Adam Wainwright’s complete-game was brilliant but not as rare as you might think
On Wednesday night, Adam Wainwright did what we envision aces doing in the postseason: stepping up to go the distance in a double-elimination game, as the Cardinals ousted the Pirates from the National League Division Series. On Thursday night, the Tigers hope Justin Verlander can repeat history by replicating last year’s shutout of the A’s in Game 5 of the American League Division Series.
The truth is, what Wainwright did is rare but not as much so as you might think. In fact, in the most pressure-packed games of the year — when both teams are facing elimination — it’s happened almost three times as often as during all postseason games.
There’s no doubt that complete games have become increasingly scarce in recent years. This season, only 124 pitchers went the distance, the second-fewest in major league history behind only the 112 in 2007. In fact, not counting the 1994 strike season, the 19 seasons with the fewest complete games in major league history have all come in the past 19 years, which happens to coincide exactly with the Wild-Card Era.
Over that time, complete games have accounted for 4.1 percent of all regular season starts, but just 3.5 percent of all postseason starts. It’s interesting to note, then, that in the 46 double-elimination games since 1995, including regular-season tiebreakers, nine pitchers have tossed complete games. Given that there are two starting pitchers in every game, that means nine of 92 men have finished what they started in do-or-die games, a 9.8 percent ratio that is more than double the regular season rate and almost triple the postseason rate. Even when removing regular-season tiebreakers to look at only official postseason games, the numbers are still eye-catching: six complete games in 78 starts (39 games), or 7.7 percent.
In the admittedly small sample size of the past four years, the numbers spike even higher. Of the 17 double-elimination games played since 2010 (including this year’s AL wild-card tiebreaker) with 34 pitchers, there have been six complete games, or 17.6 percent of all starts.
Getting back to Wainwright and Verlander, it’s worth noting that the Cardinals and Tigers pop up most often in the context of these complete games. Including the entirety of World Series play as well as the Division Series, League Championship Series and Wild-Card games, pitchers have thrown complete games in a sudden-death game 31 times, with the Cardinals accounting for seven of them and the Tigers four; no other team has more than three. St. Louis’ Bob Gibson is the only pitcher to do it more than once; he worked all nine innings in Game 7 of the 1964, 1967 and 1968 World Series — the latter in a losing cause, with opposite number Mickey Lolich doing the same for Detroit in victory.
Space doesn’t permit me to run down all 31 outings, so what follows here is a quick look at the 18 times it’s happened since the dawn of Division play in 1969, all of which resulted in victories for the team of the pitcher in question. At the bottom you’ll find the linescore for each pitcher.
Steve Blass, Pirates, 1971 World Series
Though he would later become better known for his sudden, shocking inability to locate the strike zone – the problem that more recently ended Rick Ankiel’s career as a pitcher — Blass was the Pirates’ go-to guy for a few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hit hard twice in the NLCS against the Reds, he rebounded with a three-hit, one-run game against the Orioles in Game 3 of the World Series, then was almost every bit as good in Game 7 in Baltimore. Roberto Clemente’s solo homer and Jose Pagan’s double to score Willie Stargell lifted him above a valiant effort by Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar for a 2-1 win.
Catfish Hunter, A’s, 1973 ALCS
Hunter had already earned his bona fides as a grizzled postseason warrior by the time he took the ball in the deciding Game 5 of the 1973 ALCS. In the previous year’s postseason he had delivered a 2.01 ERA in four starts and a pivotal World Series Game 7 relief appearance against the Reds. Here he stepped up and shut out the Orioles in a 3-0 victory in Oakland, lifting the A’s into the World Series against the Mets, where he would sparkle as well. Note that he had plenty of help from his defense, as he struck out only one hitter.
Jerry Reuss, Dodgers, 1981 NLDS
The 1981 players’ strike lasted seven weeks, leading Major League Baseball to adopt a split-season format for the only time in its history and creating a three-tiered playoff format that anticipated the Wild-Card era. The Dodgers, who led the NL West at the time of the walkout, were declared first-half champions, and they went on to face the Astros, who won the division’s second half.
Los Angeles lost the first two games in the best-of-five in Houston, scoring a grand total of one run in 20 innings in the process; Reuss himself worked nine shutout innings in Game 2 before the Dodger bullpen yielded a run in the 11th. The Dodgers clawed their way back into the series in Los Angeles, and Reuss matched his previous effort with another nine zeroes to help the Dodgers win 4-0 and move onto the NLCS.
