The 10 greatest pitching duels in MLB history

Ed Walsh, left, and Addie Joss produced a pitching gem in 1908. In a true understatment, Walsh said: “Yes, I pitched a fairly good game myself, but [Joss] pitched better.”

There have been many great pitching duels throughout baseball history. In chronological order, here are the 10 best regular season mound battles of all time.

1. Oct. 2, 1908 — Cleveland Naps 1, Chicago White Sox 0
In the midst of a tight, four-team pennant race, Cleveland’s Addie Joss pitched the fourth perfect game in baseball history against Chicago spitballer Big Ed Walsh. Joss threw just 74 pitches in his masterpiece and struck out three batters, the fewest in any perfect game.

Walsh was nearly as good, hurling a four-hitter and fanning 15. Walsh was 40-15 in 1908 with a 1.42 ERA, and led the AL in wins, games, strikeouts and innings pitched in 1908. Joss was 24-11 with a 1.16 ERA.

Using a corkscrew delivery and his famed jump ball, Joss had 160 wins and 45 shutouts in his career. Joss  pitched a second no-hitter against the White Sox in 1910, and also threw seven one-hitters, including his MLB debut against the St. Louis Browns in 1902. Sadly he was just 31 when he died of meningitis in April of 1911.

Joss’ 1.89 career ERA is ranked second all-time behind Walsh (who won 195 games and finished with a 1.82 ERA), while his 0.97 WHIP is the lowest career WHIP in baseball history. Both pitchers are in the Hall of Fame.

2. Sept. 6, 1912 — Boston Red Sox 1, Washington Senators 0
Fenway Park has never been considered a pitcher’s park, but in its inaugural season it hosted one of the great mound battles in baseball history. Dubbed “The War of 1912,” the contest pitted Washington’s all-time great Walter Johnson against Joe Wood, below, a pair of right-handers enjoying two of the top individual seasons of all time.

Earlier in 1912, Johnson strung together a 16-game winning streak, the longest in American League history. When Wood shut out Washington and Johnson, he ran his winning streak to 14 games without a loss. Wood eventually tied Johnson’s record with two more wins.

While Johnson had a spectacular season, Wood closed out the year with an even more impressive mark.  He won 34 and lost only 5, one of the all-time great season records. Johnson finished 33-12 with a 1.39 ERA and 303 strikeouts; Wood had a 1.91 ERA with 258 Ks.

The AL record of 16 straight win has since been tied — by Lefty Grove of Philadelphia in 1931 and Schoolboy Rowe of Detroit in 1934 — but never broken.

3. May 2, 1917 — Cincinnati Reds 1, Chicago Cubs 0, 10 innings
Played nearly 100 years ago, this remains the only game in baseball history where neither team got a hit in the first nine innings of play.

The Reds finally broke through against Chicago’s Jim “Hippo” Vaughn, who  gave up two hits and a run in the top of the 10th. Jim Thorpe — yes the great athlete Jim Thorpe — drove in the only run of the game with an infield single.

Cincinnati’s Fred Toney completed his no-hitter when he retired the Cubs in order in the last of the 10th. Toney, a 6’6″ righthander with 137 career wins, was a two-time 20-game winner, and won 24 games in 1917.

Vaughn, another big rightie at 6’4″, finished with 23 wins that year. A five time 20-game winner, he led the National League in wins, ERA and shutouts in the war-shortened 1918 season en route to 178 career victories.

4. May 1, 1920 — Boston Braves 1, Brooklyn Robins 1, 26 innings
The longest game in baseball history didn’t have a winner, as the Braves and Robins (later the Dodgers) battled 26 innings in a 1-1 tie.

Amazingly, both pitchers, Leon Cadore of Brooklyn and Joe Oescherger of Boston, went all the way, and neither allowed a run in the last 20 innings. Cadore surrendered 15 hits, walked five and struck out seven. Oescherger gave up nine hits, walked four and struck out seven. Lord only knows how many pitches they threw that day.

