After Jack Morris had thrown nine shutout innings, Game 7 of the 1991 World Series between the Twins and Braves was still in a scoreless tie. But Twins manager Tom Kelly wasn't inclined to push his 36-year-old ace any further. "Tom told me I was out of the game after the ninth," Morris said afterward. "I told him, 'I got a lot left in me, and tomorrow we don't play.'"
True to his word, Morris came back out and retired the side in the top of the 10th on eight seemingly effortless pitches. That set the stage for Gene Larkin.
Larkin, a former Columbia University standout, had settled into a Major League career as a supersub. He rarely started, but as a switch-hitter with a .270 lifetime average, he frequently found himself pinch-hitting in high-leverage situations. None was bigger than the bottom of the 10th in Game 7, when Atlanta manager Bobby Cox intentionally walked both Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek to face Larkin with the bases loaded. Larkin made the Braves pay, driving the first pitch, an outside fastball, deep into the outfield for a walk-off, Series-winning single.
"As soon as I made contact, an exhilarating feeling came over me," Larkin said. "I took a few steps out of the box and raised my right hand because I knew it was over."
Scoreless ties can sometimes be monotonous affairs, but 1991's legendary Game 7 was anything but that. Even before the fateful 10th inning, the teams combined for 21 baserunners. Five of them ended up stranded at third, and six more at second. The closest call came in the top of the eighth, when Atlanta's Terry Pendleton hit a double deep into the gap that should have easily scored Lonnie Smith from first. But Twins rookie second baseman Chuck Knoblauch mimicked the motion of turning a double play, confusing Smith for just long enough to slow his progress and keep him from scoring.
Two groundouts later, Smith was stranded at third. That would be the last real chance for the Braves, as two innings later, Larkin's drive sent them home in defeat.
"People associate great players with great moments," Larkin said. "They really don't associate role players with great moments, but in my particular moment, I was asked to get a job done and I did. That one moment can happen to anybody."
A quarter-century later, Atlanta's epic battle with Minnesota is still widely regarded as the greatest Game 7 ever played, although there are plenty of contenders. Among them is Bill Mazeroski's walk-off homer in 1960 in the Pirates' unexpected triumph over the Yankees, which goes hand in hand with Larkin's single as one of the five walk-off hits in Game 7 World Series history, and the only game-ending homer.
Game 7 turns the drama up another notch. For instance, there was 1946, when Ted Williams came to bat in the eighth with a chance to knock a Series-winning hit for the Red Sox -- and popped up, setting the stage for the Cardinals to win on Enos Slaughter's "mad dash." There was 1925, a sloppy game between the Pirates and Washington Senators played in mud and rain, when the Series-winning hit down the right-field line disappeared into a fog so dense that nobody, including the umpires, could really see if it was foul or fair. There was 1955, when a miracle catch by Sandy Amoros helped 23-year-old lefty Johnny Podres shut out the Yankees, clinching Brooklyn's first and only title. And there was 1968, when a fierce Bob Gibson dominated the Tigers for most of the game, only to lose when the best defensive center fielder in baseball, the Cardinals' Curt Flood, misplayed a routine fly ball.
Those were all memorable contests, but there are a select few Game 7s that belong in an even higher category: legendary. In 1924, Walter Johnson was acknowledged as the greatest pitcher of all time, but despite owning 377 wins and a career ERA just under 2.00, the 36-year-old superstar had never before had a chance to show off his stuff in the Fall Classic. That year, though, "The Big Train" and his Senators not only reached the Series but battled the New York Giants to a seventh game. In that crucial contest, Johnson entered in relief -- Madison Bumgarner-style -- and threw scoreless innings in the ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th.
Allowed to bat for himself with the winning run on base in the bottom of the 12th, Johnson reached on an error, so he was on first when the next batter grounded toward third. What might have been an inning-ending double play instead hit a pebble and caromed over the head of the Giants' 18-year-old third baseman, Freddie Lindstrom, allowing Washington to walk off with its first (and only) World Series championship.
"It was the greatest World's Series this planet ever saw, bristling with thrills and sensations," The Sporting News gushed. "Every game was a battle to the death."
In 1962, the Giants again ended up on the losing end of a thrilling Game 7. Trailing the Yankees, 1-0, they needed to score in the bottom of the ninth to keep their season alive. Matty Alou bunted for a hit, but the next two batters struck out trying to sacrifice.
