For the first time since 1969, Cardinals fans had been optimistic about a return to post-season. The revolving door in the outfield had come to a stop with the acquisition of Reggie Smith and the future Rookie of the Year, Bake McBride. The Cardinals bullpen, led by the iconoclastic Al Hrabosky, was very good. If there was a vulnerability, it was in the rotation.
Yes, Cardinals fans now had a reason to look forward to the end of September. That was, until Bob Forsch made his major league debut.
July 7, 1974 – St. Louis at Cincinnati (double header)
Oh, there was nothing wrong with Forsch, he pitched brilliantly. He would a single run over four hits and would pitch into the seventh inning. The five walks were not so great, but Forsch was never known as a control or strikeout type. He certainly pitched well enough to win. Unfortunately, Tom Carroll and Will McEnaney of the Cincinnati Reds were just a little bit better, combining for a three hitter. The Cardinals would lose the game by the score of 2-1.
The day was not quite done, because there was a second game to be played that afternoon. It was one that we all would like to forget. It features one of the strangest lines in a box score you will ever see.
No, don’t try to figure this one out. It’s easier if I just tell you what happened. And it was a complete mess.
The young Cardinals right hander started the game by walking Pete Rose. He then hit Ken Griffey (Sr.) with a pitch. Unbelievably, he would then strike out Johnny Bench and get Dan Driessen to hit into an inning ending double play. For all of that drama, Thompson had kept the Big Red Machine off the scoreboard. For now.
The second inning started out much like the first. A walk, stolen base, another walk, wild pitch and then one more walk loaded the bases. That ended the day for poor Mike Thompson, even though he had not given up a single hit.
Rich Folkers, of the “Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen” fame, was now in to pitch. The first man he would face is Darrel Chaney. By comparison, Corey Patterson is a triple crown winning slugger. Chaney surprised everybody when he deposited a Folkers pitch over the fences for a grand slam. 11 major league seasons, a career .217 batting average – this would be Chaney’s only grand slam.
The first three runs were charged to Thompson, and that’s how you end up with that crazy line in the box score.
Don Gullett throws a complete game for Cincinnati, and was every bit as good as the Cardinals pitching was bad.
Unfortunately for the Cardinals and their fans, this double header sweep sent the club into a horrific tailspin. They would lose 13 of the next 14 games, the sole victory belonging to Bob Forsch, who threw a nifty 4 hit complete game shutout against the Braves. It was his second major league appearance – not bad.
July 20 – Houston at St. Louis
That brings us to July 20 – the third of a four game series between the visiting Houston Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals. The first two were just awful as the Astros rolled over a lifeless Cardinals offense. Those two games would be the 12th and 13th losses on this brutal stretch, and they would push the Cardinals 5 games under .500. The Redbirds would also fall to three games out of first place. Both were low points of the season.
In the early going, both pitchers, Alan Foster for the Cardinals and Dave Roberts for the Astros, were sharp.
The Cardinals would score the first run in the home half of the third inning. With one out, Lou Brock doubled, and would score on a Jerry DaVanon single. Roberts would follow that by hitting Bake McBride with a pitch, turning this into a very promising inning. But like has happened so often with the 2011 Cardinals, a rally came to an abrupt ending, thanks to a double play. This time it was a looping liner to center field off the bat of Reggie Smith. Astros centerfielder, Cesar Cedeno, made a good play on the ball, and was able to double up DaVanon, who was unable to get back to second base in time.
Alan Foster ran into a bit of trouble the following the inning. A Cardinals error (yes, I am still talking about 1974) put two men on with nobody out. Fortunately, the runner on first was Lee May, not a terribly fast runner. Milt May, no relation, hits a sharp grounder to Jerry DaVanon, and he throws out one May (Milt) at first base. Joe Torre is able to make the quick throw to second to get the other May (Lee) . A strange double play, but it prevented a huge inning. Sadly, not a scoreless one though as Doug Rader rips a single, scoring Bob Watson from third base.
