As the St. Louis Cardinals closed out a somewhat disappointing 2010 season against the Colorado Rockies, a group of unsuspecting hurlers found themselves chasing a bit of fascinating Cardinals history. Jake Westbrook, Kyle Lohse and Jeff Suppan held the Rockies scoreless over the last three games, until Dexter Fowler led off the 8th inning with a solo home run off Fernando Salas, ending the consecutive scoreless inning streak at 30 1/3. It was the sixth longest such streak in the major leagues this season (courtesy of Derrick Goold).
One pitch away from three consecutive shutouts against the same team. So close. Has this ever happened before in Cardinals history ? Well, of course it has.
In 1995, the Florida Marlins shut out the Cardinals three consecutive games on July 9, and then continuing in the next series on July 28 and 29. The shutout streak ended when Bernard Gilkey doubled home Jose Oquendo with 2 outs in the 8th inning in the final game of the series. The Cardinals would go on to lose the game, but at least they had crossed the plate. Bobby Witt vs Mike Morgan – ahhhh, the good times. Fortunately for Cardinals fans, Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan would take over the next season and the Cardinals would return to their winning ways.
What the Cardinals had hoped to do to the Rockies had been done to them by the Pittsburgh Pirates to end the 1976 season. The Cardinals entered the final weekend series in Pittsburgh with a disappointing 72-87 record. John Candeleria, Jim Rooker and former Cardinal Jerry Reuss shutout out the Cardinals in all three games. While the first game was over shortly after it started, the last two were absolute gems with just a single run scored in both. An error by a young Keith Hernandez spoiled an outstanding effort by John Denny in the middle game, while the final game came down to the last batter of the season. A walk, stolen base and then a 2 out single by Tony Armas spoiled the Pete Falcone gem, giving the Pirates the sweep and consolation prize for coming in second, 9 games behind the their cross-state rivals in Philadelphia.
Now that the bad stuff is out of the way, let’s look back at 1968 and a very special series against the Cardinals archrivals, the Chicago Cubs.
The Cardinals entered the 1968 season with very high expectations. There were very few changes from their World Series Championship team, the most notable being Nelson Briles replacing the injured Dick Hughes in the starting rotation. Expectations would get even higher when the Cardinals would get off to a quick start, racing to a 20-10 record after a dominating 4 hit shutout by Steve Carlton on May 15.
The Cardinals would hit a bit of an early season slump, going 2-11 over the next 13 games, including losing six of seven games against the Philadelphia Phillies. Six of the eleven losses were by one run including two 1-0 heart breakers against Philadelphia. The low point of the 1968 series would be in the last of these games, on May 29. After losing the first of a three game series with the San Francisco Giants, Nelson Briles and Juan Marichal would hook up in one of the better pitching duels of the season. Marichal and the Giants would prevail in the nail biter by a score of 2-1, and the Cardinals would fall all the way to fifth place, 3 games behind the Giants. Fortunately this slump would come to an end as Steve Carlton would win the final game of the series, defeating former Cardinal Ray Sadecki 6-0. This lit a fire under the Cardinals and they would win 13 of their next 15 games and taking a 4 game lead in the National League, a lead that they would not relinquish for the remainder of the season.
This brings us to June 18 and an important three game series against the Chicago Cubs. All eyes were on the last game, which would feature Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins, but there was plenty of baseball to play before then.
June 18 – Good
In the first game, Nelson Briles would face Bill Hands. Hands was a tall right hander that was on the verge of becoming a force for the Cubs. He would finish the season with a 16-10 record, improve to 20-14 in 1969 and finally 18-15 in 1970. Hands entered this game with a solid 6-2 record and an ERA well under 3. He would pitch seven strong innings, making only one bad pitch. Substituting for an injured Roger Maris, Bobby Tolan would lead off the bottom of the fifth inning with a home run. It would be the only run scored in the game. Briles pitches gem for the Cardinals, finishing with complete game shutout, one of four he would throw in 1968.
