The Cardinals entered the 1968 season with very high expectations. There were very few changes from their World Series Championship team, the most notable being Nelson Briles replacing the injured Dick Hughes in the starting rotation. Expectations would get even higher when the Cardinals would get off to a quick start, racing to a 20-10 record after a dominating 4 hit shutout by Steve Carlton on May 15.
The Cardinals would hit a bit of an early season slump, going 2-11 over the next 13 games, including losing six of seven games against the Philadelphia Phillies. Six of the eleven losses were by one run including two 1-0 heart breakers against the Phils. The low point of the 1968 series would be in the last of these games, on May 29. After losing the first of a three game series with the San Francisco Giants, Nelson Briles and Juan Marichal would hook up in one of the better pitching duels. Marichal and the Giants would prevail in the nail biter by a score of 2-1 and the Cardinals would fall all the way to fifth place, 3 games behind the Giants. Fortunately this slump would come to an end as Steve Carlton would win the final game of the series, defeating former Cardinals favorite Ray Sadecki 6-0. This would get the Cardinals going and they would win 13 of their next 15 games and taking a 4 game lead in the National League. This is closest that the Giants or any other team would get to the Cardinals for the remainder of the 1968 regular season.
This brings us to June 18 and an important three game series against the Chicago Cubs. All eyes were on the last game which would feature Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins, but there was plenty of baseball to play before then.
In the first game, Nelson Briles would face Bill Hands. Hands was a tall right hander that was on the verge of becoming a force for the Cubs. He would finish the season with a 16-10 record, improve to 20-14 in 1969 and finally 18-15 in 1970. Hands entered this game with a solid 6-2 record and an ERA well under 3. He would pitch seven strong innings, making only one bad pitch. Substituting for an injured Roger Maris, Bobby Tolan would lead off the bottom of the fifth inning with a home run. It would be the only run scored in the game. Briles pitches gem for the Cardinals, finishing with complete game shutout, one of four he would throw in 1968.
The Cubs had their chances, but ran themselves out of several good scoring opportunities. Twice they would be victims of a strikeout-caught stealing double play, the worst being in the fourth inning. With runners at first and third and nobody out, Ron Santo would strike out with Billy Williams running on the pitch. Glenn Beckert broke from third on the double steal and the Cardinals anticipated it with Dick Schofield throwing out Beckert in a 2-4-2 caught stealing. A weak groundout to the shortstop killed that first Cubs rally. Ron Santo would be the victim again in the sixth inning as he would strike out and Don Kessinger would be thrown out trying to steal third base, ending another rally. Ron Santo was having a really tough day at the plate.
This is the kind of game that we had come to expect from Briles since filling in for Bob Gibson last July. Briles would finish the season with a 19-11 record, but this was one of his best pitched games of 1968.
As good as this game was, it was nothing like the next two.
Two big lefties would face off in the second game. Steve Carlton (7-1) would get the start for the Cardinals against Rich Nye (4-6). Unfortunately for the Cubs, Nye would not make it out of the fourth inning. The Cardinals would break the game open in the third. Lou Brock and Julian Javier would start the inning with singles. Curt Flood would hit the ball to deep short and they had no chance to double up the speedy center fielder, taking the force out at second. Orlando Cepeda would follow that up with a 3 run homer. The top of the order would again get to Nye in the next inning. With two outs, Brock would double and score on a Javier single. That would chase Nye and former Cardinal Jack Lamabe and future Redbird Chuck Hartenstein would close things down in relief.
Meanwhile Carlton was breezing through the Cubs batting order. In the second inning, Carlton would hit Lou Johnson with a pitch. Glenn Beckert would lead off the fourth inning with a single. Billy Williams would force Beckert at second base and Ron Santo would end the inning with a double play. Santo was not having a very good series. The only other Cubs runner would be on a 2 out error by Julian Javier in the fifth inning. Carlton would retire the next 13 batters for a mesmerizing 1 hitter, striking out 9 and walking none.
How can you top a Carlton 1 hitter ? A Fergie Jenkins/Bob Gibson pitching duel. And this one did not disappoint. Jenkins had brought his A game as he tried to prevent the series sweep at the hands of Cardinals. Unfortunately his opponent was Bob Gibson and this was 1968 and Gibson had an A+ game. Both pitchers were stingy with hits, Gibson giving up 5 and Jenkins just 4. Two of the Cardinal hits would come in the third inning. After striking out the first two batters, Lou Brock would triple and Curt Flood follows with an RBI single for the only run in the game. While most of the Cardinal hitters were struggling in 1968, Flood was hot as a St. Louis summer, going 2-3 in this game and increasing his batting average to a cool .322.
In a couple of weeks, the Cardinals would put the pennant out of reach with a devastating 13-1 stretch against Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston. Perhaps more important was this sweep of the Cubs at home because it finally shook off that 2-11 slump in mid-May and reminded the Cardinals that they can beat anybody in this league. More than a sweep, it was three consecutive shutouts. It’s always fun to beat the Cubs, but not allowing a run in three home games was the high point of the 1968 season.