The Best Games Pitched in Relief

This article was written by L. Robert Davids

This article was published in the 1978 Baseball Research Journal


There are ways of recognizing the best pitched games of starting hurlers — the record books list the no-hit games and in a special category even the perfect games where no opposition batter got to first base. But what about the relief pitcher? What about the great efforts they have made over the years? There is no record category for best games pitched in relief and consequently these gems are not recorded and soon forgotten.

Well, that is not exactly true. There was one game that was so flawless, the powers that be lifted it from the ranks of relief efforts and called it a perfect game. That really wasn’t necessary and wasn’t quite accurate anyway.

The game we are talking about, of course, was the first game of the June 23, 1917 twinbill between the Red Sox and Senators where Boston starter Babe Ruth walked the first Washington batter and was dispatched from the field for forcefully disputing the call by umpire Brick Owens. Ernie Shore was brought in to replace Ruth. The Washington runner was thrown out stealing and Shore set down all 26 batters he faced. This should not be considered a “perfect game” like those of Young, Joss, Bunning, et. al., because not quite all the ingredients for “perfect” are there. It should, however, be called the best relief performance ever turned in, and that is quite a singular accomplishment.

What were some of the other stellar relief efforts? Considering only regular season games since 1900, we have reviewed several factors including length of performance, fewest runs and hits and men on base, most strikeouts, relieving with men on base, etc. Whether the relief pitcher won the game or not is considered a negligible factor.

One game that evoked some memories of and comparisons with the Ernie Shore performance took place on August 31, 1955 in Cleveland. Bill Wight of the Baltimore Orioles was facing rookie Herb Score of the Indians. In the first inning Wight gave up two walks, five hits, and five runs without getting the first batter out. With two on base, he was replaced by Hector “Skinny” Brown, who could start or relieve as needed. Brown completely cut off the Tribe. He was facing a team that had gotten its first seven batters on base and then suddenly they could not get another hit for the rest of the game. Brown’s knuckleball and slider were working marvelously against such batters as Bobby Avila, Ferris Fain, Ralph Kiner and Al Rosen, and this particular day he also had a live fastball. He fanned 10, and, while he was one of the best control pitchers in modern baseball (only 8 walks in 141 innings in 1963), he did give up five bases on balls in this contest.

Herb Score was also pitching well, and he had the advantage of five runs in the first inning. He fanned 13 and won the game 5-1. The Indians did not have to bat in the ninth, and Brown was credited with eight no-hit innings. He was responsible for all 24 Indian outs. Baltimore management thought he should be credited with a no-hit game, much like Shore, but the American League Office quickly ruled this out.

On July 20, 1914, Hubert “Dutch” Leonard was scheduled to pitch for the Red Sox against the Tigers and George Dauss. He begged off because of a weak ankle and Fred Coumbe took his place. The latter pitched well and the Red Sox had a 2-0 lead going into the ninth. But the Tigers got two runs off Coumbe before anyone was out and Leonard was sent in with Bobby Veach on second. He dispatched the Bengals without a hit that inning, and as the game went into extra innings he kept setting them down. Finally, in the 16th inning Tris Speaker singled in Harry Hooper to give Leonard a 3-2 victory. He had not given up a hit in 8 innings, had walked 3 and fanned 9, pretty good for a pitcher not up to starting.

Some of the best relief efforts were performed by pitchers who won lasting fame as starters. They thereby demonstrated that they could be great under any conditions. In fact, Cy Young had back-to-back performances, one in long relief and the next as a starter, which were faultless.

The rescue effort came on April 30, 1904 in a contest against Washington. George Winters was pitching for the Red Sox and they were leading 3-0 after two. However, Winters was clipped for three quick hits and a run in the third and Young came in with two men on base and nobody out. He set the Senators down in order and continued his mastery throughout the game. He did not give up a hit or a walk in 7 innings and, as his next outing was a perfect game against the Athletics, he was untouchable for 16 straight innings. This was part of his record 25 1/3 consecutive hitless innings, which is discussed in another article in this Journal.

