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Beckett rises to occasion

We -- all of us -- want to say that we experienced
something that is the "best ever."
Failing that, we would gladly take "worst ever" as a
substitute. (That is why the Detroit Tigers were such
a disappointment -- they managed to avoid the extreme
and deprived us of being able to say we were witness
to the worst team of the century.) Best, worst,
greatest, most, highest -- we all crave the right to
say we witnessed some form of extreme. Having said
that as a preface, then what I am about to say may
sound like hyperbole based on the need to fulfill this
desire so described, but here goes:

What Josh Beckett did Sunday was the single
greatest pitching performance in the history of
baseball by a pitcher whose team was on the brink of
elimination.

With the Marlins one game from getting terminated by
the Cubs, Beckett stepped in with an outing that
trumps all those previous to it under similar
circumstances going back the full 100 years of
postseason play. The two hits he gave up tie Ross Grimsley of
the 1972 Reds for the least ever allowed in this
circumstance. That, coupled with 11 strikeouts and one
walk, makes for the best Game Score ever by a starting
pitcher whose team had its back to the wall. This is
not by a little bit, either. Beckett's score of 93
easily bests the previous leaders, Joe Coleman and
Grimsley, who had 84. (Whitey Ford, at 82, has the
best showing in a World Series game.)

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the
best games pitched by men who are called upon to keep
hope alive. What follows is a list of the 13 (or so)
best outings under those conditions. Games where both
teams face elimination by losing (Game 7s in
best-of-seven and Game 5s in best-of-fives) are not
counted here. This list is comprised of only the men
who rose to the occasion when their clubs were down
and nearly out.

1. Josh Beckett, 2003
Florida Marlins vs. Chicago Cubs, NLCS Game 5 (4-0): Beckett's three total bases plus walks is the best
number ever by a starter in this stressful position. The combination of a shutout, high strikeout and low
baserunner totals makes this the new standard for postseason salvage operations.

2. Bob Turley, 1958
New York Yankees vs. Milwaukee Braves, World Series Game 5 (7-0): Turley stopped Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and company dead in their tracks, racking up 10 strikeouts along the way -- including Aaron twice.

3. Joe Coleman, 1972
Detroit Tigers vs. Oakland A's, ALCS Game 3 (3-0): Coleman struck out 14 A's, the most ever under this
particular circumstance. It was his only start of the five-game series. He struck out more batters than did Beckett, but gave up 10 baserunners to Beckett's three. I put Coleman ahead of Grimsley because he got a shutout.

4. Ross Grimsley, 1972

Cincinnati Reds vs. Pittsburgh Pirates, NLCS Game 4 (7-1): In one of those strange coincidences, Grimsley and
Coleman both set the standard for saving their teams
on the very same day: Oct. 10, 1972. Grimsley is
the highest-ranking pitcher on this list to have
allowed a run but compensated by only allowing two
baserunners. One of them came on a solo homer by
Roberto Clemente -- sadly, the last one he would ever
hit.

5. Whitey Ford, 1955
New York Yankees vs. Brooklyn Dodgers, World Series Game 6 (5-1): Ford allowed just one run in the fourth, an inning in
which Brawlin' Don Zimmer pinch hit and was called out on strikes. (Have you ever stopped to consider how
seemingly impossible it is that Zimmer and Britney Spears are part of the same species?). A case could be made that the next game, pitched a year later, was
just as impressive or even more so:

6. Clem Labine, 1956
Brooklyn Dodgers vs. New York Yankees, World Series Game 6 (1-0, 10 innings): It's just about impossible to be remembered in a Series in which a man pitches a perfect game, but Labine and his Game 6 opponent, Bob Turley had quite a duel. They battled for 10 innings until Turley finally succumbed with two outs in the first extra
frame as Jackie Robinson singled home Junior Gilliam for the 1-0 victory.

7. Hippo Vaughn, 1918
Chicago Cubs vs. Boston Red Sox, 1918 World Series Game 6 (3-0): If the Cubs threw this Series as some conspiracy
theorists suggest, then this was a pretty good decoy
effort -- unless the Red Sox were in on the fix, too, and
laid down for it. The next year Eddie Cicotte of the
White Sox gave away two games to the Reds but then
threw for real in Game 7 and came up with an
effort that landed him just south of making this list.
Vaughn lost two earlier games in this Series in spite
of only surrendering a total of three runs.

