Every manager in the postseason wishes for the same thing: one hot starting pitcher.
That's the variable that can change everything. Think about the Giants' Madison Bumgarner in 2014; he carried a good-but-not-great club that won 88 games and finished second in the National League West by six games all the way to a World Series title.
Think about Cole Hamels in 2008, pitching the Phillies to their first World Series title in more than a quarter-century.
Or if you want to go back a little more, think about a 23-year-old Josh Beckett leading a surprise Marlins team all the way to Game 7 of the 2003 World Series against the New York Yankees -- then pitching a five-hit shutout to launch the champagne celebration.
Even as starting pitchers throw fewer innings during the regular season, they still have an outsized impact on October baseball. One hot pitcher can change the rhythm of any series and alter the way opposing teams play.
They still think a lot about Bumgarner in Kansas City; Royals fans feel sure that if he had not been so dominant they would have won. They're probably right. How do you know if a pitcher will be hot going into the postseason? It's not a sure thing, but it's telling if a pitcher dominated at the end of the regular season. Often you find that those are the pitchers who make history in the postseason.
Here are a few examples of hurlers who got hot in September and then turned the tide in October.
Orel Hershiser, 1988
In the middle of August that year, the Dodgers were swooning. They had led the NL West all season -- at one point by as many as eight games -- but on Aug. 8, the Astros beat L.A., 10-0, and the next day Dodgers' lead was just a half-game. And just when it all seemed to be going bad, Hershiser became one of the most unhittable forces in baseball history.
They called Hershiser "Bulldog" for the ferocious way he competed, and he'd been a good pitcher, twice finishing in the top five in the NL Cy Young Award voting. But nobody saw his 1988 dominance coming. From Aug. 19 (when he threw a shutout against the Expos) to Sept. 28 (when he threw 10 shutout innings in San Diego), Hershiser allowed just four runs in 82 innings -- that's an 0.44 ERA for those counting. During that time, he broke Don Drysdale's seemingly unbreakable record by throwing 59 consecutive scoreless innings.
Hershiser carried the Dodgers to what turned out to be an easy division championship. Even so, few gave them a shot in the NL Championship Series against the powerful New York Mets, who had won 100 games and featured an entire galaxy of stars. But Hershiser started three games, allowed just three earned runs, picked up a save in Game 4, and then he clinched the series by throwing a five-hit shutout in Game 7.
If nobody gave the Dodgers much of a chance against the Mets, nobody gave them any chance against Oakland. The Athletics won 104 games and were dominant offensively and defensively. Everyone remembers Game 1, when a hobbled Kirk Gibson hit the one-handed home run that caused Vin Scully to say, "In the year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened."
But that was just one game. It was Hershiser who took over the World Series. He threw a three-hit shutout in Game 2, and he finished things off in Game 5 by throwing another complete game, allowing just two runs. The 1988 Dodgers are one of the most surprising champions ever. Hershiser was the ultimate X-Factor.
Madison Bumgarner, 2014
In his last 10 regular-season starts in 2014, Bumgarner had a 76/7 K/BB ratio, a 2.12 ERA, and opposing batters hit just .200 off him. He was ready.
Bumgarner had already pitched brilliantly in past postseasons, but now he was at his peak … and this would be an October run like no other. In the NL Wild Card Game against Pittsburgh, Bumgarner threw a four-hit shutout. He was outdueled by Doug Fister in his lone game against Washington in the NL Division Series (allowing two earned runs in seven innings), but the Giants still breezed to a four-game series victory. Bumgarner threw 7 2/3 shutout innings in Game 1 of the NLCS vs. the Cardinals to help lead San Francisco to a dominant five-game series victory.
And in the World Series against Royals, Bumgarner was invincible. He allowed just one run in seven innings during Game 1. With the Fall Classic tied going into Game 5, he pitched a shutout. And then in Game 7, with just two days of rest, Bumgarner threw five scoreless innings to finish off Kansas City. A couple of months after his extraordinary performance, he was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year for 2014.
Don Larsen, 1956
Much was made of how unlikely it was for a so-so pitcher like Larsen to throw a perfect game in the World Series. And if you consider Larsen's entire career, this is true -- he finished with an 81-91 record, a slightly below league-average 3.94 career ERA, and almost as many walks (725) as strikeouts (849).
But in September 1956, Larsen became -- rather suddenly -- unhittable. The Yankees had the American League pennant more or less wrapped up, and New York manager Casey Stengel gave Larsen four starts in September. The results were staggering. Larsen threw a shutout against Baltimore. He tossed a complete game and allowed just four hits and one run at Detroit. He threw 15 2/3 innings and allowed just one run and seven hits in consecutive starts vs. Boston. For the month, Larsen was 4-0 with an 0.52 ERA.
