The Royals' Big Three of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland did it again Wednesday night, contributing 3 2/3 scoreless innings of work to pick up the win in Game 2 of the World Series. Already the only team in postseason history to compile six relief wins without their bullpen suffering a loss, the Royals have now tied the 2003 world champion Marlins for the most relief wins in a single postseason with seven.
Wins and losses don't tell the whole story, of course. Still, it seems pretty clear that this year's Royals are enjoying one of the greatest bullpen performances in postseason history. Herrera, Davis, and Holland have combined to allow just three runs in 29 1/3 innings (0.92 ERA), while the Royals' 'pen as a whole has posted a 1.81 ERA, a figure inflated by the misguided use of Yordano Ventura in relief in the Wild-Card Game and a couple of rocky innings by rookie Brandon Finnegan and re-purposed starter Danny Duffy.
In order to figure out where the performance of this year's Royals relief squad ranks all-time, my first impulse was to use ERA. However, the 1973 Athletics bullpen, which allowed just five runs in 42 2/3 innings but also seven unearned runs, proved instantly problematic. Instead, I turned to Run Average (RA), which is identical to ERA except that it counts all runs allowed, not just the earned ones. This year's Royals, incidentally, have not allowed an unearned run.
The next thing I needed was an innings minimum. That was trickier, as the higher I set it, the more I would limit myself to recent history, given the increasing number of playoff rounds over the last 45 years. At the same time, the Royals' relievers have thrown 44 1/3 innings, and that workload has been a significant aspect of their value this postseason. I ultimately settled on 30 innings, which is a hair more than two-thirds of the Royals' total but low enough to include bullpens from throughout the era of divisional play (1969 to present). Indeed, exactly half of my top 10 below includes teams from before the introduction of the Wild Card in 1995.
Unfortunately, that 30-inning minimum omits all but two teams from before the introduction of the League Championship Series: the 1947 Dodgers (36 2/3 IP) and 1960 Pirates (31 IP), the latter of whom posted an 8.42 relief ERA. But relief pitching was a very different animal then, anyway, so it seems like a fair line to draw. For what it's worth, the best bullpen performance in the World Series prior to Divisional play was likely that of the 1955 Dodgers, who allowed just three runs, all earned, in 23 1/3 relief innings, good for a 1.16 bullpen ERA, on the way to their first championship.
With all of that out of the way, here are the top 10 bullpen performances in postseason history by RA with a minimum of 30 innings pitched.
1. 1990 Cincinnati Reds: 0.58 RA, 31 1/3 IP
Acquired from the Mets in a trade for closer John Franco the previous December, lefty closer Randy Myers formed a Big Three in Cincinnati with fireballing righty Rob Dibble and lefty Norm Charlton that became known as the Nasty Boys, as the Reds led their division wire-to-wire under new manager Lou Piniella. What's not often remembered, however, is that Charlton spent the second half of the season in the rotation, reducing that nasty trio to a duo.
Charlton returned to the bullpen in the postseason, but took the loss in Game 2 of the NLCS, pitched just one inning in the World Series and allowed the only runs surrendered by the Cincinnati bullpen in that postseason (two runs, one earned). Myers and Dibble, meanwhile, combined to strike out 24 men in 18 1/3 scoreless innings against the Pirates and A's and were named co-MVPs of the NLCS. Dibble's NLCS performance was particularly impressive: five innings, no hits, one walk, ten strikeouts.
2. 2003 Boston Red Sox: 1.31 RA, 34 1/3 IP
Mike Timlin, Scott Williamson, and Alan Embree don't quickly leap to mind when you think of the greatest postseason relief combinations of all time, but those three dominated the A's and Yankees in the 2003 postseason, combining to allow just one run in 24 1/3 innings and striking out 26. Timlin and Embree had been Boston's primary set-up men from the right and left sides, respectively, all season. Former Rookie of the Year Williamson, however, was a deadline pickup from the Reds who posted a 6.20 ERA after being acquired but emerged as the team's closer after incumbent Byung-hyun Kim, famous for his blown saves in the 2001 World Series, failed to convert the save in the first game of the Division Series against the A's.
Williamson, however, went unused in Game 7 of the ALCS. After Embree and Timlin worked out of Pedro Martinez's jam in the eighth and pushed the game into extra innings, soon-to-be-fired manager Grady Little, keeping Williamson for a save chance that never came, turned to knuckleballing starter Tim Wakefield, who gave up the series-winning home run to Aaron Boone in the 11th.
3. 1988 Oakland A's: 1.45 RA, 31 IP
Of the five runs the Athletics' bullpen allowed in the 1988 postseason, two came on Kirk Gibson's famous game-winning home run off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the World Series. Eckersley only made one appearance after that, throwing a scoreless inning in a losing effort in Game 4. In the ALCS against the Red Sox, however, he threw six scoreless innings, picking up the save in all four games of Oakland's sweep and the series MVP award.
Meanwhile, set-up men Gene Nelson and Rick Honeycutt combined to allow just one run in 16 1/3 innings in the ALCS and World Series combined. That trio was instrumental in establishing the Big Three end-game that teams continue to emulate today.
