Epic pitchers duels, Part 4

In Part 1 of this series, we identified parameters for defining a great pitchers duel (the two starters both must have compiled Game Scores of 95 or higher) and examined games that met our criteria in the 1920s and 1930s. Part 2 covered the 1940s, while Part 3 covered the 1950s and 1960s. This, our final installment, looks back at the 1970s.

July 9, 1971: California Angels (0) at Oakland Athletics (1), 20 innings

Box score

            IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Rudy May  12.0 3 0  0  0  6 13 103
Vida Blue 11.0 7 0  0  0  0 17 100

May, a 26-year-old who attended high school in Oakland, pitched the game of his life in front of the hometown fans. He did it against a darned good team, too. The A’s would win 101 games before getting trounced by Baltimore in the ALCS (and then winning the next three World Series).

The A’s featured veterans Sal Bando, Mike Epstein, Reggie Jackson and Rick Monday, as well as a young Gene Tenace. In other words, May wasn’t beating up on a bunch of nobodies.

May had originally been signed as an amateur free agent by the Minnesota Twins. After making minor-league stops in the White Sox and Phillies organizations, he came to the Angels in a December 1964 trade for fellow southpaw Bo Belinsky. On this Friday evening, May repeatedly abused a talented A’s lineup.

He allowed a couple of baserunners to get on in the second inning but fanned his opposite number, Blue, to end the threat. The next time Oakland showed any signs of life came in the ninth, when Jackson led off with a walk and stole second base. Pitcher Blue Moon Odom then ran for Jackson (manager Dick Williams often employed Odom as a pinch-runner; it’s not entirely clear why Odom entered in this case, although Jackson was out of the lineup the next day, so perhaps he’d suffered an injury of some sort).

After Tommy Davis flied to center, May intentionally walked Bando to face catcher Dave Duncan, who struck out. With light-hitting shortstop Larry Brown due up, Williams summoned Tenace from his bench; May struck him out, too, and that was that. (Tony LaRussa, whose long association with Duncan was just starting, would replace Brown in the field.)

May finally yielded to Eddie Fisher. During his stint, May faced 43 batters and allowed only two (Bando in the second, Jackson in the ninth) to reach scoring position. It was a dominant performance that would prove fruitless thanks to a similar showing from an even better southpaw.

Blue came up with the A’s in 1969 and 1970, but 1971 was his first full year in the big leagues… and oh, what a year. At the ripe old age of 21, he led the American League in ERA (1.82) and shutouts (8), taking home the Cy Young and MVP awards. (He also worked a career-high 312 innings, perhaps helping explain why he slipped to a mere 151 the following season.)

How good was Blue’s 1971 campaign? Well, no 21-year-old who qualified for the ERA title ever had a better ERA+:

Player          Year    IP ERA+
Vida Blue       1971 312.0 185
Smoky Joe Wood  1911 275.2 162
Hal Newhouser   1942 183.2 162
Bob Feller      1940 320.1 161
Mark Fidrych    1976 250.1 159
Babe Ruth       1916 323.2 158
Ralph Branca    1947 280.0 156
Bret Saberhagen 1985 235.1 145
Eppa Rixey      1912 162.0 144
Britt Burns     1980 238.0 143

WAR tells a similar story, with Blue (8.8) ranking second only to Feller (9.4) in that category. Point is, Blue enjoyed one of the most successful 21-year-old campaigns a pitcher has ever enjoyed. And against the Angels, in his finest season, Blue tossed his finest game.

He got into a little more trouble than May (because May, you recall, got into none whatsoever). The Angels mounted a serious threat in the sixth. Catcher Jerry Moses led off with a double to left. After May struck out, leadoff hitter Sandy Alomar Sr. singled to left, advancing Moses to third. With two men now in scoring position, Blue got serious, fanning Ken Berry and the once-dangerous Tony Conigliaro (acquired the previous October) to escape unharmed.

In the eighth, Blue surrendered a one-out single to May. Alomar, as he had two innings earlier, singled to left, setting the table for Berry and Conigliaro. But Blue again retired them, and that marked the Angels’ last serious threat against him.

The relievers were stingy as well. Fisher worked five scoreless innings for California, escaping a bases-loaded jam in the 14th. On the opposite side, Hall-of-Fame closer Rollie Fingers spun seven shutout frames (he saved 17 games in 1971 but still occasionally started; besides, this was “only” the third longest relief appearance of his career).

In the 20th inning, with Angels right-hander Mel Queen beginning his third inning of work, Oakland finally broke though with the game’s only run. Queen plunked Curt Blefary to start the frame. After Epstein popped out to first, Dick Green singled to left, moving Blefary up 90 feet. Next, Catfish Hunter, pinch-hitting for reliever (and winner) Darold Knowles, struck out. Angel Mangual proved to be an Angel killer, lining a pitch to right field for a single that brought home Blefary for the win.

