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The most controversial pitching decisions ever

October baseball is filled with high-stakes choices
@_dadler and @mattkellyMLB and @SlangsOnSports and @AndrewSimonMLB
October 28, 2020

Rays manager Kevin Cash made the right call so many more times than not in 2020, as he skippered Tampa Bay to the American League’s best record and the franchise’s second pennant in 2020. But one of his final moves of the season -- pulling his starter, Blake Snell, while

Rays manager Kevin Cash made the right call so many more times than not in 2020, as he skippered Tampa Bay to the American League’s best record and the franchise’s second pennant in 2020. But one of his final moves of the season -- pulling his starter, Blake Snell, while Snell was dealing against the Dodgers in a win-or-go-home scenario in World Series Game 6 -- was a decision that could haunt the Rays all offseason. Indeed, it was a fateful choice that could be brought up for years to come.

Cash’s choice is far from the first or last pitching decision that will be debated until the end of time; baseball history is littered with managerial judgement calls that were deemed questionable (at least, at the time they were made). Some backfired horrendously, and others paid off -- sometimes in spite of the odds. But pressure-packed decisions are part of what make postseason baseball so thrilling to watch.

Below is a look at controversial pitching decisions from postseason history (both good and bad) that, like Cash and Snell, are still worth revisiting to this day.

Moves that backfired

2020 World Series Game 6 -- Rays pull Blake Snell
With the Rays' World Series hopes in the balance, Snell was dominant through 5 1/3 scoreless innings against the Dodgers, having allowed just two hits with no walks and nine strikeouts on 73 pitches. But that didn't stop manager Kevin Cash from pulling Snell with a 1-0 lead as soon as Mookie Betts and the top of the Dodgers order came up for the third time -- sparking disbelief from Snell, other Rays and Dodgers players and baseball fans alike. A struggling Nick Anderson entered the game and proceeded to give up the lead immediately. The Dodgers won the game and their first World Series championship since 1988.

2019 World Series Game 7 -- Astros pull Zack Greinke
The crafty veteran Greinke was having an up-and-down postseason, but he was pitching the game of his life in the winner-take-all Game 7 of the World Series against the Nationals, outdueling Max Scherzer into the seventh inning. But Greinke got a quick hook after allowing a home run to Anthony Rendon and a walk to Juan Soto, the Nats' two superstar hitters, even though Houston still held a 2-1 lead. That lead evaporated once Greinke left the mound. Reliever Will Harris surrendered a go-ahead two-run homer to Howie Kendrick, the very first batter he faced, and the Nationals went on to clinch their first-ever World Series title.

2019 NLDS Game 5 -- Clayton Kershaw out of the 'pen
Kershaw's legacy is cemented now that he has a World Series ring, but at the end of the 2019 postseason, he was still snakebitten. In the winner-take-all Game 5 of that year's NLDS against the eventual world champion Nats, Kershaw and the Dodgers suffered a particularly crushing defeat. Holding a 3-1 lead, Los Angeles decided to bring in Kershaw out of the bullpen, rather than a normal reliever, after a terrific start by Walker Buehler. But Kershaw allowed game-tying back-to-back homers to Rendon and Soto leading off the eighth inning and was quickly pulled. Two innings later, Kendrick hit a tiebreaking grand slam and Washington advanced.

2018 NLCS Game 5 -- Miley faces one batter
Talk about a starter not going deep into a game. In an unconventional move, Brewers manager Craig Counsell pulled Wade Miley from his Game 5 start -- which he was making on short rest -- after facing just one batter and throwing five pitches. The lefty Miley yielded to right-hander Brandon Woodruff, with the presumed goal being to get the Dodgers to play a lineup built for facing a lefty starter, and not a righty. A bait and switch. Miley was the second starter in postseason history to face a single batter, joining Johnny Cueto in 2012 NLDS Game 1 -- but Cueto left that game with back spasms. The Brewers lost Game 5, 5-2, and won in Miley’s next, more conventional start in Game 6, before losing the series in seven games.