The Cubs had their chances, but ran themselves out of several good scoring opportunities. Twice they would be victims of a strikeout-caught stealing double play, the worst being in the fourth inning. With runners at first and third and nobody out, Ron Santo would strike out with Billy Williams running on the pitch. Glenn Beckert broke from third on the double steal and the Cardinals anticipated it with Dick Schofield throwing out Beckert in the 2-4-2 caught stealing. A weak groundout to the shortstop killed that first Cubs rally. Ron Santo would be victimized again in the sixth inning as he would strike out and Don Kessinger would be thrown out trying to steal third base, ending another rally. Ron Santo was having a really tough day at the plate.
This is the kind of game that we had come to expect from Briles since filling in for Bob Gibson last July. Briles would finish the season with a 19-11 record, but this was one of his best pitched games of 1968.
As good as this game was, it was nothing like the next two.
June 19 – Better
Two big lefties would face off in the second game. Steve Carlton (7-1) would get the start for the Cardinals against Rich Nye (4-6) for Chicago. Unfortunately for the Cubs, Nye would not make it out of the fourth inning. The Cardinals would first break the game open in the third. Lou Brock and Julian Javier would start the inning with singles. Curt Flood would hit the ball to deep short and they had no chance to double up the speedy center fielder, taking the force out at second. Orlando Cepeda would follow that up with a 3 run homer. The top of the order would again get to Nye in the next inning. With two outs, Brock would double and score on a Javier single. That would chase Nye and former Cardinal Jack Lamabe and future Redbird Chuck Hartenstein would close things down in relief.
Meanwhile Carlton was breezing through the Cubs batting order. In the second inning, Carlton would hit Lou Johnson with a pitch. Glenn Beckert would lead off the fourth inning with a single. Billy Williams would force Beckert at second base and Ron Santo would end the inning with a double play. Santo was not having a very good series. The only other Cubs runner would be on a 2 out error by Julian Javier in the fifth inning. Carlton would retire the next 13 batters for a mesmerizing 1 hitter, striking out 9 and walking none.
June 20 – Best
How can you top a Carlton 1 hitter ? A Fergie Jenkins/Bob Gibson pitching duel. And this one did not disappoint. Jenkins had brought his A game as he tried to prevent the series sweep at the hands of Cardinals. Unfortunately his opponent was Bob Gibson and this was 1968 and Gibson had an A+ game. Both pitchers were stingy with hits, Gibson giving up 5 and Jenkins just 4. Two of the Cardinal hits would come in the third inning. After striking out the first two batters, Lou Brock would triple and Curt Flood follows with an RBI single for the only run in the game. While most of the Cardinal hitters were struggling in 1968, Flood was hot as a St. Louis summer, going 2-3 in this game and increasing his batting average to a cool .322.
A few weeks later, the Cardinals would put the NL Pennant out of reach with a devastating 13-1 stretch against Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston. Perhaps more important was this sweep of the Cubs at home because it finally shook off that 2-11 slump in mid-May and reminded the Cardinals that they can beat anybody in this league. More than a sweep, it was three consecutive shutouts. It’s always fun to beat the Cubs, but not allowing a run in three home games was the high point of the 1968 season.
Back to the Future
While 2010 was a disappointing season, it did end on a high note. With five consecutive victories against Pittsburgh and Colorado, the Cardinal hurlers combined to allow just three runs. Has there been a better ending ? Of course there has.
In 1973, an even more disappointing season was coming to a close at home with three games against the Chicago Cubs and then three with the Philadelphia Phillies. After dropping the first game, 4-3, the Cardinals would rally to win the final five games. In keeping with the theme of three consecutive shutouts, the ’73 Cardinals did that with the last two games against the Cubs and the series opener against the Phillies. Rick Wise, Reggie Cleveland, Diego Segui and Bob Gibson would only allow 2 runs in those final five games, besting the 2010 staff by a run.
Orange Juice, Toast and Some Shutouts
I’ve saved the best for last. The only other time in the last half century where the Cardinals have put together three consecutive shutouts was at the start of the 1963 season. Unlike the 1968 series with the Cubs, this was against two different teams. Ernie Broglio and Ray Washburn would pitch back to back shutouts against the New York Mets to start the season. The wily veteran, Curt Simmons, would follow that up with a nifty 5 hit complete game shutout against the Philadelphia Phillies to complete the trifecta. The Cardinals would not give up a run until the 6th inning of the fourth game, the second start by Broglio. What an unbelievable start to the ’63 season. Even more impressive is how the season ended, but we’ll save that for another time.