Pitching in the playoffs can be one of the toughest endeavors in all of sports. You’re all alone on the mound, ball in your hand, with some of the MLB’s best staring you down, looking to smash a home run.
Many talented players have faltered in these situations. But for a select few, when the bases were loaded and the world was watching, they didn’t just get it done—they dominated their opponents and helped their teams win the World Series.
Here are the most dominant postseason pitchers of all time:
1. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
The 6’5″, 250-pound wood-chopping farm boy from North Carolina has made the case that he’s the best postseason pitcher of all time. No matter the situation, the game, how much rest he has, Bumgarner will take the ball and put up zeros—we asked catcher Buster Posey about it and he knows how good Bumgarner is. “MadBum” put up a record-breaking performance for the Giants during the 2014 playoffs, helping the team win the World Series over the Kansas City Royals by posting a 4-1 record with a 1.03 ERA (third-lowest ever in a single postseason), 45 strikeouts in 52.2 innings (the most ever). Over five World Series games in his career, Bumgarner has a ridiculous 0.25 ERA for his team.
Bumgarner was dominant in Games 1 and 5 of the World Series against the Royals before coming in on short rest in Game 7 for a herculean effort, pitching five innings of relief, closing things out to clinch the championship. The Giants star did it again in 2016 against the New York Mets, pitching a four-hit complete game shutout to put San Francisco into the NLDS. That victory gave Bumgarner an otherworldly 1.94 ERA over 97 1/3 innings in his postseason career.
2. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
If you needed one pitcher to pitch one inning of an important playoff game, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone better than Mariano Rivera. Sure, anyone on this list would be great, but “Mo” was on another level. Armed with a near-unhittable splitter that was possibly sent from God (no, really) Rivera dominated in the playoffs and holds multiple MLB records, including the lowest postseason ERA (0.70) and the most saves (42, which also was his uniform number).
Rivera helped the Yankees win five World Championships, taking home the World Series MVP award in 1999 and the ALCS MVP in 2003. The splitter was his signature pitch—even when most hitters knew it was coming, they still couldn’t hit it. Sure, Rivera has blown saves in the playoffs—don’t mention the Diamondbacks to any Yankees fan—but his overall resume is unlike anything baseball has ever seen. And it may never be seen again.
3. Andy Pettitte, New York Yankees
By virtue of the Yankees making the playoffs so many times during his career, Andy Pettitte had a ton of chances to pitch in the postseason and he sure made the most of them. With a combination of hard fastballs and dastardly off-speed pitches like the slider, curveball, and changeup, the veteran flummoxed hitters for nearly two decades.
No pitcher in history has more wins in the playoffs (19) than the Baton Rouge native, and his record of 276 innings pitched in the postseason is 50 more than the second-place spot. Pettitte ranks second all-time with 183 strikeouts, and his pitching unquestionably helped the Yankee win five World Championships.
4. John Smoltz, Atlanta Braves
Smoltz’s two-decade career brought him to the playoffs plenty of times—winning 14 straight division titles with the Braves will do that—and he delivered by winning 15 postseason games, the second-most all-time among pitchers. One of Smoltz’s most memorable moments came in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, when he Smoltz threw seven shutout innings against the Minnesota Twins and went toe-to-toe with his childhood hero Jack Morris.
Smoltz helped pitch the Braves to that World Series with a complete game shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 7 of the 1991 National League Championship Series—so yeah, Smoltz knew how to bring it when the games mattered most. It marked the first time the Braves made the championship since moving to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1965, making it a historic moment for the franchise. The righty pitcher worked as a starter and reliever in the playoffs, helping the Braves win the 1995 World Series, and he sits in first place among all pitchers with 199 career strikeouts in the postseason. Smoltz was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015.
5. Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles Dodgers
Even though injuries cut his career short, Sanford “Sandy” Koufax left his mark on baseball as one of the best “big game” pitchers in history. His postseason ERA sits at 0.95—ranking in the all-time-top 10—by his two shutouts during the 1965 World Series. One of those shutouts is considered to be one of the best pitching performances ever. After winning Game 5 with a complete game shutout of the Minnesota Twins, Koufax started on just two days rest in Game 7. The Brooklyn native gutted his way through constant elbow pain—he stopped throwing his curveball because it hurt so much—and still managed to give up just three total hits in the complete game shutout.
Koufax won a slew of awards, including World Series MVP and the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award. He also took home the “Hickok Belt, ” an award which was given out to the best athlete in the United States from 1950 to 1976 before fading away. It has since been revived, with players like LeBron James, Madison Bumgarner, and Stephen Curry winning the award. Talk about some strong company.