2017 NLDS Game 5 -- Max Scherzer can't save the Nats
Just like Kershaw, the Nats were snakebitten until they finally weren't. Their Game 5 loss in the 2017 NLDS was one of the many tough ones, all the more so because Scherzer is the last pitcher you'd expect to allow things to unravel. But he was outside his normal role, coming on in relief to try to protect a one-run lead in the fifth, and he was on two days' rest after starting Game 3. Scherzer got two quick outs, but he couldn't put the Cubs away. He allowed back-to-back singles and a go-ahead double to Addison Russell … and then the game got away in bizarre fashion. What should have been an inning-ending strikeout of Javier Báez ended up a run-scoring passed ball. Then there was a catcher's interference. Then Scherzer hit Jon Jay with the bases loaded. Chicago took a three-run lead and held on to eliminate the Nats.

2016 AL Wild Card Game -- Zack Britton is a spectator
There’s a lot of gray area when it comes to postseason pitching decisions, but this one seems fairly obvious: When you’re in a win-or-go-home situation (like a Wild Card Game), you don’t want to lose without using your best pitcher. Britton was that pitcher for the 2016 Orioles. He saved 47 games, posted a 0.54 ERA and would finish fourth in the AL Cy Young Award race. Yet in the Wild Card Game at Toronto, Baltimore manager Buck Showalter deployed seven pitchers -- and Britton wasn’t one of them. While Showalter held back the southpaw for a save situation that never arrived, Ubaldo Jiménez (5.44 regular season ERA) entered with one out in the bottom of the 11th and promptly allowed two singles, followed by a walk-off homer to Edwin Encarnación.

2015 World Series Game 5 -- Harvey stays in
How the game has changed, and in such a short time. The pitching decisions made in the postseason today are night and day even compared to just five years ago. Now, a team rarely even reaches the position the Mets were in when manager Terry Collins left Harvey in to pitch the ninth inning of Game 5 at Citi Field. It's even rarer to see them let it ride with their starter so late in a must-win postseason game. The Mets put their World Series hopes on their ace with a 2-0 lead, rather than go to closer Jeurys Familia. But Harvey couldn't complete the shutout, walking Lorenzo Cain and allowing an RBI double to Eric Hosmer before Collins took the ball. Familia came in and allowed the tying run, and the Mets fell in extra innings as the Royals won their first World Series since 1985.

2014 NLCS Game 5 -- Michael Wacha, out of nowhere
The Cardinals were fighting for their postseason lives, trailing the Giants in the series, 3-1. St. Louis grabbed the lead, but San Francisco tied the score in the bottom of the eighth. Then, in the ninth, manager Mike Matheny turned to … Wacha? The issue was not with Wacha’s talent, as the righty had a 3.04 ERA in 171 2/3 regular season innings to that point in his career. But Wacha had thrown only 16 2/3 regular season innings after June 17, due to injury, and not appeared at all in the playoffs prior to this game. So with star closer Trevor Rosenthal and others sitting helplessly in the bullpen, Wacha took the mound for the first time in 20 days, quickly put two runners on base with one out, then served up a walk-off homer to Travis Ishikawa that ended the Cardinals’ season.

2014 NLDS Game 2 -- Jordan Zimmermann’s exit leads to 18 innings
In Game 2 of the NLDS against the Giants, Nationals manager Matt Williams replaced starter Jordan Zimmermann in the ninth after he walked Joe Panik with two out. Zimmermann was at 100 pitches and had yet to allow a run -- the Nats were up, 1-0, and he was an out away from a shutout. Williams brought in closer Drew Storen, who allowed two hits to even the score. Zimmermann was the first pitcher in postseason history to be removed from a game one out shy of a potential shutout. The Nationals went on to lose in the eighteenth inning, when Brandon Belt put the visitors ahead in the top of the inning on a solo homer and Hunter Strickland kept them off the board in the bottom of the inning. The Nationals won Game 3 but couldn’t win another, losing the series in four games.

