As the St. Louis Cardinals enter the final month of the 2010 season, they find themselves 5 games behind National League Central Division leaders, the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds have been playing exceptional baseball for most of the season, while the Cardinals have struggled, especially against teams in the bottom half of the division. All of this leads to speculation about what it will take for the Cardinals to get into postseason, if that is even possible at this point.
It has happened before, and it will certainly happen again.
Most recently, the 2007 New York Mets entered September with a 3 game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies. They managed to extend this lead to 7 games on September 12. A 5-12 finish, combined with a 13-4 run by the Phillies knocked the Mets out of the playoffs. Even though this is fresh in our memories, this is not the worst collapse in baseball history.
Although it is not mentioned very often, the 1969 Chicago Cubs had an even more devastating late season collapse. A punching bag for much of the 1960s, the Cubs had retooled their lineup and featured one of the most exciting pitching rotations in the game. They had certainly given the Cardinals all they could handle in 1968 and were even better in 1969. During the summer, the Cubs had built up a commanding lead over the reigning NL pennant winners and the upstart New York Mets, leading by as many as 9 games on August 17. When Ken Holtzman threw a no hitter against the Atlanta Braves on August 19, the NL East division title seemed wrapped up. Unfortunately, a 7-7 finish in August and a 9-18 record in September and October doomed the Cubbies as the Mets caught fire and finished the season with a 36-11 sprint, giving them 100 wins for the first time in franchise history and a spot in the first divisional playoff.
Even that was not the worst late season collapse – not even close.
That distinction belongs to the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, and the benefactor was the eventual 1964 World Series Champions, the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Phillies and Giants had battled for the league lead throughout most of the season, while the Cardinals had stayed around .500. The Phillies would break away from the Giants in early August, building up a commanding lead of 7 1/2 games by August 20. They would maintain this lead for the next month, until the last 12 games of the season.
Meanwhile, both the Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds started playing inspired baseball and tried to catch up to the league leading Phillies. As well both teams played, neither could not make much progress as the Phillies kept pace. Before we look at the last 12 games of the season, a closer look at how the Cardinals did in the final month of the season might help us understand what it might take to repeat this feat in 2010.
The Play Makers
When looking back at the final month of the 1964 season, two players stand out among all of the others. These two men hoisted the team upon their shoulders and carried them to the finish line, each in different ways.
Bill White had been an early season disappointment. A perennial All Star, shoulder troubles had limited his offensive production for the first half of the season. He would hit bottom on June 12 with a .225 batting average with 7 home runs and just 20 RBIs. White would continue to receive treatment for his shoulder, both traditional and some that was controversial for the time. His shoulder would heal and the big first baseman would terrorize pitchers in the National League for the rest of the season, finishing with an impressive .303 batting average with 21 home runs and 102 RBIs. He would finish 3rd in MVP voting with teammate Ken Boyer winning the award for his steady play throughout the entire season. Boyer was a rock at third base but it was White’s second half that made the difference between a .500 team and one that would win the World Series.
The other play maker was Bob Gibson. The entire National League was aware of how talented Bob Gibson was, but it was only in the last year that Gibson had become a dominating pitcher. He was a big part of a 19-1 late season run in 1963 when the Cardinals nearly caught the World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers before fading in the last week.. Like the rest of the team, Gibson had muddled around .500 for most of the 1964 season. All that changed on August 10, when the legend of Bob Gibson would be born. He would finish 10-3 in his remaining appearances and if not for an amazing pitching performance from Al Jackson on October 2, would have won 20 games for the first time in his career. He would finish the season with a 19-12 record, but none of that was as impressive as his performance in the last game of the season. With only one day of rest following a complete game loss to Jackson and the Mets, he came in relief of Curt Simmons and threw 4 more innings in the must win game. It was not vintage Gibson as he would walk 5 while only striking out 2, but he held the Mets at bay long enough for the offense to rally against their bullpen. Forget Curt Schillings bloody sock, this was the gutsiest pitching performance of the last half century.
