Or, perhaps this should be titled, “The Greatest Cardinals Pitching Performance Ever”. Too strong ? Let’s talk about it and see what you think.
Oh, who pitched it ? The guy you least expected ……
Yes, that Jose DeLeon. The one that couldn’t get out of the 7th inning. The one that lost 19 games not once, but twice. Yes, that Jose DeLeon.
A Rookie for the Ages
Jose DeLeon was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1979 amateur draft. He would have been the equivalent of a high school draftee in the US. The big right hander progressed through the Pirates minor league system, pretty much on schedule. His record tells two rather different tales: he was a strikeout machine but when the opponents hit him, they really hit him.
In July 1983, DeLeon was enjoying the best season of his professional career, posting an 11-6 record with the Hawaii Islanders (AAA). He was also carrying a career low ERA of 3.04. The young right-hander was still managing about a strikeout per inning, but his control was getting better and fewer batters were able to get hits. Those that did were staying in the ballpark with greater regularity.
In the middle of July, the Pirates were facing a scheduling nightmare. They had already played two double headers and were staring in the face of three more over the next two weeks. Manager Chuck Tanner had no choice but to go with a 6 man rotation to get past this rough spell. That created an opportunity for DeLeon, and he seized every single moment of it.
His first start on July 23, 1983 was an impressive win over the San Francisco Giants. 8 innings, 4 hits, just two runs (all earned). Add to that 9 strikeouts and it was quite a debut. There was wildness, more the case of nibbling than just totally missing the strikezone.
If that were not enough, his second start against the Padres a few days later was even better. A complete game, allowing 4 hits and just a single run. Still a nice strikeout total of 7, but he managed to cut his walks in half, down to 2 in this start. Two starts, two impressive wins. The best was yet to come.
DeLeon’s next start was on July 31 at New York. It was the second game of the last double header that forced the Pirates to go with an extended rotation. If DeLeon planned to stay in the big leagues, this would be the time to impress. And impress he did. Positively eye-popping. How about 9 scoreless innings allowing just one hit, a one out single by Hubie Brooks in the bottom of the ninth inning. That’s right, DeLeon was two outs from a no-hitter in his third major league appearance.
Well, that’s not quite true. Unfortunately for DeLeon, he was hooked up with former Cardinals prospect, Mike Torrez who was throwing a gem of his own. Neither pitcher had allowed a run, but until Hubie Brooks came to the plate in the ninth, DeLeon had not surrendered a hit. Along the way he collected 11 strikeouts.
Most young pitchers would get disappointed and fall apart when losing a no-hitter that late in the game. Not DeLeon. He got Keith Hernandez, one of the better left-handed hitters in the game, to hit into an inning ending double play.
Both pitchers would turn things over to their respective bullpens and the Mets would go on to win the game in the 12th inning, but the star of the night was Jose DeLeon. If there was any doubt about him staying with the Pirates, he had just erased it.
DeLeon would lose his next two starts, running his record to 2-2. He would then win his next four, including another dominating complete game shutout against the Cincinnati Reds on August 20. In that game he gave up just two hits and struck out 13 batters.
September wouldn’t be as kind to the young hurler as his control started to get away from him on occasion, but a complete game shutout against the Expos on September 16 helped take the sting out of those 5 walks he issued. Another important trend was the he was staying away from the homer bug. For a pitcher that doesn’t get many ground balls, the home run is generally what does them in. So far, DeLeon had been able to stay away from that.
When the 1983 season came to a close, DeLeon compiled an impressive set of numbers. He finished the season with a 7-3 record and an ERA of 2.83. In 108 innings of work, he struck out 118 batters – nearly 10 per game. Even though he played for less than half a season, he pitched well enough to get a few votes for Rookie of Year.
Curiously, this was the last time DeLeon would post a winning record until joining the Cardinals in 1988.
Born Under a Bad Sign ?
After such a great rookie season, expectations were high for DeLeon in 1984. And he pitched well, not quite as well as in ’83, but certainly well enough to have a better record than he did.
For an example we need to look no further than July 31, 1984.
In the 4th inning, a lead-off walk to Steve Sax gave DeLeon the mother of all hard luck losses. Sax would steal second base and then move to 3rd on a fly ball deep to left field. That’s another problem with fly ball pitchers, a grounder on that side of the infield doesn’t usually move the runner. Another fly ball and Steve Sax scores a run. One run, no hits, no errors.
In the seventh inning, DeLeon would give up the only Dodgers hit in the game. It was a one out home run to Kenny Landreaux. 2-0 Dodgers. Alejandro Pena, the Dodgers starter, wasn’t helping as he throws a complete game shutout.
One hit and DeLeon takes a loss. But it gets far worse.
On August 7, he would give up 4 hits and 2 runs and lose to the St. Louis Cardinals. The next time out, 4 hits and lose to the Mets.