8. Lefty Grove, 1931
Philadelphia A's vs. St. Louis Cardinals, World Series Game 6 (8-1): This was Grove's final World Series appearance and he
responded nicely, scattering five hits, striking out
seven and allowing just one run. Two years earlier,
manager Connie Mack had used him exclusively in relief
in the World Series in what may rank as one of the
strangest choices every made by a manager. It worked,
though, so who are we to quibble?

9. Curt Schilling, 1993
Philadelphia Phillies vs. Toronto Blue Jays, World Series Game 5 (2-0): Schilling responded well to the call against a lineup
that featured three future Hall of Famers in Rickey
Henderson, Roberto Alomar and Paul Molitor. He allowed
no extra base hits -- just five singles and three
walks. What makes this even more impressive is that
the Jays averaged nine runs per game in the other five
games of the Series.

10. Bucky Walters, 1940
Cincinnati Reds vs. Detroit Tigers, 1940 World Series, Game 6 (4-0): Walters allowed a double to Dick Bartell, four singles
and two walks while shutting out the Tigers. His only strikeout victims were the opposing pitcher, Schoolboy Rowe, and Hank Greenberg. Whiffing folks was
never Walters' thing, though. Two in nine innings was just a little below par for him.

11. Danny Jackson, 1985
Kansas City Royals vs. Toronto Blue Jays; LCS Game 5 and vs. St. Louis Cardinals;
World Series Game 5 (2-0 and 6-1):
Jackson's Series-prolonging outing in the LCS in '85
makes the list while his performance against the
Cardinals just 11 days later was nearly as good.
Jackson remains the only pitcher to turn the trick
twice in the same year, although Beckett could get
another shot at that if the Marlins can win the next
two games against the Cubs and then get to the brink
the World Series. Jackson was only 23 at the time, the
same age as Beckett. He went on to appear in the
postseason with four other teams.

12. Warren Spahn, 1948
Boston Braves vs. Cleveland Indians, World Series Game 5 (11-5): I took the liberty of jumping Spahn over a few people
because he did what he did in relief and still managed
to post a Game Score that ranks among the best ever in
this situation. The Braves were behind the Indians
three games to one but were leading Cleveland 4-1
heading into the bottom of the fourth in Game 5.
Starter Nels Potter, who had pitched so well for the
St. Louis Browns in the Series in 1944, then came
unraveled and gave up three hits and a walk,
culminating in a three-run homer by Jim Hegan. This
left the Braves trailing 5-4 and forced manager Billy
Southworth to call upon Spahn to relieve with one out.
He struck out opposing pitcher Bob Feller, walked Dale
Mitchell (whose most famous Series moment lay eight
years in the future at the hands of Don Larsen) and
then ended the fourth by striking out Hall of Famer
Larry Doby. He was lights out the rest of the way,
allowing just one more baserunner, a leadoff double
to another Hall of Famer, Lou Boudreau, in the eighth. He
followed that by striking out the side. Meanwhile, the
Braves tied the game in the fifth and put it away with
a six-run sixth as Feller ran out of gas. Spahn
pitched 5 2/3 innings of one-hit ball, walking one and
striking out seven in one of the greatest relief
performances in postseason history. It's certainly the
best long relief job in the face of elimination.
(Here's another notch for Beckett: even if Spahn had
posted those same numbers over nine innings, his Game
Score would have fallen shy of what was done
Sunday.)

13. Whitey Ford, 1960
New York Yankees vs. Pittsburgh Pirates, World Series, Game 6 (12-0): The 1960 Yankees made Ford one of the best-supported
postseason pitchers ever. He won this game 12-0 and was staked to 10 runs in his other start, another
shutout victory. Does this kind of support detract
from the quality of his -- and Ford's -- performance?
No, although this would be a good time to give
honorable mentions to the Cardinals John Stuper's 1982
Game 6 outing against Milwaukee (also won 13-1) and
Bob Walk's Game 5 three-hitter against the Pirates
in the 1992 NLCS. Both were very close to No. 14, Denny
McLain of the '68 Tigers.

How many of these games proved to be turning points on
the road to destiny for their teams? Of the 15 games
mentioned above, the winner of the elimination game
went on to take the series in question six times. Of
course, what comes afterward is beside the point,
isn't it? Losing the subsequent game does nothing to
detract from What matters is that these pitchers rose
to the occasion and performed brilliantly when their
teams needed them most and none of them did so more
convincingly than Josh Beckett.

Jim Baker writes Monday through Friday for ESPN Insider. He can be reached at jbakerespn@yahoo.com