strikeouts, two walks, three earned.
But those were losses, and series losses to boot.
Sterling Hitchcock won game four over the Astros (and Randy Johnson) in 1998 by throwing six one-run innings with 11 strikeouts and no walks. The Padres won 3-1. If you want more innings, try John Smoltz, who threw a complete-game one-run clincher to help the Braves sweep the Astros in 1997. He struck out 11 against one walk and three hits, which stacks up well against Verlander. (Poor Astros, twice burned.) Back in 1945, Detroit Tiger Hal Newhouser pitched a complete game to beat the Cubs in game seven of the series. He struck out ten against one walk but he also gave up ten hits along with three runs.
These were in the National League (or National League parks), which gives the pitcher a little pat on the ass when the lineup turns over.
There are three more apt examples, though. One came from a National League team, but in an American League park — Sandy Koufax struck out ten against three walks and three hits to clinch game seven for the Dodgers against the Twins in the 1965 world series. That used to be the strikeout record in a win in a winner-take-all complete game shutout before Verlander Thursday night. But, as a reader points out, the American League wasn’t using designated hitters in 1965.
The other two (more recent) comp games were both from games with DHs. There was Cliff Lee in 2010. He beat the Rays in a nine-inning, one run, 11 strikeout gem to clinch the series in St. Pete. He actually avoided walking anyone, which is something Verlander couldn’t manage Thursday night (despite a healthy zone to lefties, perhaps). Stupid Brandon Moss.
But Cliff Lee gave up three hits to Jason Bartlett and a hit each to B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez. Six hits. Just a little while later, Tim Lincecum beat Lee and his Rangers by pitching eight innings and giving up only one run in the deciding game five. He struck out ten and walked two before giving way to Brian Wilson.
Justin Verlander only gave up hits to four people. He only gave up five baserunners overall. He didn’t give up a run. He pitched a complete game to clinch his series in an American League park. These things actually seem to matter when you are splitting hairs like this. So that puts him ahead by a nose over Cliff Lee and Sandy Koufax for Best Ever Double-Digit Strikeout Rate Performance in a Deciding Postseason Game. That’s quite an honor, and Verlander knew it himself, as he called the game “just about tops on his list” after the game — “given the situation.”
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