Grover Cleveland Alexander won 28 games as a rookie with the Phils in 1911 and one was in a spectacular relief performance against the Reds on May 13. Alex relieved George Chalmers in the top of the 9th with the score tied at 4-4. He pitched 8 hitless innings and was returned a victor in the 16th when Pat Moran singled in Fred Luderus.  He walked only two and one was caught stealing and the other was wiped out in a double play. Frank Smith, acquired from the Red Sox, went the route for the Reds and lost 5-4.

On the same day there was another notable relief performance, but not a particularly good one. In this game the Giants scored 13 runs off the Cardinals in the first inning. With a 13-0 lead, Manager John McGraw wasn’t going to waste his ace Christy Mathewson and pulled him after the first inning. In came Rube Marquard who pitched the remaining 8 innings in a 19-5 victory. He gave up 12 hits, yet he fanned 14, which was a top mark for a relief hurler up to that point.

Two years later, on July 24, 1913, Walter Johnson fanned 15 (some reports say 16) in 11-1/3 innings of relief against the St. Louis Browns. This is not only a record for relief hurlers, but turned out to be the most Johnson ever fanned in any game, and he pitched in two that went 18 innings. Johnson had many great relief performances, but probably none that would rank in the top ten. His best was against the Yankees on July 5, 1912. He relieved Joe Engel in the 4th with one down and two men on. Both scored on an error by shortstop George McBride before Johnson could retire the side. The game was tied 5-5 and went into overtime. The Nats finally won it 6-5 in the 16th. In 12 2/3 innings, Johnson gave up only four hits. He walked 3, hit a batter, and fanned 5.

The longest relief effort in major league history occurred in a game between the Dodgers and Cubs on June 17, 1915. Chicago hurler Humphries was tapped for one run in the first and he left after Zack Wheat slashed a wicked drive back to the mound which took a fingernail off his pitching hand. With two out and two on, he was replaced by George Washington “Zip” Zabel, who had not had a chance to warm up. Almost immediately George Cutshaw was caught off base at third to retire the side. Zabel gave up an unearned run in the eighth which tied up the game 2-2 and it shortly went into overtime. In the 15th he walked Casey Stengel intentionally and the strategy backfired into another unearned run for the Dodgers; however, Vic Saier of the Cubs tied it up again with a homer in the bottom of the 15th. In the 19th inning the Cubs finally pulled it out when Bob Fisher scored on an error by Cutshaw for a 4-3 win for Zabel over Jeff Pfeffer, who went the distance, but was not especially sharp. In 18 1/3 innings, “Zip” had given up only 9 hits, 2 runs, and 1 intentional walk.

Not all of the really long relief efforts were good jobs. The most notorious example was on July 10, 1932 when the Philadelphia Athletics were caught with a limited pitching staff in Cleveland and Eddie Rommel struggled through 17 innings in relief, giving up 29 hits and 14 runs. Ironically, he was still returned the victor, because Wes Ferrell, his relief opponent through 11 1/3 innings, was banged for 12 hits and 8 runs. That was an exceptional game, won by the A’s 18-17 in 18 innings.

The longest scoreless relief effort was turned in by Bob Osborn of the Cubs on May 17, 1927. In this game against the Boston Braves, Osborn made his entrance in the 8th with the score tied 3-3. He hurled 14 innings, giving up only 6 hits and 2 walks, and won the game in the 22nd when Charlie Grimm singled in Hack Wilson, who had walked. Bob Smith went the entire 22 innings for the Braves and lost a heartbreaker.

Two outstanding relief performances were racked up during the summer of 1959. On July 9 at Milwaukee, Roger Craig of the Los Angeles Dodgers relieved Danny McDevitt in the third with the score tied 3-3. Craig, later a pitching coach and now manager of the San Diego Padres, used only 88 pitches in 11 innings of superb hurling. He gave up a pop-fly double to Joe Adcock and two harmless singles, and did not walk a batter. In fact, it was one of the longest games by a relief hurler without giving up a base on balls.

The Braves even called in their ace southpaw, Warren Spahn, in one of his infrequent relief appearances, to pull this one out. He pitched well, but in the 13th gave up a double to Wally Moon and a single by Rip Repulski and Craig won the contest 4-3.

