If the Atlas Award is for a player that single handedly picks up the team when they most need it, none are more deserving than John Stuper. Stuper didn’t even start the season with the big club which makes his story even more amazing.
The Cardinals broke camp in 1982 with a starting rotation of Bob Forsch, Joaquin Andujar, John Martin, Steve Mura and Andy Rincon. Forsch and Andujar should be familiar names, but the other three might not be.
Steve Mura had come over to the Cardinals as part of the Ozzie Smith deal prior to the 1982 season. He had been a starter in San Diego, although had been largely ineffective while losing a league leading 14 games in 1981. He fared better in his one season in St. Louis, but would be relegated to the bullpen by the end of the year and not activated for the post season.
Andy Rincon had started the 1981 season on fire, looking like one of the best rookie starters since Tom Seaver. All of that ended when a Phil Garner line drive broke his pitching arm. He would miss almost all of 1981, but was making a comeback in 1982. A lack of control and an elevating ERA prompted a reassignment to Louisville (AAA), but he would be rewarded with a World Series ring for his contributions.
It is the last of the starters that leads to our 1982 Atlas Award winner. John Martin was the only lefty in the Cardinals rotation. Martin had been successful in two different stretches with the Cardinals in 1981 and it was hoped that he would be able to continue that in 1982. He got off to a rough start and would be replaced by another lefty, Dave LaPoint in mid May. After a few ineffective appearances in the bullpen, Martin would be sent back to Louisville.
That made a spot for a young right hander named John Stuper, and Stuper made the best of this opportunity. This retooled rotation of Forsch, Andujar, LaPoint, Mura and Stuper would take the ball consistently until the rosters expanded with a new batch of September callups. Stuper would go 9-7 in his rookie campaign, although he pitched well enough to win another five games. He did it unconventionally – not by the strikeout, but inducing lots of ground balls and keeping fly balls well inside the outfield walls of cavernous Busch Stadium. And he did this consistently, every fifth day.
When manager Whitey Herzog put together his shortened post-season rotation, Stuper found himself penciled in the number 2 spot in the NLCS. With the Cardinals winning game 1, Stuper’s start in Game 2 could be a knockout blow to the Atlanta Braves. And it was a total knockout as Stuper pitched well on the big stage, keeping the Braves from making a comeback in six strong innings of work. The Cardinals would win the game with some late runs, eliminating whatever hope remained in the Braves clubhouse. The Cardinals would complete the sweep and win their first World Series appearance since 1968.
Once again, John Stuper would see his name penciled in the number 2 spot in the World Series rotation. That is a lot of responsibility for a rookie with not even a complete season under his belt. The Brewers would get to Stuper early in game 2, but he battled and limited the damage, allowing the resilient Cardinals to mount a late comeback. Relievers Jim Kaat, Doug Bair and Bruce Sutter were spectacular in relief of the young right hander.
That brings us to game 6, where the World Series would ultimately be decided. The Brewers held a 3-2 lead as the series returned to St. Louis. The Milwaukee bombers were coming into St. Louis on a serious roll, winning the last two games. Add to that the disappointment of losing the heart and soul of the rotation in game three when Ted Simmons would hit a line drive off Joaquin Andujar’s knee, knocking the right hander out of the game. It was unlikely that Andujar would return in the series, or so we thought at the time.
This brings us to October 19, 1982 and our Atlas Award winner would take the mound on a rainy night with the Cardinals facing elimination. All hands were on deck and Stuper would be on a very short leash. One that Herzog would not need to use. Enduring not one, but two rain delays for a total of 2 1/2 hours, and a temperature drop of about 30 degrees, Stuper pitches the game of his career. He throws a complete game, 4 hitter. The only Brewers run came in the 9th inning when it was a 13-0 laugher and the clock was approaching 1AM. The Brewers did not manage a hit between a one out single in the second by Ted Simmons and a leadoff double in the ninth. That’s over four hours, including the weather delays. Herzog’s decision to keep Stuper in the game has been second guessed for nearly 30 years, but the young hurler had kept his pitch count low and he was working on a dominating shutout.
Even more important, Stuper’s amazing performance kept the Cardinals bullpen seated which gave Herzog plenty of options, should he need them in game seven. The huge home town crowd would be whipped into a frenzy when Joaquin Andujar makes a gutsy game seven start on a gimpy leg. With Harvey Keunn going to his bullpen often in game six, his options for game seven were limited and the Cardinals managed one more late inning comeback. Bruce Sutter would cement his Hall of Fame induction with a lights out ending to the game.
While game seven is a fan favorite, and it is available to watch in the MLB.com archive, it would not have happened if not for the heroic performance of John Stuper in game six. For that, I award John Stuper the Atlas Award for 1982.
While Stuper’s pitching career would be cut short due to injury, he has been involved in baseball ever since his playing days. He is now the manager at Yale and has put together an amazing record in his 17 years. To learn more about John Stuper, read Dustin Mattison’s excellent John Stuper: Always a Cardinal. It includes a nice interview with the former Cardinal hero.