He was there when Jack Morris refused to leave and pitched the Twins into the 10th inning to seal a World Series. He was there when Luis Gonzalez blooped the game-winning single to ignite the Phoenix night. He was there when Sid Bream beat Barry Bonds' throw. He was there
He was there when Jack Morris refused to leave and pitched the Twins into the 10th inning to seal a World Series. He was there when Luis Gonzalez blooped the game-winning single to ignite the Phoenix night. He was there when Sid Bream beat Barry Bonds' throw. He was there for the "Flip Play," for the Dave Winfield double, for the Tony Pena game. He was even one of the earliest known victims of the "Rally Monkey."
From 1991 to 2002, Mike Stanton was the Forrest Gump of playoff baseball, turning up either in the background or the forefront of many of the biggest and most memorable October moments.
Long before we celebrated the playoff impact of a high-leverage lefty named Andrew Miller, long before we had the advanced metrics that put an October career like his into proper context, long before there was another guy named Mike Stanton (that was the name Giancarlo Stanton was known by early in his career), October's original Mike Stanton might have had The Most Fascinating Postseason Career Nobody Talks About. His name isn't up there with the likes of Reggie Jackson or Derek Jeter or Madison Bumgarner in October lore, and yet his postseason game log reads like the lyrics from "Sympathy for the Devil."
This dude saw a lot.
"I'm blessed with way more than I deserve," says Stanton, who is now an Astros analyst for AT&T SportsNet, as well as a member of the MLB Network Radio team. "I've been done along enough now that I look back and some of it doesn't even seem real."
Stanton pitched all or parts of 19 seasons in the Majors. He strung together a 3.92 ERA over 1,114 innings, went to the 2001 All-Star Game, signed a few lucrative (though, by today's standards, paltry) contracts and had six seasons with north of 70 innings of work.
So Stanton's regular-season career was fine and fruitful. But his postseason career was on another level entirely.
Stanton's 2.10 ERA in 55 2/3 innings of postseason play is the second lowest among relievers with at least 35 innings on that stage, behind only soon-to-be Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera's 0.70. He entered postseason games as early as the fourth inning and as late as the 11th.
"His stuff was not as powerful as Andrew Miller's is now, but he commanded his pitches on both sides of the plate," says Sandy Alomar Jr., the former Indians catcher who faced Stanton multiple times in October and now serves as the Cleveland's first-base coach. "He could save your bullpen, because he could face lefties and righties. He was a big-time postseason pitcher."
To give you an idea of how Stanton performed in the clutch, his 1.59 win probability added (a stat that calculates how much a player impacts his club's win expectancy in a given game) in those 55 2/3 innings is comparable to the 1.64 postseason mark compiled by legendary two-time World Series MVP Bob Gibson… in 81 innings.
"I was a really aggressive pitcher," he says, "I was already a max-effort kind of guy, so the extra adrenaline didn't affect me that much."
It's a fun career to contextualize in the present tense.
For instance: We can reasonably argue that Morris' 10-inning shutout performance in Game 7 in 1991 is a major reason why he finally made it to the Hall of Fame this year, right? If so, then we could also argue that Stanton's ability, in relief of John Smoltz, to get the inning-ending double-play ball out of Kent Hrbek -- after the Twins had loaded the bases in the eighth inning of what was still a scoreless tie -- actually contributed to Morris' cause by increasing the intensity of that tilt.
In other words, Stanton got Morris into Cooperstown!
"Oh sure, sure," Stanton says with a laugh. "Jack was very good that night, but our offense was really overaggressive. I remember one particular pitch a good friend of mine, Ron Gant, swung at a split-finger fastball full hack. That's how big the situation is. Everybody wants to be the hero, and things can happen like that."
Stanton, who was drafted by the Braves in 1987 and came of age just as they were beginning their incredible record run of 14 straight division titles, had his first two postseason runs end on the wrong side of the World Series -- against the Twins in '91 and the Blue Jays in '92. But the '92 Series berth only came after the Braves won the National League Championship Series over the Pirates in dramatic fashion, with a ninth-inning rally capped by Bream's famous dash home.
Oh, and of course, Stanton pitched two-thirds of a scoreless inning in that one.
"I don't really even remember pitching in that game," Stanton says. "But I do remember being in the dugout after pitching. The dugouts in Fulton County Stadium were recessed, about three feet below the playing surface. We had that wall that hit you about chest high. And it was like a horror show. I was ducking down behind that wall, with just my eyes peeking above the wall because I was afraid to watch [the ninth]. I swear it took Sid about three minutes to score. That whole play seemed to take forever."
The Braves were just the beginning
Some players have to wait forever between postseason appearances. Not Stanton. He was back again with the Braves in 1993 (they lost in the NLCS that year). And though the strike kept everybody out of October in '94, Stanton made it back again in '95, despite the Braves tossing him off their division-title train at the non-waiver Trade Deadline. He landed with a Boston squad that reached the playoffs for the first time in five years.
