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Where Does Masahiro Tanaka Rank Among MLB’s Greatest Clutch Pitchers?

Going into the American League Championsip Series, Houston’s aces Geritt Cole and Justin Verlander were getting all the attention, but it was a different pitcher who dominanted in Game 1. Masahiro Tanaka threw six shutout innings in a 7-0 Yankees victory, further cementing his postseason resume. There in no question Tanaka is pitcher all Yankees fans want on the mound in a crucial game, but where does he rank among the games greatest postseason pitchers?

1. Madison Bumgarner

Not only is Bumgarner the best active big game pitcher, he can make the case as the best big game pitcher of all time. Bumgarner burst on to the scene as a 21 year old, pitching eight shutout innings in Game Four of the 2010 World Series against the Rangers. In the 2012 World Series, he pitched another seven shutout innings as part of the Giants sweep over the Tigers, but he was just getting warmed up. He became a legend in the 2014 World Series, allowing just one run in 23 innings including 5 shutout innings out of the bullpen in Game 7. On top of his World Series success, he also has two complete game shutouts in wild card games. In leading the Giants to three World Series titles, Bumgarner has established himself as an October legend.

2. Justin Verlander

Verlander has had his share of October struggles. As a rookie in 2006, he was lit up in the opening game of the World Series vs the Cardinals. In Game One of the 2012 World Series, he allowed the first two of three Pablo Sandoval Game One home runs as the Giants went on to sweep the Tigers. Since that series, however, Verlander has been virtually untouchable in October. In 2013, Verlander carried the Tigers past the Athletics in the ALDS with 15 shutout innings and followed that up with seven innings of one-run ball in the ALCS against the Red Sox. He’s only added to his resume after joining the Astros in 2017, winning ALCS MVP and a World Series title after being acquired in August. Verlander’s early career struggles keep him from being in the same conversation as Bumgarner, but there are few pitchers a manager would rather have on the mound then the future Hall-of-Famer.

3. Jon Lester

Though his regular season numbers aren’t among the annual league leaders, Lester consistently steps it up in October. Much like Bumgarner, Lester established himself in his rookie year as a dominant October pitcher with 5.2 shutout innings in the 2007 World Series clincher. He was the ace of the Red Sox staff in 2013, dominating the Cardinals to the tune of a .59 ERA. He then signed with the Cubs and won NLCS MVP in route to a World Series title in 2016. There are few players that can say they won three championships, and even fewer that can match Lester’s dominance in each fall classic.

4. Adam Wainwright

Wainwright turned back the clock in this postseason, allowing just three runs over 16.2 innings including an eight inning masterpiece in Game 4 of the NLDS. At 38, his longevity as a clutch pitcher is remarkable. 13 years before, Wainwright was a rookie closer who didn’t allow a run as part of the Cardinals World Series run. He missed the 2011 championship run while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but came back strong two years later, posting a 1.65 ERA while leading the Cardinals to another World Series. His two losses in that World Series hurt his legacy a bit, but Wainwright has had more than his fair share of signature moments in October. The lasting image of Wainwright will forever be striking out Carlos Beltran on a nasty curveball to clinch the 2006 National League Pennant.

5. Masahiro Tanaka

In terms of consistent dominance, nobody can even come close to Tanaka. In six of his seven postseason starts, Tanaka has allowed one run or fewer. His ability to shut down historically great offenses, from the 2018 Red Sox to the recent Astros teams, has solidified him as an elite October pitcher. The reason Tanaka isn’t higher on the list is that he hasn’t done in on the biggest stage: The World Series. If the Yankees go on a championship run and Tanaka continues his dominance, he will be considered on the same level as Bumgarner and Verlander.

6. Stephen Strasburg

Strasburg has been part of a number of Nationals team that have choked in the division series, but he is not the one to blame. His 1.10 postseason ERA is best among active pitchers. He nearly carried the Nationals to the NLCS with two shutouts against the Cubs in the NLDS, but the Nationals lost yet another Game 5. Much like Tanaka, I have trouble putting Strasburg higher on the list because he has just one start past the first round, but a strong World Series performance will help his case.

7. Max Scherzer

If you ask fans and players who they would want in a winner-take-all game, the majority of them would say Max Scherzer. However, his struggles early in his career in Detroit have left his postseason ERA at a (comparatively) mediocre 3.35. He is also much to blame with the Nationals struggles before this year, going 0-2 in four starts in the National’s two NLDS losses since signing Scherzer. His dominant performance this October has helped his legacy, but he still lacks the signature postseason peers like some of his peers.

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