2013 NLDS Game 4 -- Craig Kimbrel is a spectator
This was the precursor to the Britton situation described above. Kimbrel was well on his way to establishing himself as one of the most dominant relievers of all time, with a 1.39 ERA, 139 saves and 381 strikeouts in just 227 1/3 innings through his first four seasons. He was typically brilliant in 2013 and got the save against the Dodgers in Game 2 of the NLDS. But that would, somehow, be his only appearance in the four-game series. With Atlanta facing elimination in Game 4, the club held a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth. Instead of going to Kimbrel for six outs -- on two days’ rest and with an off-day to follow -- manager Fredi Gonzalez went to setup man David Carpenter. As Kimbrel watched from the bullpen, Carpenter gave up a double to Yasiel Puig and a go-ahead homer to Juan Uribe that effectively sent the Braves home.

2003 ALCS Game 7 -- Grady leaves Pedro in
One of the most memorable postseason games ever played featured one of the most memorable pitching decisions. Pedro Martinez dominated the archrival Yankees for most of the winner-take-all game at Yankee Stadium. After escaping a jam in the seventh inning, he'd held the Bronx Bombers to just two runs, with eight strikeouts, and the Red Sox held a 4-2 lead. Pedro had thrown 100 pitches, and he thought his day was done. But manager Grady Little sent him back out for the eighth, with Boston now up 5-2 after a home run by David Ortiz. It was one inning too long. The Yankees shocked Pedro and the Sox with a game-tying rally in the eighth, and in the bottom of the 11th, Aaron Boone etched his name into postseason history with his iconic walk-off home run off Tim Wakefield.

2003 NLCS Game 6 -- Dusty Baker rides Mark Prior
A year after facing criticism for taking out his starting pitcher in a key game, Baker (in his first season as Cubs skipper) stuck with the 23-year-old Prior, who was approaching 100 pitches entering the eighth inning with a 3-0 lead. Prior already had thrown 16 innings and 249 pitches over two previous outings that postseason. By the time Baker finally pulled him, the game was tied after Prior allowed two doubles, a single and a walk -- and was burned by an error and the infamous “Bartman play.” The bullpen didn’t help matters, and the Marlins scored eight total runs in the inning, won the game and then took Game 7 as well.

2002 World Series Game 6 -- Baker pulls Russ Ortiz
The Giants were three innings away from capturing the franchise’s first championship since moving to San Francisco when Baker came out to the mound with one out in the bottom of the seventh and his team holding a 5-0 lead. Ortiz had pitched well to that point, but was also at 98 pitches after allowing back-to-back singles to Troy Glaus and Brad Fullmer. Removing a starter in that situation would not be particularly controversial today, but things were a bit different back in 2002. It also was noted that Baker gave Ortiz the ball as a souvenir on his way off the mound, a move that was perhaps seen as tempting fate. Regardless, reliever Felix Rodriguez gave up a three-run homer to the next batter, Scott Spezio, and the Angels rallied to win in the next inning before capturing Game 7.

1992 NLCS Game 7 -- Leyland leaves Doug Drabek in for the ninth
It’s hard to totally blame Pirates manager Jim Leyland for letting his starter come back out for the ninth inning; Drabek had outdueled Braves ace John Smoltz, held a two-run lead and was working on a shutout in a winner-take-all game for the pennant. But Drabek had also needed 120 pitchers to navigate the first eight innings, and this was his third start of the series. The fatigue revealed itself quickly, as Drabek allowed a leadoff double to Terry Pendleton, David Justice reached via error and Sid Bream walked to load the bases.

Leyland was forced to bring his closer, Stan Belinda, into the game with the bags packed and nobody out, and the slow bleed began. Ron Gant hit a sac fly to left that nearly cleared the fence and then, after a walk and a pop-up, pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera came up with an unlikely base hit that brought home Justice and then Bream (just barely) as the pennant-winning run. Managers were questioned less in this era for letting their starters finish a gem, but one wonders if Belinda could have fared better had he started with a clean ninth inning.

