Not Even Injuries Could Stop The 1987 Cardinals

As I-70 Baseball takes a look at the Cardinals 2010 season, one word will come up over and over: injuries. Injuries to starting pitchers Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse plus the loss of David Freese eventually caught up with the Cardinals as they faded in August, falling behind the Cincinnati Reds. Whether or not the team should have overcome those misfortunes will be talked about all off-season. 23 years ago, a Cardinals team suffered far more injuries, but that resilient group of Redbirds didn’t let that stop them. A group of super-subs, such as Jose Oquendo, Rod Booker, Steve Lake, Tom Pagnozzi, Lee Tunnell and John Morris rose to the occasion and helped carry the 1987 Cardinals all the way to the World Series.

Winter Woes

Even before the first pitch was thrown in spring training, the Cardinals had several question marks on their roster. Willie McGee, Jack Clark, Jeff Lahti and Ken Dayley had off-season surgery to take care of injuries left over from the 1986 season. The injuries sustained by Clark and McGee were not serious, so both were expected to make a complete recovery and be ready to play by opening day. The two hurlers weren’t quite so lucky.

Jeff Lahti had missed most of the 1986 season with a shoulder injury. He would have surgery to repair the torn rotator cuff, but it did not heal and the former leader of the 1985 “Bullpen by Committee” retired before the start of the season. His spot in the bullpen would eventually be taken by the veteran Bill Dawley.

The prognosis for Dayley was even more dire. Shoulder and elbow troubles had limited his role in 1986. He would eventually undergo Tommy John surgery. It was still a rather new procedure and the recovery timetable was on the order of 12-18 months. Dal Maxvill made a difficult decision and didn’t offer Dayley a contract for the 1987 season, making him a free agent. Unable to find a team willing to take a chance on the lefty, Dayley ignored the rehabilitation plan offered by Dr. Jobe, and let his arm dictate his recovery. He so impressed the Cardinals, they offered him a contract and gave him a spot in the bullpen. In just 7 months from his surgery, Dayley was back pitching in the major leagues. And not just pitching – dominating. His fastball had more life and his curveball had even more bite. If he was the best left handed reliever in the game before the surgery, he was in a completely different level now.

He would return to the lineup on May 21, in Atlanta. The Cardinals would go slow with him at first, but as the games went on, it was clear that Dayley was back. He didn’t allow a run in his first 10 appearances, so Whitey Herzog started putting him in higher pressure situations. By mid-June, he was back to his regular workload – no worse for the wear. Ken Dayley and Todd Worrell were back to being the terrorizing twosome, closing out the end of Cardinal victories.

By seasons end, Dayley would record a career high in wins (9) to go with a career low ERA (2.66). He was still striking out more than one batter per inning, but his control suffered a bit as his walk rate nearly doubled from his last few seasons. Even with the additional free passes, Dayley was still nearly unhittable, especially from left handed batters.

April Fools

Two events conspired to make April 1, 1987 a day that all Cardinals fans would remember. Mike LaValliere and Mike Heath had struggled behind the plate and at the plate throughout the 1986 season. Heath would be traded to Detroit during the 1986 season, leaving LaValliere as the starter with Steve Lake as his backup. A young backstop named Tom Pagnozzi was waiting patiently in the wings. None of the catchers were particularly impressive during spring training, so it was decided that an upgrade would be needed if the Cardinals were to catch the suddenly dominating New York Mets.

At the same time, a young right handed hitting outfielder named Jim Lindeman was hitting the cover off the baseball. He had played winter ball in Puerto Rico and continued his hot hitting when he arrived in Florida in the spring. This gave General Manager Dal Maxvill an interesting bargaining chip – one that he would cash in. A deal was struck with the Pittsburgh, sending Mike LaValliere, pitching prospect Mike Dunne and Andy van Slyke to the Pirates in exchange for Tony Pena. While Pena did not have a particularly good season with the Cardinals, he proved to be the final piece that helped the Cardinal win the National League Pennant.

It was just a coincidence, but there is a special irony in the deal being completed and announced on April Fools day. I’m sure that many in Cardinals Nation opened the newspaper on April 2, hoping to read that it was just a hoax.

Shortly into the season, it looked more like a cruel, cruel joke.

The First Bad Break

The third game of the season would be played in Pittsburgh, the team the Cardinals had just swapped players with shortly before opening day. Neither Van Slyke nor Pena would get a hit in this first contest, but what happened in the top of the 9th inning sent a shock wave throughout the midwest. With Tony Pena leading off the inning, reliever Brian Fisher hit the new Cardinals backstop with a pitch. It hit him in the left hand, and Pena had to be taken out of the game. After the game, it was learned that Pena had broken his left thumb and would be out for the next six weeks.

So much for the upgrade behind the plate.

