Because baseball fields have long been called “diamonds,” it was only natural that stellar performances right in the middle would be called “gems.” To be sure, in modern usage, the word gem is used to describe pitching as much as anything else. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary offers this sentence to illustrate its definition: “He pitched a gem of a game.”
Bill James, the godfather of baseball analytics, made Gem an official, quantifiable statistic: A game in which the starting pitcher has a Game Score (a metric devised by James) of 65 or throws six or more innings of shutout baseball.
But limiting the term to starting pitchers and enclosing it in a statistical box does not give free reign to merriam-webster.com’s broader definition of gem: “Something that is admired for its beauty or excellence.”
So we present a wider view in the 2016 edition of Baseball 101, our annual seminar that looks at the sport through one particular lens. This year’s course sees pitching gems as outstanding efforts by starters and relievers, as well as distinctive ways pitchers speak, look, throw, field, hit, act and otherwise entwine themselves into baseball’s fabric.
This perspective is especially pertinent in New York this year, what with the Mets looking to thrive on the way its rotation starts games and the Yankees seeking to flourish on the way its bullpen finishes them. Their paths to October will be determined by stringing gems from now until then. Herewith, class is in session. Baseball 101 presents the Gems of Pitching.
The Best: Sandy Koufax
Fifty years ago, baseball lost the talents of arguably the most polished gem it ever has produced: Sandy Koufax. His entire career was as brilliantly unique as a precious stone, made more so by the fact that he retired in his prime because his valuable left arm hurt so badly.
Yankees legend Whitey Ford said during the 1963 World Series: “I know Koufax’ weakness. He can’t hit.” Nor could the sport’s greatest dynasty in that four-game sweep, which began with a 15-strikeout effort by Koufax, on his way to the first of two World Series Most Valuable Player awards in three years.
Hank Aaron once said, “You talk about the Gibsons and the Drysdales and the Spahns. And as good as those guys were, Koufax was a step ahead of them. If somebody pitched a one-hitter, he could pitch a no-hitter.”
That actually happened: On Sept. 9, 1965, Bob Hendley of the Cubs threw a one-hitter against the Dodgers. Koufax beat him by pitching a perfect game, his fourth no-hitter.
John Roseboro, who caught what was perhaps Koufax’ most impressive game, a three-hit shutout in Game 7 of the 1965 World Series two days after he pitched a four-hit shutout in Game 5, said in Jane Leavy’s 2002 biography of the Hall of Famer: “I think God came down and tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Boy, I’m going to make you a pitcher.’ God only made one of him.”
It is hard to think of anyone else who could pitch three times in eight days, as Koufax did in that ’65 Series against the Twins, when he declined to start Game 1 because it was on Yom Kippur. During Game 7, Roseboro was perplexed because the pitcher kept shaking off the signs for his devastating curveball — one that Joe Torre still spoke of reverentially before Yankees games three decades later. Koufax explained that his arm ached too much. So he blanked the Twins on fastballs.
He was a diamond in the rough as a teenager with his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955. Koufax ultimately helped make baseball a heady attraction in Los Angeles. He also was 20-3 against New York teams, including postseason.
The three-time Cy Young Award winner and 1963 National League MVP pointedly has remained out of the public eye since he retired at 30 after the 1966 season. But he has nonetheless been a presence: as a Dodgers instructor, as royalty in Cooperstown, as a lifelong friend to high school teammate Fred Wilpon. Mets manager Terry Collins, having worked in the Dodgers’ chain, considers the former pitcher one of his closest friends.
Koufax always met baseball on his own terms, and he left that way, too. At his farewell news conference in November 1966, he explained he simply did not want to be a slave to painkillers. “I don’t regret one minute of the last 12 years,” he said, “but I think I would regret one year that was too many.”
