Everything evolves, even greatness under pressure.
Back in the 1970s, when the expansion of postseason baseball was still fresh, Earl Weaver kept things simple: He rode Jim Palmer as far as he could go. It quickly became an October tradition. The future Hall of Famer delivered complete games for the
Everything evolves, even greatness under pressure.
Back in the 1970s, when the expansion of postseason baseball was still fresh, Earl Weaver kept things simple: He rode Jim Palmer as far as he could go. It quickly became an October tradition. The future Hall of Famer delivered complete games for the Orioles in the American League Championship Series in 1969, '70, '71, '73 and '74.
But teams spread the load around a lot more these days, as the Indians showed en route to the 2016 World Series. Andrew Miller, the tall lefty with the disappearing slider, worked predominantly throughout the postseason in what was once called middle relief. He earned the ALCS MVP Award for his show-stopping performance against the Blue Jays.
Miller got Manager Terry Francona five outs in Game 1, six in Game 2, four in Game 3 and eight in Game 5, and he didn't care whether he was pitching in the fifth inning or the ninth. "All that matters are outs," Miller said. "All that matters are wins. It honestly does not matter how we get there."
But greatness is still found in old-fashioned arms, too. Consider the Cubs' Jonathan Lester, who was a rock for skipper Joe Maddon in last year's NLCS, just as he had been for the Red Sox in the 2013 ALCS against the Tigers. Lester wasn't in Boston to break the Curse of the Bambino in 2004, but Theo Epstein brought him to Chicago in 2015, intent on ending an even longer drought. His work against the Dodgers proved pivotal, as he was named series MVP in large part due to his Game 5 victory.
"It's unbelievable," Lester said. "Going through this process, this is why they signed me. And this is why I wanted to come here: to win a World Series for this city and this organization, this ownership, this front office."
Major League Baseball is playing its League Championship Series for the 48th season in 2017, and more often than not, it has equaled the drama of the World Series that has followed.
Consider 2008, when 24-year-old Rays right-hander Matt Garza beat Lester twice to lead Tampa Bay to a seven-game victory over the Red Sox. While a lot of great pitchers have passed through Tropicana Field, including James Shields, David Price and Chris Archer, it was Garza who excelled in the brightest spotlight.
And fans never forget those monumental victories. This list spotlights the pitchers who have bolstered their resumes with greatness in the championship series:
Video: 1998 ALCS Gm6: Yankees advance to World Series
If you saw an ALCS game between 1996 and 2010, you most likely witnessed the work of baseball's greatest closer. Rivera pitched in nine American League Championship Series for the Yankees, and seven times wound up as the focal point of celebration. The all-time postseason saves leader (fittingly with 42), Rivera shut the door in 13 ALCS games. There are a lot of numbers that illustrate his success, but try this one: Homers allowed in 48 2/3 innings pitched? Zero.
"Think about all the legends like Hercules, guys who are talked about forever," Torii Hunter once said of Rivera. "In baseball, when you talk about a reliever, Mariano Rivera is like a ghost, like a monster."
Thirty years later, fans still talk about the stare Stewart turned on hitters during a run of four consecutive 20-win seasons for the Oakland A's. He challenged opponents to beat him, and they rarely did, especially when the teams were vying for a World Series berth. Stewart went 8-0 with a 2.03 ERA over 10 ALCS starts, including a turn as MVP when the A's beat the Red Sox in 1990. He pitched with efficiency, piling up innings rather than strikeouts (39 in 75 1/3 innings), but his mark for most LCS victories still stands. Stewart beat Dave Stieb in the deciding fifth game in 1989, and four years later pitched a clincher for the Blue Jays over the White Sox.
Video: NLCS Gm3: Wainwright K's five over seven solid frames
Tenacious as a starting pitcher, Wainwright has also showcased his versatility in October. He thrived as an emergency closer for Tony La Russa's Cardinals in 2006, then made a run of strong National League Championship Series starts for St. Louis from 2012-14. He compiled a 2.20 ERA over 28 2/3 NLCS innings through 2016.
