May 1 and 6, 1968

1968 was the year of the pitcher, and in particular Cardinals right hander Bob Gibson. With a renewed intensity following his broken leg the previous year, Gibson was nearly unhittable all season long. His modern day record ERA of 1.12 caused the league office to lower the pitching mound from 15 to 10 in (which in Los Angeles probably meant 20 in to the old limit of 15in). But that is only part of the story. In 34 starts, Gibson completed 28 of them, leading the league with 13 shutouts. Over 300 innings pitched giving up less than 200 hits. A league leading 268 strikeouts with only 62 walks (that’s a 4.32:1 ratio). Even if you combine the hits and walks, Gibson had a minuscule 0.853 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched). Gibson would earn an All Star appearance, a Gold Glove, unanimous selection as Cy Young and 86% of the MVP voting. There had not been a season like this before, nor has there been one since.

To understand the greatness of Bob Gibson, one only has to look at the games on May 1 and May 6. What amazes me about these two nights is that only about 13,000 people attended each of the games. Fortunately for the rest of us, Jack Buck and Harry Caray were there and told us all that we needed to know.

The Cardinals started the 1968 season on fire. They had won 13 of their first 18 and with their ace on the mound they expected to defeat the Houston Astros. Eventually. This evening Gibson’s opponent would be future Cardinal Dave Guisti.

Guisti was a little right hander that has spent his first six seasons with Houston. Ironically after this season he would be traded to the Cardinals in one of the most bizarre series of events I can remember. The Cardinals and Houston would swap backup catchers with the Cards throwing in a minor leaguer to get Guisti. Guisti was the key to the deal. 3 days later in the expansion draft the San Diego Padres would claim Guisti. The Cards would go back to the drawing board and work up another deal sending Phil Knuckles (what a name – should have been a pitcher), Danny Breeden, Ron Davis and Ed Spezio (father of future Cardinal Scott Spezio) to the Padres to reacquire Guisti. The Cardinals gave up a lot to get Guisti – twice. Interestingly, of the players the Cards sent to San Diego, only Spezio actually played for the Padres. The others were either dealt for other players or never made it out of the minor leagues. As for Guisti, the Cards saw something in him but unfortunately were too impatient to let it develop. He would turn into one of the better closers in the National League, leading the league in saves in 1971. But it would not be for the Cardinals.

But this night he was a starter for the Astros and facing Bob Gibson at his best. While Gibson shut down the Astros, Guisti was working extra hard to keep the Cardinals from scoring in spite of several defensive gaffs. The Cardinals would eventually score in the 4th inning. After an infield pop up, Johnny Edwards (who would be part of the Guisti trade) singled up the middle. Mike Shannon would strike out bringing Julian Javier to the plate.

Nobody was more clutch than Julian Javier. And he was never more clutch than tonight. Juli rips a double to left field. Edwards beats the throw to the plate but Javier is caught at third trying to advance on the throw. But the Cardinals had a 1-0 lead. And in 1968 that might be good enough to win.

Gibson continued to mow down the Astros until a series of unfortunate events in the 5th inning. John Bateman would reach on an error by Orlando Cepeda. And the next batter, Dennis Menke would also reach on a rare error by Dal Maxvill. But in the continuation of the play Menke would be caught in a rundown eventually being tagged out. Former Cardinal infielder Julio Gotay would drive in Bateman with a base hit. Gibson would bear down and get the next two batters and the official scorer would rule the Bateman run as unearned (if not for the error the runner would have been at first and no other play put him into scoring position).

Both Guisti and Gibson would really get into a groove. In the next 10 batters, Guisti would only give up a single to Orlando Cepeda. Gibson nearly as stingy over the next 4 innings giving up a single and double to Rusty (La Grande Orange) Staub and an intentional walk in the bottom of the 9th to John Bateman.

In the top of the 10th inning, Javier would lead off with a single. With the bottom of the order coming up, aggressive base running would get the Cardinals into trouble. Tim McCarver would line out sharply to third and Javier would be doubled up on the throw back to first. Gibson would fly out to center to end the Cardinals 10th.

Any other pitcher would call it a day. Turn a 1-1 tie over to the bullpen and let them finish it. But this is Bob Gibson and he finishes what he starts. And a tiring Gibson marches to the mound in the 10th inning to face the bottom of the Houston order. Gotay flies out to center which brings in journeyman Lee Thomas. He coaxes a walk out of Gibson, but that is all that they would get in the 10th. Two infield grounders would get Gibby out of trouble and on to the 11th.