1986 World Series Game 6 -- John McNamara pulls Clemens
This decision is still debated by the two major characters involved. The Red Sox were down to counting outs as they neared their first World Series championship in 68 years, and that year’s AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner, Roger Clemens, had put up seven solid innings of two-run ball with Boston clinging to a 3-2 lead. McNamara, the Sox manager, claims to this day that Clemens told him he couldn’t pitch any further -- a claim Clemens denies -- and McNamara pinch-hit for Clemens in the top of the eighth.

Who knows if Clemens could have finished the job in the eighth and ninth innings, but obviously the Red Sox bullpen did not. Calvin Schiraldi gave up a game-tying sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth, and then Schiraldi and Bob Stanley blew a two-run lead in the bottom of the 10th (helped by a little roller down the first-base line) in one of the most famous endings in World Series history.

The Series wasn’t over, of course. The Red Sox still had a chance to win Game 7, but McNamara came under fire in that game, too, when he brought in Schiraldi again (after facing 16 batters in Game 6) in a tie game in the seventh inning. Schiraldi immediately surrendered a go-ahead homer to Ray Knight along with two more runs, and the Mets never trailed again.

1985 NLCS Game 6 -- Lasorda lets Niedenfuer pitch to Clark
Reliever Tom Niedenfuer was a big part of the Dodgers’ triumph over the Yankees in the 1981 World Series, pitching multiple innings in Los Angeles’ victories in Games 1 and 4. In fact, Niedenfuer didn’t allow an earned run in each of his first seven career postseason appearances leading up to Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS, when light-hitting Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith (29 career home runs) famously lofted one of his pitches just over the fence for a walk-off dinger.

Niedenfuer could have brushed Smith’s homer off as a stroke of luck, but it was a different story when he was back on the mound two days later in the ninth inning of Game 6. The Cardinals trailed by a run but had two runners on when Jack Clark dug in. First base was open, but Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda decided to let Niedenfuer pitch to St. Louis’ top homer threat. It took just one pitch for Clark to wallop a ball for the go-ahead three-run homer, and the Cardinals held on for a pennant-clinching win.

1984 World Series Game 5 -- Gossage persuades Williams, Gibson homers
The dominant Tigers had beaten the Padres in three of the first four games of the 1984 Fall Classic, but San Diego was fighting hard to stay alive. The Friars trailed by a run in the bottom of the eighth when ace reliever Goose Gossage let the Tigers get runners to second and third with one out to bring up their hulking slugger, Kirk Gibson, with a chance to finish off the game and the Series with one swing.

Padres manager Dick Williams ran to the mound and instructed Gossage to intentionally walk Gibson, but Gossage successfully begged Williams to let him pitch to the big slugger. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson shook his head in disbelief that San Diego chose to face Gibson, famously yelling out to his star, “They don’t want to walk you!”

Gibson made Gossage and the Padres pay after just two pitches, crushing a three-run homer that sealed the Tigers’ wire-to-wire championship season.

1967 World Series Game 7 -- ‘Lonborg and Champagne’? Not quite
The 1967 “Impossible Dream” Red Sox defied the odds all season long, going from 100-to-1 preseason underdogs to AL champions thanks to a sweep in the final series of the regular season. Then, Boston erased a three-games-to-one deficit to the heavily favored Cardinals to send the World Series to a Game 7. The Red Sox seemingly had all the momentum, and manager Dick Williams, when asked by a reporter who would pitch the winner-take-all game, infamously quipped it would be “Lonborg and Champagne,” referring to his confidence in staff ace Jim Lonborg.

There were a couple problems, however. Lonborg had shouldered 273 1/3 innings during the regular season, and was lined up on just two days’ rest for Game 7. His opponent, the mighty Bob Gibson, went on one more day of rest. And worst of all, Williams' comment reportedly incensed the Cardinals, who used it as bulletin-board material.

It was clear from the start that Lonborg was out of gas, as he was lucky to escape the first after some hard-hit outs but ran into trouble in a two-run third inning. Gibson homered off Lonborg to make it 3-0 in the fifth, and Lonborg finished with seven runs allowed while Gibson authored a complete-game victory.