And now the rest
2. A perfect time: Don Larsen threw the gem of gems, the most renowned effort on a major-league mound. In a flawless combination of pitching and timing, he fired the only no-hitter in World Series history, a perfect game in Game 5 of 1956. He struck out Dale Mitchell of the Dodgers, then effectively became a catcher — he caught Yogi Berra leaping into his arms — and has received plaudits for 60 years.
3. Cardinal sensation: Twice in a span of 11 days, Bob Gibson pitched a clincher against a New York team on two days’ rest. In the last game of the Cardinals’ 1964 season, manager Johnny Keane used his ace in relief against the Mets. Gibson pitched four innings as St. Louis won the pennant. In Game 7 of the World Series against the Yankees, Keane let Gibson finish his complete game despite his fatigue. Said Keane, “I had a commitment to his heart.”
4. Harvey’s heart: A gem does not always have to be a victory. Matt Harvey, coming off Tommy John surgery and ongoing angst about his innings total, dazzled the Citi Field crowd with eight scoreless innings in World Series Game 5 in 2015. Then he convinced Terry Collins to let him pitch the ninth and relinquished the lead. After the extra-inning loss ended the World Series, Collins said, “I let my heart get in the way of my gut.”
5. Double no-no: “People were rooting for me hard in the eighth and ninth innings” — Johnny VanderMeer of the Reds in a 1996 Newsday interview about June 15, 1938, when he pitched his second straight no-hitter. His feat remains one of baseball’s most unbreakable records (you can’t imagine someone pitching three straight no-hitters).
6. Seven wonders: Nolan Ryan, at age 44, threw his seventh career no-hitter on May 1, 1991 — his second for the Rangers. He had four no-hitters for the Angels and one for the Astros.
7. Cy’s 511 leads the way: Baseball’s all-time winningest pitcher is Cy Young with 511 victories (Walter Johnson is second with 417).
8. Perfect heartbreak: Harvey Haddix of the Pirates threw a perfect game for 12 innings — and lost to the Braves, 1-0, on an unearned run in the 13th on May 26, 1959. It has been called the greatest game ever pitched.
9. No hits . . . no win: Ken Johnson of the then-Houston Colt .45s pitched a no-hitter against the Reds April 23, 1964 — and lost, 1-0.
10. Philly fantastic: In his first postseason start, Roy Halladay of the Phillies threw a no-hitter against the Reds on Oct. 7, 2010, becoming the only pitcher besides Don Larsen to have a postseason no-no.
11. Ohhh, so close: Ewell Blackwell, Johnny Vander Meer’s Reds teammate, took a no-hitter into the ninth against the Dodgers in 1947 in his next start after no-hitting the Braves, but he gave up a broken-bat, one-out single to Eddie Stanky.
12. Knuckle under: Hoyt Wilhelm made the knuckleball a baseball institution.
13. Split happens: Bruce Sutter popularized the split-fingered fastball.
14. Two-for-none: Fred Toney of the Reds and Hippo Vaughn of the Cubs pitched the only double nine-inning no-hitter in major league history on May 2, 1917. Vaughn allowed a hit and a run in the 10th; Toney completed his no-hitter.
15. All’s Wells: David Wells, Don Larsen’s fellow alumnus of San Diego’s Point Loma High School, became the second Yankee to pitch a perfect game, on May 17, 1998 against the Twins.
16. Tom Terrific: Tom Seaver came as close to perfection as a Mets pitcher ever has, retiring the first 25 Cubs batters before Jimmy Qualls hit an opposite-field single in the ninth on July 9, 1969.
17. Fine-ally! Johan Santana pitched the only no-hitter in Mets history on June 1, 2012, and fully embraced what it meant to the franchise and its fans (regardless of the fact that it might have curtailed his career).
18. Just for kicks: The high leg kicks of Hall of Famers Juan Marichal (Giants) and Warren Spahn (Braves), who squared off in a classic 16-inning duel July 2, 1963 (Marichal, the winner, was 25; Spahn was 42).