Steve Lake would take over the catching duties until Pena’s return in late May. Lake’s biggest moment in the 1987 season would come against the Dodgers on May 1. The Dodgers had jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, but as Cards starter Joe Magrane toughened, LA starter Rick Honeycutt let the game get away in the sixth inning. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda would go to his bullpen, calling on Tom Neidenfuer. If you don’t remember, it was Neidenfuer that gave up the game winning home runs to Ozzie Smith “Go Crazy Folks” and Jack Clark in the 1985 NLDS. He would suffer a similar fate as Willie McGee greets Neidenfuer with a long home run into the 2nd deck in right field. That’s as far as I remember seeing Willie McGee hit a baseball. The Cardinals would take a 4-3 lead that Todd Worrell would give back as Pedro Guerrero tied the game with a single in the 9th. In the bottom of the 10th inning, Jack Clark sneaks a grounder through the hole in the left side of the infield and legs it into a double. With 2 outs, Steve Lake hits a seeing eye single into left field that Pedro Guerrero boots, allowing Clark to score the winning run without a play. I still remember watching Guerrero kick the ball in frustration.

This is the type of game that the Cardinals would play throughout the first half of the season. No lead was safe, no game was over until the last out was recorded. If anything, this team was even more exciting than the 1985 version of Whitey’s rabbits.

The Next Cardinal to Fall

April 19, 1987. It was the Sunday afternoon game following one of the most exciting games in the ’87 season. The promotion for the Saturday night game was a toilet seat cover. Most of them would be found on the playing field when the Cardinals scored 5 runs in the bottom of the 10th inning to win the wild affair, 12-8. That game also featured the first career RBI from Tom Pagnozzi, just before Tommy Herr sent all the Cardinals fans hope happy with a walk-off grand slam.

If that was the high point in the early season, the next day would be the low point for the Cardinals season. While chasing after a pop foul ball, Mets catcher Barry Lyons slides into the Cardinals dugout, hitting John Tudor, who was not even pitching that day. The collision would break Tudor’s right leg and he would miss the next three months. Tim Conroy and Lee Tunnell would initially take over for Tudor, eventually giving way to Rick Horton later in the summer.

Tudor would return to the Cardinals in August and pick right up where he left off, as if the last three months didn’t happen. Yes, this 1987 team was resilient, to go along with being very exciting.

You have to be Kidding, Right ?

Three games later, the injury bug strikes again. In the bottom of the third inning against Greg Maddux and the Chicago Cubs, Tommy Herr hits a routine one out single. As Herr is running down the baseline, his groin muscle gives out and he has to be removed from the game. The injury probably occurred in the first inning when Herr was part of a double steal. He stayed in the game, and it just gave out as he ran down the first base line. His replacement would be a young utility infielder named Jose Oquendo. Perhaps you’ve heard of him ?

Tommy Herr joins Ken Dayley, John Tudor and Tony Pena on the disabled list, and an increasingly crowded infirmary. Herr would miss nearly three weeks with the injury, but just as with Pena and Tudor, another role player stepped up to fill the void. And the Cardinals just kept on winning.

And what about May

May would turn out to be no easier on the Cardinals training staff. The first Cardinal to fall is Tito Landrum – on May 1. He would miss nearly the entire month of May with a injury. Jim Lindeman would follow just a week later with an injury of his own that would keep him out of action for nearly as long as Landrum. Unfortunately, Landrum and Lindeman were Herzog’s two right fielders. Once again, a player comes off the bench and fills the spot vacated by the injured player. This time it was Curt Ford, who took over right field until Herr was activated, allowing Oquendo to move to right. Resilient and versatile.

Before the month would end, one more Cardinal would visit sick bay. On May 29, against Mike Scott and the Houston Astros, rookie Joe Magrane suddenly lost his control. He had to be taken out of the game and would miss the next two weeks. Lee Tunnell, recently inserted into the rotation due to the heavy schedule, would take over for the injured Magrane.

Toeing the Line

While the Cardinals would manage to get through June without any additional drama, July would come along and take the last wind out the Redbirds sail. Or so we thought at the time. In his last start before the All Star Game, Danny Cox was pitching a gem against the San Francisco Giants. In the seventh inning, Mike Aldrete lines the ball off the foot of Danny Cox. It would ricochet all the way back to catcher Tony Pena, who threw out Aldrete. Cox would stay in the game, but afterwards it was learned that he had broken a toe, and would be out of action for a month.

How this particular game ended shows just how unbelievably resilient this team was. Cox would leave the game with the score tied at 3. Todd Worrell would hold the game until the 10th inning, when Lee Tunnell got lit up for three runs. The Giants had taken a 6-3 lead in the extra frame. If it were any other team, the game would have been over. Not so for this band of characters. The Cardinals would send 9 men to the plate in the bottom of the 10th inning. Super sub Jose Oquendo lines an RBI single, scoring Willie McGee with the winning run. Most of the damage was done with 2 outs. Clearly, something special was happening in St. Louis.