4. 1972 Cincinnati Reds: 1.62 RA, 39 IP
The Reds had a proto-Big Three way back in 1972 with closer Clay Carroll, righty Pedro Borbon, and lefty Tom Hall, the last acquired from the Twins the previous December. Carroll and Borbon would endure through the Reds' Championship seasons of 1975 and '76, but in 1972, it was the 24-year-old Hall who starred, allowing just one run in 15 2/3 innings between the NLCS and World Series, striking out 15.
Hall worked at least two innings in all six of his appearances that postseason, and while he didn't allow a run in 8 1/3 frames in the World Series, which the Reds lost to the A's, he had his greatest impact against the Pirates in the NLCS. In Game 2 of that series, he came on with two out in the fifth to strike out Willie Stargell with the tying runs on base, then finished the game and picked up the win. He then worked three scoreless innings in the decisive fifth game, which the Reds tied in the bottom of the ninth on Johnny Bench's leadoff home run, then won later that inning on Bob Moose's wild pitch.
5. 2013 Boston Red Sox: 1.64 RA, 49 1/3 IP
Last year's Red Sox are the only team in postseason history to compile more relief innings than this year's Royals with an RA under 2.00. Closer Koji Uehara was responsible for 13 2/3 of those frames, striking out 16 and allowing just one run, a walk-off homer by Rays catcher Jose Lobaton in Game 3 of the Division Series. Uehara, who won the ALCS MVP for his spotless work against the Tigers, appeared in 13 of Boston's 16 games last October and allowed just seven hits and didn't walk or hit a batter, resulting in a 0.51 WHIP.
Righty set-up man Junichi Tazawa and long man Brandon Workman also turned in strong work, as did lefty Craig Breslow in the first two rounds before melting down against the Cardinals in the World Series. But all three paled next to Uehara's dominance.
6. 1992 Toronto Blue Jays: 1.75 RA, 36 IP
Closer Tom Henke and set-up man Duane Ward were one of the most dominant relief combinations in baseball in the early '90s, but the secret weapon for the Blue Jays in their first championship season was the overflow in their rotation caused by the late-August acquisition of David Cone from the Mets.
With Cone joining Jack Morris and Juan Guzman in a three-man ALCS rotation, Jimmy Key and Todd Stottlemyre moved down to the 'pen and combined to allow two runs, one earned, in 11 2/3 innings. Each contributed a relief outing of three or more innings in the ALCS against the A's: Stottlemyre replaced Morris in the fourth inning of Game 4 to set the stage for a Toronto comeback, and Key saved the rest of the 'pen when Cone faltered the next day. Key later picked up the title-clinching win in relief in extra innings in Game 6 of the World Series against the Braves after Henke, in his final appearance for the Blue Jays, blew the save.
7. 2014 Kansas City Royals: 1.81 RA, 44 2/3 IP
8. 2008 Philadelphia Phillies: 2.01 RA, 40 1/3 IP
Between the 2008 regular and postseasons, Phillies closer Brad Lidge was a perfect 48-for-48 in save chances. In the posteason, he allowed just one run, that coming in the process of nailing down the save in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Brewers. In total, he worked 9 1/3 innings, striking out 13 and converting all seven save opportunities, including the rain-suspended Game 5 clincher.
Lefty set-up man J.C. Romero, meanwhile, didn't allow a run, inherited or otherwise, in 7 1/3 postseason innings. Righty set-up man Ryan Madson allowed three runs over 12 2/3 innings, blowing two saves in the World Series in games the Phillies came back to win, but he also stranded all nine of his inherited runners.
9. 1977 New York Yankees: 2.02 RA, 35 2/3 IP
Yankees closer Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young award for his relief work during the regular season, and he proved his value in the postseason, allowing just two runs in 14 innings highlighted by his performance in Game 4 of the ALCS against the Royals. Lyle entered that game with two on and two out in the fourth inning and got George Brett to line out to strand both runners. He then twirled another five scoreless innings to pick up the win. That came one day after he had thrown 2 1/3 innings of relief in a losing effort, and he came back again on the third day to pick up the win in the decisive Game 5, needing just 11 pitches to get the final four outs of that game.
Two days later, Lyle threw 3 2/3 innings of relief to set up Paul Blair's walkoff single in the 12th inning of Game 1 of the World Series against the Dodgers. Not to be omitted, however, is starter Mike Torrez's 5 1/3 innings of scoreless relief to set up Lyle's win in Game 5 of the ALCS in what was Torrez's first relief appearance in three years.
10. 1998 New York Yankees: 2.05 RA, 30 2/3 IP
This is where Mariano Rivera's record streak of 33 1/3 scoreless postseason innings started. Rivera, in his first season as a closer, had blown his final save opportunity of 1997 by giving up a game-tying solo home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the Division Series in Cleveland. In '98, closing for arguably the greatest team in baseball history, Rivera threw 13 1/3 scoreless innings in the postseason, walking just two and not allowing a single extra-base hit; six of his ten appearances lasted more than four outs. He wouldn't give up another postseason run until Game 6 of the 2000 ALCS.