As I was enjoying Chris Reed’s inaugural article for I-70 Baseball, When Will David Freese Run Out Of Chances?, I couldn’t help but think back of another player from the late 70’s that had a similar run-in with bad karma. That young man was Silvio Martinez, a little right-hander that looked like a slight breeze might blow off the mound, but possessed one of the liveliest arms of his era. Before reading any farther, place a pillow under your chin. When you hear what he did in his rookie season, I wouldn’t want you to get hurt when your jaw drops all the way to the floor.
Looking for an ace
With the departure of Steve Carlton (make sure and read Christine Coleman’s Baseball Digest birthday article) and the decline and subsequent retirement of Bob Gibson, the Cardinals were seeking some new arms to take them back to post-season. They would start with a pair of hurlers they picked up in a trade with the Boston Red Sox during the winter meetings of 1973. The Cardinals sent pitchers Reggie Cleveland and Diego Segui along with a backup third baseman named Terry Hughes to Boston for pitchers Lynn McGlothen, John Curtis and Mike Garman. Cleveland was sort of a Kyle Lohse hurler, never over-powering but could eat lots of innings. He’d had a couple of good years with the Cardinals but it was clear that he was never going to be anything more than a 4th or 5th starter. Segui was a veteran that had pitched out of the bullpen and the Cardinals had used him as a closer. With a young Al Hrabosky over-matching National League hitters, Segui became expendable.
McGlothen was the real prize, and we were surprised the Red Sox parted with him quite so easily. When he broke into the major leagues, he had struggled at first but had also shown some overpowering stuff. We believed a year or two under the guidance of Bob Gibson might turn McGlothen into a genuine ace of the staff. He started off the 1974 season on fire, pitching just as we’d hoped. A fade during the summer plus some some injury troubles soon sent McGlothen off to another team. Lefty John Curtis had a similar fate. After a decent season in 1974, a rough stretch in June 1975 sent the portsider to the bullpen. He’d actually pitched well, and this move might not have happened on a better Cardinals team, but it did make room for some more starters to audition for staff ace.
Bob Forsch and a young tall right-hander named John Denny would be the next to try. At first it looked like the Cardinals had hit pay dirt with those two. Forsch would start eating up lots of innings, but Denny was the head turner. He would lead the league in ERA with a miniscule 2.52 in 1976, but an injury suffered in a game in June 1977 interrupted his progress. He would return with a vengeance in 1978, shutting down the opposition with another sub-3.00 ERA. He would be dealt to the Cleveland Indians prior to the start of the 1980 season, but would eventually return to the National League and haunt his old ball club, winning the NL Cy Young award with Philadelphia in 1983.
A pair of aces
1978 produced a pair of pleasant surprises for the Cardinals, and a third that help propel them to the World Series. The first was a big hard throwing right hander named Pete Vukovich. He’d come up through the White Sox organization, finally dominating the American Association (AAA) in 1975. To add a bit of irony, one of Vukovich’s teammates was future Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. Vukovich started in the bullpen and got the occasional spot start for the White Sox in 1976. He was selected by Toronto in the 1977 expansion draft, and pitched in a similar capacity for the Blue Jays. The Cardinals made a deal for Vukovich during the winter meetings in 1977 and became a stud in the Cardinals rotation. His mediocre record did not reflect the way he was starting to dominate National League hitters aided by an all star infield of Ken Reitz, Garry Templeton, Mike Tyson and Keith Hernandez. Vukovich would continue to improve, especially after the 1980 trade that sent him, Rollie Fingers and Ted Simmons to the Milwaukee Brewers. For two years, Vukovich would be the best pitcher in either league, turning in a combined record of 32-10. Where the infield helped Pete in St. Louis, the gargantuan bats of the Brewers turned him into a Cy Young Award winner in 1982.
The bigger pitching surprise was a young right hander that pitched the game of his life as the Cardinals were making a deal to acquire right fielder, George Hendrick. The trade sent struggling starter Eric Rasmussen to the Padres, which opened up a spot for Silvio Martinez. In his final minor league start before being called up, Martinez throws a no hitter against the Omaha Royals. We didn’t actually learn this until much later, which makes what happens next even more amazing.
On May 30, 1978, Martinez would make his Cardinals debut against one of the better left handers in the league, Jerry Koosman. After winning 21 games in 1976, Koosman’s fortunes with the Mets had taken a severe downturn, in spite of him pitching well. Koosman would be traded for future closer Jesse Orosco following the 1978 season, but he still had some baseball left to pitch. For the next two hours, nobody paid any attention to Koosman. Martinez would be the man of the hour(s).
