Best Mets Pitching Performances: 1970s

Click the decade to see the other 4 parts: The 1980s The 1990s The 2000s The 2010s

A reminder: This is a list, not a ranking. Ranking all these games is too hard!

Other reminders:

* Starting pitching dominates the list but relief appearances are included too. I call this “The Sid Fernandez Game 7 Rule.”

* I could have easily put 15 Tom Seaver starts, 10 Dwight Gooden starts, and 10 Jacob DeGrom starts on here. But in the interests of inclusivity, I chose to limit their presence at least a little bit. I wanted representation from the Grover Powell’s and the Tom Gorman’s too.

You’ll still get plenty of the Big 3 – they combine for 21 appearances, or more than 1/4 of the list.

The way to look at this in totality is simply: If you were telling the history of the Mets, what games would be included in your story of exemplary pitching performances.

You’ll notice this one ends in 1975. That’s deliberate. Save for a little bit of 1976, the rest of the decade is grim. Craig Swan’s best games didn’t make the cut here.

I welcome your praise, gripes, memories, and personal statements.

In the end, If you don’t like what I’ve done, make your own list 🙂

Thanks to the newspaper reporters who covered these games and captured the quotes and descriptions used throughout these pieces.

April 18, 1970 – Nolan Ryan vs Phillies

Line: 9 IP, 0 R, 1 H, 15 K, 6 BB (Mets 7, Phillies 0)

Opponent: 73-88, last in NL in runs scored

They Said It: “The later it got, the better a pitcher Nolan was going to be.” – Gil Hodges.

Summary: Nolan Ryan needed 107 pitches to get warmed up. That’s how many he threw in the first five innings, pitching around largely self-induced trouble in the first, second and fifth. But those last four innings, per the Daily News, he needed only 47 pitches to finish things off.

This is another in the near no-hitter list, though the funny part is that the only hit came from the first batter of the game, Denny Doyle.

There was no trouble late in the game as Ryan retired all but one of the last 15 hitters and that batter was erased on a double play. In the last three innings, Ryan whiffed only one but cruised to the finish.

The 15 strikeouts were a Mets record for a nine-inning game. That mark lasted 4 days.

April 22, 1970 – Tom Seaver vs Padres

Line: 9 IP, 1 R, 2 H, 19 K, 2 BB (Mets 2, Padres 1)

Opponent: 63-99, 11th among 12 NL teams in runs scored

They Said It: “He was like a machine. Whump, whump, whump.” – Ed Kranepool

Summary:

In his first three starts of the season, Tom Seaver struck out 18 batters in 24 2/3 innings pitched.

And then came this one in which he didn’t just strike out 19 (matching the most for a nine-inning game), he whiffed the last 10. His record for consecutive strikeouts still stands.

Guess Seaver figured he had to impress on the day that he was given the previous year’s Cy Young Award. Seaver made things easier on these rankings by saying that his near-perfecto against the Cubs last season was a better start than this because of the quality of the opposition.

Nonetheless, this one is pretty ridiculous. Ten of the 19 hitters struck out looking, prompting newspaper reporters to seek out home plate ump Harry Wendelstedt for a comment.

“Seaver had a hell of a fastball and it was moving two different ways,” Wendelstedt said. It was spinning in and zipping out. He moved the ball around and changed speeds well. But in the end, he was really bringing it.”

One of the former consecutive strikeout record holders was impressed.

“As hard as he was throwing the ball, he was still pitching to spots,” said Padres minor league pitching coach Johnny Podres, who shared the previous record for consecutive Ks with 8.

One of my favorite things about Hal Bock’s game story for the Associated Press is that it says Seaver threw just (italics mine) 136 pitches, as that total was not the unusual, unforgiveable number that it is now.

May 13, 1970 – Gary Gentry vs Cubs

Line: 9 IP, 0 R, 1 H, 7 K, 1 BB (Mets 4, Cubs 0)

Opponent: 84-78, 2nd in NL in runs scored

What They Said: “I should have had the damn thing,” left fielder Dave Marshall

Oh sooooooo close. I can give you seven ‘o’s but no more, as Gary Gentry’s no-hit bid fell after 7 2/3 innings at Wrigley Field. And what a cruel way to lose it, a sinking line drive by Ernie Banks that left fielder Dave Marshall just missed catching. The ball hit his glove and bounced out. Cubs reliever (and future Mets pitching coach) Phil Regan had a clear look at Marshall’s attempt and said he thought it had to be a hit. After the game, Marshall demonstrated how he could have caught the ball to reporters, but his starting pitcher held him blameless.

“There was no way that Dave could catch that ball,” Gentry told reporters afterwards. “I was surprised he got as close as he did to the ball. I’m certainly not blaming anyone except maybe the wind because if the wind had not been blowing in, the ball could have been caught.”