At the Midpoint

When looking back at the 1987 Cardinals, and all of the injuries the team endured, it might be hard to understand how they outlasted the Montreal Expos and New York Mets. One look at the batting averages at the midway point of the season will tell you all you need to know.

Player AVG
Vince Coleman .288
Ozzie Smith .301
Tom Herr .270
Jack Clark .311
Willie McGee .302
Terry Pendleton .315
Jose Oquendo .321
Tony Pena .255
Steve Lake .280
Curt Ford .323

Everybody in the Cardinals lineup was swinging a mighty bat. All but poor Jim Lindeman. Lindeman never regained the stroke he had in spring that led to the Andy van Slyke trade. But don’t worry about Lindeman, he would make up for it in the National League Championship Series – but that’s a story for another day.

There were two significant improvements in the Cardinals offense that led to a lot of their early success. Finally healthy again, Jack Clark was hitting everything out of sight. And the ones that didn’t leave the park were frequently finding gaps between the defenders. Clark was well on his way to becoming just the second Cardinal in the Busch II era to hit 30 home runs. The other was Richie Allen. Mighty impressive company to be keeping.

The other was Ozzie Smith. No longer a one dimensional player, an off-season conditioning program had put quite a bit of muscle on the Wizard’s frame. When he reported to spring training, he was noticeably more muscular, and that translated to a more able bat. As a result, Smith would take over the second spot in the batting order, hitting patiently behind Vince Coleman, as Willie McGee had done two years earlier. Moving McGee down in the order gave Herzog some more pop and speed for the bottom part of the order. This combination proved to be deadly to relief pitching, and starters that managed to last for the fourth time through the order.

At the All Star break, the Cardinals were scoring nearly 6 runs per game. They just outscored the competition, on a daily basis. They had built up an amazing 9 game lead over the Expos and Mets, and they would need nearly every one of those games as the summer turned into fall.

Another Bad Break

As the Cardinals started getting their starting pitchers back from injuries, the offense suddenly started struggling. The bats had carried the Cardinals through the first half of the season, getting to the finish line would now fall on the shoulders, or perhaps more precisely, the arms of the pitching staff. For Danny Cox and John Tudor, it was as if nothing had happened. Tudor returned to his winning ways, slowing building up his stamina in his first month back. While Cox never returned to his 1985 form, he anchored the rotation down the stretch. His biggest moment would come on October 1 when he threw a complete game against Montreal, clinching the National League East title while many of the Mets were in the stands watching.

As the offense continued to struggle, the Cardinals would be given another hurdle to jump. This time it is right fielder, Curt Ford. Ford, who had been hitting .330 just a month earlier, breaks his right hand on August 9 and will miss the next six weeks. Even worse, when he comes back he is unable to regain his batting stroke, and he would only get two more hits while being used infrequently. He would finish the season with a .285 average, which is very respectable. But it was just a shadow of what he had been doing earlier in the year.

Even with this latest injury, the Cardinals were still managing to stay ahead of the hard charging New York Mets and Montreal Expos.

The One that Finally Did It

The date was September 9, and the Cardinals were facing the third place Montreal Expos, just three games back in the standings. St. Louis had just lost the first two games of this important three game series and would follow this with a brutal three game series in New York. With Montreal surging and the Cardinals in free fall, it is now or never time.

In the sixth inning, Jack Clark leads off with a routine ground ball to third base. Tim Wallach’s throw is wide and Clark tries to avoid the tag by Andres Galarraga. In doing so, his feet get all tangled up and he ends up spraining his ankle, or so we thought at the time. Not a big deal, “The Ripper” can rest it for a few days and be back in time for the late pennant chase. Unfortunately the injury is far more serious, and it does not respond to treatment. Clark misses misses most of the rest of the season, and for the few games he does come back, he is not the same player. Once again, another Cardinal will step up. This time it is a combination of veteran Dan Driessen and the sensation from spring training, Jim Lindeman. They provided enough for the Cardinals to outlast both the Mets and Expos, and miraculously past the NL West winners, the San Francisco Giants.

Finally the injuries caught up with the Cardinals. For all that they had done to overcome adversity for 162 games plus a playoff series, the World Series games played in Minneapolis turned into slugfests. And the Cardinals failed to bring any sluggers to the match. With Clark out, and a rib cage injury limiting Terry Pendleton to only hitting from the right side, the Cardinals just didn’t have enough offense to match up with the Twins. In Minnesota. Oh, there were some great moments, like Tom Lawless watching his home run barely clear the outfield wall in St. Louis, but in the end, the Cardinals just came up 15 outs short in the series. Still, it was an exciting season and the ’87 Cardinals played like champions.

The next time a fan uses injuries as an excuse when a team fails to meet their expectations, tell them about the 1987 Cardinals and how they didn’t let things like broken bones, sprained ankles and groins get in the way of their goal. And their destiny.

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