One of my favorite St. Louis sports commentators, Bernie Miklasz, is reporting that the Milwaukee Brewers were altering their starting rotation to send three left handers against the Cardinals for an important series starting on June 4, 2010. This is not the first time this has happened, nor is it a particularly huge gamble. If you want to see some real courage, take a look at June 26-29, 1967.
The Cardinals had just taken the lead for the first time since getting out of the gate quickly in 1967. Key to taking over the lead in the National League was a three game series on June 16-18 in San Francisco when the Cardinals took two of three from the Giants. Ray Washburn defeated former Cardinal Lindy McDaniel and the suddenly dominating Dick Hughes beats one of the best in baseball, Gaylord Perry. The lone game that the Cardinals lost was to veteran left hander, Joe Gibbon. Gibbon had been a starter earlier in his career, but was being used more often out the bullpen. In fact, Gibbon would make his last start in 1967, working exclusively in relief until he hung up his glove after the end of the 1972 season.
The first of the gambles played out in this series when Giants manager Herman Franks chose to skip Juan Marichal’s turn in the rotation to put a left hander in front of the Cardinals. The Cardinals had faced Marichal earlier in the season and had lit him up like a candle, but that was more the result of Marichal missing spring training on a contract holdout and trying to start the season without proper preparation. The real motivation for the switch was that the Redbird’s vulnerability to left handed pitching was being noticed around the league, and Franks chose to put that to the test. And the results were what he had hoped to see.
This brings us to an important four game home series against the Giants starting on June 26. While there is still a lot of baseball to be played, it is beginning to look like the Cardinals are running away with the National League pennant and this may be the Giants best chance to stop them and kickstart their own charge. From the earlier experience, Franks takes the chance of the year and sits Marichal again, opting to start lefties for three of the four games.
The lone Giant right hander would be Gaylord Perry and he would face Jim Cosman who was just called up to replace Ray Washburn. Washburn was injured late in his last start in Los Angeles when catcher Johnny Roseboro hit a line drive off his pitching hand and broke his thumb, requiring some delicate surgery to repair. Cosman had a brilliant debut in 1966, but was sent back to the minors when the rosters were trimmed down in May. While Cosman had pitched well to that point, his lack of control was become a concern and it was hoped that some time in Tulsa would help him straighten it out.
Cosman battled Perry for 8 1/3 innings, allowing just a single run. While the young right hander was in trouble most of the night, he seemed to be able to make the big pitched when needed. Cosman would only allow just four hits, but would give up 7 walks. To make the evening even more magical, Cosman would drive in the game winning run in his first at bat, scoring Ed Spezio with a two out single. Father of future Cardinal Scott Spezio, Ed would also drive in an insurance run later in the game.
The crowd would give Cosman a standing ovation when he was taken out of the game in the ninth inning, after putting the tying runs on base with walks. Manager Red Schoendienst wasn’t going to let the tiring kid lose the game and he called on Nelson Briles, who got the final two outs preserving the victory for Cosman. This was Cosman’s second career victory, and sadly his last.
It was a truly magical night in St. Louis. Unfortunately it would not last as the Franks gamble won big, although in retrospect it was more luck than a good plan.
Mike McCormick got the next start against a young Steve Carlton. McCormick would get the better of the battle of the lefties, throwing a complete game shutout. The Cardinals had their chances, but failed to hit with runners on base. Carlton didn’t make it out of the fifth inning, but it was a bullpen failure of Hal Woodeshick and Al Jackson that put the game out of reach.
Former Cardinals fan favorite, Ray Sadecki, got the next start against rookie phenomenon Dick Hughes. Sadecki threw a gem, just has he had so many times in his amazing 1964 season with the Redbirds. He would go the distance, allowing a single run on seven hits to go with eight strikeouts. Hughes had a rare bad outing, giving up six runs in just over three innings. Al Jackson, in long relief, didn’t fare much better and the Giants would win this in a blowout.
In the final game of the series, lefty Joe Gibbon would get another rare start, facing the best in the game, Bob Gibson. When the two managers made out their scorecards, neither could have imagined how this one would start. The first eight Giants would reach base against Gibson, six singles, a triple and an intentional pass. Gibbon would make the first out, failing to get a bunt down against a furious Gibson – that had to be a terrifying at bat. A pop out and another walk would end the day for the big right hander. Nelson Briles would come in for some long relief and the beating would continue as he would surrender three more two out hits, including a three run homer to Jim Ray Hart. When the dust settled the Giants had an eleven run lead.
So how would Franks’ lefty gamble work out this time ? Well, good and bad. The Cardinals would get some revenge in their first time at bat, getting consecutive hits from Lou Brock, Julian Javier, Curt Flood and former Giant, Orlando Cepeda. Franks, not wanting to let this lead slip away, goes to his bullpen for Bobby Bolin, a right hander who would have started this game had Franks not fiddled with his rotation. Bolin shuts down the Cardinals quickly and goes the distance, allowing just two additional runs in nine innings of relief.
Looking back at this series with the benefit of some historical perspective, the gamble paid off and turned out to be the right call. It had to be difficult to remove one of the best right handed pitchers in the game, Juan Marichal, not once but twice. If we are judging this managerial move solely on the results, consider that the Giants would have the second best record from this point until the end of the 1967 season. So, goal number 1 (kickstart a Giants pennant chase) accomplished. For goal number 2, the Giants won three of four from the first place Cardinals and stopped the Cardinals from widening their lead in the National League standings. Goal accomplished.
What they did not do was take the wind out of the Cardinals sails. While the Giants had the second best record in the National League down the stretch, it would be the Cardinals who put up the best record, finishing 58-35 including the three losses to the Giants. Mike McCormick would go on to have a brilliant season, winning the National League Cy Young Award. But it was the Cardinals who played in October and earned their second set of rings in the decade.
As we look forward to the Brewers visiting the now first place Cardinals, some historical perspective tells us that championship teams may be slowed down by an occasional lefty or two, but the only thing that can truly stop them is the last out in the World Series. Unless they win it with a walk off.