A Struggling Astro
Joaquin Andujar made his major league debut on April 8, 1976. The 23 year old right hander made the club out of spring training, and was penciled in as a starter in a very young and intriguing rotation. In a few early season relief appearances, he would struggle with his control and the walks he issued would come back to haunt him. The wildness would continue through his first few starts, until being shut down with an injury before the first month of the season was over. Things were definitely not going to Andujar’s plan.
When he came back in June, a completely different and much more confident Joaquin Andujar took the mound. In his first start, he would throw a nifty 2 hit complete game against the Cincinnati Reds for his first major league win. As an encore, he would throw another 2 hitter in his next start against the Chicago Cubs, recording his first shutout. He would also throw another 2 hitter in September, this time against the Los Angeles Dodgers. His control was not much better, but he’d started finding ways to retire batters before they could hurt him.
After a rough 0-2 start to the season, with an ERA over 6, Andujar would go 9-8 with a respectable 3.20 ERA after his return, including 9 complete games and 4 shutouts. On any other team, this would would have been a sensational performance and Andujar would have been getting the lion’s share of praise for his efforts. But this was also the breakout season of J. R. Richard.
After spending several seasons bouncing between Houston, Oklahoma City (AAA) and Denver (AAA), the big, and I mean BIG right hander established himself as one of the best pitchers in the National League. At 6ft 8in, he was a towering sight on the mound, but it was the electric stuff that came out of his hand that made you stare open mouthed when you watched him pitch. He would soon break the National League record for strikeouts in a season, twice posting over 300 ks. Richard was the most exciting young arm to appear in the National League since Tom Seaver in 1967, and that played a huge part in Andujar’s early troubles. It was Richard and not Andujar that would become the ace of the Astros rotation, taking the reigns from Larry Dierker.
For a while, the Astros continued with the youth movement in the rotation. Floyd Bannister
and Mark Lemongello (one of the best baseball names ever) joined Richard and Andujar as the young guns in Houston. At the same time, veteran junk-baller Joe Niekro started turning back the hands of time, and kicked off a very promising second career. By 1978, he would take Andujar’s spot in the rotation, banishing the youngster to the bullpen – a veritable exile. But you could not argue with manager Bill Virdon’s success. Niekro would have back to back 20 win seasons and prove to be the perfect complement to J. R. Richards overpowering arsenal of pitches.
The anti-youth move would continue as veteran Ken Forsch, older brother of Cardinals pitcher Bob Forsch, would work his way back into the rotation. Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton also joined the rotation, pitching like young men again. As the Astros record improved, Andujar fell deeper and deeper into Bill Virdon’s dog house, and his role diminished significantly – now a spot starter and mop-up arm in the bullpen.
It was the combination of consistency and pride that derailed Andujar in Houston. When he got into trouble, bad things would happen. Some times, his emotions would get the better of him, and he would start throwing at opposing batters. Other times, he would just throw instead of pitch, and that got him into worse trouble. Andujar was a proud and competitive athlete, if only a coach or a manager could find a way of focusing that on something positive.
June 7, 1981
June 7, 1981 is the day that Joaquin Andujar’s career took a turn for thebetter – but we had to wait almost 60 days to find that 0ut. Five days later, before the new Cardinal could make his debut, a work stoppage caused Major League Baseball to suspend all games until August 10.
The Astros had come within a single game of going to the World Series in 1980, and were contending again in 1981. Their perennial Gold Glove winning center fielder, Cesar Cedeno, was beginning to show signs of wear and tear from playing so long on the hard artificial turf, so a move to first base would be able to keep his potent bat in the lineup. The Cardinals had somewhat of a surplus of outfielders, and a deal was struck, sending Tony Scott to Houston for Joaquin Andujar. This deal worked out well for both clubs, as Scott turned in a productive year and helped Astros reach the playoffs again.
As for Andujar, the 1981 Cardinals couldn’t have been a better spot for the temperamental hurler to land. There were no stars in the Cardinals rotation, except perhaps for local fan favorite, Bob Forsch. This was an opportunity for Andujar to start over again, and if he could duplicate some of his past success, he might finally become the ace of the staff.