And while it surprised everyone when Stengel sent Larsen out for the crucial Game 5 of the World Series -- this after Larsen didn't last even two innings in Game 2 -- the skipper had a good feeling. Stengel was right. Larsen threw the only perfect game in World Series history, and the Yankees won the Fall Classic in seven games.
Bob Gibson, 1967
Gibson did not have a great year by his standards in 1967. He was injured much of the season, and heading into September, he had an un-Gibson-esque 3.52 ERA. The Cardinals were ahead comfortably in the NL, which allowed Gibson to work through some things. In his final four starts, he had an 0.56 ERA, and opponents hit just .168 against him.
Gibson went on to essentially win the World Series by himself. In Game 1 against Boston, he allowed one run and struck out 10, as St. Louis squeaked by with a 2-1 win. In Game 4, he threw a shutout to give the Cardinals a commanding 3-1 lead. But Boston won the next two, forcing a Game 7. Gibson again took control, allowing just three hits and striking out 10 in a complete-game win. He also earned the World Series MVP Award for the second time.
Justin Verlander, 2017
People had been writing obituaries for Verlander's great career for a few years, and in 2017, he was having an uninspiring season for Detroit. After he was traded to Houston on Aug. 31, however, the clock turned back, and Verlander was young again. He won all five of his regular-season starts for the Astros, with the opposition hitting just .149 against him. His K/BB ratio was an astonishing 43/5. The Astros had gotten even more than they hoped for from the veteran right-hander.
And Verlander kept it going in the postseason, winning all four of his appearances in the NLDS and NLCS. He was not quite as dominant in the World Series, but he pitched well enough to keep the Astros in the game in both of his starts, and they went on to win the Fall Classic in seven.
Sandy Koufax, 1965
Koufax never stopped being dominant in 1965, but he was especially brilliant in September, as the Dodgers found themselves locked in a crazy pennant race with the rival San Francisco Giants. Koufax made an unbelievable nine starts in September -- he also had a relief appearance -- and Los Angeles won eight of the games he pitched in. Koufax had 79 strikeouts for the month -- the second most of any September over the past 100 years (behind only Nolan Ryan's 86 punchouts in September 1972).
The Dodgers did worry that their ace lefty's momentum would be halted when he missed Game 1 of the World Series to commemorate Yom Kippur. And sure enough, Koufax was a little bit flat in Game 2; he lasted only six innings. But then Koufax turned superhuman. In Game 5, with the series tied, Koufax threw a four-hit shutout, striking out 10. And then on just two days of rest, he came back and threw another shutout, this time allowing just three hits.
Tom Seaver, 1969
Tom Terrific went 6-0 with a 0.83 ERA in September for the Miracle Mets, and he was all but unhittable, holding opposing hitters to just a .153 average during that stretch. Seaver wasn't quite as sharp in the playoffs, but when the Mets needed him -- Game 4 of the World Series vs. the mighty Orioles -- he was brilliant. Seaver threw 10 innings and allowed just one run, as the Mets scored the game-winner on a Baltimore error and took a 3-1 lead in the series. They completed the miracle in Game 5.
Ron Guidry, 1978
Louisiana Lightning, as Guidry was called, had one of the greatest pitching seasons in baseball history in 1978, when he went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA. But he needed to be especially good in September, as the Yankees ran down the Red Sox, who held a 6 1/2-game lead going into the final month.
Guidry was essentially unbeatable down the stretch. Aside from one tough start in Toronto, he went 6-0 with three two-hit shutouts in September. The dominance continued in the playoffs, when the lefty clinched the AL pennant by allowing just one run against the Royals in Game 4 of the ALCS. In the World Series, after the Dodgers took a 2-0 series lead, it was Guidry who stopped the bleeding with another great performance, limiting L.A. to only one run in a complete-game victory. The Yankees went on to win the Fall Classic in six games.
Luis Tiant, 1975
El Tiante was supposed to be done back in the early 1970s, but he reinvented himself with Boston. As a young man, he had relied on power stuff -- few threw harder than Tiant. But with the Red Sox, he began to succeed by throwing off hitters' timing with his gyrating windup and an assortment of pitches.
Tiant was terrific down the stretch for Boston, and in the postseason, he was miraculous. The crafty right-hander allowed just one unearned run against the three-time defending World Series champion Oakland A's in Game 1 of the ALCS, and the Red Sox went on to sweep the series.
Tiant followed that up with a shutout of Cincinnati's Big Red Machine in Game 1 of the World Series. He was not quite as sharp in Game 4, but he proved as resilient as ever, tossing a complete game in another Red Sox victory. Tiant started Game 6 as well, and even though the Reds knocked him around -- scoring six runs in seven innings -- Boston famously came back and won on Carlton Fisk's wave-it-fair home run. The Red Sox lost the World Series, but they did win all three games Tiant started.