The worst of the bunch came on August 24, at home against the Cincinnati Reds. DeLeon retires the first 18 batters. That’s right, he’s taking a perfect game into the seventh inning, which would be one of the most nightmarish things you could imagine.
It would start with a leadoff walk, ending the perfect game bid. DeLeon would then boot a bunt attempt, putting two runners on base. Former Pirate Dave Parker would get the only hit off DeLeon, an RBI single. Now the no-hitter and shutout are gone. DeLeon tries to pick off the runner at third and throws wildly, allowing another run to score. Just one hit and he was down 2-0.
As with Alejandro Pena before, Jeff Russell was throwing a gem for the Reds and would not allow a run. Another 1 hitter and another hard luck loss.
Things would go from bad to worse in 1985. It seemed that nothing DeLeon did went right, except for striking out opposing batters. There was a pattern developing with the right-hander, but coaches were totally missing it. It would become painfully obvious later in his career (and that is a pun, but you had to see DeLeon pitch to understand it).
He would finish the 1985 season with a horrific 2-19 record, even after spending nearly a month back in AAA (where he would post a 4-0 record with an ERA less than 1). When asked about DeLeon’s performance, the reply in unison was that he was the best pitcher to lose 19 games anybody had ever seen.
He would fare no better after he was traded to the Chicago White Sox midway through the 1986 season. I’ll bet the Chisox wish they could have a do-over on that deal. They sent a youngster named Bobby Bonilla to the Pirates for DeLeon. Yes, that Bobby Bonilla, a 6 time All Star for the Pirates and Mets. And the same Bobby Bonilla who’s injury gave another youngster an opportunity to play in the bigs – a pretty good hitter by the name of Albert Pujols.
In 1988, the Cardinals were looking for some right handed pitching depth to back up an aging Bob Forsch and an injury prone Danny Cox. They made a deal with the White Sox and sent Lance Johnson and Rick Horton to Chicago for Jose DeLeon. Like the White Sox and Pirates before them, they couldn’t believe a pitcher with that kind of arm could lose as many games as he did. Perhaps all he needed was a change in scenery.
Initially the deal worked out well for the Cardinals. DeLeon would go 13-10 in 1988 and then a career high 16-12 record in 1989. It is in this 1989 season that he pitched the game of the decade. Or couple of decades.
August 30, 1989 Cincinnati at St. Louis.
It had been 4 years since DeLeon lost that 1 hitter to the Reds. And this was a different, somewhat more confident Jose DeLeon. His opponent would be Rick Mahler, a right hander that came out of the Braves farm system and was now pitching for the Reds. Like DeLeon, Mahler couldn’t buy his way to a .500 or better record if he had all the gold at Fort Knox.
DeLeon would start the game on fire. He would retire the first 10 Reds batters before Luis Quinones hit a line drive that right fielder Tom Brunansky just couldn’t get to. It was just the 4th inning – Bruno and the Cardinals fans in attendance had no idea how significant that play was.
DeLeon didn’t appear rattled by the hit. He closed out the inning by getting Eric Davis to hit into a double play.
Meanwhile Mahler was in trouble all night. It seemed every inning there was a runner in scoring position, but somehow the Cardinals failed to get the key hit to drive one of them in. But Mahler isn’t the story here, nor is the anemic Cardinals offense.
For the next 90 minutes, Jose DeLeon put on a pitching clinic. Remember that he had already retired the first 10 men before the Quinones single. Including the Eric Davis double play to end the fourth, DeLeon would retire the next 22 batters. No, that is not a typographical error.
Jose DeLeon would not allow another base runner for 7 innings. After completing the 11th inning, DeLeon would be lifted for a pinch hitter and the game would be turned over to Todd Worrell. Worrell would lose the game in the 13th inning, but all we remember about that game was DeLeon’s performance.
Courtesy of baseball-reference.com, here is Jose DeLeon’s line on this remarkable game.
This was an unbelievable pitching performance. And as it had been for most of his career, DeLeon walked away from it with a no-decision.
The Painful Ending
What we learned while watching DeLeon pitch was that he had problems after about 70 pitches. One thought was that he gripped his curveball so tightly so that when it tumbled out of his hand, it would rub his fingers raw. We would frequently see him wipe his pitching hand on his pants in late innings, leaving a streak of blood. That was generally followed by a series of curveballs that floated instead of breaking, and that would be the end of DeLeon’s evening.
I truly believe that if DeLeon pitched today in Tony La Russa’s data heavy pitch count monitoring system, he would be a superstar. He might only go 6 innings, but would win 25 games in the process. He also might lead the league in strikeouts. And walks.
What an amazing talent that just couldn’t seem to get a break. Yes, count me in with the group that says he’s the best losing pitcher that they’ve ever seen play the game. He was the Al Jackson of the 1980s.