Moves that paid off

2018 World Series Game 5 -- Chris Sale closes the Fall Classic
The Red Sox had a dominant closer in Craig Kimbrel, but he'd been shaky in the postseason, so they handed the ball to their ace starting pitcher instead when they were three outs away from a championship in the ninth inning of Game 5. Sale, who was supposed to start the next game, instead found himself trying to close out the World Series against the Dodgers -- and he did so by striking out the side, including Manny Machado, to end the game.

2014 World Series Game 7 -- Giants let MadBum ride
There is asking a pitcher to carry his team in October, and then there is what the Giants asked Madison Bumgarner to do in 2014. By the time Game 7 of the World Series rolled around, the lefty already had thrown 217 1/3 regular season innings, plus another 52 2/3 over four weeks in the postseason, including 16 earlier in the Fall Classic. In Game 5, Bumgarner threw a 117-pitch shutout. Just three days later, veteran starter Tim Hudson struggled to begin Game 7 and exited after 1 2/3 innings. Jeremy Affeldt took over and got the Giants through the fourth, when they grabbed a 3-2 lead. At that point, manager Bruce Bochy had seen enough. He went back to his horse. It’s not hard to imagine how such reliance on Bumgarner could have finally backfired, but it didn’t. The Giants’ ace delivered again with a scoreless, five-inning save to clinch the team’s third championship in five seasons.

1995 ALDS Game 5 -- Mariners, Yankees duel with short-rest starters
One of the most epic contests in modern postseason history, 1995 ALDS Game 5 at the Seattle Kingdome, saw both sides ask starters to empty the tank as the game stretched on into extra innings. With the game tied in the top of the ninth and a pair of Yankees runners on with no outs, Mariners manager Lou Piniella brought in ace Randy Johnson -- who had pitched seven innings in a Game 3 win two days earlier -- out of the bullpen. Johnson electrified the crowd by retiring Wade Boggs, Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill in order, and then he proceeded to pitch a perfect 10th inning before allowing an RBI single to Randy Velarde in the 11th.

Yankees manager Buck Showalter countered by bringing in Johnson’s Game 3 opponent, Jack McDowell, on to relieve Mariano Rivera with a pair of runners on in the bottom of the ninth. McDowell also escaped the jam and pitched into the 11th before Edgar Martinez hit his famous game-winning double that brought home Joey Cora and Ken Griffey Jr.

While both pitchers eventually allowed runs, one could argue that each move initially got the clubs out of jams in the ninth.

1991 World Series Game 7 -- Kelly lets Morris get out of it
It doesn’t get any more heroic than Jack Morris’ 10-inning shutout to win Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, but there was certainly at least one moment that he could have been taken out of the ballgame. With the game still scoreless in the top of the eighth, the Braves were able to put runners on second and third with no outs -- and probably should have scored, except designated hitter Lonnie Smith had to hold up at third base after he initially stopped after rounding second.

Twins manager Tom Kelly could have easily gone to his bullpen, but he stuck with his grizzled ace. Morris proceeded to retire Ron Gant on a soft grounder to first, intentionally walked David Justice to load the bases and then got a clutch 3-2-3 double play ball off the bat of Sid Bream to escape the inning unscathed.

1980 World Series Game 6 -- Phillies let McGraw clean up his mess
McGraw, who was also a hero for the underdog 1973 Mets, was a beast in this Series, appearing in four of the six contests and earning two saves and a win. But he came perilously close to becoming a goat in Philadelphia when he loaded the bases in the top of the ninth via a walk and two singles. Manager Dallas Green chose to keep his ace closer in the ballgame and McGraw held on, retiring Royals second baseman Frank White on a foul pop-up and then striking out Willie Wilson to leave the bases loaded. It was the second straight game that McGraw finished with a bases-loaded punchout, and the Phillies celebrated their first World Series championship in franchise history.

1979 World Series Game 5 -- Pirates go with Jim Rooker
Rooker was a 37-year-old southpaw who had finished the regular season with a 4-7 record and 4.60 ERA, but he was the choice of Pirates manager Chuck Tanner to pitch Game 5 with Pittsburgh trailing the Orioles, three games to one, in the Series. Rooker got the ball in large part because scheduled starter Bruce Kison had suffered nerve damage in his arm while pitching in Game 1.