19. Doc’s remedy: Dwight Gooden pitched a shutout in his second start of 1985 and never allowed his ERA to reach 2.00 for the rest of the year (he finished at 1.53).
20. The ’69 Miracle: Jerry Koosman changed momentum for the 1969 Mets after a World Series Game 1 loss, pitching a two-hitter against the Orioles, leading to the miracle that ended with Koosman’s complete game in No. 5.
21. Louisiana Lightning: Ron Guidry struck out 18 Angels at Yankee Stadium on June 17, 1978, during a 13-0 start to his 25-3 season.
22. Riches for Rags: Dave Righetti threw a no-hitter for the Yankees on July 4, 1983, birthday of owner George Steinbrenner.
23. Cain enabled: Matt Cain, pupil of Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti, threw a perfect game June 13, 2012.
24. Bragging rights: “It ain’t bragging if you can do it” — Cardinals Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean.
25. F-a-s-t-e-s-t: Aroldis Chapman’s record . . . The Yankees’ new closer threw 105.1 miles per hour for the Reds against the Padres’ Tony Gwynn Jr. on Sept. 24, 2010 — the highest velocity ever recognized by MLB Advanced Media’s PitchF/X.
26. S-l-o-w-e-s-t: Steve Hamilton’s Folly Floater . . . The Yankees reliever threw the pitch so high and slow that batters couldn’t time it. (YouTube favorite: Tony Horton of the Indians crawled to the dugout after fouling out).
27. Blood and guts: Curt Schilling’s bloody sock in an epic Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS, the result of an injured ankle that required sutures.
28. Here’s the windup: Luis Tiant’s corkscrew windup — and his “pitch” for Yankee Franks in a TV commercial: “It’s great to be with a wiener.”
29. Goosebumps: The menacing image of Goose Gossage behind that Fu Manchu, knowing he’s about to deliver his fastball that routinely traveled at 98-102 mph. He got the final out to clinch a division, league or World Series title seven times.
30. Handle with care: The dastardly look of Rollie Fingers’ handlebar mustache that carried him to three World Series titles, seven All-Star teams and four Relief Man of the Year awards.
31. Facial mask: Dallas Keuchel’s beard: He pitched from behind it to finish 15-0 at home last season and win the AL Cy Young Award.
32. Ageless wonder: Hub Kittle started a Triple-A game at age 63. A pitching coach in 1980, he threw 1 1⁄3 innings, earning the distinction of having played organized ball in six decades. In Seth Swirsky’s book “Every Pitcher Tells a Story,” he recalled that night: “I looked down at the first batter and I swear to God he looked like he was two miles away.”
33. Here’s looking at you: Ryne Duren’s thick “coke bottle lens” glasses. The combination of his blazing fastball and poor vision (and sometimes wildness) struck fear in a batter. Casey Stengel once said, “I would not admire hitting against Ryne Duren, because if he ever hit you in the head, you might be in the past tense.”
34. Gotcha! Kenny Rogers’ pickoff move to first (so good that Braves batter Eddie Perez said, “I swung.”).
35. Peekaboo: Andy Pettitte, intensely eyeing the catcher from that small opening between the bill of his cap and the top of his glove.
36. What a relief: After leaving Game 1 because of a back injury, Pedro Martinez entered climactic Game 5 of the 1999 American League Division Series for the Red Sox and pitched six no-hit innings of relief against the Indians.
37. Newk’s triple crown: Don Newcombe was the first to win the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards (only Justin Verlander has matched it). “Newk” was the first African-American pitcher to start a World Series game and win 20 games.
38. Bird antics: Mark Fidrych on his knees, patting the dirt and manicuring the mound (also talking to the ball).
39. Glove story: Check it out on YouTube: Orlando “El Duque’’ Hernandez of the Yankees fielded a grounder against the Mets on June 5, 1999, but couldn’t get the ball out of his glove. So he tossed the glove with the ball in it to first base. Describing his experience with plays like that, through translation by coach Jose Cardenal, Hernandez said, “It was the first time.” Cardenal, on his own, added, “And maybe the last time, too.”