Steve Rogers, Expos, 1981NLDS
On the same day that Reuss twirled his shutout, longtime Montreal ace Rogers did the same against the Phillies, who had won the first-half NL East flag. Making their first postseason appearance in franchise history, the Expos had taken a 2-games-to-0 lead in Montreal, but Philadelphia drew even on their home turf. Matched up against future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton in Game 5, Rogers got the upper hand, even driving in two of the Expos’ three runs via a bases-loaded single in the fifth.
Alas, his playoff fate would not remain so sunny; he came out of the bullpen to serve up Rick Monday’s pennant-winning homer in Game 5 of the NLCS against the Dodgers.
Bret Saberhagen, Royals, 1985 World Series
One night after first base umpire Don Denkinger’s infamous blown call in the bottom of the ninth inning aided the Royals’ comeback against the Cardinals, Saberhagen was the winning pitcher in an ugly 11-0 rout. With Denkinger behind the plate, frustrated St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog and pitcher Joaquin Andjuar were both ejected for arguing balls and strikes amid a six-run rally that capped the scoring, enabling Saberhagen, who had gone the distance in Game 3 as well, to coast to victory. At 21 years and 199 days, he’s the youngest of the 29 pitchers to pull off this feat.
Danny Cox, Cardinals, 1987 NLCS
The LCS had expanded from five games to seven in 1985. Cox, who had taken a complete-game loss against the Giants in San Francisco in Game 4, enjoyed the benefit of four second-inning runs back in St. Louis, cruising to a 6-0 win.
Orel Hershiser, Dodgers, 1988 NLCS
Hershiser was already in the midst of a magical year by the time Game 7 of the NLCS against the Mets had rolled around. Not only had he won a career-high 23 games, he closed the regular season by breaking Don Drysdale’s record for consecutive scoreless innings with 59. The Mets had actually won both of Hershiser’s previous LCS starts in the late innings of Games 1 and 3, but Hershiser had come out of the bullpen in the 12th inning to close out Game 4 in place of suspended closer Jay Howell.
In Game 7, with the Dodgers battering Mets starter Ron Darling for six runs in one-plus inning, Hershiser was able to roll to victory. He would go on to capture World Series MVP and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year honors.
John Smoltz, Braves, 1991 NLCS
Behind Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery, the Braves had climbed from 65 wins and last place in the NL West (!) in 1990 to win 94 games and the division in 1991, and they went the distance against the Pirates in the NLCS. On the heels of two intense 1-0 games, Game 5 won by the Pirates in Atlanta and Game 6 won by the Braves in Pittsburgh, Smoltz was able to take the mound with a 3-0 lead as his teammates chased starter John Smiley before he could get out of the first inning. Ultimately, the Braves won 4-0, lifting them into the World Series against the Twins. Speaking of . . .
Jack Morris, Twins, 1991 World Series
Morris departed the Tigers for his hometown Twins the previous offseason and won 18 games in the regular season and two more in the ALCS against the Blue Jays. He started Minnesota’s Game 1 victory and Game 4 loss before returning for Game 7. Not only did he outlast Smoltz, who worked 7 1/3 shutout innings, he took the mound in the 10th when the game remained scoreless through nine. The Twins won in the bottom of the inning on pinch-hitter Gene Larkin’s RBI single. That made Morris the only pitcher to work an extra-inning complete game in a sudden-death victory, and it may well be what carries him into the Hall of Fame.
Randy Johnson, Mariners, 1995 AL West tiebreaker
In the strike-shortened 1995 season, the Mariners overcame a six-game deficit in the standings over the season’s final three and a half weeks by winning 16 of 21, thus tying the Angels for the AL West lead. In the one-game play-in to determine the division champoin, the Big Unit tossed a complete-game three hitter while the Seattle lineup pounded out nine runs against Mark Langston and company, thus securing the Mariners’ first playoff berth in franchise history.
Al Leiter, Mets, 1999 NL wild-card tiebreaker
Rebounding from a seven-game losing streak that cost them a shot at the NL East title, the Mets wound up tied with the Reds for the wild-card spot after 162 games. In the tiebreaker game in Cincinnati, Leiter was lights out, throwing blanking the Reds on just two hits while the Mets struck early and rolled to a 5-0 win.
Curt Schilling, Diamondbacks, 2001 NLDS
Arizona’s run to a World Series victory over the three-time champion Yankees wouldn’t have happened without Schilling’s complete-game win to oust the Cardinals from the Division Series. With Matt Morris every bit as good as Schilling, the Cardinals and Diamondbacks were knotted at 1-1 through 8 1/2 innings before the latter scratched out a run against the St. Louis bullpen in the ninth. Tony Womack’s walkoff single against Steve Kline scored Danny Bautista to end the series.