So there was Stanton, in Game 1 of the American League Division Series against that imposing 1995 Indians lineup. He came on in the eighth inning of a 3-3 tie with two out and two on and got future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray to fly out. In the ninth and 10th innings, Stanton maintained the tie by facing, in order, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Paul Sorrento, Alomar, Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel and Carlos Baerga -- a modern-day Murderer's Row -- and allowed nothing more than a stray single.
"I had changed leagues, so I benefited from them not knowing who I am or anything," Stanton says. "I always felt when a good big-league lineup doesn't have a track record against a pitcher, the pitcher has the advantage if he can throw strikes."
Alas, Zane Smith didn't have the same outcome against the backup catcher, Pena, that night, and the Red Sox lost an epic game en route to an LDS defeat. They didn't make it back to the playoffs again in 1996.
But Stanton did. He was dealt again at the Deadline, this time to a Rangers team that -- thanks in part to the upgrade in cosmic outlook that apparently accompanied Stanton in those days -- made it to the postseason for the first time in franchise history (and Stanton appeared in three of the four games in Texas' ALDS loss to the Yankees).
The Yankees years
To that point, Stanton had a knack for landing on postseason rosters thanks to the actions of executives. After the Rangers' early exit in 1996, he had his own action to take in free agency and elected to sign with a Yankees club on the doorstep of a dynasty.
Well, you know how that turned out: The Yankees were postseason fixtures, which meant Stanton was afforded a wealth of opportunity to impact the big picture. Ultimately, it earned him three rings from 1998-2000. He was the winning pitcher in two of the Yankees' victories in the Subway Series win over the Mets in 2000.
And relevant to this year's postseason field, which will likely pit the Yankees and A's against each other in the AL Wild Card Game, he was the winning pitcher in both decisive Game 5s between those clubs in the 2000 and '01 ALDS rounds. Given his history, the only surprise is that he didn't pitch in Game 3 in '01, the night of Jeter's legendary flip play.
"To tell you the truth, I felt we were going to lose that ['01] series," he says. "Oakland was just so good. They were tough to pitch to because they just didn't swing out of the zone, and they had guys like Eric Chavez and Jason Giambi.
"Really, those years in New York, some of those series weren't as dominant as the numbers might say. There were times we were down. There were times there was doubt. You look back now and it looks simple, but that wasn't the case."
STANTON'S TOP 5 POSTSEASON OUTINGS
As calculated by win probability added
1. 1995 ALDS Game 1 (Red Sox)
Held the loaded 1995 Indians lineup scoreless on one hit with four strikeouts over 2 1/3 scoreless innings in the eighth, ninth and 10th innings (0.397 WPA). Boston, however, went on to lose in the 13th.
2. 2000 World Series Game 1 (Yankees)
Pitched the final two innings of a 12-inning, 4-3 victory over the Mets, retiring all six batters faced, to pick up the victory in the first game of the Subway Series (0.311 WPA).
3. 1991 World Series Game 3 (Braves)
Held the Twins scoreless on one hit in the 10th and 11th innings to preserve a 4-4 tie to help set up the stage for Mark Lemke's eventual game-winning hit in the bottom of the 12th (0.269 WPA).
4. 1991 World Series Game 4 (Braves)
The next night, Stanton was back for another 1 2/3 scoreless innings in a 2-2 tie. After his 1-2-3 top of the ninth, the Braves manufactured the winning run in the bottom of the inning to even the Series at two wins apiece (0.242 WPA).
5. 1991 NLCS Game 4 (Braves)
Pitched around singles from Barry Bonds and Jay Bell to work two scoreless innings in the eighth and ninth of a 2-2 tie (0.239 WPA). Alas, the Braves lost this one in the 10th.
The Yankees' most memorable loss came in World Series Game Game 7 in Arizona in 2001. Stanton pitched two-thirds of an inning in relief of Roger Clemens in the seventh to preserve a 1-1 tie, and Rivera pitched a scoreless eighth after the Yanks took a 2-1 lead. But Rivera's rare missteps in the ninth allowed Gonzalez and the D-backs to cap that fascinating Fall Classic with a final flourish. That means Stanton was on the wrong end of two of the greatest Game 7s in history -- exactly 10 years apart.
"You get to those games, and it's special," he says. "Those are historic games. Here in Houston, we saw the Astros go to two Game 7s last year. Those are special games. So I look at it more that way than being the loser."
Stanton's perspective on the postseason experience -- particularly on the precipice of an October that will involve not only the Astros team he follows today but three of his former playoff teams -- is a valuable one to tap into.
What advice, then, does the man who played in 11 of a possible 11 postseasons from 1991-2002 have for those entering this year's tournament?
"If you can, don't do it how I did it," Stanton said. "Take a second to reflect on what's going on. I played in 11 straight postseasons with four different clubs. I thought that's just how it happens and that's just how it's going to be. Then in 2003, I sign with Mets and we don't play to our potential, and I never made it back to the postseason. Did I take those early years for granted? Yeah, I think I did.
"So make sure that you are paying attention to what's going on. Because you may be a part of something historic."
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.