Al Olmsted was a left handed pitcher that the Cardinals drafted in 1975. What makes Olmsted special is that he is one of a small number of St. Louis natives that have started a game for the team that they grew up watching.
Olmsted was an exciting young pitcher. While in the minor league system, he was being compared to Randy Jones, and that was quite a complement. The comparison was a good one though as both port-siders were control specialists. Neither had the velocity on the fastball to overpower anybody, but a combination of a good curveball, and in Olmsted’s case an equally effective screwball, and pinpoint control was enough to keep batters off balance. Jones would have back to back 20 win seasons with Padres and win a Cy Young award, so we were most eager to see Olmsted pitch with the Cardinals.
Perhaps more important is that Olmsted was part of a farm system overhaul, hoping to build a pipeline of top of the rotation pitchers. This program had already produced John Fulgham and Silvio Martinez. Andy Rincon and Danny Cox were not too far behind.
After a brilliant season with the Springfield Redbirds (AAA), Olmsted was called up when rosters expanded in September, 1980. New manager and general manager, Whitey Herzog, had spent the last few months touring the farm system to evaluate the talent in the minor leagues in preparation of a complete overhaul of the major league club. Al Olmsted might play an important role, so his performance in September 1980 was an audition for the 1981 season.
He would make his major league debut on September 12, 1980, in Philadelphia. He would pitch the second game of a double header. Pete Vukovich and John Urrea combined to beat the Phillies in game one behind a rather pleasant offensive outburst against Bob Walk and a pair of Phillies relievers. By Urrea earning a save in long relief, plus John Martin going eight strong innings the night before, the bullpen was well rested, in the event that that they would have to rescue young Olmsted. They didn’t.
Olmsted did not look like a rookie making his major league debut. And he certainly did not look like a 23 year old facing Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinksi for the first time.
Mike Schmidt would get the first hit off Olmsted. In the fourth inning. The second time through the order. He would not be the first Phillies base runner. Olmsted would hit Manny Trillo in the second inning, and then erase him when he coaxed an inning ending double play off the bat of Garry Maddox. He would also give up a walk in the third inning, but that runner would be stranded.
The second time through the Phillies order went about the same as the first time. Off speed breaking pitches were fooling the Phillies batters, and nothing was being hit hard.
The third time through the order was not quite as easy. Some of the veterans were starting to figure out Olmsted’s breaking stuff, and hitting it pretty hard. But that’s the thing with crafty left-handers, you never really figure them out – not all the time. The Phillies would get runners in scoring position in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. Each time, Olmsted would toughen, and the Phillies would strand those runners. He was particularly hard on the left-handed hitters.
With a quick 1-2-3 ninth inning, interim manager, Red Schoendienst, gave the ball back to Olmsted to start the 10th inning. Neither team had been able to score, and this game was going into extra innings. An impressive debut, to say the least.
After retiring pinch hitter Jay Loviglio to start the tenth inning, Olmsted walks Lonnie Smith. Smith is a sure threat to steal second base, so Red goes to his bullpen for the veteran, Jim Kaat. With Pete Rose at the plate, Lonnie Smith steals second base easily, and then goes on to third when Ted Simmons, just into the game replacing Terry Kennedy, throws the ball into center field. Kaat would then lose Rose to a walk, prompting Red to make another call to the bullpen. This time it would be the big right hander, John Littlefield.
Here is the pivotal moment in the game.
Not wanting to mess with Mike Schmidt, with a runner at third and less than 2 outs, Littlefield walks the Phillies slugger to get to Greg Luzinski. Luzinski does not run well, so if Littlefield can keep the ball down, maybe Luzinski might hit the ball on the infield where they can turn two. And that’s exactly what happens. Greg Luzinski grounds the ball to Tommy Herr at shortstop (that’s right, Tommy Herr) and he throws to Ken Oberkfell, who makes a great pivot and throw to complete the double play.
If you are too young to catch the significance of this, and how it relates to the current situation in St. Louis, Oberkfell would be the third baseman for White Herzog’s World Championship team in 1982. Tommy Herr would move over to second base and join Ozzie Smith as one of the best double play tandems in Cardinals history.
Now back to our game.
You know what is coming next, right ? With the Phillies having the winning run 90 feet from home plate and just one out, and the heart of the order coming up to bat – and they don’t score ? That’s a momentum shift on a galactic scale, and the Cardinals would immediately take advantage.
Ken Reitz would greet new reliever Ron Reed with a double to start the Cardinals 11th inning. Mike Ramsey would pinch run for Reitz. Ramsey had great speed, and Reitz had …. a good glove. John Littlefield would stay in the game, bunting Ramsey over to third. That would turn into a nightmare for the Phillies when Mike Schmidt was unable to field the ball, allowing both runners to be safe.
Ron Reed was clearly frustrated by the situation and the result was that he couldn’t find the strike zone. Randy Lerch would relieve Reed in the middle of Ken Oberkfell’s at-bat, but it was too late. Lerch would walk Obie, but that would be charged to Reed. It didn’t really matter because the bases were now loaded and the damage was already done. Tony Scott would follow that with a single, driving in Ramsey with the eventual winning run. Keith Hernandez would clear the bases with a triple, turning the 11th inning into a blowout. Hernandez would later score on a George Hendrick single. By the time the inning came to a close, the Cardinals held a 5-0 lead. Littlefield closed out the game, pitching like a man who had a 5 run lead.
Littlefield would earn the win in relief, but the real star of the game was Al Olmsted. The St. Louis native would not get a decision, but would pitch 9 1/3 innings, not allowing a single run. He would give up six hits, four walks and strike out four.
What an amazing debut.
Sadly, it would not last as arm troubles would cut the career of Al Olmsted short. He would only spend this one month in the major leagues, but that is not quite the end of the Olmsted story. He would soon be part of one of the biggest deals in Whitey Herzog’s tenure. He would be sent to San Diego as part of the Rollie Fingers trade. If you don’t remember, Fingers would be sent to Milwaukee a few days later, ending speculation that the Cardinals would enter the 1981 season with two future Hall of Fame closers, newly acquired Bruce Sutter being the other.
Olmsted would boomerang back to St. Louis a year later as the player to be named later in the Ozzie Smith/Garry Templeton deal, prior to the start of the 1982 season.
Arm injuries would keep Olmsted out of the majors for the rest of his career. When last seen, he was trying to resurrect his career in the Baltimore Orioles system, before a torn triceps and elbow ligament injury put an end to his comeback.