This annotated week in baseball history: Sep. 4-Sept. 10, 1999

On Sept. 10, 1999, Pedro Martinez pitched the greatest game Richard has ever seen. He looks back at this and other incredible efforts of his lifetime.

As a Yankee fan, I am naturally disinclined to be singing the praises of Pedro Martinez. This is not to speak ill of his talents, of course, just that I am not one to shout from the mountaintops about his greatness.

Nonetheless, I have to give Pedro his due when it comes to his start on Sept. 10 of 1999 at Yankee Stadium. Facing a lineup that averaged more than five and a half runs a game that season, Martinez struck out 17 and allowed just one hit, a home run by Chili Davis.

Martinez was in control of the game from start to finish: After striking out three of the first six Yankees, he ended the game striking out the final five batters, needing just 21 pitches to do it. The next year, in Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci would write that “Monet had his water lilies, the Beatles had their White Album and Martinez had his Yankee game.”

The anniversary of this game got me thinking about other dominant pitching performances, so I decided to look at some of the other mound masterpieces of my lifetime, using Bill James’ Game Score as a guide. You can find the exact details of Game Score here, but the short version is that it gives a starting pitcher 50 points to begin each game and then deducts points for earned runs, walks and the like, while adding them for strikeouts and innings pitched.

(For the purposes of this exercise, I’m thinking only about those starts of nine innings or fewer, since it seems unfair to compare those Game Scores when the pitcher earned extra points for going beyond the standard nine.)

Kerry Wood, owner of perhaps the finest nine-inning game ever pitched (Icon/SMI)

By pure Game Score—and probably general consensus as well—the most outstanding pitching performance of my lifetime was Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout gem in April of 1998.

Making just his fifth career start, Wood simply owned an Astros line-up that featured the likes of Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and Moises Alou.

Throwing 122 pitches, Wood allowed just one base runner—an infield single by Ricky Guiterrez—and struck out the first five batters he faced and five of the last six.

Wood’s Game Score was 105, the highest since 1984 and the highest of all-time for nine-inning games since 1919.

(For the sake of completeness, the highest Game Score ever is 127 shared by three players, each of whom went at least 18 innings in his game.)

The only other Game Score higher than 100 in my lifetime was Nolan Ryan’s seventh no-hitter in May of 1991.

Throwing an identical 122 pitches to Wood, Ryan struck out 16 Blue Jays, including the likes of Roberto Alomar (3 times), Joe Carter, Devon White and John Olerud.

Of course, being a Ryan start, he did walk two, but not allowing a hit does make up for things.

The most recent great pitching performance came from Brandon Morrow on August 8 of last year. Pitching in his first season for the Jays, Morrow had had a mediocre season to that point.

But facing the Tampa Bay Rays, the American League East champions—and owners of the American League’s best record—Morrow struck out 17. Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford went down on strikes a combined five times.

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Morrow allowed just one hit and walked two. His performance was all the more impressive as the Blue Jays scored just one run and he struck out Dan Johnson to end the game with the tying and go-ahead runs on base.

As a Yankee fan, having praised Martinez earlier, I feel an obligation to point out the performances by Mike Mussina in September of 2001.

On Sept. 2, Mussina pitched a perfect game for eight and two-third innings and then reached an 0-2 count on Carl Everett. After taking a ball, Everett lined a single to left field, ending Mussina’s perfect game. Now pitching with the winning run at the plate, Mussina induced a ground-out from Trot Nixon.

Of course, just over a week later, events in New York City and elsewhere made a near-miss on a perfect game seem extremely minor news. On Sept. 18, the Yankees resumed play, and ten days after that, Mussina pitched a game nearly as brilliant as his one in Boston. Facing his former team, Mussina threw a complete game, allowed just three hits and struck out 13.

Since 1984, there have been only 93 games with a game score of 94 or higher, and Mussina had two of them in his incredible autumn of 2001.

And while I’m singing the praises of Yankee starting pitching, I would be remiss not to mention Roger Clemens’ Game Four start in the 2000 ALCS. Pitching against a Seattle lineup featuring Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez and Olerud, Clemens struck out 15, allowed just one hit—a double over the leaping effort of Tino Martinez—and walked only two. At 98, it is the highest postseason game score of all time.

(Owing to the increased frequency of the strikeout, most of the great postseason Game Score performances are in recent times. But it is worth noting that two of the top five Game Score performances came in the playoffs last season: Tim Lincecum’s NLDS Game One shutout (9 IP, 14 K) and, not surprisingly, Roy Halladay’s no-hitter. Cliff Lee’s domination of the Yankees in Game Three of the ALCS also ranks in the top 20.)

It is possible, of course, for Game Score to “miss” a dominant performance, especially one by a pitcher who relies more on contact than strikeouts. This explains why Greg Maddux had only one game with a Game Score of 95 or above while Randy Johnson has eight. Game Score is ultimately more of a gimmick statistic than one that should be taken as a serious measure.

Even with its inherent flaws, those starts—like Wood’s 20-K game, or Martinez’s “Yankee Game”—with a high Game Score are unquestionably dominant and undoubtedly worth remembering.

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Tom Hanrahan
Tom Hanrahan

should comment that in Pedro’s gem, he also walked zero batters.