Baseball’s playoffs are finally here, which means it’s time to expect the unexpected. Unlike any other sport, MLB’s postseason stage produces more surprise stars—and goats—than any other sport.
Because the sample size is so small—one bad week and you’re out—the results are of some extreme performances.
To some players, those who have ice in their veins, baseball’s postseason is what put them on the map or propelled them from good player to superstar—they are the ones who are too excited to be nervous.
For others, one bad game snowballed into another and now their reputations as clutch-performers will forever be in question.
Here’s a look at some of the more extreme performances over the past 20 years on baseball’s biggest stage.
In 2011, Cardinals third baseman David Freese was a decent hitter, posting a batting line of .297/.350/.441 (average/on-base/slugging) while hitting 10 home runs in 97 games—above-average numbers for sure, but still dwarfed by those of teammate Albert Pujols. But in the NLCS against Milwaukee, the 28-year-old came alive hitting .545/.600/1.091 with three homers and three doubles in six games to take home NLCS MVP honors.
Then in the World Series against Texas, Freese stayed hot hitting .348/.464/.696. He drew five walks in the seven-game set and scored the winning run in Game 1 and the team’s only run in Game 2.
He saved his best for Game 6, though.
St. Louis was down 3–2 in the series, and by the ninth inning, the Rangers held a 7–5 lead. Freese came up with two on and two out, with the season hanging in the balance, and delivered a two-run triple that sent the game to extra innings.
Then in the bottom of the 11th, Freese came up in a 9–9 game and delivered the game-winning home run to end one of the most thrilling games in MLB postseason history. The Cardinals would go on to win Game 7. Freese drove in a pair with his first-inning double—and consequently he was named World Series MVP.
Until 2004, Beltran—one of the few five-tool stars in baseball at the time—had been marooned from the postseason as a member of the then-struggling Royals. But Kansas City dealt him to Houston in June of 2004, and when the Astros made the postseason, Beltran’s talents were finally seen on the biggest stage.
By the time the NLCS came around, the secret was out and Beltran was walked eight times in the seven-game series. Still, he put up another ridiculous batting line of .417/.563/.958 with four more home runs—one in each of the first four games—while swiping four bases in the process.
Ortiz, who came up with the Twins, went to the Red Sox via free agency following the 2002 season. He had a good 2003 season—31 home runs, 101 RBIs, along with a .288/.369/.592 batting line and followed it up with 41 homers, 139 RBIs, and a batting line of .301/.380/.603 in 2004. But it wasn’t until the 2004 ALCS that he became a household name.
After ripping apart Angels pitching in the ALDS (.545/.688/1.000) the series prior, Ortiz nearly single-handedly lifted the Red Sox out of a 3–0 hole against the Yankees, to win four straight games and advance to the World Series.
In Game 4 of that ALCS, Ortiz not only hit a clutch two-run single in the fifth to put Boston up a run, but he won the game with his dramatic walkoff home run in the 12th. In Game 5 he came up big late in the game again, hitting a solo shot to lead off the eighth inning that cut the Yankees’ lead to 4–3. Six long innings later, his walkoff RBI-single won the game in the 14th, giving him back-to-back walkoff hits.
He would cap his performance with a two-run home run in the first inning of Game 7 as the Red Sox completed their epic comeback with a 10–3 win. For the series, Ortiz hit .387/.457/.742 with three home runs and 11 RBIs, and was named ALCS MVP.
Bonds’s roller coaster postseason history puts him in both groups of players: those who’ve struggled and those who’ve succeeded.
From 1990 to 2000 the seven-time MVP played in five postseason series and lost them all.
His paltry hitting had something to do with it too.
In those 97 at-bats, the game’s all-time home run king hit just one long ball, drove in six, and posted a batting line of .196/.319/.299.
Then in 2002 Bonds turned it around, starting with the NLDS.
In that series against the Braves, the slugger hit three home runs in the five-game set—a set the Giants and Bonds finally won. Bonds continued his tear, hitting a homer and a triple and driving in six—despite being walked 10 times—in the ensuing five-game NLCS win over the Cardinals. Finally in the World Series, Bonds connected for four home runs and a pair of doubles in the seven-game Fall Classic despite drawing 13 walks—including 6 intentional.
Overall, his batting line for the 2002 postseason was a sizzling .356/.581/.978 with eight home runs, 16 RBIs, and 27 walks—13 intentional—that atoned for any previous playoff shortcomings.
Here’s a surprise. The three-time Cy Young award winner Kershaw has had a similar postseason run to Bonds—except he hasn’t broken out yet.
It’s a nice way to say that, so far, he’s struggled greatly in the playoffs.
The man who has a career regular season ERA of 2.43—lowest of any active player—has a postseason ERA of 5.12, while posting a 1–5 record in 11 games across eight starts.
Should the Dodgers play the Cardinals again in this year’s NLCS—they’ve met each of the past two years, three of the last six—Mattingly may want to think about skipping Kershaw’s starts. The lefty is 0–4 with an ERA of 6.14 in five playoff starts against St. Louis.
Biggio, a member of the 3,000-hit club, didn’t get many in his first few postseasons for Houston. The Hall-of-Famer played in four NLDS in five years from 1997 to 2001, but struggled mightily—as did his team.
The versatile Biggio—who played regularly as a catcher, second baseman, and center fielder—hit just .130/.242/.148 in those four series, which all ended in defeat.
Finally in 2004–05, Biggio redeemed himself in helping lead the Astros to the 2004 NLCS—with the help of Beltran—and then the World Series in 2005.
The five-time Silver Slugger winner hit a much more respectable .283/.317/.407 in those 26 games, while scoring 19 runs and driving in 10.