Generally a rookie’s debut, even if he had spent a small bit of time in the majors previously, doesn’t make news. It still doesn’t prevent us fans from taking a keen interest, hoping this might be the start of a bright future. As Martinez gets through the Mets lineup the first time without a hit, our interest became more than just curiosity. As each inning passed, our ears got closer and closer to the radio and we found ourselves hanging on every pitch. Had we known what had happened four days earlier against the Royals AAA farm team, we might have gone crazy with each pitch.
The second time through the Mets order, and still nothing in the hit column. The pressure on Martinez was mounting as he kept the ball on the corner of the plate, occasionally missing just a bit too far. The Mets had some base runners via the walk, but all were erased by double plays or happened with two outs. Meanwhile, Koosman was struggling mightily, and the Cardinals had a big 4-0 lead. It could have been much bigger as some bad base running had ended a potentially wicked sixth inning rally.
Perhaps the worst thing for Martinez happened in the top of the 7th inning. A monstrously long inning as the Cardinals sent 8 men to the plate against reliever Butch Metzger, including newcomer George Hendrick’s first home run as a Cardinal, extended the Cardinals lead to 8-0. When Martinez took the mound for the seventh inning, he grooved a pitch to Mets cleanup hitter Steve Henderson and the big left fielder deposited the ball over the fence for a solo home run. Martinez had lost the no-hitter and the shutout on that one pitch. It clearly rattled Martinez and he walked the next batter, former Cardinals prospect, Willie Montanez. He regained his composure and finished the inning with a pair of harmless fly outs and a ground ball out.
Martinez would retire the side in order in the 8th inning. All that stood between him and a complete game, and his first career win was the heart of the Mets order. And Steve Henderson. With one out, Martinez keeps the ball away from the only man that had a hit on him, and he ended up walking the Mets left fielder. Tiring, he gets a little bit wild, and a pitch that got past catcher Ted Simmons allowed Henderson to advance to second. This turned out to be a big play because Willie Montanez followed that with what would have been the game ending double play if Henderson was still on first base. The Cardinals would only get the batter out and Henderson would advance to third on the play. Another wild pitch allowed Henderson to score the second run of the game. Martinez would finally get out of the inning without surrendering any more hits or runs.
A complete game 1 hitter is a pretty good way to start off a career. But it gets so much better.
Apparently, one is not the loneliest number
Martinez’s next start in Houston was another solid outing. Not quite the one hitter as his first start, but in 6 2/3 innings, he allowed just 2 runs and Buddy Schultz would finish the game for a long save, preserving the win for Martinez. Unfortunately, Martinez would struggle in his next 6 starts, but the Cardinals would manage to go 2-4, coming from behind in one game, and just not bailing Martinez out of a good start in another.
That brings us to July 8, and a Saturday night game in Pittsburgh. Pirates shortstop Frank Taveras leads off the game with a comebacker to Martinez that he cleanly fields for the first out. The next man, Omar Moreno – who was only hitting .224 at the time, singles up the middle. At this point, Martinez’s recent struggles were more in our minds than the masterful debut in New York. That would all change as Martinez rolled through the rest of the Pittsburgh batting order, not allowing another hit. Like Ray Washburn’s no-hitter in 1968, Martinez nibbled rather than giving into the Pirates hitters and walked more batters than you would like to see, but none of them managed to cross the plate. The Cardinals would win the game, 4-0 giving Martinez his third career win and second complete game 1-hitter.
Two can be as good as one
Three weeks later, on a getaway afternoon game in San Francisco, Martinez would throw another gem. He would hold the Giants hitless until the bottom of the sixth inning. Terry Whitfield and Darrell Evans would hit doubles in the inning for the only Giants hits in the game. With the score tied at one run apiece, Martinez helped his own cause by laying down a nice sacrifice bunt after Ken Oberkfell had reached base on an error. Lou Brock would drive in Oberkfell for the winning run as Martinez held on to complete the 2-hitter.