As spectacular as the two play makers were, it took more than just two heroes to bring home the NL pennant. It was surely a team effort, and as such let’s take a look at how Cardinals Manager, Johnny Keane’s lineup did from September 1 through the end of the season.
||Hits – AB
The first thing you notice while looking at this production is how every player contributed, up and down the lineup. The one exception was second baseman, Julian Javier, who had been nursing a pretty bad injury. It would eventually cost Javier playing time in the World Series as his role would be limited to one pinch running appearance. A young shortstop named Dal Maxvill would fill in for the injured Javier and he would play well enough to earn a spot on the roster in 1965, eventually becoming the regular shortstop in 1966.
If you look at the top of the order, you will find the real key to the Cardinals success. The two leadoff speedsters, Curt Flood and Lou Brock, always seemed to be on base when it came around to the heart of the order. In 1964, the veteran Flood was the leadoff hitter and Brock batted second. Flood was a good contact hitter with a high on-base percentage, but lacked power. Brock was a bit less disciplined at the plate but more than made up for that with some serious pop in his bat. In fact, he led the club in slugging in the final month of the season, as he would for long stretches throughout his career. Eventually Keane’s successor, Red Schoendienst would swap the two, preferring Brock’s extra base potential in front of Curt Flood’s high batting average. Red’s move was brilliant as there was not a better 1-2 tandem in baseball.
What can we learn from all of this that might help us as we watch the 2010 Cardinals finish the season ? It is really simple: the top of the order has to get on base regularly so that the 3-4-5 hitters can do damage without having to hit the ball out of the park. The 1964 Cardinals did that at a frightening pace, and it was a large part of their late season success. If the 2010 Cardinals can do that, they can stay in the race.
Pitching Wins Championships
We’ve heard the phrase many times. But does it ? In the case of the 1964 Cardinals, it certainly did. As good as the Cardinals offense was, they were only scoring half a run a game above their average when they were a .500 club. If that’s true, then what was the difference in this late pennant race ?
Pitching, pitching and more pitching. Let’s take a look at Keane’s starting rotation over the same period. As many teams did in that era, Keane had shorted his rotation to four starters: the suddenly dominating Bob Gibson, the wily veteran Curt Simmons, the young phenom Ray Sadecki, and the veteran Roger Craig. When the schedule demands required an additional arm, Keane would go to Gordie Richardson twice, and once each to Mike Cuellar and Ron Taylor. How did they do ?
||Win – Loss
First and foremost, how dominating was Gibson in that last month ? It’s one thing to know it, but when you see the actual results, it is all the more impressive. He was better than good, he was 1968 good while keeping the opposing teams to two runs over the last month. When you are scoring almost 5 runs a game, and only giving up 2, that’s a recipe for a lot of wins. If Al Jackson hadn’t pitched like Sandy Koufax and shut out the Cardinals on that infamous October 2 game, Gibson could have easily been 8-1 and the Cardinals would have won the pennant a day earlier. Not only that, Jackson’s game nearly cost the Cardinals the World Series as Gibson was not available to pitch in the first game, which meant he would go on short rest for the remainder of the series. Fortunately for Cardinals fans, Ray Sadecki pitched a gem for a Game One victory over the Yankees, and the rest is history.
How important was Curt Simmons ? It is a shame that his name does not come up in conversations about great Cardinals of the era because Simmons’ final month was just as impressive as Gibson’s. The veteran lefty was the epitome of crafty. He had a deceptive motion as he hid the ball until late in his delivery, and nothing ever came at the plate on a flat plane. He had a nasty curveball that devoured left handed batters, and no two pitches came in at the same speed. Simmons and Gibson were a genuine two -headed monster at the top of the rotation.