Cliff Lee, Rangers, 2010 ALDS
Lee had gone 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA for the Phillies in the 2009 postseason, but they nonetheless traded him to the Mariners that December. When Seattle failed to contend, the Mariners flipped him to the Rangers in July. Not only did he help Texas win the division, he lifted them to their first series win in franchise history by outdueling David Price in a 5-1 victory at Tropicana Field.
Chris Carpenter, Cardinals, 2011 NLDS
Chased after just three innings in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Phillies, Carpenter returned with a vengeance in Game 5. With St. Louis scoring off Roy Halladay before he even retired a batter in the first inning thanks to Rafael Furcal’s triple and Skip Schumaker’s double, Carpenter put the Phillies offense on lockdown, emerging victorious in a 1-0 squeaker.
Justin Verlander, Tigers, 2012 ALDS
Verlander opened the Division Series against the A’s by striking out 11 over seven innings in Game 1 in Detroit. The Tigers took a 2-games-to-0 lead to Oakland, but the A’s drew even in the series, forcing Game 5 in the Coliseum. Verlander was at his best, again whiffing 11; the Tigers connected for two runs against Oakland starter Jarrod Parker and put the game away with four against the A’s bullpen.
Thanks to the strikeouts, Verlander’s Game Score of 89 is the top tally in this context, beating Sandy Koufax’s 1965 World Series Game 7 effort (nine shutotut innings, three hits, 10 strikeouts and three walks) by one point.
CC Sabathia, Yankees, 2012 ALDS
After coming within one out of a complete game in the Division Series opener in Baltimore, Sabathia finished the job in Game 5 back in the Bronx. Even having yielded a run in the eighth inning, Sabathia served as his own closer, setting down Adam Jones, Chris Davis and Matt Wieters on 10 pitches in the ninth to advance the Yankees to the ALCS.
David Price, Rays, 2013 AL wild-card tiebreaker
In a crazy wild-card race where six teams retained a chance at one of two spots heading into the season’s final week, it figured that at least one tiebreaker would be needed. The Rays and Rangers wound up squaring off in Texas for the second spot — the right just to play the Indians in the one-game Wild Card game. Though it appeared manager Joe Maddon was poised to pull him after seven innings, Price wound up going the distance in Tampa Bay’s 5-2 win.
Adam Wainwright, Cardinals, 2013 NLDS
Wainwright’s Game Score of 72 is actually the second-lowest among the pitchers above, ahead of only Price’s 68, but he looked plenty impressive in delivering heartbreak to the upstart Pirates, with three double plays helping to erase baserunners.
|Blass||1971 WS, G7||PIT-BAL||9||4||1||1||2||5||78|
|Hunter||1973 ALCS, G5||OAK-BAL||9||5||0||0||2||1||76|
|Reuss||1981 NLDS, G5||LAD-HOU||9||5||0||0||3||4||78|
|Rogers||1981 NLDS, G5||MON-PHI||9||6||0||0||1||2||76|
|Saberhagen||1985 WS, G7||KCR-STL||9||5||0||0||0||2||79|
|Cox||1987, NLCS G7||STL-SFG||9||8||0||0||0||5||76|
|Hershiser||1988, NLCS G7||LAD-NYM||9||5||0||0||2||5||80|
|Smoltz||1991 NLCS, G7||ATL-PIT||9||6||0||0||1||8||82|
|Morris||1991 WS, G7||MIN-ATL||10||7||0||0||2||8||84|
|Johnson||1995 ALW TB||SEA-CAL||9||3||1||1||1||12||88|
|Leiter||1999 NLWC TB||NYM-CIN||9||2||0||0||4||7||86|
|Schilling||2001 NLDS, G5||ARI-STL||9||6||1||1||1||9||79|
|Lee||2010 ALDS, G5||TEX-TBR||9||6||1||1||0||11||82|
|Carpenter||2011 NLDS G5||STL-PHI||9||3||0||0||0||3||84|
|Verlander||2012 ALDS, G5||DET-OAK||9||4||0||0||1||11||89|
|Sabathia||2012 ALDS, G5||NYY-BAL||9||4||1||1||2||9||82|
|Price||2013 ALWC TB||TB-TEX||9||7||2||2||1||4||68|
|Wainwright||2013 NLDS, G5||STL-PIT||9||8||1||1||1||6||72|