40. Glove affair: Hall of Famer Greg Maddux was a gem of a pitcher, but he also won 18 Gold Gloves, the most by any player at any position (Jim Kaat won 16).
41. Underhanded approach: Ted Abernathy, Dan Quisenberry, Darren O’Day throwing submarine style.
42. Mets bounced back . . .: Bob Moose of the Pirates pitched a no-hitter against the Mets on Sept. 20, 1969, a mere three weeks and five days before the Mets won the World Series.
43. . . . and did it again: Max Scherzer of the Nationals pitched a no-hitter (his second of the season) against the Mets on Oct. 3, 2015, a mere 18 days before the Mets won the National League pennant.
44. “Ya Gotta Believe”: Coined by Tug McGraw, originally mimicking a pep talk from team president M. Donald Grant. It became the rallying cry for the 1973 Mets.
45. Take that! Gaylord Perry of the Giants pitched a no-hitter against the Cardinals on Sept. 1, 1968, and Ray Washburn of the Cardinals answered it with a no-hitter against the Giants the very next day.
46. Hitless wonders: Ernie Koob of the St. Louis Browns pitched a no-hitter against the White Sox on May 5, 1917 (after a first-inning single was changed to an error). Teammate Bob Groom pitched a no-hitter against the same opponent the next day.
47. Who needs a bullpen?: Leon Cadore of the Brooklyn Robins and Joe Oeschger of the Boston Braves each pitched 26 innings in a 1-1 game halted by darkness May 1, 1920.
48. Royal closer: Wade Davis of the World Series champion Royals had 18 strikeouts, one win and four saves in 10 2⁄3 scoreless innings during the 2015 postseason.
49. A Hum-dinger: Philip Humber had just one career complete game. But it was a perfect game for the White Sox against the Mariners April 21, 2012.
50. Let it fly: Fernando Rodney, now with the Padres, celebrates a save by pretending to shoot an arrow toward the sky.
51. Gem from Matty: “Many baseball fans look upon an umpire as a sort of necessary evil to the luxury of baseball, like the odor that follows an automobile.” — Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson
52. And one about the Babe: “Joe, so would the Babe.” — Waite Hoyt, ace of the 1927 Yankees, to Joe Dugan at Babe Ruth’s funeral after Dugan reportedly said, “I’d give my right arm for an ice-cold beer.”
53. A banner season . . .: Zack Greinke’s entire 2015 season for the Dodgers was a gem: He tied Mike Trout for the best Wins Above Replacement in the majors (9.9), led the National League with a 1.66 earned run average and won a Gold Glove.
54. . . . but the Cy goes to: But as good as Greinke was, Jake Arrieta of the Cubs won the National League Cy Young Award, having gone unbeaten (10-0) after July 25. In the wild-card game against the Pirates, he pitched a four-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts and no walks.
55. Good-Feller: Bob Feller threw the only Opening Day no-hitter in major-league history, April 16, 1940. The Indians Hall of Famer also had 12 one-hitters.
56. Mo’s tears: Mariano Rivera collapsed in tears on the mound after the 11-inning Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. He had pitched three innings for the win.
57. Take your pick: Orioles reliever Tippy Martinez picked off three Blue Jays runners in one inning on Aug. 24, 1983.
58. Five up, five down: Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin in succession at the 1934 All-Star Game.
59. Strike 3! Jacob deGrom of the Mets threw 10 pitches and got three strikeouts in the 2015 All-Star Game.
60. Close shaves: “The second one lets the hitter know what you meant by the first one” — Sal Maglie, called “The Barber’’ for deliberately throwing so close to batters.
61. Quite the catch: Catfish Hunter, the first free agent of the modern era, signed with the Yankees on New Year’s Eve 1974, changing the image and direction of George Steinbrenner’s club.
