20 postseason performances that saved a series

These players came up huge with their teams' backs against the wall

November 2nd, 2023

When a team is up against the wall in a postseason series, sometimes all it needs is a hero: One player who puts his club on his back for a day and gets it back on track.

Below is a look at players who memorably helped their teams extend a postseason and stave off elimination with a big showing. For the purposes of this list, we're only looking at games that extended a series after a team's season was on the line (so no winner-take-all games), and the player's team had to eventually win the series. So that rules out some memorable moments like Carlton Fisk's homer for Boston in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series or Mike Mussina's 10-strikeout start for the Orioles in Game 6 of the 1997 American League Championship Series.

Stephen Strasburg, Nationals: 2019 World Series Game 6 vs. Astros
Box score line: 8.1 IP, 2 ER, 5 H, 7 K, 2 BB

Strasburg's entire career was under a microscope from even before the Nationals selected him out of San Diego State with the No. 1 overall Draft pick in 2009. His reputation took a hit -- often times unfairly -- on several occasions, perhaps the most when the Nats shut him down prior to the 2012 postseason.

But when the Nationals needed their star pitcher to deliver in big moments, Strasburg delivered -- time and time again. The ace won each of his first four postseason starts leading up to World Series Game 6, and then he excelled once again with the Nats facing elimination on the road in Houston, cementing his playoff legend by nearly going the distance against a potent Astros lineup and becoming the first pitcher to go 5-0 in one postseason. Strasburg's heroics pushed the Nationals to a Game 7, where they captured their first championship. And Strasburg earned World Series MVP honors for his pair of Fall Classic wins.

Justin Verlander, Astros: 2017 ALCS Game 6 vs. Yankees
Box score line:
7 IP, 0 ER, 5 H, 8 K, 1 BB

This wasn't even Verlander's best start of the series (that would be his 13-strikeout gem in Game 2), but it did come up huge with the Astros' backs against the wall.

"Our generation is all smiling when we see him pitch," Jack Morris -- who knew a thing or two about pitching in the biggest moments -- said of Verlander's Game 6 performance. "He gives us all a smile. He's unique in that regard."

Verlander finished that ALCS against the Yankees with one run allowed and 21 combined strikeouts over 16 innings.

Kris Bryant, Cubs: 2016 World Series Game 6 vs. Indians
Box score line:
4-for-5, 2 R, HR, RBI, BB

Safe to say there was plenty on the line when the Indians and Cubs took the field for Game 6. The teams' combined World Series droughts numbered 176 years, and the Cubs were on the verge of yet another oh-so-close disappointment. So when Bryant lifted a Josh Tomlin curveball over the left-field wall with two outs in the first, it seemed to release a lot of tension for the Cubs. The North Siders exploded after their MVP went yard, scoring a 9-3 win to force a classic Game 7 the following night.

Jake Arrieta, Cubs: 2016 World Series Game 6 vs. Indians
Box score line:
5.2 IP, 2 ER, 3 H, 9 K, 3 BB

The Cubs faced a must-win scenario on the road, but they felt good with their self-described "bulldog" on the hill -- and Arrieta proved why. The Cubs ace struck out nine Indians hitters and worked around his only serious threat in the fourth to earn his second win of the Series and set up Chicago's historic victory the following night.

Tim Lincecum, Giants: 2012 NLDS Game 4 vs. Reds
Box score line:
4.1 IP, 1 ER, 2 H, 6 K

"Tim Lincecum, relief pitcher" was still a bit jarring to Giants fans who had seen Lincecum anchor the rotation and win back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008-09, but he embraced the role and proved vital to San Francisco's second title run. The Giants were down two-games-to-one on the road in Cincinnati when the Reds knocked Barry Zito out early, forcing Lincecum to enter with two on and two out in the fourth. Lincecum proceeded to twirl 4 1/3 innings of one-run ball, striking out six and giving the Giants' offense enough time to roll to an 8-3 win. San Francisco eked out a 6-4 win in Game 5, completing its improbable comeback by capturing all three of its wins on the road.

David Freese, Cardinals: 2011 World Series Game 6 vs. Rangers
Box score line:
2-for-5, R, 3B, HR, 3 RBI, BB

It just doesn't get any more clutch than Freese in 2011. With the Cardinals down to their final out of the season in Game 6, the third baseman smacked a game-tying triple over the head of Rangers right fielder , and then followed up with a game-ending walk-off homer two innings later. Freese added a game-tying double in Game 7 for good measure.

