Aces' 2016 NL Wild Card Game performance tops list of winner-take-all matchups
By Joe Trezza
Stuff. Pedigree. Setting. Stakes. Whichever way you slice it, Wednesday's National League Wild Card Game featured one of the most exciting pitching matchups we've ever seen in a winner-take-all affair, with Madison Bumgarner opposing Noah Syndergaard with a spot in the National League Division Series on the line.
But maybe the most exhilarating part of what evolved into a tension-filled night at Citi Field was that it unraveled almost exactly the way we expected it to. You had Bumgarner, the ace of the Giants and one of the best postseason pitchers of all time, riding the wave of his best season to date. And you had Syndergaard, with a fastball/slider combination so unconscionable it prompted opponents, after they beat him, to call it "some of the best stuff I've ever seen."
So nobody was exactly shocked when, eight innings and 60 batters into play, zeros still ruled the scoreboard. Bumgarner ended up adding to his October legend with a suffocating four-hit shutout, while Syndergaard took a no-hitter into the sixth and finished with 10 strikeouts in seven scoreless innings. This was the game we predicted, the game we wanted, and the game we got.
In this light, we attempted to place Wednesday night's game historically in terms of matchups that lived up to their enormous, on-paper hype. First we ranked every winner-take-all elimination game pitching matchup in the Wild Card era by combined bWAR to get the list of games that looked like great matchups going in. Then we ranked those by combined Game Score, the Bill James metric that attempts to summarize a pitcher's performance in one number.
Syndergaard and Bumgarner combined to pitch to a 10.3 bWAR this year, making it the ninth-best matchup in our rankings going in. Then Bumgarner registered a near-elite 83 game score, and Syndergaard notched an impressive 80. Combined, that made Wednesday's game the best winner-take-out pitching matchup in the Wild Card era. For context, their combined 163 game scores even topped the 153 mark set by John Smoltz and Jack Morris in their legendary 1991 World Series Game 7 duel.
So no, your eyes weren't deceiving you. Wednesday's duel was the best in recent memory. But which games did it top? When have we seen such a battle before? Get ready, because these matchups are pretty good.
1. Bumgarner (Giants) vs. Syndergaard (Mets)
2016 NL Wild Card Game
Combined WAR: 10.3
Combined Game Score: 163
Only three of the other 18 pitchers on this list pitched to a game score of 80 or better (50 is average) in their starts. Both Bumgarner (Game score of 83) and Syndergaard (Game score 80) did that Wednesday. They combined to allow 11 baserunners and strike out 16, while Bumgarner extended his postseason scoreless-inning streak to 23. He would have been pinch-hit for in the eighth, had Conor Gillaspie not hit his game-winning three-run homer a batter before. The lead intact, Bumargner finished off a 3-0 masterpiece.
2. Chris Carpenter (Cardinals) vs. Roy Halladay (Phillies)
2011 NLDS, Game 5
Combined WAR: 12.4 Combined Game Score: 156
A matchup that lived up to the hype and then some. Halladay (Game score 72) allowed a leadoff triple, an RBI double to the next batter, and nothing else for eight innings. Carpenter (Game score 84) never slipped. He tossed a three-hit shutout in a 1-0 win. The Cardinals' magical World Series run would not have happened without him.
3. Curt Schilling (D-backs) vs. Matt Morris (Cardinals) 2001 NLDS, Game 5
Combined WAR: 12.9
Combined Game Score: 146
Two of the NL's top three finishers in the Cy Young Award voting showed why they placed that high in this game, which ended up propelling Arizona to its first World Series title. Morris (Game score 67) led the NL in wins during the regular season, but he lost this game despite throwing eight innings and allowing only one run. Schilling (Game score 79) struck out nine in a complete game, and the D-backs walked off against Steve Kline in the bottom of the ninth to win, 2-1.
