It has little to do with the fact that Edwin Jackson as been a steady contributor to the Cardinals rotation since the controversial deadline trade. It also has nothing to do with the fact that Roy Oswalt is still a good pitcher, but nowhere near the dominating force that he once was. There is something much bigger at work here, and we are not yet ready to understand all of it.
When a forest gets too overgrown, and the smaller trees and brush can no longer get the sunlight they need to survive, they die and threaten the entire forest. Along comes a storm, and a well placed lightning strike starts a fire that clears out the taller trees. While we stare at this event in horror, understand that it happens as part of an important cycle so that what was once a threat to the forest becomes a new source of nutrients, and the entire system renews itself to live another day.
When the ocean temperatures start to rise, a large hurricane or typhoon sweeps across the vast open waters and the resulting currents bring up cold water from the depths of the ocean and reestablish the perfect balance once again. OK, I am totally making that one up, all I really have is the forest analogy.
If the Cardinals do not win Game Four of the 2011 NLDS, the entire baseball world will be denied one of the greatest pitching matchups in recent memory. Of course, I am talking about Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter. Both were teammates in Toronto, and they could face each other in Philadelphia on Friday night. I haven’t been this excited for a pitching pairing since ……
Denny McLain vs Bob Gibson – 1968 World Series Game One
Sure, former Cy Young Award winners have faced each other – there’s nothing terribly special about that. But this was different. This was a clash of titans, two of the best that the game had ever seen. They were not only Cy Young Award winners, both had won their respective league’s Most Valuable Player award. These two men were so dominating, the league introduced a rule change for the following season, lowering the mound six inches, just to give the hitters a fighting chance. Gibson and McLain rewrote the history books. The 24 year old Denny McLain versus the 32 year old Bob Gibson. Apprentice versus the master.
McLain was the last 30 game winner in the game. He would take the mound 41 times, completing what he started 28 times. He routinely started on just three days rest, a few times an unthinkable 2 days. His 6 shutouts led to a league leading 1.96 ERA. The big right hander threw for a league leading 336 innings, and if not for Sam McDowell, who could strike out players he wasn’t even pitching against, McClain’s 280 strikeouts would have given him the pitching triple crown. Yes, he was that good.
Oh Gibson, he was pretty good too. 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA (yes, those two numbers don’t really work together). He was never taken out of a game while on the mound. Six times he left, all for pinch hitters or a game that was going into extra innings. 13 shutouts, 304 innings pitched, and a league leading 268 strikeouts.
If you ask any baseball fan about the best pitchers in the late 60s, the names Gibson and McLain will surely be the answer. Koufax and Drysdale’s careers were done, Seaver was just starting his. Neither Fergie Jenkins nor Juan Marichal got the respect they deserved, so it fell upon these two to represent their leagues, and they did. In an era before free agency and interleague play, Games One and Four of the 1968 World Series were the only times they would face each other.
Was it as good as we hoped ? No, it was better.
Both pitchers had brought their A+ game to this historic matchup. There was one difference between the two, and it turned out to be the difference in the game.
As he had done in 1967, Bob Gibson deviated from the scouting reports. The Tigers knew that he had an electric fastball, and the few players that had faced him confirmed that to those who hadn’t. What the scouting reports didn’t say was that his slider was just as effective, if not more so. And he had a wicked curve and changeup that he could throw for strikes. Throughout the game he showed his fastball, often up and in or low and away, in places where it was not going to be hit. In fastball counts, he came back with a slider that was just unhittable. The biggest surprise was a curveball that looked like it just rolled off a table. The Tigers hitters, just as the Red Sox batters a year earlier, were unprepared for that, and the result was a dominating shutout, and a record setting 17 strikeouts.
The part of the story that has been lost is how good McLain was in this game. Where Gibson had plenty of weapons at his disposal, McLain had just two: a fastball and changeup. The key to his success was living at the very top of the strike zone where hitters could not lay off the pitches, while at the same time were unable to reach them with the big parts of the bat. Perhaps in anticipation of another upcoming rule change, or maybe just another of the little difference in the two leagues, home plate umpire Tom Gorman (NL) did not give McLain the high strike. In his defense, Gorman was consistent with both pitchers, but McLain did not have anything else to fall back on.
Not that he didn’t try.
When it became clear that he wasn’t going to get the high strike, McLain started bring his pitches down, and they were hit hard. Very hard. Since his secondary pitchers were truly secondary, he went back up to the top of the zone. By the fourth inning, the second time through the order, the Cardinals had figured this out too, and were content to wait until he gave in. The result were a pair of important walks and then he gave into Mike Shannon and Julian Javier, and they both singled. That made the score 3-0, and the way Gibson was pitching, the game was over.
Tigers manager, Mayo Smith, made a very smart move in removing McLain after five innings of work. It was clear that he was never going to get that high strike, and he needed it to be effective. Rather than make an already frustrating outing turn ugly, he sat McLain so that he would be fresh for the rematch, in Detroit. He did get the high strike in that game, and Cardinals hitters were waiting for it. McLain did not make it out of the third inning as the Cardinals routed the Tigers, 10-1, taking a 3-1 lead in the series.
Could a possible Game Five of the NLDS come close to this ? Perhaps. The age difference isn’t quite as great, but supplementing that is the intrigue of former teammates combined with their respective competitive fire. More than a decisive game of a playoff sereis, this one will be for eternal bragging rights, and that always makes for some great baseball.
That is why Edwin Jackson will win Game Four. Anything else will deprive baseball fans of this much needed game. Don’t be surprised if some unknown force swoops down and just makes this happen.