When play resumed in August, Andujar made his Cardinals debut in a short relief appearance. It was rather underwhelming, but there was somewhat of a spring training atmosphere in the first week of the new season. When he finally made his first start, on August 14 in Montreal, he made quite an impression. It was a short outing, but he earned the win, and perhaps the respect of the players around him. He would win over the fans in the following two months, finishing with a 6-1 record as a Redbird, including winning his last 4 starts. Yes, the Cardinals had something special in Andujar, and maybe Whitey Herzog was just the manager to get the best out of him.
Andujar got off to a great start in the 1982 season, but thanks to a general lack of run support, his record didn’t reflect how well he actually pitched. Entering a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on August 12, he had a losing record of 8-10, but an era of 2.81. Those two numbers just didn’t go together, and Andujar was about to put the universe in balance. It is also important to note that the Cardinals were just a half game out of first place when Andujar threw his first pitch.
Andujar would throw a gem of a game. Jim Kaat and Bruce Sutter would close it out and make a hard luck loser our of Ross Baumgarten. In doing so, they would also take over sole possession of first place, a spot they would hold on to for all but two days of the remaining season. A big reason for the Cardinals success during August and September ? Joaquin Andujar would make 10 more starts for the Cardinals in 1982, and the Redbirds would win all but one of them. From half a game out on August 12, the Cardinals would go 10-1 in Andujar’s remaining starts and win the NL East by 3 games.
Joaquin was now the ace of the Cardinals pitching staff.
A Bad Break
Andujar would get one start against the Atlanta Braves in the 1982 NLCS. It went by so quickly, hardly anybody noticed. If they did, events in the World Series would make them forget all about his nifty win.
The quick dispatching of the Atlanta Braves set up a rather unusual pitching rotation for Whitey Herzog in the World Series. Andujar would not see action until Game Three. After splitting the first two games at home, Herzog gave Andujar the ball for the first game in Milwaukee, and he delivered. And then some. Andujar was on fire, retiring Brewers batters as soon as they stepped in the batters box. He had a 3 hit shutout working with one out in the seventh inning when tragedy struck. Former Cardinal, Ted Simmons, hit a line drive off Andujar’s leg that sent the big hurler to the ground in a ball. After several minutes, he was was carried off the field, and assumed to be done for the series. Jim Kaat, Doug Bair and Bruce Sutter scrambled to preserve the win, but the momentum in the series just turned in the direction of the Brewers.
The Brewers would take the two remaining home games, forcing the Cardinals to win both Games Six and Seven. John Stuper turned in a masterful performance on a cold and rainy night in Game Six, and the Cards routed the Brew Crew 13-1.
Much to everybody’s surprise, Joaquin Andujar took the mound for Game Seven. He didn’t look right from the first pitch. It looked like it hurt when he shifted his weight in his delivery and he threw wildly across his body. But he pitched like a champion and kept the Cardinals in the game until a late rally against a spent Brewers bullpen made a winner out of the Redbirds. And a legend out of Andujar.
A major milestone
1983 was not a good year for the Cardinals, and Andujar was not immune to the general funk in the clubhouse. Keith Hernandez was sent to New York in the dead of night, leaving many questions unanswered. We would learn much more in September of 1985, but for now, things were just unsettled. Throw in a big injury to Tommy Herr, and the Cardinals just had a bad season. Andujar would lose a career high 16 games, winning only 6. His ERA ballooned to over 4 runs per game, but there was nothing obviously wrong with him – just a funky year.
The wounds from 1983 would start healing for the Cardinals in 1984. Andujar would rebound quickly and turned in the best season of his career so far, winning a league leading 20 games, led the league in innings pitched (261 1/3). He would also throw 12 complete games, including a league leading 4 shutouts. There was suddenly reason to be optimistic about post-season baseball returning to the Gateway City, and the ace of the staff was big part of the turnaround. Throw in an interesting right handed pitching prospect by the name of Danny Cox, a young and talented outfielder named van Slyke, and the Cardinals might be one trade away from returning to the fall classic.
The most amazing thing about the Andujar story, we haven’t seen the best of him yet. To be continued ….