4. Justin Verlander (Tigers) vs. Jarrod Parker (A's)
2012 ALDS, Game 5
Combined WAR: 11.7 Combined Game Score: 137
This was the matchup of an established star against a budding one, after Parker posted a 3.47 ERA as a rookie. It was also a rematch of Game 1 of this series, when Verlander outdueled Parker with seven dominant innings. This time, Verlander struck out 11 in a 6-0 complete game (Game score 89) to best Parker again (Game score 48) and send the Tigers to the ALCS.
5. Roger Clemens (Yankees) vs. Schilling (D-backs)
2001 World Series, Game 7
Combined WAR: 14.4 Combined Game Score: 131
We remember Luis Gonzalez's World Series-winning single off Mariano Rivera. What we forget is that Clemens was set to be the star of the series decider after striking out 10 over 6 1/3 innings of one-run baseball (Game score 64). Schilling struck out nine over 7 1/3, allowing just two runs (Game score 67). The D-backs trailed, 2-1, by the time Mark Grace led off the ninth inning with a single against Rivera. By the end of the inning, Gonzalez was jumping in jubilation after the D-backs came back for a 3-2 walk-off victory. Schilling was named World Series co-MVP.
6. Jake Arrieta (Cubs) vs. Gerrit Cole (Pirates)
2015 NL Wild Card Game
Combined WAR: 13.2
Combined Game Score: 130
Arrieta's postseason debut went about as smoothly as the rest of his NL Cy Young Award-winning 2015 season did. He struck out 11 in a shutout (Game score 88), dominating the Pirates in front of the largest crowd ever at PNC Park. Cole posted a 19-8 record and a 2.60 ERA in the regular season, but he faltered against Arrieta, allowing four runs in five innings (Game score 42). The Cubs won, 4-0, to advance to the NLDS.
Last year's AL Wild Card Game pitted Houston's Cy Young Award winner against New York's $155 million ace on a chilly night at Yankee Stadium. Keuchel showed why he led the league in wins, innings and WHIP, and he continued his season-long dominance of the Yankees with six scoreless innings (Game score 72). Tanaka allowed four hits in five innings, but two were solo home runs (Game score 51). With Keuchel dealing, the game -- a 3-0 Houston win -- was effectively over by the second inning.
The best Game 5 matchup in NLDS history on paper took place just last October, when deGrom outdueled baseball's ERA leader, Greinke, under the lights at Dodger Stadium. deGrom entered the tilt after posting a 2.54 ERA over an impressive sophomore season, while Greinke's 1.66 ERA was baseball's best mark in 20 years. Two of the three runs Greinke allowed (Game score 58) came courtesy of playoff superstar Daniel Murphy, who hit a decisive solo shot in the sixth inning of New York's 3-2 win. deGrom gutted through six innings of two-run ball (Game score 56) before handing the reins to Syndergaard for an inning and Jeurys Familia for two more.
9. Pedro Martinez (Red Sox) vs. Barry Zito (A's)
2003 American League Division Series, Game 5
Combined WAR: 13.3 Combined Game Score: 106
Martinez won the AL ERA title in 2003. Zito had won the AL Cy Young Award in '02. They met with a trip to the ALCS on the line. Martinez held the A's to three runs in seven innings (Game score 56), and four relievers took care of the rest. The Red Sox scored four off Zito (Game score 50), using homers from Jason Varitek and Marry Ramirez to advance with a 4-3 victory.
10. Martinez (Red Sox) vs. Clemens (Yankees)
2003 AL Championship Series, Game 7
Combined WAR: 12.1
Combined Game Score: 78
The Aaron Boone game was tied for a reason. It wasn't because these two aces pitched like aces. They were supposed to: Martinez led the league in ERA with a 2.22 mark, while Clemens went 17-9 in his age-40 season. They'd met up previously in Game 3, when Clemens and the Yankees edged Martinez, 4-3. This time, neither factored into the decision. Clemens was pulled after four runs (three earned) in just three innings (Game score 33), while Martinez squandered a late lead (Game score 45) that set Boone up for immortality in a 6-5 walk-off win for New York.
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.