Each right-hander won 15 games in 1920. But neither ever won more in a single season, and both finished with losing career marks. Cadore was 68-72 and Oescherger was 82-116.

Brooklyn lost the next day in 13 innings to Phillies, and the day after that to Braves in 19 innings — 58 innings of baseball in three days without a win. But the Robins did go on to win the National League pennant that year.

5. July 2, 1933 — New York Giants 1, St. Louis Cardinals 0
On a hot summer afternoon at the Polo Grounds in New York, Carl Hubbell, below, of the Giants and Tex Carleton of the Cardinals hooked up in one of the great duels in baseball history.

Hubbell, New York’s great left-handed screwball artist and Hall of Famer,  pitched 18 innings and didn’t allow a walk. His mound opponent Carleton was almost as good — he threw 16 scoreless innings before being relieved.

Since 1920, only eight pitchers have worked 16 or more scoreless innings in a game, but Carleton and Hubbell are the only ones to accomplish the feat in the same game. No pitcher has ever gone longer without issuing a walk than Hubbell, nor pitched more scoreless innings and lost than Carleton.

The Giants scored the only run of the game on a two-out single by Hughie Critz off Jessie Haines in the bottom of the 18th. The Giants went on to sweep the doubleheader by winning the second game, also 1-0.

Hubbell won the MVP that year with a 23-12 record and 1.66 ERA, the first of five straight 20-win seasons for King Carl, who finished his career 253-154.  Carleton was 17-11 in 1933 with a 3.38 ERA, and compiled a 100-76 career mark.

6. May 26, 1959 — Milwaukee Braves 1, Pittsburgh Pirates 0, 13 innings
Talk about a hard-luck loser. Pirates left-hander Harvey Haddix  threw 12 perfect innings — more than any other pitcher in history — and lost.

Batter after batter, Inning after inning, Haddix set down a powerful Milwaukee Braves lineup that featured Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews. But the Pirates couldn’t score a run.

Finally, the Braves got to Haddix in the 13th. Felix Mantilla led off with a grounder to third baseman Don Hoak who threw it away for an error. After a sacrifice and an intentional pass to Aaron, Joe Adcock came to the plate. He belted a home run to right center, the first hit off Haddix.

However in the excitement, Aaron did not realize the ball had gone out. He veered off the basepath and passed Aaron, nullifying both runs. Mantilla scored to win the game, 1-0.

The unsung hero in this tableau was Lew Burdette, who threw 13 shutout innings and was the winning pitcher. He scattered 12 singles and didn’t walk a batter, and was helped by three double plays.

7. July 2, 1963 — San Francisco Giants 1, Milwaukee Braves 0, 16 innings
Hall of Famers Juan Marichal, below, of San Francisco and Warren Spahn of Milwaukee hooked up in one of the most memorable pitching duels off all time. The two future Hall of Famers battled for nearly 16 scoreless innings before Willie Mays socked a home run over the left-field fence to win the game, 1-0.

Marichal gave up eight hits and struck out 10; and Spahn allowed nine hits while striking out  two batters. Spahn walked just one man in 16 innings, an intentional pass to Mays in the 14th. Marichal gave up four walks. Each hurler threw more than 200 pitches, heresy in this modern era of pitch counts.

A crowd of 15,921 witnessed the classic at chilly Candlestick Park. At one point in extra innings, Giants manager Alvin Dark asked Marichal if he wanted to come out. Marichal looked out at Spahn on the mound and said: “I’m not leaving while that old guy is still on the mound.” Spahn was 42 at the time, enjoying his last great season.

A 13-time 20-game winner and the winningest pitcher of the 50s, Spahn holds the MLB record for most wins by a left-hander — 363.

Marichal, baseball’s winningest pitcher of the 60s, won 20 six times and finished with 243 wins. He became the first Dominican to enter the Hall of Fame. Marichal is quite arguably the best pitcher never to win a Cy Young Award.

