Three years removed from Madison Bumgarner cementing his status as the greatest postseason pitcher of this generation, Justin Verlander has spent October laying claim to the ‘best big-game pitcher’ championship belt. After joining the Astros on August 31, Verlander finished the regular season 5–0 with a 1.06 ERA. Playoff-Verlander, though, is an entirely different different beast.
Over the last two weeks, each Verlander outing has been more brilliant than the last. In Game One of the ALDS, he carried Houston to a win over Boston, pitching six innings while allowing two runs. This performance, coming against arguably the best pitcher in the AL (Chris Sale), no less, would serve as the ceiling for the majority of baseball’s aces. For Verlander, though, it’s the worst he’s looked throughout the playoffs. In Game 4, JV earned the series-clinching win in relief on three days rest, giving up one hit in 2.2 innings. In Game Two of the ALCS, Verlander submitted his latest masterpiece, surrendering five hits and one run in a complete-game victory that put the Astros up 2–0 over the Yankees.
Fittingly, six nights later, the fate of Houston’s fairy-tale season rested in the hands of their recently-aquired ace. In Game Six, Verlander did what’s become expected of him, tossing seven scoreless innings in a season-saving win. The win gives Verlander a 4–1 record in elimination games. After failing to extend the Tigers’ season in Game 5 of the 2006 World Series, JV has been perfect with his back against the wall. Unfathomably, Friday night might be his third-best outing in an elimination game. In Game 5 of the 2012 ALDS, Verlander threw a complete-game shutout in Oakland; the following year, in the same situation, he threw eight scoreless innings while giving up two hits. Still, his latest performance may be the most significant, considering it put Houston in position to win the franchise’ second pennant 24 hours later.
When it comes to the game’s most clutch performers, there’s no arguing whether Verlander belongs in the conversation. He’s 11–5 in the Postseason with a 3.00 ERA — 6–0 in the LDS, 5–2 in the LCS, and 0–3 in the World Series. JV’s lack of World Series success is the only thing preventing him from being considered one of the greatest big-game pitchers, ever. For as much as his last four outings have strengthened his legacy, the upcoming World Series presents one or two opportunities for Verlander to ascend higher. If he carries the Astros to their first championship, it may be time to put him alongside the following five-best Postseason pitchers in the last 30 years.
5. Josh Beckett
- Postseason Record: 13 GS, 7–3, 3.07 ERA, 93.2 IP, 67 H, 21 BB, 99 SO
- Signature Game: Game 6, 2003 World Series. Wrapped up the World Series with a five-hit, nine-strikeout shutout against the Yankees. In Yankee Stadium. At 23 years-old.
4. Orel Hershiser
- Postseason record: 18 GS, 8–3, 2.59 ERA, 132 IP, 103 H, 43 BB, 87 SO
- Signature game: 1988 World Series, Game 2. Gave the Dodgers a commanding 2–0 series lead with a three-hit, eight strikeout shutout of the A’s.
3. John Smoltz
- Postseason record: 27 GS, 15–4, 2.67 ERA, 209 IP, 172 H, 67 BB, 199 SO
- Signature game: 1991 NLCS, Game 7. The Braves’ dynasty began with Smoltz pitching a six-hit, eight-strikeout shutout against the Pirates to send Atlanta to its first World Series of the decade.
2. Madison Bumgarner
- Postseason Record: 14 GS, 8–3, 2.11 ERA, 102 IP, 74 H, 18 BB, 87 SO
- Signature Game: 2014 World Series, Game 5. Bumgarner gave the Giants a 3–2 series lead with a four-hit complete-game shutout against KC.
1. Curt Schilling
- Postseason record: 19 GS, 11–2, 2.23 ERA, 133.1 IP, 104 H, 25 BB, 120 SO
- Signature game: 2004 ALCS, Game 6. The Bloody Sock Game. It wasn’t Schilling’s best postseason outing, but the stakes make it so. He threw seven innings, gave up four hits and one run, while bringing the Red Sox back from a 3–0 series deficit.