62. Channel 17: Andy Messersmith, another pioneer free agent, was issued uniform No. 17 under the word “Channel” as a promotion for the nascent superstation run by Braves owner Ted Turner. But Major League Baseball wouldn’t allow it.
63. House ball: Braves reliever Tom House caught Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run April 8, 1974, and after racing to home plate to deliver the treasured ball to Aaron, went on to have the best season of his career.
64. Sage words: “Good pitching always stops good hitting and vice versa” — Pirates pitcher Bob Veale
65. Gem at bat: Rick Wise of the Phillies hit two home runs as he pitched a no-hitter against the Reds, June 23, 1971.
66. Slammed: Tony Cloninger of the Braves hit two grand slams with nine RBIs in one game, against the Giants on July 3, 1966.
67. Camp quest: Rick Camp of the Braves — lifetime batting average .060 — hit his only career home run at 3:20 a.m. on July 5, 1985, tying the Mets in the bottom of the 18th inning.
68. Can’t get ’em out: Cy Young Award winner Orel Hershiser had three hits in Game 2, the first of his two wins in the Dodgers’ 1988 World Series triumph.
69. You don’t say: “The two best pitchers in the National League don’t speak English: Fernando Valenzuela and Steve Carlton” — Braves announcer Ernie Johnson (at the time, in 1981, Carlton disdained the media).
70. Scoreless streak: Don Drysdale threw a record 58 consecutive scoreless innings for the Dodgers in 1968 and was the team’s radio broadcaster in 1988 when Hershiser broke his mark with a streak of 59 scoreless innings.
71. Overpowering: During his 41-inning scoreless streak in 2014, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw held opponents to a .122 batting average and had 50 strikeouts.
72. Blinding sun: “I lost it in the sun” — Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Billy Loes, commenting on a muffed ground ball hit by Yankees pitcher Vic Raschi in Game 6 of the 1952 World Series. The comment became legend, but teammate Carl Erskine backed him up, explaining how the late afternoon October sun could create patches of sunlight and shadows on the field.
73. Still ‘Chairman’: Whitey Ford still holds the World Series records for wins (10) and games pitched (22). The Yankees “Chairman of the Board’’ had an ERA of 2.71 in the postseason.
74. Fall Classic duel: The 1991 World Series was a classic to remember: Five games decided by one run, five games decided in the final at-bat, four games decided on the final pitch and three games in extra innings. But the lasting image is of Jack Morris, who pitched 10 scoreless innings in Game 7, allowing the Twins to beat John Smoltz and the Braves, 1-0.
75. Brave showing: Tom Glavine of the Braves allowed no runs and one hit with eight strikeouts in eight innings in the climactic Game 6 of the 1995 World Series against the Indians. David Justice’s solo homer in the sixth was the only run.
76. Bouncing back: Ralph Terry of the Yankees, unfazed by having allowed Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run in Game 7 of the World Series two years earlier, shut out the Giants on four hits in Game 7 of the 1962 World Series.
77. Calling card: Mets rookie Noah Syndergaard, on the eve of his World Series debut in Game 3 last fall, said of facing first pitch-swinging Royals leadoff batter Alcides Escobar, “I have a few tricks up my sleeve.” He uncorked the first pitch over Escobar’s head.
78. What a relief: One day after pitching seven innings as a starter to win Game 6 of the 2001 World Series, Randy Johnson of the Diamondbacks won Game 7 with 1 1⁄3 innings of relief.
79. Saving grace: Three days after pitching a nine-inning shutout in Game 5 of the 2014 World Series against the Royals, Madison Bumgarner of the Giants worked five innings for a save in Game 7.
80. Bullet Bob: With the Yankees trailing the Braves three games to one in the 1958 World Series, Bob Turley won Game 5 as a starter, saved Game 6 and won Game 7 as a reliever.