On August 6, 1959, it was the battle of the Billies at Baltimore.  Billy Pierce of the White Sox was hurling against Billy O’Dell of the Orioles. It was 1-1 in the 9th when Hoyt Wilhelm came in to relieve O’Dell. His knuckleball was working exceptionally well against the Chicago club, which was heading for the pennant that year. Wilhelm hurled 8 2/3 innings before he was reached for a hit. In the 18th inning he gave up his second hit, an intentional pass, and catcher Joe Ginsburg was charged with a passed ball, but Hoyt retired the side. It was midnight and the game was called after 18 innings as a 1-1 tie. Wilhelm had given up only two hits in 10 innings, but the hapless Orioles could not score again off Pierce, who went 16 frames, and Turk Lown, who relieved him.

Another 10-inning effort that got more acclaim than the Wilhelm performance was pitched by rookie Bobby Shantz of the Philadelphia A’s on May 6, 1949. In a game against the Tigers, Connie Mack called him in with nobody out in the fourth and a man on third. Shantz, in only his second major league game, retired the side without mishap. He went on to pitch nine hitless innings as the game went into overtime.  He weakened in the 13th and gave up two hits and a run, but Wally Moses won the game for the A’s with a 2-run homer, 5-4. While Shantz did pitch the closest thing to a no-hit game in 1949 (there was no regulation no-hitter that year), his overall performance was marred by 7 bases on balls.

While Shantz starred in his second major league encounter, Pete Richert of the Los Angeles Dodgers actually pitched his best game in his debut on April 12, 1962. Stan Williams of the Dodgers was drubbed for four runs by the Cincinnati Reds in the second inning and the nervous southpaw made his initial appearance with two out and Eddie Kasko on second. Richert fanned Vada Pinson on three pitches to retire the side. In the third inning he struck out Frank Robinson, Gordie Coleman, Wally Post and Johnny Edwards. Yes, four batters in one inning. Coleman got on when a third strike got past catcher John Roseboro. In the next inning Richert fanned Tommy Harper, giving him six strikeouts for the first six batters he faced in the majors. He was invincible in the 3 1/3 innings he hurled, giving no hits and no walks, and fanning 7. He went out for a pinch hitter in the fifth when the Dodgers scored 7 runs and sewed up the victory for him. It was a brief stint compared to the others cited in this article, but he was overpowering, tying three strikeouts records.

One of the marks, six consecutive strikeouts by a relief hurler, fell to young Denny McLain three years later. On June 15, 1965, at Detroit, McLain came to the mound in the first after the Red Sox had roughed up Dave Wickersham for 3 runs and there was only one out.  He fanned the first 7 batters he faced and a fantastic 14 in only 6 2/3 innings. However, he gave up two runs in the sixth and was lifted for a pinch hitter in the 7th. The Bengals scored 4 runs in the eighth and won 6-5.

There have been many other great relief performances in the past 77 years, but the time has come to make a decision on the top ten.  Here is one person’s opinion, and the cold statistics to support those selections.

 

Date of Game

Pitcher and Club

IP

R

H

BB

SO

Outcome

June 23, 1917

Ernie Shore, Red Sox

9

0

0

0

2

Won

Aug. 31, 1955

Hector Brown, Orioles

8

0

0

5

10

NoDecn.

July 20, 1914

Hubert Leonard, Red Sox

8

0

0

3

9

Won

May 13, 1911

Grover Alexander, Phils

8

0

0

3

8

Won

Apr. 30, 1904

Cy Young, Red Sox

7

0

0

0

4

No.Decn.

June 17, 1915

Zip Zabel, Cubs

18.1

2

9

1

6

Won

May 17, 1927

Bob Osborn, Cubs

14

0

6

2

1

Won

July 9, 1959

Roger Craig, Dodgers

11

0

3

0

4

Won

Aug. 6, 1959

Hoyt Wilhelm, Orioles

10

0

2

3

7

Tie

Apr. 12, 1962

Pete Richert, Dodgers

3.1

0

0

0

7

Won

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