“It was not a good year for me during the season,” Rooker would recall, “but there was one thing: I was very rested for the World Series. I thought I had somewhat of an advantage. I was all charged up and ready to go. Not only was I going to have what I hoped was fun -- what a challenge! We were down 3 to 1. If we stink up the joint, we were going home.”

Rooker held his own against eventual AL Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan, exiting after the fifth trailing just 1-0, and the Pirates rallied back to win Game 5 and then the Series in seven.

1973 World Series Game 7 -- A’s pull Fingers before the final out
The “Ya Gotta Believe!” 1973 Mets very nearly pulled off one of the greatest World Series upsets in history pushing the dynastic A’s to a Game 7. New York trailed by four entering the ninth inning but got a pair of runners on base before John Milner scored on an error by A’s first baseman Gene Tenace to cut the lead to three.

The Mets still had a pair of runners on and the tying run came to the plate in third baseman Wayne Garrett, but New York was down to its last out and Oakland had Rollie Fingers on the mound. Still, A’s manager Dick Williams pulled his bullpen ace (who was in his fourth inning of work) and replaced him with Darold Knowles, who had pitched in all previous six games in the Series. The move made Williams look like a genius; Knowles got Garrett to pop up to shortstop Bert Campaneris, and the A’s secured their second of three straight World Series championships.

1968 World Series Game 7 -- Mayo Smith picks Lolich
This World Series was hyped up for its “Year of the Pitcher” battle between Cardinals ace Bob Gibson (modern-era record 1.12 ERA) and Tigers ace Denny McLain (31 victories), but it was Mickey Lolich who turned out to be the Series MVP. McLain lost each of his first two matchups against Gibson (including Gibson’s incredible 17-strikeout performance in the opener), but McLain rallied back to pitch a complete-game gem in the Tigers’ 13-1 drubbing of the Cardinals in a win-or-go-home Game 6.

With the season on the line in Game 7, Tigers’ manager Mayo Smith went with the hot hand in Lolich (who had won Games 2 and 5) to pitch on just two days’ rest. Lolich rewarded his pitcher by outdueling Gibson with nine innings of one-run ball, and the Tigers upset the Cardinals to cap a dramatic Fall Classic.

1965 World Series Game 7 -- Alston skips Drysdale, pitches Koufax
Dodgers manager Walter Alston surprised some people when he decided to start Sandy Koufax on two days’ rest instead of co-ace Don Drysdale (three days’ rest), but that decision was made with the knowledge that Koufax (who had struck out a then-record 382 batters in the regular season) was planet Earth’s best pitcher -- though he had lost Game 2 against Twins ace Jim Kaat, his adversary again for Game 7. Alston had Drysdale positioned to relieve Koufax at the first sign of trouble, but Drysdale was not needed. Koufax authored one of the most famous starts in baseball history, relying mostly on guts and his fastball to shut out the Twins on three hits and three walks while striking out 10. Koufax finished the Series with one earned run allowed in 24 innings (0.38 ERA) with a pair of shutouts.

1929 World Series Game 1 -- A’s start Howard Ehmke
A’s manager Connie Mack had plenty of studs to choose from for Game 1, including Lefty Grove (20-6), George Earnshaw (24-8) or Rube Walberg (18-11), but he shocked everyone by picking Ehmke instead. Ehmke had formerly thrown a no-hitter and came one controversial call away from throwing another in a four-day span, but by 1929 he was a 35-year-old workhorse seemingly on his last legs. As Ehmke would later describe, Mack first approached him in early September and told him to secretly prepare to start the opener against an aggressive Cubs lineup that was right-handed heavy.

Hand it to Mack; the move worked. Ehmke hurled a complete-game victory and set a then-Series record with 13 strikeouts, including two punchouts apiece of Hall of Famers Kiki Cuyler, Rogers Hornsby and Hack Wilson. Ehmke’s heroics set up Earnshaw, Grove and Walberg for the rest of the Series, and the A’s took down the Cubs in five games.

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.

Sarah Langs is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @SlangsOnSports.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.