Atlanta at St. Louis. Wednesday night. First game of the 1968 season.
The Atlanta Braves visit the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals to open the 1968 season. A big crowd is on hand to see what product the Cardinals will be putting on the field. With the core of the team largely in place from the 1967 campaign, there was a lot of anticipation for a repeat trip to the World Series. The Cardinals would live up to expectations, leading the National League for all but 13 games of the season. This opening day lineup may be the best one the Cardinals ever put on the field.
The starters for both clubs were their respective aces: Bob Gibson for the Cardinals and Pat Jarvis for the Braves. For reference, Jarvis was the Joel Pineiro of the 60’s Braves. How would each fare ?
Gibson started sharp, as he would all season. He quickly retired Felipe Alou (brother of Matty and Jesus) and shortstop Sonny Jackson. Henry Aaron was the next hitter. As always, Gibson pitched Hammerin’ Hank carefully. Aaron flies out to deep center to end the inning. Gibson wins this first battle of the 1968 season.
Jarvis runs into a bit of control trouble in the bottom of the first. After two quick infield outs, he walks Roger Maris and the cleanup hitter, 1967 National League MVP, Orlando Cepeda. Tim McCarver fails to extend the inning by hitting a fly ball to right field for the third out.
Gibson’s second inning didn’t quite go as he planned. After retiring future Cardinal, Joe Torre, Clete Boyer (brother of Cardinal legend Ken Boyer) singles to right field. Deren Johnson, always a Cardinal killer, walks. Mike Lum hits a slow grounder to Dal Maxvill and his only play is to second base. The light hitting eighth place hitter, Felix Milan, hits a shot to Brock that he boots allowing Boyer to score. For all of Brock’s greatness, his defense could be inconsistent. Gibson retires his opposite number and the inning ends. Since Gibson retires the batter, the scorer rules the run unearned. Any other year that would not be noticed – but in 1968, every run again Gibson was news, earned or un-earned.
Both pitchers settle into a groove, retiring the side in order through the fourth inning.
In the top of the fifth, Gibson would give up leadoff singles to Mike Lum and Felix Milan. Pat Jarvis would successfully bunt the two runners over a base. Next came the first strange play of 1968. Felipe Alou hits a shot off Gibson’s glove. It is fielded by Shannon who throws home to get Lum trying to score. Wow – maybe there was a runner slower than Joe Torre. As the play continued, McCarver fires to second to catch Alou trying to take an extra base on the play. For the scorers at home, that went 1-5-2-6 as a double play.
Not much else happened until the bottom of the seventh, although the Cardinals were beginning to get to Jarvis, just a little bit. In the Cardinals half of the seventh, McCarver grounds out and Mike Shannon strikes out. Julian Javier, always a clutch player, hits the ball to Sonny Jackson who can’t make the play. Javier is on with an E6. Light hitting Dal Maxvill follows that with a single. Down 1-0 and threatening for the second inning, Red Schoendienst does something he will only do three other times in 1968, remove Bob Gibson from a game. Bobby Tolan is called on to pinch hit for the Cardinal ace. He hits the ball hard, but right at Jackson and the inning is over.
Ray Washburn is in to pitch for the Cardinals. Even though big Ray has secured a spot in the rotation, the early schedule allows for some extra work. Once a flame throwing power pitcher, injuries have caused Washburn to change his approach. It is working exceptionally well on this opening night. A leadoff walk to Felix Milan is all Washburn would surrender. Cardinal Nation is breathing a sigh of relief – with a healthy Washburn, this rotation is going to be very difficult to beat.
The Cardinals will finally break through on a tiring Pat Jarvis in the bottom of the eighth. With one out, Curt Flood would single. Roger Maris would fail to move Flood to second as he pops out to Felix Milan at second base. Just as he did in similar situations all of 1967, Orlando Cepeda hits a rocket double, scoring the speedy Flood from first. McCarver would be intentionally walked – the Braves had seen enough of this potent lineup last year to mess with McCarver. Shannon would ground out to end the inning. The game is now tied 1-1, and it’s Washburn’s to win or lose.
Washburn would make quick work of the heart of the Braves order in the ninth. He would strike out Henry Aaron, get Joe Torre to fly out to center, and strike out Clete Boyer. They were no match for Washburn. With a tie game, we had to like our chances should this game go into extra innings. Washburn was a horse and looked like he could go a long time.
He would not have to throw another pitch. With one out in the bottom of the ninth, Dal Maxvill would rip a double down the line in left field. Maxie may not hit the ball often, but when he does, good things generally follow. In this case, follow would be future bullpen coach, Dave Ricketts who is pinch hitting for Washburn. Ricketts comes through with a game winning single to center, easily scoring the speedy Dick Simpson who had run for Maxvill.
What a way to open the 1968 season!!! Gibson goes seven strong innings allowing three hits. Washburn was unhittable, literally, in his two innings, striking out two. The Cardinals march to a second consecutive World Series appearance had begun.