Ray Sadecki continued his unexplainable 20 win season, finding all sorts of ways to win. He threw consecutive shutouts in September, but was more of a bend without breaking pitcher. He would be hit, sometimes hard, but always seemed to limit the damage and keep his team in the games. For a reference, think back on Kyle Lohse’s 2008 season and you’ll have some idea of what a Sadecki game looked like. The young lefty pitched like that all season long, and fortunately for Cardinals fans, continued in the fall classic.
If Gibson, Simmons and Sadecki were the winners, poor Roger Craig was the hard luck loser. He pitched brilliantly in this final month of the season, but lack of run support doomed the veteran to the only losing record among the four starters. Don’t feel bad for Craig though. He would be one of the heroes in the World Series, but we’ll get into that on another day.
The spot starters, Richardson, Cuellar and Taylor, would combine for a 1-2 record with one no-decision. While they were primarily used to keep from killing the arms in the shortened rotation, every win was precious – including Gordie Richardson’s start on September 25. The youngster would also pick up a win in relief earlier in the month, making him one of the best summer callups of the decade.
As good as the starters were, the unsung heroes of the 1964 pennant race were in the bullpen. As the Cardinals put together a 22-10 end to the regular season, the starters combined for 17 wins and 9 of the losses. With only 8 complete games in that span, that meant that the bullpen was holding leads. Since the pen combined for a 5-1 record, it also meant that when needed, they kept games close enough for the offense to mount a late inning comeback, which they did on 6 separate occasions. Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that they only blew the lead in one game. And yes, it was poor Roger Craig that took a hard luck no-decision in that one too. Bobby Humphreys, Gordie Richardson, Mike Cuellar, Ron Taylor and the veteran knuckleballer, Barney Schultz we just sensational in the last month, when they were most needed. If you think that Ryan Franklin makes you nervous closing out a game, all that Schultz threw were knuckleballs, and some of them said “hit me”. He didn’t throw many of those in September 1964.
The Final Two Weeks
As well as the Cardinals were playing, it took some additional help for them to win the pennant. That help would come from a surprising source, Phillies Manager, Gene Mauch. While the Cardinals had the experience of an exciting, but failed pennant race in 1963, the Phillies were in serious contention for the first time since the Whiz Kids of 1950. With 12 games left in the season, the Phillies still enjoyed a 6 1/2 game lead over the hard charging Cardinals and Reds. If Johnny Keane was pushing all the right buttons, Gene Mauch chose all the wrong ones. He shorted his starting rotation to trio of Chris Short, Jim Bunning and the third guy. That meant that for the last two weeks of the season, Bunning and Short were going out there on only two days of rest. The once dominating top of the rotation were suddenly quite hittable. Their fastballs lost a little of their zip and curveballs flattened out. There results were just devastating. The Phillies would lose the first 10 of those games, including being swept by both Cincinnati and St. Louis. In those same 10 games, the Cardinals would win 9 and Cincinnati would win 7. The lead would change hands twice, with Cincinnati taking over the top spot on September 27. The Cardinals would overtake them three days later, and surprising the sports world, would hold on to the lead until the end.
Johnny Keane didn’t overmanage and tinker with either the rotation or the bullpen in the last month of the season. His successor, Red Schoendienst, used the same approach in 1967 and 1968. The results were three trips to the World Series in 5 years. For the Cardinals fans that are suggesting the 2010 team shorten their rotation in the last month of the season, learn from what happened to Gene Mauch and the Phillies when he did exactly that.
What have we learned from all of this ? The 5 game deficit now facing the Cardinals is hardly insurmountable. It does take some consistent play from both the offense as well as the pitching staff. While pitching does win championships, it also takes leadoff hitters getting on base so that there is somebody for the heart of the order to drive in. It also takes a bullpen that can not only hold a lead, but keep an apparent loss close so that a comeback can happen. The later in the season it gets, the more help that you might need from another team, and if there is one manager that can mishandle a pitching staff, it is Dusty Baker.
With the current divisional alignment, including a wildcard in postseason, it doesn’t take nearly as much of a collapse as happened in 1964. All it takes is getting there, and then anything can happen in a short series.