With San Francisco down to its last out, Willie Mays smoked a double down the right-field line, but Roger Maris made a spectacular play to hold Alou at third. Now the tying and winning runs were in scoring position and dangerous lefty Willie McCovey was due up. "Stretch" had tripled off ace Ralph Terry in his previous at-bat, but Yankees manager Ralph Houk decided against a pitching change or an intentional walk, letting his fatigued right-hander face the righty-killing McCovey.
Depending on one's point of view, it was either the gutsiest managerial decision in World Series history or the craziest. McCovey scalded a line drive right at second baseman Bobby Richardson, who stumbled but held on for a Series-ending catch.
"It was more than a game," one Giants fan told the San Francisco Chronicle afterward. "It was a Greek tragedy."
The next year, Sandy Koufax earned World Series MVP honors as his Dodgers quickly dispatched the reigning champion Yankees. But it wasn't until 1965 that Los Angeles went the distance in an unforgettable series. Although Koufax was widely regarded as the greatest pitcher on the planet, he wasn't on the mound for the World Series opener, as he spent Game 1 observing Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Koufax returned to pitch Game 2 but allowed two runs in a Dodgers loss. He defeated Minnesota in Game 5, but that left him to pitch on only two days' rest when Game 7 rolled around.
Showing tremendous faith in his ace, manager Walter Alston started Koufax anyway but had Don Drysdale in the bullpen for the entire game. Drysdale was never needed. Working with only his fastball, the dog-tired Koufax struck out 10 Twins batters while allowing just three hits in a gritty shutout.
"Koufax is murder," Twins manager Sam Mele said. "You hate to lose, but we didn't disgrace ourselves. We were beaten by the best pitcher that there is anywhere."
The World Series lasted seven games 12 more times between 1967-97, when the Indians upped the drama by bringing their city just two outs away from its first major sports championship since the Browns captured the 1964 NFL crown. On the mound was Jose Mesa, the hard-throwing but shaky reliever who'd lost and regained Cleveland's closer job during the regular season. Mesa gave up a pair of singles before allowing Florida to tie the game on a sacrifice fly, sending Game 7 into extra innings.
In the bottom of the 11th, Cleveland's Tony Fernandez -- who earlier in the game had hit a key two-run single -- made a crushing error, allowing an easy grounder to scoot under his glove. That set up rookie shortstop Edgar Renteria to play hero, and he delivered with a line-drive single up the middle to clinch a walk-off title for the Marlins. "It was like a stab to the heart," Cleveland shortstop Omar Vizquel said of the unexpected loss.
In the annals of playoff baseball, the most exciting games have often been those in which an ace takes the mound in relief with the season on the line. Johnson in the 1924 World Series, Orel Hershiser in the 1988 National League Championship Series, Pedro Martinez in the 1999 American League Division Series and Randy Johnson in the 2001 World Series all helped cement their legacies with such performances. But in 2014, Giants lefty Bumgarner topped them all.
By turning in five gutsy innings of scoreless relief on two days' rest, Bumgarner was able to preserve San Francisco's one-run lead in Game 7 of the Fall Classic. Kansas City didn't threaten against Bumgarner until there were two outs in the ninth, when Alex Gordon hit what was almost a game-tying Little League home run but instead held up at third. Bumgarner would induce a popup off the bat of Salvador Perez to close out the game six pitches later.
"You send Gordon, and it's one of the five greatest baseball moments ever, regardless of whether he scores," sabermetrics guru Nate Silver tweeted. Instead, fans had to settle for the greatest relief pitching performance in baseball history, which was a pretty good consolation prize for Bumgarner and the Giants.
Locking down a championship, though, often falls on the shoulders of a closer, not a starter. But like umpires, their performances are rarely remembered unless they stumble. Which is why for Mariano Rivera, who saved more games than any pitcher who ever lived, one of the most memorable moments of his World Series career may be a dinky little single he gave up to Luis Gonzalez.
Gonzalez's hit, of course, sealed Game 7 of the 2001 World Series for Arizona, and it capped a thrilling come-from-behind ninth inning that also included a game-tying double by Tony Womack and a crucial throwing error by Rivera. Had the Yankees' infield been playing at a normal depth, Gonzalez's blooper would have been caught easily by shortstop Derek Jeter. But with the infield in to prepare for a play at the plate, the ball sailed over Jeter's outstretched glove and caused heartbreak in New York as the D-backs celebrated their amazing comeback.
"We gave everything, I gave everything, the whole team gave everything, and we fell short," Rivera told a CBS reporter years later. "Sometimes your best is not enough."
A version of this article appears in the MLB Official World Series Program. To purchase a copy, visit mlbshop.com.
Eric Enders is a freelance writer and baseball historian based in Texas. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.