According to the New York Times, the game, which had passed the 1 a.m. curfew, would have been suspended if not for Mangual’s run-scoring hit. It also notes that the two teams combined for 43 strikeouts, which shattered the previous record of 36 set by the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants in 1964.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

May finished the 1971 campaign 11-12 with a 3.02 ERA (107 ERA+). He spent parts of 16 seasons in the big leagues, going 152-156 with a 3.46 ERA (102 ERA+). May’s best efforts came in his mid-30s, with the Montreal Expos (1979) and New York Yankees (1980, when he led the AL in ERA). May never was named to an All-Star team, making him one of the winningest pitchers since the All-Star game came into existence to be excluded from the proceedings.

As for Blue, 1971 represented the pinnacle of his career. After winning just six games the following season, Blue rebounded in 1973 and enjoyed a few solid campaigns with a very powerful Oakland team (winning 20 in ’73 and 22 in ’75) before moving acros the Bay and kicking around for a few more years.

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract rates Blue as the No. 86 pitcher in baseball history, noting that he won as many games as Don Drysdale. Over parts of 17 seasons, Blue went 209-161 with a 3.27 ERA (108 ERA+). Among more recent players, Blue’s career bears some resemblance to that of Kenny Rogers, although Blue was much more dominant at his peak.

Sept. 24, 1971: Houston Astros (2) at San Diego Padres (1), 21 innings

Box score

             IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Ken Forsch 13.0 6 1  1  0  1  8  98
Clay Kirby 15.0 8 1  1  1  3 15 109

Two teams headed nowhere… playing a doubleheader… on a Friday night. The two games lasted a total of 7 hours, 40 minutes. Attendance was given as 6,339, although precious few probably remained to see the Padres win the “nightcap” after losing the opener.

Unfortunately, no play-by-play data exists for this game (it’s a credit to the outstanding work Retrosheet has done over the years that we are shocked when such data isn’t available), so we’ll turn our focus elsewhere.

What we know about the game:
{exp:list_maker}It took 5 hours, 25 minutes to complete
Bill Greif won in relief
In his final big-league appearance, Skip Guinn notched the only save of his career
Hall-of-Fame second baseman Joe Morgan went 0-for-8 with a walk
Johnny Jeter paced the Padres with four hits
Roger Metzger, Rich Chiles, and Forsch each had two hits for the Astros
Garry Jestadt, who collected three hits, drove home Nate Colbert in the second inning for the Padres’ lone tally
Chiles homered off Kirby in the fourth
With Gary Ross on the mound, Jesus Alou scored the winning run {/exp:list_maker}The duel featured two promising young right-handers. The 24-year-old Forsch was finishing a fine rookie campaign in which he would go 8-8 with a 2.53 ERA (133 ERA+).

The former Oregon State Beaver (best pitcher to come out of that school, and it’s not close) and brother of Bob Forsch spent much of his career shuttling between the rotation and bullpen before becoming a full-time starter in 1979 at age 32. He spent parts of 16 seasons in the big leagues, going 114-113 with a 3.37 ERA (106 ERA+). Imagine Kevin Millwood without Millwood’s freakish 1999 campaign.

On the other side, Kirby was a hard thrower with little control. He broke triple digits in walks in each of his first four big-league seasons and ranked third (behind Bill Stoneman and Sam McDowell) in walks from 1969 to 1972.

Thanks to San Diego’s inept offense in the early-’70s, Kirby managed to see his team lose the two best starts he ever made. The other came on June 7, 1972, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He hurled 13 shutout innings, but the Padres never scored, ultimately falling in 18.

Kirby also once nearly tossed a no-hitter for the Padres but was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth (to a chorus of boos from hometown fans that had little to cheer) by manager Preston Gomez. The Padres, despite Mat Latos’ near-miss in 2010, are still looking for their first such gem.

July 14, 1972: Cleveland Indians (2) at Texas Rangers (0), 14 innings

Box score

                IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Gaylord Perry 13.0 9 0  0  0  3  9  95
Mike Paul     11.0 3 0  0  0  0 10 101

Perry danced, like his pitches, in and out of trouble all night. Thanks to shoddy defense by the Rangers, Perry ended up earning the victory, but for a while it looked he would yield first.

In the second inning, Texas put runners on second and third with one out. Perry struck out catcher Hal King and retired second baseman Lenny Randle (whose evening would get worse) on a flyball to left for the final out. Three innings later, the Rangers loaded the bases against Perry with two out, but the dangerous Don Mincher grounded to second to end the frame. They had other, smaller opportunities, but couldn’t cash in on those either.

Paul, meanwhile, gave the Indians nothing. His first time through the lineup, he retired all nine batters, five via strikeout. He faced the minimum through seven innings, the only blemish being a single off the bat of Jack Brohamer with one out in the fourth (Brohamer was immediately erased when Alex Johnson rapped into a 6-3 double play).