The Cards squander a one out single from Curt Flood and the game is still tied. And the heart of the order is up for the Astros in the 11th. Surprisingly Bob Gibson marches back to the mound. The first Houston batter he has to face is Jimmy “Toy Cannon” Wynn. Wynn could end the game with one swing of his bat. Gibson worked him carefully eventually walking the slugger. This was a smart decision as Wynn was less likely to score with his legs than with that tree trunk he called a bat. Rusty Staub would bunt Wynn into scoring position. Reaching deep for whatever Gibson had left he struck out Doug Rader. This brought John Bateman to the plate. Bateman had been hitting Gibson pretty well and Dennis Menke was not much of a threat so Gibson walked Bateman. And as scripted, Menke grounded out to Shannon to end the threat.

Which brings us to the pivotal moment of the game.

In the top of the 12th inning, Johnny Edwards would lead off with a single. He would be forced at second as Mike Shannon failed to move the runner over. But that was not necessarily a bad trade for the Cardinals. Shannon was just likely to score from first as Edwards from second. This brings Julian Javier to the plate, and for the second time in the game Javier delivers. This time it is a triple that scores Shannon all the way from first. Javier never stops running and when Menke’s throw goes wild, Javier scores for a 3-1 Cardinal lead. Dick Schofield (grandfather of Jayson Werth) would try to extend the inning with a single. And for the second time in the game a runner would be hit by a batted ball and the inning would come to an end. You can go for a decade without seeing this play and it happened twice in this game – once to each side.

For the bottom of the 12th and a 3-1, you are expecting a reliever, right ? This is 1968 and it is Bob Gibson. Gibson trots out to the mound with a renewed, albeit rather short lived enthusiasm. Julio Gotay continues to punish his former club, leading off the 12th with a double. But that would be the end to the threat as Gibson owned the rest of the batters. Gibson would get pinch hitter Bob Aspromonte to pop up, Ron Davis (who would become a Cardinal in in a few weeks) to another pop up and for the final out, Norm Miller would fly out to Lou Brock.

Yes, that’s right. A complete game, 12 inning win allowing only one unearned run.

But this is a 2-fer. There’s more ? Oh yeah, and the best was yet to come.

Five days later the Mets were in town and a small crowd in St. Louis witnessed one of the greatest pitching battles in 1968 – perhaps ever. The 1967 Rookie of the Year Tom Seaver vs Bob Gibson. Both pitchers at the top of their game.

The Cardinals would draw first blood, and Julian Javier is again in the role of clutch hitter. Tim McCarver would lead off the bottom of the second with a single and advance to second when Ed Kranepool failed to make a play on Mike Shannon’s grounder. Javier would single McCarver home with a base hit to right field. Like Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver could stop a rally with his pitching and he did just that. Three quick outs from the bottom of the order and the inning was over, but the Cardinals had a 1 run lead. And this was 1968. And Gibson was pitching.

In the top of the 4th the Mets would return the favor in a similar manner. Bud Harrelson would lead off with a single and move to third on a single from Ken Boswell. Art Shamsky would drive in Harrelson with a single to left and the game is tied. Like Seaver, Gibson would slam the door on this rally, but not without a bit of drama. A passed ball would put Boswell at third with nobody out. Ron Swoboda would hit a fly ball to Curt Flood in center field, but I guess nobody on the Mets noticed the 5 consecutive gold gloves that Flood had earned at that point (with 2 more to come). Boswell tested Flood’s arm and he lost. Add a weak infield grounder and the Mets’ rally came to a close.

It is now a tie game, 1-1 in the middle of the fourth inning. And this is where things get exciting. For the next 37 batters, each pitcher would surrender just a single walk. That’s right – from the middle of the 4th inning to the middle of the 10th inning, only a walk to Mike Shannon by Seaver and Gibson’s pass to Ron Swoboda. And all of this took a little over an hour. I have never heard or seen pitching like this.

Seaver begins to tire in the 10th inning and gives up a leadoff single to Mike Shannon. Julian Javier bunts him down to second, but future Cards coach Dave Ricketts failed to drive Shannon in. And Seaver fans Gibson for an end to the rally. But the Cardinals are finally starting to get to Seaver.

In the top of the 11th inning, Gibson makes quick work of the bottom of the Mets order. Two fly balls to the outfield, and Gibson returning the favor by striking out Seaver.

There would be no more outs recorded in this game. Lou Brock would lead off the bottom of the 11th with a triple. With the heart of the order coming up, and perhaps a bit less trust in their outfielder’s arms, the Mets intentionally load the bases. This brings up 1967 MVP Orlando Cepeda. And like he did most of 1967, Cepeda delivers by driving in Brock with a walk-off single to right. The Cardinals win this extra inning battle, 2-1.

I honestly don’t know which was more impressive – the hour of lights out pitching from two of the games greatest right handers, or Bob Gibson winning consecutive complete games of 12 and 11 innings. Either way these are two games that I will remember for a long time.

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