81. Jesse’s magic: Including the postseason, Jesse Orosco pitched enough to record 11 wins and 23 saves for the 1986 Mets, but the iconic image is of him throwing his glove — at the end of World Series Game 7.
82. Heads up: Fernando Valenzuela looking to the sky in the middle of his windup seemed to violate the principle of a pitcher keeping his eye on the target, but seven wins in seven starts (including five shutouts) ignited the Fernandomania frenzy in 1981.
83. Yankee-killer: Josh Beckett of the Marlins allowed five hits and struck out nine in a Game 6 shutout, closing out the Yankees in the 2003 World Series.
84. Father throws best: Jim Bunning, father of nine, pitched a perfect game for the Phillies at Shea Stadium on Fathers’ Day in 1964.
85. Just one hit: In his postseason debut, Bobby Jones of the Mets threw a one-hit shutout against the Giants (including Barry Bonds) in Game 4 to clinch the 2000 Division Series. At the time, it was only the second one-hit shutout in postseason history.
86. Abbott’s inspiration: Jim Abbott, born with only one hand, has been a special inspiration for children with disabilities every day since Sept. 4, 1993, when he pitched a no-hitter for the Yankees.
87. Best there ever was: Robert Redford’s character Roy Hobbs firing three fastballs past The Whammer in the 1982 movie “The Natural” — proving he was baseball’s “best.’’
88. Give ’em the heater: Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) striking out Clu Haywood (played by 1982 AL Cy Young Award winner Pete Vuckovich) in the 1989 film “Major League.”
89. Presidential pitch: Ronald Reagan as Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander in “The Winning Team.”
90. Rookie sensation: High school science teacher Jim Morris, 35, hitting 98 miles per hour on a radar gun and getting a strikeout in a big-league game in “The Rookie” (based on a true story).
91. Don’t look back: “Age is a matter of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter” — Satchel Paige, who made his major-league debut with the Indians in 1948 at age 42 (he’s still the oldest rookie) and pitched a game at 59.
92. No slams allowed: Hall of Famer Jim Palmer pitched all of his 19 seasons with the Orioles, won 268 games — and never gave up a grand slam.
93. His ‘shot’ of class: Despite reports, decades later, that the Giants were stealing signs, Ralph Branca has been a gem of graciousness for 65 years after allowing Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world.”
94. Unusual equipment: Joe Niekro tossed an emery board from his back pocket upon inspection by umpires who thought he was scuffing up the ball.
95. Unusual equipment II: Roger Clemens fired the barrel end of a broken bat toward Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series, saying he thought it was the ball.
96. Can’t hit it: Yankees reliever Dellin Betances threw 701 knuckle curves in 2015 and batters hit only .103 against them, according to fangraphs.com (they hit .056 against his 90 cut fastballs).
97. Rocky pitched in: Slugger Rocky Colavito, who grew up in the Bronx, finished his career with the Yankees and won a game, pitching 2 2/3 scoreless innings against the Tigers Aug. 25, 1968.
98. Let it Rip: Rip Sewell became a four-time Pirates All-Star by relying on his “eephus pitch,’’ which he is credited with inventing after he injured his toe in a hunting accident and had to change his pitching motion. He lobbed the blooper pitch to a height of 25 feet, driving most batters crazy — although Ted Williams blasted one for a home run in the 1946 All-Star Game, the only homer ever hit off the pitch.
99. Royal seating: A section of Seattle’s Safeco Field is designated “King’s Court” in honor of “King Felix” Hernandez, who threw the first perfect game in Mariners history Aug. 15, 2012.
100. Outer spaceman: “Lefthanders are the only people in their right mind” — lefty Bill Lee, on the fact that the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa.
101. LI’s young guns: Steven Matz of Ward Melville and Marcus Stroman of Patchogue-Medford pitched a two-way gem, a 1-0 Ward Melville victory, on April 16, 2009. In 2015, each was a big factor in helping the Mets and Blue Jays, respectively, reach the postseason.