After consecutive extra inning masterpieces, Bob Gibson would lose a heartbreaker at home against the Astros. Gibson pitched brilliantly, striking out 10 and allowing only 2 earned runs (3 total). Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Houston hurler Larry Dierker would be just as sharp. The Cardinals had baserunners in nearly every inning but were unable to string together enough hits and one time to break through. Their two scores came on a double by Roger Maris after a Curt Flood stolen base and a home run by Mike Shannon. This was the type of game that Gibson would see too often in 1968 – one of his 9 losses.
Another of these games would come next in Philadelphia when Gibson would be matched against the big lefthander, Woody Fryman. On a good team, Fryman might have been an ace but for the most part of his 18 year career he was on a losing team and his record would reflect that. But in this game Fryman was brilliant, pitching 10 shutout innings. Like Dierker in the previous game, the Cardinals had their chances but Fryman would prevent them from clustering enough hits at one time to score. Gibson was just as effective until the bottom of the 10th inning. In the biggest of ironies, Fryman would lead off the 10th inning with a single. Fryman would only get 6 hits all season and none were bigger than this one. Fryman would be bunted to second and in scoring position with one out. Future Cardinals Cookie Rojas would fly out to Dick Simpson in right field. Gibson would walk Johnny Callison who had gone 2-3 on the night and face former Cardinal first baseman Bill White. White’s brilliant career was near it’s end but he had one more favor to return to his former team, a walk off single in the right field gap to drive in the game’s only run.
And so again, a heartbreaking loss for Bob Gibson.
This brings us to May 22, 1968 and the biggest heartbreaker of the season. Fans looking back at Gibson’s 1968 season generally ask one question – how could he have lost 9 games pitching the way he did. The 9,500 fans in attendance would soon understand and a look back at this game may shed some light on this mystery. This is also one of the six in which Gibson did not complete (all of them being late inning pinch hitters, never taken out of a game while on the mound).
It was a night game at home where Bob Gibson would battle with one of the other aces of the era, Don Drysdale. After being put to bed, I turned on my little transistor radio and put an earphone in my ear on the pillow so my parents wouldn’t know I was staying up late. Fortunately with Gibson and Drysdale pitching, it wasn’t going to be a long game and I wasn’t going to miss this one. I’m glad I didn’t.
Rather than going inning by inning, let’s just say that this was 9 innings of three up and three down and took less than two hours to complete. Of all of the games I remember Bob Gibson pitching, this might have been his best effort – or if not certainly on the level of the first game of the 1968 World Series. Gibson would allow only one hit, a double to Wes Parker. U nfortunately for Cardinal fans, the light hitting Paul Popovich had walked earlier in the inning and that was the difference in the game. Don Drysdale would shut out the Cardinals in a strong effort with the only ball hit hard being a leadoff double by Lou Brock in the bottom of the ninth. After the double, a tiring Drysdale would get the heart of the Cardinals order to hit three weak balls to the infield and Brock would not score.
This was also one of the six games that Gibson did not complete in 1968. With two outs in eighth inning, Red Schoendienst made the tough decision to pinch hit for Bob Gibson electing to go with Tim McCarver off the bench. McCarver’s batting average was not all that much higher than Gibson’s (Gibson was in one of the longest hitting slump of his career), but Timmy Mac had a much better chance of tying the game off a tired Don Drysdale than the Cardinal ace. Drysdale would be up to the challenge though and McCarver would harmlessly pop out to Wes Parker at first.
Lefty Joe Hoerner would finish the game for the Cardinals. Hoerner was the Cardinals ace reliever in the 1960s posting monster numbers in 1966 and again in 1968 (8-2, 1.48 ERA 3.50 K/BB ratio and a .945 WHIP). If Hoerner pitched today he would easily have 40 saves per season – he was that good. And he was nearly that good on this evening too. After striking out Wes Parker to lead off the ninth, Willie Davis would drag a bunt for a single. Then Lefty Joe would do what he did best – pick the speedy Willie Davis off first. Sadly an error by Cepeda allowed Davis to safely advance to second and extend the inning. Hoerner would strike out former Cardinal hero Ken Boyer but a single from future Cardinals Ron Fairly would score a second run and put the game out of reach for the light hitting Cardinals of 1968. It was also the beginning of the decline of former MVP Orlando Cepeda who would have a down year at the plate and in the field. After the 1968 season he would be traded to Atlanta for future MVP and perennial All Star Joe Torre.
There was a lot to like about this baseball game. To be truthful, the only thing Cardinal fans didn’t like was the final score. It had two aces at the top of their game, although the strain of Los Angeles’ four man rotation would take it’s toll on Drysdale and this would be his last full season. It was a fast paced game and kept you at the edge of your seat, or in my case with my right ear on the pillow, for the entire evening. This was National League baseball as good as it gets.
As a postscript to this game: when my dad found out that I listened to this game after going to bed (as was a frequent occurence), he gave me tickets (well, the promise of tickets) to the next Bob Gibson home game for my 8th birthday which would be in less than a week. That game was against Cincinnati on June 15, and it was another amazing game. A complete game 4 hit shutout with 13 strikeouts. Another in a long line of gems thrown by Bob Gibson in 1968.