Martinez would continue to be Jekyll and Hyde for the remainder of the season, including two horrific blowouts in late August and early September where he didn’t even get out of the second inning. Even with these troubles, Martinez saved his best for his last start of the season. Ironically, it would be against the Mets, whom he had one-hit earlier in the season. When catcher John Stearns singled in the second inning, we didn’t think anything of it. We thought even less when he was erased on a failed hit-and-run. That all ended when the Cardinals got to starter Kevin Kobel in the seventh inning. Who should relieve Kobel ??? That’s when things got weird as Jerry Koosman came into the game, the starter in Martinez’s earlier one-hitter. Just like before, late in the game, Steve Henderson managed a single off Martinez, although this one stayed in the park. He would be retired on a nice double play with no more damage done. When the game was over, Martinez had completed a nifty 2-hit shutout for his 9th win on the season.
Let’s put all of this together. In four complete games, Martinez allowed just a total of six hits (2 one-hitters and 2 two-hitters). On one other complete game, he was hit hard, but a huge offensive showing by the Cardinals kept him in the game for the win.
With the emergence of Pete Vukovich and this remarkable rookie season from Martinez, the fortunes of the Cardinals looked very bright.
He wouldn’t do it again, would he ?
A confident and improved Silvio Martinez took the mound for the Cardinals in 1979. And the results were most impressive. No longer was Martinez nibbling on the corners, he was going right after hitters. And retiring them. Just ask the Montreal Expos, who fell to Martinez on June 27. When Duffy Dyer stepped into the plate with 2 outs in the 8th inning, he looked up at the scoreboard and saw a 0 in the hit column. The Expos had only managed a single base runner, Andre Dawson when Lou Brock misplayed a fly ball into a 2 base error in the first inning. Martinez had flirted with a no hitter several times in his career, but none as close as this – and we were all holding our breath. That’s when Dyer would lift a bloop over the head of Keith Hernandez, ending the no-hitter. Martinez retired the next four batters to complete his 3rd one-hitter, in just over a year of pitching.
Martinez would finish his 1979 season on a strong note. He would put up a 15-8 record with career lows in ERA and walks per nine innings. We could not wait to see what he was going to do in 1980.
Bad karma, circa 1980
This is where the David Freese comparison comes into play.
One look at this 1981 photo of Silvio Martinez will tell you all you need to know about the young pitcher.
After every season, he would return to his home in the Dominican Republic. That’s when bad things would happen to him, and it started prior to the 1980 season. He would report to spring training, and then lose two weeks suffering from pneumonia. Not only did it affect his spring training, he struggled early in the season. Martinez just did not look right when he pitched, and even though he turned in a couple of great outings, he would be moved to the bullpen in May, hoping that the reduced workload might help him get back into shape. Things took a turn for the worse when he went back into the rotation and struggled, eventually missing a month and a half on the disabled list with arm and back troubles. He never got back on track, and his August was just awful. The season would end on a low note, with a 5-10 record and an ERA approaching 5 runs per game. Does this sound familiar —- Kyle Lohse-like ?
Sadly, his troubles continued in 1981. Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article on March 2, 1981
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., March 1— Silvio Martinez, maintaining he is “healthy now” following a 1980 season during which the right-hander was plagued by injuries, reported two days late today to the training camp of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Martinez, whose arrival was delayed by passport problems in his homeland, the Dominican Republic, was slowed last spring by pneumonia upon arriving at camp. The illness kept him out of action for nearly two weeks. Afterward, Martinez was bothered during the season by elbow and back ailments. “I didn’t feel good all year,” the 25-year-old hurler said today.
Martinez would struggle in 1981, just as he had most of 1980. Just as it looked like he was turning a corner, more bad luck for the little right-hander. After a quality start against San Diego on June 4, Martinez would take the mound against the Dodgers on June 11. In the seventh inning, a single by Dusty Baker (oh, the irony of Dusty Baker mentioned with a struggling pitcher) caused Whitey Herzog to go to his bullpen. Bruce Sutter would preserve the win for Martinez, but after battling sickness, injury and immigration troubles, baseball would become his foe. The long stoppage due to the players strike couldn’t have come at a worse time, and it really impacted Martinez’s progress. He would start just six more games in his career, and while the Cardinals would bail him out 4 times, he would not record another win. He would finish the year with a disappointing 2-5 record and an ERA of almost 4 runs per game.
Following the 1981 season, the 26 year old pitcher would be part of a three team deal that brought Lonnie Smith the Cardinals. Martinez would end up with the Cleveland Indians, but would never make it back to the big leagues. After just 4 starts in AAA, Martinez would be out of baseball.
While it is a sad ending to a promising career, we still have to remember that in his short time in St. Louis, he excited crowds as he flirted with several no-hitters, coming agonizingly close in 1979. Silvio Martinez should always be remembered as a little guy with a big arm. And some really bad luck.