A number of obstacles were placed in front of the 1967 St. Louis Cardinals that would have totally demoralized a lesser team. One of those came on June 21 when the Cardinals number two starter, Ray Washburn, took a line drive off his pitching hand and severely dislocated a finger, causing him to miss the next month. Perhaps it was an omen that a young 23 year old right hander named Nelson Briles would earn the save in that game, preserving the victory for Washburn.
With Washburn on the mend, the Cardinals were dealt what looked like a fatal blow on July 13. In the fourth inning, Roberto Clemente would hit a line drive up the middle that would strike Bob Gibson’s right leg, just above the ankle. Gibson would continue pitching, not knowing the severity of the injury. After three batters, his femur finally split in two and Gibson would miss the next two months with a broken leg. The same little right hander that saved Washburn’s game would take the loss in this one, although it was more a failure of Hal Woodshick than of Briles.
Starters of Gibson’s caliber are not easily replaced, and the Cardinals were unable to find any on the trade market. Instead they chose to move one of their relievers into the rotation, that very same young right hander, Nelson Briles. A deal was quickly made with the Mets to obtain Jack Lamabe to replace Briles in the bullpen. Lamabe would pitch well for the Cardinals, but nothing like what Briles would accomplish over the next three months. If the box scores did not exist, nobody would believe it today.
Briles would go 1-2 in his first three starts, but pitched well enough to win all three. That gave manager Red Schoendienst enough confidence to continue handing the ball to the young hurler. That turned out to be a very good idea as the Cardinals would win all of his remaining starts, 11 in all. Briles would pick up the wins in 9 of those, including 4 complete games with one of those being a nifty 4 hit shutout in San Francisco. If you are keeping score, down the stretch Briles would go 10-2, winning the last 9 straight games. As the the season wore on, Briles gained more confidence and got stronger with each outing. Briles pitched so well that he remained in the rotation when Gibson came off the disabled list with Larry Jaster being moved to the bullpen. Briles would finish the season with an amazing record of 14-5 with an ERA of 2.43.
If that was not enough, Briles earned a start in the pivotal third game of the World Series, the first game in St. Louis. In front of a huge crowd, Briles pitched an absolute gem of a game, going the distance and earning his tenth consecutive victory. He also pitched two hitless innings of relief in game 6. Had Red started Briles in that game, the series might have ended in 6 games, denying baseball fans the game 7 showdown between Jim Lonborg and Bob Gibson.
As an encore, the now 24 year old hurler would earn a spot in the Cardinals rotation in 1968 and continue his amazing performance. He would finish the season with a 19-11 record and an ERA of 2.81. Add to that 13 complete games, with 4 being shutouts. In any other season, Briles would have gotten the attention he deserved, perhaps even getting some serious consideration for the Cy Young award. Unfortunately for the young right hander, this was 1968 and Bob Gibson and Denny McClain were busy writing new pages in baseball’s history book.
We certainly remember his heroic performances in 1967 and 1968, and you should too. From a gritty super sub in 1967 to a staff ace in 1968, Nelson Briles wins not one, but two Atlas Awards.