In the sixth inning, a pair of one out doubles by Reggie Smith and Joe Torre give the Cardinals the lead again. A Mike Tyson single with two outs would extend that lead to 3-1. Could this horrific losing streak be coming to an end ?
Oh no, it wouldn’t be that easy. Not by a long shot.
Tiring late, Alan Foster comes unglued in the top of the eighth. The way the game is played today, Foster would never have stepped foot on the mound for this inning, but in the early 70s, the starters were also expected to be the finishers.
Singles by Roger Metzger and Bob Watson and a double by Cesar Cedeno tied the game at 3 runs apiece. After an intentional walk to set up a double play, Red Schoendienst goes to his bullpen for Rich Folkers. Milt May would bunt the two runners up a base. Red would counter by intentionally walking Doug Rader to get to Tommy Helms. That move backfires when Helms singles home Bob Watson. At this point, you could hear the Cardinals fans groan in agony, even if your radio was turned off. The Astros now lead 4-3, and the losing streak appears very much alive and well.
Into the game now is Orlando Pena, a 40 year old right hander who had started his career in 1958. Octavio Dotel, indeed. He gets the one man he faces, Cliff Johnson. Red goes to his bullpen again – whoa, look at Red channeling Tony La Russa, using a veteran ROOGY like that.
The next Cardinals reliever, the fourth pitcher of the inning, is Al Hrabosky, and Hungo immediately forces in a run with a bases loaded walk to Greg Gross. Gross, indeed. That’s all the Astros would get as Hrabosky fans Roger Metzger to end the inning. Ten Astros would come up to the plate, four would score. And the Astros had a frustratingly late 5-3 lead.
Red would again embrace his inner La Russa in the bottom of the inning. He would use both Ted Simmons and Tim McCarver as pinch hitters, hoping that the Cardinals offense could mount a late rally of their own. It did not happen, but Red made a smart move by keeping both in the lineup, Simmons behind the plate and McCarver down at first base.
Hrabosky is back in for the ninth inning, and he works a rather quiet one. Other than the bases loaded walk when he first came in the game, Hrabosky had been …. well, Hrabosky.
Down by two runs, and facing the flame throwing lefty, Mike Cosgrove, the Cardinals mount a most unexpected rally. Luis Melendez starts things off by hitting a ball over the head of everybody in the outfield. Not a big base stealer, Melendez had good speed and ended up at third base with a leadoff triple. Lou Brock would ground out, scoring Melendez. The lead had been cut in half, but the Cardinals were down to their last two outs.
Jerry DaVanon would walk, and move into scoring position on a single by Bake McBride. This is the best possible situation for the Cardinals as DaVanon had good speed, and McBride had exceptional speed.
Reggie Smith failed to add to his team leading .326 batting average when he flies out to right field. That was enough for manager, Preston Gomez, and he calls to the bullpen for the hard throwing right hander, Don Wilson. Wilson had been a big time starter for the Astros, but had recently started having control issues. They would plague him in this game as well as he walks Joe Torre to load the bases. With McBride at second base, a single will break the losing streak and send the Cardinals fans home in a frenzy.
Up to the plate steps Tim McCarver. This was McCarver’s second time with the Cardinals, and he had been used mostly as a pinch hitter. As he had done so many times with the Cardinals in their three NL Pennant winning seasons, he delivered the big hit. This time it was a single, scoring Jerry DaVanon with the tying run, and then Bake McBride with the game winner. Once McCarver made contact, we knew the game was over.
More important, the losing streak was over. We just didn’t know at the time how much over it was. Including this thrilling come from behind win, the Cardinals would win 10 of their next 11 games, and of 21 of their next 29. All of the damage done during the losing streak was gone. Following that ninth inning single by Tim McCarver, the Cardinals turned around their season and battled for the NL East title, all the way to the last inning of the regular season. And they almost made it.