These players flipped their playoff narratives

In October, reputations can change with one magical series

October 11th, 2018

Pitcher-batter matchups won't be the only talking point when Boston's takes the mound Sunday for Game 2 of American League Championship Series (7:09 p.m. ET, TBS). Price's poor start in Game 2 of the ALDS, in which the lefty lasted just 1 2/3 innings while allowing three runs and a pair of homers to the Yankees, drudged up a talking point that has dogged him throughout his career. Price, a former Cy Young winner and five-time All-Star in the regular season, is now 0-9 with a 6.03 ERA in 10 career postseason starts.
Those numbers would seem to speak for themselves -- Price can't deliver in October -- except for the outings they overlook. He memorably twirled a complete-game gem in the Rays' Game 163 triumph over the Rangers in 2013, and he came up clutch with four scoreless innings of relief against the Astros -- the same club the Red Sox face this time around -- in Game 3 of last year's ALDS. According to research done by baseball writer Joe Sheehan, Price's teams have averaged just 2.1 runs in his 10 postseason starts and never scored more than four in any of them. Price has not been perfect by any stretch, but he's also been asked to a lot.

In short, a player's box score line numbers might not tell the whole story about his postseason resume (Clayton Kershaw is another example). And here's the other thing: With a couple great starts in the ALCS and, potentially, the World Series, Price could wipe that narrative away. October baseball has the ability to create "heroes" and "goats" based on sample sizes that would be dismissed in the regular season, and those labels can be as fluid as one pitch or swing of the bat.
If Price does indeed "redeem" himself in the coming weeks, he would join a long list of stars who did the same after surprisingly poor starts to their postseason careers. Here are some of the most notable names:

Andy Pettitte
Yes, the all-time postseason leader in wins (19), starts (44) and innings (276 2/3) got off to a rough start. Pettitte made his October debut in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS and gave up four runs on nine Mariners hits, though the Yankees won, 7-5. The lefty was serviceable in his first two starts of the following autumn, and terrific in an eight-inning win against the Orioles in Game 5 of the '96 ALCS, but proceeded to get shelled by the Braves (seven runs and six hits over 2 1/3 innings) in Game 1 of the World Series.
"I felt like I basically lost that series because our bullpen had to come in and pitch so much," Pettitte later told WFAN. "I built it up too much instead of going out there and relaxing and just slowing the game down. When I came off that mound, it was like, 'What just happened?'"
Pettitte was able to slow things down from that point forward, starting with Game 5 when he outdueled John Smoltz with 8 1/3 scoreless innings. Following his Game 1 disaster in '96, Pettitte led his team to wins in 11 of his next 14 postseason outings with a 3.64 ERA through the end of the 2000 Fall Classic.

Verlander was close to untouchable during the Astros' 2017 run, but it took the ace a while to get his feet under him in October. As a rookie in '06, Verlander allowed seven runs in 10 1/3 innings in starts against the Yankees and A's, and then saw the Cardinals ambush him for seven runs (six of them earned) in Game 1 of the World Series. Verlander then lasted just one inning in Game 1 of the '11 ALDS against the Yankees and finished out that season with a gaudy 5.57 ERA over his first eight career postseason starts.

Everything changed for Verlander in the '12 ALDS against Oakland, when the righty struck out 11 in Game 1 and became the first pitcher to record more than 10 strikeouts in a winner-take-all postseason shutout in the decisive Game 5. Since the start of that series, Verlander is 8-3 with a 1.98 ERA and 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings over his last 14 postseason starts.
David Ortiz
Everyone remembers Ortiz's back-to-back walk-offs in Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS against New York (and his subsequent triumphs in '07 and '13), but you might not recall that he was a .200 hitter and did not homer over his first 14 postseason contests with the Twins and Red Sox in 2002-03. Now, Big Papi is as synonymous with the word "clutch" as any player in baseball history.
Barry Bonds
Bonds was almost universally recognized as baseball's most talented player over his first 17 seasons, in which he won four NL MVPs, paired 613 homers with 493 steals and broke Mark McGwire's single-season homer record in 2001. But the acclaim disappeared in October, where Bonds hit just .196, homered just once and lost his first five postseason series with the Pirates and Giants.