Along with Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, Smoltz was an October fixture before Rivera. He won six games with a 2.83 ERA and a record 89 strikeouts over 95 1/3 NLCS innings for Bobby Cox's Braves, who reached the postseason in 14 straight years during the 1990s and early 2000s. Smoltz was just 24 when he won two games against the Pirates in the 1991 NLCS, setting the stage for his classic Game 7 showdown against Jack Morris in the World Series. Following Tommy John surgery, he was working as a closer when he made his final NLCS appearance for the Braves in 2001.
Who can forget Hershiser's brilliance for his beloved Dodgers in the 1988 NLCS -- and Fall Classic? But it was the Indians, not L.A., for whom he was pitching in 1995 when he garnered ALCS MVP honors, winning Games 2 and 5 in Mike Hargrove's thin rotation. He closed out his October career working out of Bobby Valentine's bullpen with the Mets in 1999.
Hershiser always said the key to pitching well in the postseason was simply maintaining one's regular-season approach, as it would work even better against pressing hitters. He employed that mentality to compile a 1.52 ERA across 65 1/3 innings with the three teams. But even Hershiser felt the urgency that October brings. "I think you have to attack every single batter," he said. "I don't think there's any holding back on, 'Should I go to this pitch or should I hold it for the seventh?' I think you go to the well a lot earlier."
Video: ALCS Gm1: Kluber holds Blue Jays scoreless over 6 1/3
Based on last October, here's hoping that the Indians' 31-year-old ace gets more opportunities to show his stuff. While he eventually wore down in the World Series, he was in fine form against the Blue Jays in the ALCS. He set the tone with 6 1/3 innings in a combined shutout of the Blue Jays in the opener and came back on three days' rest to work five quality innings in Game 5.
Livan & Orlando Hernandez
Forgive us for including the half-brothers from Cuba as a shared entry on this list. Both are worthy on their own, but together, their combination of skill and competitiveness (and, sure, Eric Gregg's strike zone) produced jaw-dropping success in the LCS. They made 11 total appearances in eight different championship series, combining for a 6-2 record with a 3.10 ERA for the Yankees, Marlins, Diamondbacks and Giants. The most telling stat: Their teams won the LCS and reached the World Series in six of those eight postseasons, including four in a row for El Duque with the Yankees. He earned MVP honors in 1999, winning the clinching Game 5 against the Red Sox after working eight innings in the opener, a 10-inning Yankees victory.
Video: Hendricks gives up just two hits as Cubs clinch NLCS
Like Kluber, here's hoping "The Professor" gets many more chances to build on his success. Last year, he pitched the clinching game against the Dodgers to propel the Cubs into the World Series for the first time since 1945, and made one other solid NLCS start apiece in 2015 and '16. While Maddon has kept Hendricks on a short leash in the postseason, his 1.62 ERA in two consecutive championship series suggests that he's tough enough for any job that arises.
Blue Moon Odom
Pitching alongside Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and Ken Holtzman, Odom didn't always stand out in Oakland. In fact, he wasn't even guaranteed a rotation spot when the postseason rolled around. But he went on to compile a 0.40 ERA over 22 1/3 innings in the ALCS. That included two starts against the Tigers, in which he shut down Norm Cash and Al Kaline to send Oakland to its first of three straight World Series appearances in 1972.
There weren't a lot of big headlines when the Cardinals signed Suppan as a free agent in December 2003, after he had bounced between four teams in his first nine seasons. But he sure inspired news outlets each October from 2004-06, going 2-1 with a 1.69 ERA in five NLCS starts with St. Louis. He was probably even sharper than most remember, with a 0.91 WHIP over 32 NLCS innings. And he pushed the 83-win 2006 team to the World Series, earning MVP honors in a seven-game series against the Mets.
Suppan says he always dreamed about pitching in the postseason, but learned that it's still the game he had played his whole life. "The rules don't change," he says. "The ball doesn't morph into a different shape. The strike zone doesn't get smaller. It's all the same game. The only thing that's different is the increased noise around the game, which makes people think the game itself is different.
"If [a pitcher] is doing his job, he's just thinking about that one pitch. Players would do well to remember it's the same game."
Even if the results live on forever.
This article appears in the League Championship Series Program. To purchase a copy, visit mlbshop.com.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com