Unconventional postseason pitching decisions

November 4th, 2021

Necessity is the mother of invention, and so postseason baseball has a tendency to inspire some unorthodox pitching maneuvers as managers try to out-think each other and squeeze the most from their rosters in the biggest games of the year.

This isn't a new phenomenon, either. Many decades before skippers were second-guessed in real time via Twitter, they were already pulling some surprising stunts in the Fall Classic.

Here is a look back at some of these unconventional postseason pitching decisions from throughout baseball history.

2021 NL Division Series Game 5: Dave Roberts flips to Knebel
Only hours before their winner-take-all Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Giants, the Dodgers announced that reliever Corey Knebel, not scheduled starter Julio Urías, would be starting the decisive game. Urías beat the Giants with five innings of one-run baseball in his Game 2 start earlier in the series. But deploying the right-hander Knebel as the opener for Game 5, with the lefty Urías available to pitch behind him, could help stop the Giants' plans to stack the top of their lineup with right-handed hitters to gain a platoon advantage.

Roberts went a little off-script than what was originally speculated, as he brought in another righty in Brusdar Graterol for the second inning, but the gamble worked nonetheless. Urías came in for the third and kept the Dodgers in a position to win with four innings of one-run ball. The move also diminished the Giants' bench early, as left-handed starters Tommy La Stella and Mike Yastrzemski were lifted after just one at-bat a piece.

The Giants went the traditional route and let starter Logan Webb go seven strong, but in the end, the Dodgers held on to a 2-1 lead in the ninth as Max Scherzer earned the first save of his illustrious career.

2018 NL Championship Series: Wade Miley's cameo
The Brewers had flipped conventional pitching methods for just about all of 2018, and in Game 5 of the NLCS against the Dodgers, manager Craig Counsell showed he still had more tricks up his sleeve.

Seeing the Dodgers' lineup stacked with six right-handed batters against the left-handed Wade Miley, Counsell came into the matchup with a plan to pull his starter after one batter for right-handed reliever Brandon Woodruff, and then start Miley again in Game 6. The plan shocked the baseball world, but it was not completely unprecedented. In fact, Counsell may have taken a page directly from some of the most successful managers in history for his gambit in Los Angeles (see below).

While a more traditional approach might not have worked either, Counsell's bold maneuver didn't exactly pay off. Woodruff allowed three runs (two earned) over 5 1/3 innings in relief of Miley, and the Brewers lost, 5-2. Milwaukee did win Game 6 behind a more normal Miley start (4 1/3 innings, two runs), but the Dodgers captured Game 7 and the pennant.

2000 NL Division Series Game 1: Tony La Russa shields Rick Ankiel
La Russa would later call this move "a big mistake," but one could understand his thought process at the time. The Cardinals' manager brought veteran Darryl Kile to the NLDS news conference and had him answer questions as if he were St. Louis' Game 1 starter, only to turn around and tab the 20-year-old Ankiel to start the contest against Atlanta. La Russa intended to protect his young starter from the limelight, but it may have added more pressure in the end. In the third inning, Ankiel became the first pitcher in modern history to throw five wild pitches in a single frame, and he exited the game after allowing four runs and walking six.

Ankiel's woes continued through the NLCS and into the 2001 season, eventually prompting his demotion to Rookie-level baseball. He would later make a triumphant return to the Majors as a skilled outfielder, but there's no question that the '00 postseason altered Ankiel's career.

1990 NLCS Game 6: Jim Leyland turns on the Power
With his Pirates on the verge of elimination against the Reds, Leyland yanked 35-year-old journeyman Ted Power out of his bullpen and onto the mound for the biggest start of his life. The right-handed Power had not started a game all season for Pittsburgh, but Leyland felt he a better chance to neutralize Cincinnati's potent righty hitters (including Eric Davis, Barry Larkin and Chris Sabo) than the presumed southpaw starter, Zane Smith.

"Look at it this way," said Pirates pitching coach Ray Miller, "all we're doing is starting the game in the seventh inning."

It was a glimpse of the "opener" trend that emerged during the 2018 season, and it worked in a sense. Power allowed just one run before turning the game over to Smith in the third, but Pittsburgh's hitters could not figure out Cincinnati's late-inning trio of Danny Jackson, Norm Charlton and Randy Myers. The Reds prevailed, 2-1, and went on to sweep the A's in the World Series.

1929 World Series Game 1: Howard Ehmke rewards Connie Mack
Ehmke was a reliable starter who was nearing the end of his time, and the writing was on the wall that the 1929 campaign could be his last in Philadelphia. With the A's holding a comfortable lead in the American League standings, Mack shut Ehmke down in mid-September and told him to scout the Cubs, Philly's likely World Series opponent.

The A's had two bona-fide aces in Hall of Famer Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw, but Mack, with inherent trust in the well-rested Ehmke, shocked everyone by tabbing the 35-year-old to start Game 1 of the Fall Classic at Wrigley Field. All Ehmke did was limit the Cubs to one run and set a World Series record with 13 strikeouts over a brilliant complete-game effort, rewarding the legendary Mack for one of the biggest leaps of faith in baseball history. The A's went on to win the Series in five.

1924 World Series Game 7: Bucky Harris dekes John McGraw
Counsell's move in 2018 most directly called back to Harris, the Hall of Fame manager of the Washington Senators, in the decisive Game 7 in 1924. All indications pointed toward Harris going with left-hander George Mogridge, a 16-game winner in the regular season, to face the Giants in the biggest game of the season. But Harris instead tabbed 23-year-old righty Curly Ogden, who had made just 16 starts for the Senators after coming over to Washington midseason. Newspapers speculated that Harris was simply looking for a fresh arm after starters Mogridge, Walter Johnson and Tom Zachary had logged heavy innings in the series.

"The casualties of shell-ridden 'pitchers' hill' have been so heavy upon both baseball armies," stated The Associated Press, "that the two generals will be compelled to put their fortunes up to the youths of virtually untried capacity in today's deciding game."

But the 28-year-old Harris had something else in mind. Facing legendary Giants manager John McGraw (already a three-time World Series champion), Washington's fresh-faced skipper selected Ogden to persuade McGraw to field his weaker lineup for the lefty-righty platoon. Most of all, it convinced McGraw to slot his young first baseman, Bill Terry -- a future Hall of Famer who struggled mightily at the time against left-handed pitchers -- into the fifth spot in the Giants' order.

The ploy worked swimmingly. Ogden struck out Freddie Lindstrom and walked Frankie Frisch, and then left the game for Mogridge. Terry went hitless in his two at-bats before McGraw replaced him for a pinch-hitter, thereby removing New York's biggest power threat. Harris' switch didn't win the game by itself (Washington needed a heroic relief appearance by Johnson and a walk-off double in the 12th inning), but it likely limited the Giants' best hitter in Terry, who entered Game 7 with an outrageous 1.517 OPS in the Series.