Said Gil Hodges: “He was magnificent. Too bad he didn’t get it, but there will be other days. He’s young.”

This, by the way, was the first of three Amazin’ pitching performances in a short span. Tom Seaver struck out 15 in one-hitting the Phillies two days later. And Jerry Koosman shut out the Phillies on four hits the day after that.

May 15, 1970, Tom Seaver vs Phillies

Line: 9 IP, 0 R, 1 H, 15 K, 3 BB

Opponent: 73-88, last in NL in runs scored

They Said It: “My ears clog up and there’s a slight loss of balance at times, but I seem to be throwing as well, and I haven’t been tired out there.” – Tom Seaver’s comments to reporters leading up to the game. Newspaper accounts noted Seaver coughing in the post-game scrum

Summary: Of all the non-Tom Seaver no-hitters for the Mets, this was definitely the Met-est. I say that because the only hit was a third-inning single by Paul Hoover-aspirant, Mike Compton, he of the .164/.240/.209 slashline and 23 (yes, 23) OPS+. Compton did exactly what he should do with Seaver’s 2-2 pitch. He lined it to right field on one bounce.

Otherwise, Tom was superterrific, 15 strikeouts and all. The Phillies got sick of him pretty quickly.

April 16, 1971, Tom Seaver vs Pirates

Line: 9 IP, 0 R, 3 H, 14 K, 0 BB (Mets 1, Pirates 0)

Opponent: 97-65, 1st in NL in runs scored

They Wrote It: “The real Tom Seaver is back.” – UPI game story lede

Summary: It must have been annoying for Tom Seaver to have to read that the real version of him is back. It was an absurd thing to write. The real Tom Seaver had never left.

Yes, Seaver dropped from 25-7 to 18-12 from 1969 to 1970, but he did lead the NL in ERA and both ERA and strikeouts in the latter year AND he struck out 75 more batters than he did in 1969 in only 17 more innings. Using today’s metrics, you could actually make a case that Seaver had gotten better.

But this is now and that is then, and then didn’t have FIP or any of our other toys to play with.

Anyway, Seaver himself said after this game that it would have been hard for him to be better than he was in this one, a game in which he threw 115 pitches, 81 for strikes. He admitted to uncertainty as to how he would pitch before the game, but that dissipated quickly. Hall-of-Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell went a combined 0-for-7 with 5 strikeouts.

“If I pitch like that every time … well, what are you going to say,” Seaver said.

A reader named James Massa shared some additional perspective on Facebook that I missed in writing this post. The reference was moreso to Seaver’s close to 1970 than to his season as a whole He finished 1970 with a 4.45 ERA in his last eight starts and though he limited HRs, his K to BB rate was not very Seaver-like. That makes sense, though I still can imagine that Seaver must have been angry to read that he was back. His 1970 as a whole was quite good.

July 4, 1972 – Tom Seaver vs Padres  

Line: 9 IP, 0 R, 1 H, 11 K, 4 BB (Mets 2, Padres 0)

Opponent: 58-95, last in NL in runs scored

They Said It: “Tom Seaver is a flirt. One of these years he will get a date with Dame Destiny … a no-hitter.” – Joe O’Day, Daily News

Summary: UPI writer Milton Richman covered this game oddly, though it may have had something to do with him watching as Tom Seaver told his wife “I didn’t have very good stuff today.”

Rather than focus on Seaver’s near no-hitter (broken up on a broken-bat hit by Leron Lee with one out in the ninth inning), he zeroed in on the Seaver-Nate Colbert matchup.


Colbert had worn Seaver out by Richman’s accounting. A look at the numbers indicates a .289 batting average, 11 hits, and 4 home runs to that point, though much of the damage was more recent. Colbert’s numbers took a hit as he went 0-for-3 in this game, including a game-ending double play. Thus Richman called it for Seaver “a perfect day.”

September 7, 1973 – Tug McGraw vs Expos

Line: 5 1/3 IP, 1 R, 4 H, 6 K, 4 BB (Mets 4, Expos 2, 15 innings)

Opponent: 79-83, 7th among 14 teams in runs scored

They Wrote It: “The umpire’s willingness to forgive McGraw’s breach of baseball etiquette allowed Tug to pick up his third victory …” Red Foley, Daily News

Summary: Greg Prince sold me on this one and given that I’m including relief appearances, I’m good with it. I could have gone with a couple of other instances in which McGraw went into marathon shutdown mode, but most of those games were versus teams that weren’t that good.

Instead, I went with this one, which has a bit of the Frogger component that could be found in some McGraw outings.

Yes, he could pitch three, four, five, six innings of relief, but sometimes he was going to have to dance around the messes of his making.