In 1963, Juan Marichal was 25-8 with a 2.41 ERA and 248 strikeouts. Spahn was 23-7 with a 2.60 ERA, And neither pitcher won the Cy Young Award. That honor went to Los Angeles left-hander Sandy Koufax. who went 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA and struck out 306 batters.

8. Sept. 9, 1965 — Los Angeles Dodgers 1, Chicago Cubs 0
Sandy Koufax may have had the best five-year stretch in baseball history. From 1962 through 1966, Koufax won a National League MVP and  three Cy Young awards, and pitched four no-hitters.

But Koufax was never better than he was on a September night in 1965 in Los Angeles. Pitching against a Cub lineup that featured Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo, along with five rookies. Koufax pitched a perfect game.

For Koufax, it was his fourth no-hitter in four seasons. On this night Koufax was nearly matched by lanky left-hander Bob Hendley of the Cubs, who allowed just one hit, a seventh inning bloop double by Lou Johnson.  It’s the lowest combined hit total in a single game in baseball history.

The Dodgers scored the only run of the game in the fifth inning without the benefit of a base hit. Johnson walked, was sacrificed to second, stole third and came home on a throwing error.

Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully painted the word picture as Koufax approached perfection — “There are 29,000 people in the ballpark and a million butterflies.” Koufax fanned pinch-hitter Harvey Kuenn to finish perfect.

9. Aug. 21, 1972 — Atlanta Braves 2, Philadelphia Phillies 1, 11 innings
On a sweltering August night in Philadelphia, future Hall of Famers Phil Niekro, below, and Steve Carlton battled for 11 innings before the Braves prevailed.

After retiring 19 batters in a row, Carlton put two runners on in the 11th before Mike Lum singled home the winning run and snapped Carlton’s 15-game winning streak. Each pitcher walked three batters and out 10. Carlton allowed seven hits; Niekro nine.

Carlton finished 27-10 that year for the last place Phillies, pitching 346 innings and striking out 310 batters. He was rewarded with the Cy Young Award.

Niekro wound up with 16 wins in 1972. Carlton won 329 games in his career, and Niekro 318.

10. May 28, 2000 —  Boston Red Sox 2, New York Yankees 0
One mistake by Roger Clemens made the difference in this classic pitching duel. Clemens was working on a three-hitter with 13 strikeouts when, with two outs in the ninth, Jeff Frye hit a chopper off the middle that banged off “The Rocket” for a single. Trot Nixon then hit a two-run homer into the right field bleachers at Yankee Stadium.

“He got the ball up over the plate and I got good wood on it,” said Nixon. “His ball was starting to come up. I sensed it was coming up. It was a classic battle and Roger made a mistake.”

Martinez took a three-hitter of his own into the ninth, having retired the last 10 batters. The Yankees loaded the bases with two outs, but Pedro got Tino Martinez to bounce out to end it.

It was a great pitching battle between two pitchers who combined to win 573 games and 10 Cy Young awards, including a record seven by Clemens,


Almost Perfect: A Mustache on the Mona Lisa

This play at first base cost Armando Galarraga a chance at baseball immortality.

When umpire Jim Joyce blew the call on Armando Galarraga’s bid for a perfect game, he not only painted a mustache on the Mona Lisa, he also opened Pandora’s box to all sorts of discussion, debate and historical comparisons.

For one, the inevitable cry for expanded replay rules to decide close calls on the bases ensued. (No, the games run too long as is.)

Secondly, many appealed to commissioner Bud Selig to invoke the “best interests of the game” clause to overturn Joyce’s call and give Galarraga the perfecto. (No, breaking precedent here could lead to all sorts of controversy moving forward.)