J.D. Drew, Red Sox: 2007 ALCS Game 6 vs. Indians
Box score line:
3-for-5, 2 R, HR, 5 RBI

Down three-games-to-one to the Indians, Boston staved off elimination in Game 5 but needed another win when Drew dug in with the bases loaded in the first inning. Drew had struggled somewhat to live up to the $70 million contract he signed with the Red Sox prior to the '07 season, but he made up for it with a momentous grand slam off Indians starter Roberto Hernandez (known then as Fausto Carmona).
Boston never looked back after Drew's slam, winning the final two games of the ALCS by a combined 23-2 before sweeping the Rockies in the World Series.

David Ortiz, Red Sox: 2004 ALCS Game 5 vs. Yankees
Box score line:
3-for-6, 2 R, HR, 3 RBI, BB

We could have picked either Game 4 or Game 5 of this series for Ortiz's "moment," but Game 5 gets the edge here on account of Big Papi's higher win probability added (WPA). A folk hero was born amid the Red Sox's historic comeback against the Yankees, as Ortiz followed up his walk-off homer in Game 4. Ortiz set the tone with an RBI single off Mike Mussina in the first, and then homered in the eighth with the Red Sox down two. Game 5 carried on into the night, until Ortiz ended it with another walk-off; this time it was a 14th-inning single off Esteban Loaiza.

Curt Schilling, Red Sox: 2004 ALCS Game 6 vs. Yankees
Box score line:
7 IP, 1 ER, 4 H, 4 K

No baseball game has ever been as famous for a piece of hosiery, but Schilling's gutsy start -- combined with the immense circumstances -- made this "bloody sock" game one of the most memorable in postseason history. Ortiz's heroics had helped the Red Sox send this series back to the Bronx, but Schilling -- who was shelled for six runs while pitching through a torn tendon sheath in his ankle in Game 1 -- still had to pitch well to keep Boston alive.

Team doctor Bill Morgan sutured Schilling's tendon into the skin prior to Game 6, unbeknownst to anyone outside the Boston clubhouse, but blood still trickled through Schilling's sock early in his outing. The ace pitched through what must have been indescribable pain, but kept the Yankees at bay and forced a Game 7 that would change the course of Red Sox history forever.

Josh Beckett, Marlins: 2003 NLCS Game 5 vs. Cubs
Box score line:
9 IP, 0 ER, 2 H, 11 K, 1 BB

Beckett's shutout at Yankee Stadium in Game 6 of the '03 World Series made him famous, but he had to beat the Cubs first to help the Marlins complete their comeback from three-games-to-one down in the NLCS. The 23-year-old was more than up to the task in Game 5 in Miami, striking out 11 Cubs while twirling a two-hit shutout to send the series back to Wrigley Field -- and a fateful play involving Steve Bartman -- for Game 6.

Beckett excelled with his team on the edge again in Game 5 of the 2007 ALCS, when he held the Indians to one run over eight innings with 11 more strikeouts to help Boston complete its own 3-1 comeback.

Randy Johnson, D-backs: 2001 World Series Game 6 vs. Yankees
Box score line:
7 IP, 2 ER, 7 H, 8 K, 2 BB

The Big Unit shut out the Yankees in an absolutely dominant Game 2 but found his D-backs down three games to two when the series returned to Phoenix. No need to worry; Johnson limited the pinstripes to just two runs while Arizona's offense exploded in a 15-2 blowout, setting up the famous Game 7 the following night. That's when Johnson would relieve Schilling by getting the D-backs' final four outs, and Luis Gonzalez won the Series with his walk-off flare off Mariano Rivera.

Kirby Puckett, Twins: 1991 World Series Game 6 vs. Braves
Box score line:
3-for-4, 2 R, 3B, HR, 3 RBI

"We'll see you tomorrow night."

It's a call that links legendary broadcaster Jack Buck and Puckett together forever. Puckett told his Twins teammates to climb aboard and he'd carry them to a win -- and he was right. Puckett tripled in the game's first run in the opening frame and then kept the Twins ahead of the Braves in the third with a leaping catch of Ron Gant's fly ball against the Metrodome plexiglass in left. Puckett wasn't done yet. He hit a sac fly in the fifth to put the Twins back up by a run before Atlanta tied the game again and sent it to extras. That gave Puckett yet another chance to play hero, and he led off the 11th with a walk-off homer off Charlie Leibrandt, sending the World Series to a Game 7 and eliciting Buck's famous call.

Dave Henderson, Red Sox: 1986 ALCS Game 5 vs. Angels
Box score line:
1-for-2, R, HR, 3 RBI

The Angels were one strike away from their first World Series appearance, and the Anaheim Stadium crowd of 60,000-plus was on its feet. But the Red Sox had their own baggage they wanted to be rid of, and Henderson -- who had Bobby Grich's homer bounce off his glove earlier in the game -- was the man to turn it around. On a 2-2 count, Henderson lofted a Donnie Moore pitch over the left-field fence to give the Red Sox an eventual 6-5 win, and Boston proceeded to win Games 6 and 7 at home and move on to the World Series.