So it's safe to say Bonds was on a mission in the fall of '02, when he homered four times and compiled a more characteristic 1.286 OPS to power the Giants to the NL pennant. Then he was simply unconscious during his first taste of the World Series stage, slashing .471/.700/1.294 and homering another four times -- including one dinger that might still be in orbit -- during San Francisco's heart-breaking seven-game loss to the Angels.
Alex Rodriguez
Rodriguez's notorious postseason reputation was somewhat arbitrary; he hit .340 across five series with the Mariners from 1995-2000 before his record contract inspired higher expectations with the Yankees. A-Rod hit .421 and knocked four extra-base hits against Minnesota in the '04 ALDS and then went 6-for-14 with a homer and two doubles in the Yankees' first three wins against Boston in the ALCS before things turned for the worse.
Rodriguez famously went hitless in his next 29 postseason at-bats with runners in scoring position, starting with New York's collapse in Game 4 of that series, and was dogged by rumors of performance-enhancing drugs. But he re-wrote his own narrative in '09. A-Rod knocked a ninth-inning, game-tying homer off Twins closer Joe Nathan in Game 2 of the ALDS, then belted another game-tying dinger in Game 3. In the ALCS, Rodriguez hit another game-tying blast in the 11th inning of Game 2, and finished the series batting .429. He cemented his turnaround with a Game 3 homer and a game-winning double off Phillies closer Brad Lidge in Game 4 of the World Series, ultimately capturing the Babe Ruth Award as postseason MVP.
"For me the one thing I can remember is, I know a lot of people were running the other way, and rightfully so in Spring Training," said Rodriguez. "But I have 25 guys and my coaches and the organization, the Steinbrenner family that stood literally right next to me. And that meant the world to me. It just feels good collectively to be sitting here today as world champs."
Willie Stargell
Stargell became the first player to win the regular season, NLCS and World Series MVP Awards in the same season in 1979. But Stargell, who led the Majors with 48 homers during the '71 season, was a non-factor in the Pirates' first title run that fall, going a combined 5-for-38 (.132) with one double and one RBI in the NLCS and Fall Classic. Stargell also went just 1-for-16 in the Pirates' '72 NLCS loss to the Reds before he began turning things around against the Dodgers in '74.
Dave Winfield
The derisive "Mr. May" moniker followed Winfield throughout his 1980s tenure with the Yankees, first inspired by his 1-for-22 showing in the '81 World Series and perpetuated by owner George Steinbrenner during New York's postseason drought. So when he signed with a stacked Blue Jays team before the '92 campaign, the 40-year-old Winfield saw one last shot to turn his somewhat unfair reputation around.
Winfield became a leader for Toronto and got his big hit in Game 6 of the World Series, when he knocked the eventual game-winning double off Atlanta's Charlie Leibrandt in the top of the 11th inning.
"I didn't care to be a hero or anything, because we've had so many guys to get us here, to get us through," said a relieved Winfield, who called that Game 6 the biggest of his Hall of Fame career. "But as long as I had one little hit, one little extra-base hit to drive in a couple runs, it was important."
Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine
Two stalwarts of Atlanta's dynastic run took their lumps in the beginning. In 1989, Maddux won 19 games as a 23-year-old for the Cubs but was roughed up twice by the Giants in the NLCS. He was terrific in his Braves postseason debut in the '93 NLCS, but coughed up six runs to the Phillies in the decisive Game 6. Maddux then logged a 2.66 ERA over his final 25 postseason starts for Atlanta, though the Braves offense averaged just 3.6 runs per game and lost 13 of those outings.
Meanwhile, Glavine lost five of his first six postseason starts with a 4.93 ERA before turning it around with two complete-game outings in the 1992 World Series. He finished his Braves tenure with a 3.44 ERA across 32 October starts and a World Series MVP Award in '95.

Tino Martinez
Beloved now in the Bronx, Martinez initially struggled to fill Don Mattingly's shoes at first base -- particularly in October. He hit .197 and homered just once across the '96 and '97 postseasons, but changed opinions with a momentous grand slam off Padres pitcher Mark Langston in Game 1 of the '98 World Series. Martinez also hit a two-out, game-tying homer off Arizona's Byung-hyun Kim in Game 4 of the 2001 Fall Classic, which lives on alongside Scott Brosius' Game 5 homer in the hearts of Yankees fans.

Rick Monday
Monday's series-winning homer in Game 5 of the 1981 NLCS vaulted the Dodgers to a championship and ended perhaps the best title chance in Expos history. But it was also a bit random: Monday was previously 12-for-75 (.188) with no homers and just one RBI over the first 23 postseason games of his career. He also went just 1-for-13 in the Dodgers' subsequent World Series victory over the Yankees.

Sabathia was the workhorse who carried the Brewers in the 2008 postseason and led the Yankees to a World Series title the next year. But he had his struggles as the Indians' ace, losing two pivotal games against the Red Sox in the classic '07 ALCS.
Zack Greinke
Greinke's terrific 16-6 debut season in Milwaukee didn't translate to the 2011 postseason, when he gave up 15 runs in 16 2/3 innings. He hasn't allowed more than four runs in any of his eight postseason starts (3.22 ERA) since.

Gene Tenace
Tenace was among the game's best regarded catchers in his heyday with the A's and Padres, but he began his postseason career with just one hit in 20 at-bats. So he was an extremely unlikely choice to be the 1972 World Series MVP, an award he claimed after going 8-for-23 (.348) with four homers and nine RBI in Oakland's seven-game thriller over the Big Red Machine. Tenace went on to catch for three more World Series championship clubs.