The biggest on this day was escaping a bases-loaded two-out scenario in the 10th inning. In the 14th, he made a diving catch on a bunt and threw to first for a double play, after convincing umpires he caught the ball (he went a little overboard in making his case and subsequently apologized to the umpires).

I’ll give McGraw bonus points for getting the last out of the opener of this doubleheader, a Ron Hunt comebacker with two men on base to preserve a 1-0 win. More kudos come to McGraw for his 2-run single in the 15th inning. And he gets another boost for doing all of this only two days after pitching 3 1/3 scoreless innings in a save against the Phillies.

If you’re gonna go from last place to first place, you need a believing reliever. McGraw allowed 4 runs in 41 innings pitched over 19 appearances to end the regular season. We believe that gets him a game on this list.

October 7, 1973 – Jon Matlack vs Reds

Line: 9 IP, 0 R, 2 H, 9 K, 3 BB (Mets 5, Reds 0)

Opponent: 99-63, 2nd among 12 NL teams in runs scored

They Said It: “The Mets win and they’re giving batting tips and saying how they have an advantage. They know everything about baseball. That’s why they finished three games above .500.” – Pete Rose (pre-Harrelson fight)

Summary: This game may be underappreciated by those who didn’t live through it as it’s not one regularly shown on SNY (or available for viewing on YouTube) but it’s one of the best-of-the-best when you consider the circumstances (trailing 1-0 in the NLCS on the road) and the opponent (the Big Red Machine).

Matlack said he was physically drained before the game, but if he was gutting it out, the results didn’t show it. He was terrific with his fastball, changeup, and breaking ball. He survived a blister on his finger. As he said afterward, it was “my once-in-a-lifetime game … I couldn’t do anything wrong today.”

Matlack had some good fortune in this one. In the fifth inning, with the score 1-0, Andy Kosco hit a Matlack curveball deep down the left field line. The ball was ruled foul though it appeared to hit the foul pole netting.

Had the call been home run, the game would have tied and the Reds would have left their starting pitcher in the game. Instead, Kosco walked and Matlack escaped the inning unscathed by striking out pinch-hitter Phil Gagliano.

He held the score at 1-0 until the Mets scored four runs in the top of the ninth. Matlack then retired the Hall of Fame array of Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Johnny Bench in order to end the game.

May 1, 1974 – Tom Seaver vs Dodgers

Line: 12 IP, 1 R, 3 H, 16 K, 2 BB (Dodgers 2, Mets 1, 14 innings)

Opponent: 102-60, led NL in runs scored

They said it: “I’ve never seen him any better.” – Dodgers 1B Steve Garvey

By sheer statistical power, or in this case a stat invented by Bill James known as Game Score, this is the best start of Tom Seaver’s career.

And yet, you’ve probably never ever heard of it. It gets overpowered by the near no-hit bids, Opening Day 1983, and many other examples of Seaver’s greatness.

But we’re making a list of the best games and I have no quibble with including it here. The 12 innings matched the longest start of Seaver’s career (he went 12 allowing 2 runs against the Reds in August 1973). The 16 strikeouts matched his second-most in a game tying a start against the Giants that I suppose I would have included here had he allowed one run instead of two.

I also feel obligated two things of a 1986’ian nature here. Rusty Staub was called out on a bunt for leaving the base line on the way to first base (wherefore art thou, Wally Backman). And the winning run in this game was scored by Bill Buckner, who came home on a Garvey hit in the 14th.

September 24, 1975 – Tom Seaver vs Cubs

Line: 10 IP, 0 R, 3 H, 9 K, 5 BB (Cubs 1, Mets 0, 11 innings)

Opponent: 75-87, 3rd among 12 NL teams in runs scored

They Said It: “It was a desperation swing. That’s what it was.” – Joe Wallis.

You can’t get closer to nine no-hit innings than this one, the day amidst 23-MPH winds that Tom Seaver took a no-hit bid until two outs in the ninth inning. It was broken up by a single by right fielder Joe Wallis on a two-out 0-2 pitch, hence the quote of choice.

That hit is Wallis’ career claim to fame among the 216 he had in his career. Newspaper articles noted he was best known for his nickname, Tarzan, because of his hobby — cliff diving.

By the time you’re finished reading this series, you’ll have read about 3 Seaver near no-hitters for the Mets that were lost in the ninth inning. This one is the only one that got to two outs in the ninth. This one’s also a little weird, because it’s one the Mets lost in 11 innings after Seaver had been removed from the game.

“Five years ago, losing a no-hitter would have been a big emotional letdown,” Seaver said. “Today I just wanted to get the next batter out. If I get the no-hitter, I get it. If I don’t, I don’t.”

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