Henderson also put the Red Sox ahead with a two-run, 10th-inning homer in Game 6 of the '86 World Series, but Bill Buckner's error and the Mets' famous rally kept Henderson from earning even more postseason fame.

Steve Garvey, Padres: 1984 NLCS Game 4 vs. Cubs
Box score line:
4-for-5, R, 2B, HR, 5 RBI

Cubs first baseman Leon Durham's error in Game 5 is the lasting image of this series, but the Padres wouldn't have gotten to that decisive contest without their seasoned veteran coming through in Game 4. Garvey was previously 0-for-8 against Cubs closer Lee Smith before he lofted a 1-0 pitch over the right-center-field wall to walk-off the Cubs and keep the Padres alive.

San Diego came back the next day and clinched its first pennant, adding more misery for long-suffering Cubs fans. Dodgers fans also have fond memories of Garvey's clutch hitting, as his two-run homer turned the tide in Los Angeles' series-saving win over the Expos in Game 4 of the 1981 NLCS.

Fernando Valenzuela, Dodgers: 1981 NLDS Game 4 vs. Astros
Box score line:
9 IP, 1 ER, 4 H, 4 K, 1 BB

"Fernando-mania" defined the '81 season, and the rookie sensation came up big when the Dodgers needed him down two-games-to-one to the Astros. Valenzuela faced just four batters over the minimum to stifle Houston as part of an October in which he went 3-1 with a 2.21 ERA for the World Series champions.

Sparky Lyle, Yankees: 1977 ALCS Game 4 vs. Royals
Box score line:
5.1 IP, 0 ER, 2 H, 1 K, 0 BB

Lyle was baseball's most dominant pitcher in '77, claiming the AL Cy Young Award while recording a 2.17 ERA over an astounding 137 innings out of the Yankees bullpen. So Lyle was not fazed when manager Billy Martin brought him in during the fourth inning of Game 4 with the Yankees facing elimination against the Royals -- their main rival at the time. The fireman retired George Brett to shut down a Kansas City rally in the fourth and then allowed just two hits the rest of the way, shutting down the Royals while the Yankees put together enough runs to force a Game 5.

Reggie Jackson, A's: 1973 World Series Game 6 vs. Mets
Box score line:
3-for-4, R, 2 2B, 2 RBI

It's not Jackson's most famous game, but glimpses of what would make the slugger "Mr. October" shone through for the A's in '73. Oakland had its hands full with the upstart Mets, down three-games-to-two, when Jackson knocked two run-scoring doubles off Tom Seaver to power the A's to a 3-1 win. Jackson also homered in Game 7, helping the A's win their second straight World Series title.

Denny McLain, Tigers: 1968 World Series Game 6 vs. Cardinals
Box score line:
9 IP, 1 ER, 9 H, 7 K, 0 BB

McLain put together 31 wins during the '68 regular season, but could not best the mighty Gibson in Games 1 and 4. Down three-games-to-one, the Tigers rallied back to force a Game 6 and McLain climbed the mound on two days' rest to try to keep their season alive for one more day. All the right-hander did was log a complete game and hold the hot Cardinals offense to one run, setting up Mickey Lolich's own career-defining win on two days' rest in Game 7.

Al Kaline, Tigers: 1968 WS Game 6 vs. Cardinals
Box score line:
3-for-4, 3 R, HR, 4 RBI

The Tigers had an uphill climb ahead of them going into Game 6, down 3-2 with Cardinals ace Bob Gibson looming in Game 7. But Kaline, playing in what would be the only World Series of his Hall of Fame career, did what star players are supposed to do. Mr. Tiger knocked two run-scoring singles during a massive Detroit rally in the third and homered off Steve Carlton two innings later, powering his club to a 13-1 thumping of the Redbirds. 

Bob Turley, Yankees: 1958 World Series Game 5 vs. Braves
Box score line:
9 IP, 0 ER, 5 H, 10 K, 3 BB

Turley did it all for the Yankees in '58, pacing the AL with 21 wins and winning the Cy Young Award to help the pinstripes reach another World Series. But New York fell into trouble once it got there, falling behind three-games-to-one to make Turley's Game 5 start a must-win. Turley came up big, compiling a 10-strikeout shutout of the Braves before coming back to save Game 6 and pick up the Series-clinching win out of the bullpen in Game 7.