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Toughest Out Never Came to the Plate

When Orel Hershiser pitched successfully in the playoffs and World Series after a brilliant season in which he was clearly the game’s No. 1 pitcher, he was bucking a very large trend.

When the New York Mets failed to start their No. 1 pitcher and all-time star in Game 7 of the playoffs, they might have been making a large mistake--or simply bowing to tradition.

You see, postseason play has not been kind to many of the virtuosos of the grand old game.

It’s not so much that they don’t pitch to form. It’s more a matter of bad luck.

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It all began, I suppose, with Walter Johnson. Johnson was, by common consent, the No. 1 right-hander of his era, maybe any era. He led the world in shutouts with 113, and for a long time in strikeouts with 3,508, a lead which he only lost when seasons went from 154 to 162 games. He pitched in 59 1-0 games. He lost 21 of them. He pitched 56 consecutive scoreless innings.

You would have thought he would have been an “out” price in every game in a World Series, but, when he finally got in one, in 1924, he got hooked up in a 12-inning game that he lost when he gave up 14 hits and 4 runs. He lost another game in that Series when he gave up 6 runs and 13 hits before finally getting credit for a win in relief in Game 7.

Johnson’s World Series record, 3-3, with 56 hits in 50 innings, was hardly in keeping with his massive reputation and demonstrable superiority, but it was a pattern. Even the immortal Cy Young, who won 511 games, got racked in the first World Series game he pitched, giving up 7 runs and 12 hits in losing to Pittsburgh, 7-3.

You can almost go down the Hall of Fame and find the greatest pitchers in there struggling in postseason play. Carl Hubbell was unhittable in the ’33 World Series but against the Yankees in ’36 and ’37, he was a so-so 2-2. He lost 5-2 in 1936 and 8-1 in ’37, when he gave up 12 hits and 10 runs in 14 innings.

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As great as a Warren Spahn was--he won 363 games--he had his frustrations in World Series play.

Spahnie drew the Stengel Yankees in ’57 and ’58 (he had pitched inconclusively in the ’48 World Series when he was 1-1) and he got beat in the opener in ’57 when he went only 5 innings. He won Game 4 when his Milwaukee Braves rallied for 3 runs in the bottom of the 10th to win, 7-5. Spahn prevailed twice in ’58, one of those games another 10-inning affair, but then lost Game 6 in yet another 10-inning struggle in which he gave up 9 hits.

A World Series is sometimes a graveyard of major talent, a hoodoo more than a classic. It often seems a showcase for mediocrity. The 1969 Mets, for example, were widely perceived as pitcher Tom Seaver--Tom Terrific, 25-game winner--and a bunch of guys named Al Weis and Rod Gaspar.

Guess who lost the only game the Mets lost in that Series? The jinx was out and operating.

In ’73, Seaver got into another extra-inning game for no decision, then lost a regulation game, 3-1.

In 1942 and ’43, Mort Cooper, who had won 22 games in ’42, and 21 in ’43, was the best pitcher the St. Louis Cardinals had. You want to take a wild stab at who was the losing pitcher in the only World Series game St. Louis lost in ’42? Or who lost the final game to the Yankees in ’43?

Sandy Koufax was the best pitcher I ever saw. He probably pitched up to his potential in a Series better than almost any other superstar. But he pitched in 2 losing games in his first World Series in 1959. He was a mop-up pitcher in the 11-0 loss in Game 1 and he lost Game 5, 1-0. He was all but unhittable in the ’63 World Series sweep by the Dodgers and he put the 1965 Series safely in the hangar for the Dodgers in game 7 on 2 days of rest.

Still, Sandy got knocked around in Game 2 that year, 5-1, and it is a melancholy fact of record that the last baseball game he ever pitched in, a Series game in ’66, he lost, victimized by errors, 6-0.

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So, the postseason is not kind to super pitchers. Orel Hershiser beat the price. Or, did he?

Come with me to Game 1 of the playoffs. The cocky Mets, down 2-0, rally in the ninth. A single, a groundout, a double by Darryl Strawberry and Hershiser’s 67-inning scoreless streak has come to an end. The manager lifts him from the game. Tom Lasorda never made that mistake again. A walk and a pop-fly double and the Mets have stunningly won Game 1.

It probably should have spelled finis for L.A. Only a series of the most improbable set of circumstances in the recent history of the game kept the Dodgers alive and scrapping. Hershiser overcame the heaviest hitter of them all, the postseason jinx.

It’s interesting to note that even the Boston Red Sox’s all-everything right-hander, Roger Clemens--62 victories and 773 strikeouts in 3 years--fell victim to the dreaded Series syndrome. In 1986, Clemens pitched only 11-plus innings in 2 games without decision. The first playoff game he ever pitched, he got ripped by the Angels, 8-1, and could not even put his team in this year’s Series.

Dwight Gooden is the current successor to Tom Seaver on the Mets. He has never won a postseason game. In 6 chances. The gremlins get Gooden, too.

Hershiser had more than Jose Canseco and Darryl Strawberry to worry about. He had that great big, grinning, mocking home run hitter wearing No. 13 and a black cat on his uni. He was the toughest out in the lineup. He has knocked the best of them out of the box. Orel’s the first star pitcher in a long time to be able to shut him out in a Series.


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