Cleveland didn’t get its next baserunner until right fielder Ron Lolich (cousin of Mickey Lolich) singled to left with two out in the eighth. The only other chance the Indians had against Paul came in the 10th, thanks to the defensive exploits of shortstop Toby Harrah (and perhaps foreshadowing events to come).

After Brohamer flied out to start the 10th, Johnson grounded to Harrah, who mishandled the ball. No problem: With Ray Fosse at the plate, Paul promptly picked Johnson off first base. Fosse then grounded to Harrah, who… yep, mishandled the ball. Texas skipper Ted Williams removed Harrah from the game, replacing him with Ted Kubiak (whether this bothered Harrah is anyone’s guess; TNBJHBA suggests that Harrah conflicted with his manager back then, although if that’s the case, he seems to have gotten over it). Williams needn’t have bothered, as Graig Nettles popped to first for the final out.

The Indians finally broke through in the 14th, when Texas’ defense again faltered. Right-hander Jim Panther, in his second inning of work, retired the first two batters he faced. Light-hitting shortstop Frank Duffy then bounced to third baseman Dave Nelson, who couldn’t make the play. With Del Unser batting for Perry, Duffy swiped second. Unser followed with a grounder to Randle, who… couldn’t make the play. A single by Buddy Bell drove home Duffy, and another by Brohamer (off Paul Lindblad, who replaced the unlucky Panther) plated Unser.

Ed Farmer worked the bottom half, preserving Pery’s 15th win of the season. Perry would go on to win 24 games that year and the first of his two Cy Young Awards. (It was a dominant season. James opines in TNBJHBA that Perry’s ’72 performance was the best by an AL hurler since 1931, a fact obscured by his team’s lousy record and the presence of a certain Steve Carlton in the National League.)

You know the important bits of Perry’s career, but they bear repeating. He pitched parts of 22 seasons, retiring in 1983 with a 314-265 record and 3.11 ERA (117 ERA+). TNBJHBA ranks him no. 18 all time among pitchers, behind Jim Palmer and ahead of Ed Walsh.

Perry also gained fame for his use of the spitter. Or, as his then-5-year-old daughter Allison called it, “a hard slider.” Like Ken Forsch, Perry had a brother who was a successful big-league pitcher, Jim Perry. Between them, they won 529 games (in TNBJHBA, James cites the Perrys as the best pitching family in baseball history).

As for Paul, the Indians were familiar with the University of Arizona left-hander. After all, they had taken him in the 20th round of the 1967 June draft. Paul spent four undistinguished (14-33, 4.39 ERA, 82 ERA+) seasons in Cleveland before being shipped to Texas in a deal for, among others, the aforementioned Unser.

In 1972, Paul inexplicably (and irrepeatably) turned in a brilliant performance. Despite a pedestrian 8-9 record, he sported a 2.17 ERA and 139 ERA+, both marks placing him sixth best in the AL. The following season saw him revert to mediocrity and get traded to the Cubs for young left-hander Larry Gura. A year later, Paul was done, with a career line of 27-48, 3.91 ERA (89 ERA+).

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, New York Times, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, People Magazine (yes, really), SABR’s Baseball Biography Project.

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12 years ago

Blue’s 1972 numbers were reduced primarily because of a spring holdout rather than his heavy 1971 workload.

Dave Bristol
12 years ago

I have thoroughly enjoyed the series thus far . . . but are you really going to end this w/o dropping the bar to something like 90/90 for the last couple of decades?  I have been dying to know what the best pitchers duels of my lifetime were!!

Steve Treder
12 years ago

This has been a terrific series, Geoff.

I vividly remember that epic Vida Blue start.  17 Ks and zero walks—he was truly something that summer.

But you’ve missed an important element of the story of that game:  Tony Conigliaro’s 0-for-8-with-5-strikeouts performance was the nightmare that finally pushed him over the edge.  Following his final strikeout in the 19th inning, Conigliaro flung his bat down the right field line and stormed into the clubhouse, and retired from baseball in abject frustration.  That was the last game he played with the Angels.

Geoff Young
12 years ago

@gdc: Thank you for the additional info… maybe the holdout actually helped him in the long run by reducing wear and tear on the arm.

@Dave: Interesting. This may require further investigation. Thanks for the suggestion.

@Steve: Glad you enjoyed. And thanks for the info on Conigliaro. I missed that in my research, but you’re absolutely right that it’s an important part of the story.

Steve Treder
12 years ago

“maybe the holdout actually helped him in the long run by reducing wear and tear on the arm”

Well, maybe.  But most observers close to the situation have indicated that the emotional stress Blue underwent during his protracted contract battle with Finley really kind of messed him up, that he was never the same happy personality after that, at least so long as he was with the A’s.  Finley was brutal, utterly tactless and abusive.

dave silverwood
12 years ago

thank you this writing really gets me going and makes it easier than you know to wait for the season.Liked especially the reference to MelQuenn former Reds pitcher and as aReds fanit was a little trip back, you keep following guys tat have played for your favorite team. thanks again