Unfortunately, Joyce’s call will go down as one of the worst ever by an umpire, considering the circumstances. He joins the company of Don Denkinger, whose errant ninth inning call in game six of the 1985 World Series gave the Royals life and ultimately cost the Cardinals a championship.

Ironically, if Galarraga had dropped Miguel Cabrera’s toss, it would have been ruled an error, and a no-hitter would still be in effect.

Through it all, Galarraga exhibited remarkable poise and grace — especially when considering he’d been deprived of baseball immortality. In some strange way, he’ll be  remembered more for losing he perfecto than some of the 20 other pitchers who have been perfect since 1880.

And Joyce, one of the better umpires in the game today, showed class by admitting his mistake and apologizing to Galarraga.

12 Perfect Innings
Many still recall the hard-luck lefty Harvey Haddix, above right, of the Pirates, who pitched 12 perfect innings against the Milwaukee Braves only to lose the perfect game, no-hitter, shutout and game in the 13th. When baseball redefined scoring rules in 1991, Haddix lost credit for both a perfect game and a no-hitter.

And then there was the strange case of Ernie Shore of the Red Sox, who in 1917 relieved Babe Ruth in the first inning after Ruth walked the first batter, argued the call and got tossed by home plate umpire Brick Owens, who the Babe slugged on his way to the clubhouse. The runner was thrown out stealing, and Shore then retired the next 26 Washington Senators. For years, Shore was credited with a perfect game, but the ruling was changed and the game is now listed as a shared no-hitter between Shore and Ruth.

In addition to Galarraga, nine other pitchers have retired the first 26 batters only to lose perfect games. Most recently, Yankees right-hander Mike Mussina came within a strike of a perfect game at Fenway Park in 1999 before Carl Everett of the Red Sox lined a single to left.

At Wrigley Field in 1972, Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas, left, was one strike away from a perfect game with a 2-2 count on Padres pinch-hitter Larry Stahl when fate, in the person of home plate umpire Bruce Froemming, intervened. Froemming called the next two pitches — both of which were close — balls. Pappas recovered to complete the no-hitter, but to this day he continues to begrudge Froemming.

Some 25 years later, a Chicago radio personality, during an interview with Pappas, got Froemming on the phone and the two argued on the air. Pappas also said in 2006 that he has seen video tape footage of that game on WGNtelevision and can see Froemming smirking immediately after the walk was issued; Froemming denied the charge.

Here’s the almost perfect list. Each of the following pitchers lost a perfect game with two outs in the ninth.

Almost Perfect

1908: Hooks Wiltse
New York Giants (vs. Philadelphia Phillies)
George McQuillan was hit with a pitch, but Wiltse ended the game with a 10-inning no-hitter.

1932: Tommy Bridges
Detroit (vs. Washington)
Dave Harris hit a single.

1958: Billy Pierce
Chicago (vs. Washington)
Ed FitzGerald hit a double.

1972: Milt Pappas
Chicago (vs. San Diego)
Larry Stahl was walked, but Pappas ended the game with a no-hitter.

1983: Milt Wilcox
Detroit (at Chicago)
Jerry Hairston hit a single.

1988: Ron Robinson
Cincinnati (vs. Montreal)
Wallace Johnson hit a single.

1989: Dave Stieb
Toronto (vs. New York)
Roberto Kelly hit a double.

1990: Brian Holman
Seattle (vs. Oakland)
Ken Phelps hit a home run.

2001: Mike Mussina
New York (at and vs. Boston)
Carl Everett hit a single.

2010: Armando Gallaraga
Detroit (vs. Cleveland)
Jason Donald hit a single.

PS — The SportsLifer was lucky enough to witness one of the 20 perfect games in baseball history. I was in the lower right field seats at Yankee Stadium with my son, nephew and brother-in-law on a May day in 1998 when Yankees left-hander David Wells pitched a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins. As we left the Stadium that afternoon, I told my nephew, seven-years-old at the time, that he could go to a thousand ballgames and never see another perfect game.