gibson goes down

i'm a day early on this, but since we're post-offday and there's no game to re-hash now's a good time to write it up. tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of bob gibson's last game. he pitched against the cubs, in relief -- his 7th relief appearance after being ignobly banished from the rotation.

hoot had gone 11-13 in 1974, his first losing season since 1960; he still received the honor of getting the opening-day start in 1975 and pitched pretty well; through 7 and 2/3 he had allowed only three runs and struck out 12, held a 4-3 lead over montreal before the home folks. but with two outs in the eighth gibson ran out of gas; he yielded two singles and a double, and just like that the cardinals trailed 5-4. they ultimately lost 8-4, with gibby taking the L; it was the last double-digit strikeout game of his career.

they rarely tracked pitch counts in those days -- nobody'd ever heard of the term -- but i'm guessing gibson threw about 130 that night. let's break it down: he faced 38 batters in the eight innings. in addition to his 12 strikeouts, he issued five walks; that's a bare minimum of 56 pitches right there (three pitches per strikeout, four pitches per walk), and realistically we're talking roughly 80 pitches for those 17 batters. if he averaged 2.5 pitches per at-bat for the 21 other hitters, that's another 53 pitches. he was 39 years old, pitching in the chill of an april night, his arm still conditioned to 5- or 6-inning spring training stints . . . . and the hell of it is, the cardinals had a great bullpen. al hrabosky was coming off an 8-1, 2.95 season, mike garman a year of 7-2, 2.64. after gibson put the tying and lead runners on base and had passed the 130-pitch threshold, you'd think . . . . . but that's how they managed in those days. gibson surely still saw himself as a 9-inning pitcher and wasn't about to accept help from some namby-pamby reliever, and schoendienst doubtless felt the same way.

from our enlightened perspective here in the 21st century, it seems pretty clear that gibson's aging arm aged a lot more in that opening-day start. over his next three starts he struck out just 3 men in 19 innings and yielded 24 hits and 14 runs. he ended april 0-3 with a 5.85 era; he had three good starts at the beginning of may to get his era down to 4.26, but then got tagged for six runs against the padres and, in his next start, 10 hits in five innings vs the reds. he went on the dl after that start, made a four-inning relief appearance on june 16, then returned to the rotation and went 1-3 with a 6.12 era in four starts. the last one came on july 8, 1975, at home vs san francisco; gibson yielded four earned in five innings, took the loss and fell to 2-8 with a 5.13 era. he went back on the dl, and rookie harry rasumussen took his spot in the rotation. and why not take a look at the kid? the cardinals appeared dead -- four games under with half the season gone, mired in fourth place, 11 games out of first.

when gibson returned, he was a relief pitcher -- and a triumphant one. on july 27 he relieved john denny in the fourth inning of a 6-6 slugfest at busch stadium and held the visiting phillies scoreless for four innings. he struck out four guys and even plunked one (larry bowa), a sure sign of well-being. ted simmons homered in the bottom of the 7th to give the cardinals the lead, and they went on to win 9-6 -- bob gibson's last major-league victory.

on august 1st he pitched another 3.2 scoreless relief innings at wrigley in a 9-4 st louis win and went 1 for 1 with a sac fly to boot -- same old gibson. that win put the cardinals over .500 and kicked off a 20-11 august; the rest of the division faltered, and the cards entered september tied for second place, just 4 games back of the pirates.

bob forsch beat the cubs on september 1, labor day, while the pirates and phillies both lost, putting st louis alone in 2d place and just 3 games off the division lead. but it would all fall apart over the next two days. on september 2 -- 30 years ago today -- lynn mcglothen and ray burris were deadlocked 1-1 through six innings. here's how the top of the 7th went:

CUBS 7TH: Morales reached on an error by Lintz [Morales to second]; Thornton made an out to right [Morales to third]; Trillo reached on an error by Lintz [Morales scored (unearned)]; Swisher singled to third [Trillo to second]; Swisher was picked off first but was safe on an error by McGlothen [Trillo to third, Swisher to second]; Burris struck out; Kessinger walked; McGlothen balked [Trillo scored (unearned), Swisher to third, Kessinger to second]; Wallis popped to third in foul territory; 2 R, 1 H, 3 E, 2 LOB. Cubs 3, Cardinals 1.
that's the 1970s cardinals in a nutshell -- 2 runs allowed on a hit, 3 errors and a balk. the cardinals lost 5-3 and the pirates won, restoring their four-game advantage.

on september 3, the cardinals fell behind 6-1 but rallied admirably in the 6th, tying the game on a two-out, bases-clearing double by lou brock. in the top of the 7th schoendienst sent gibson out to protect the tie, and it was just like old times: the cards in a pennant race, gibson on the mound. and this wasn't merely a sentimental call: gibson had excelled in his relief role, yielding only 2 runs in 13.2 innings and notching a 1-0 record with 2 saves. he'd struck out 13 men in that span, even fanning the side in the 11th inning of a dramatic extra-inning win against houston. so this was no "last hurrah" appearance; gibson was still competing, and all the hopes of the st louis franchise still rode on his shoulders.

for one more inning.

gibson got bill madlock on a flyball to left; then he walked jose cardenal and yielded an infield hit to champ summers. another walk, to andre thornton, loaded the bases with one out, but gibson coaxed a comebacker out of manny trillo and got the force at the plate. two down now, and the score still tied; jerry morales came to the plate, pinch-hitting for steve swisher. morales hit gibson well -- 8 for 22 in his career with two home runs. hoot reached back for that last little something extra, but -- now up over 20 pitches for the inning -- came up empty. he threw a wild pitch and the lead run trotted home. gibson now intentionally walked morales, an indicator of how badly he wanted to avoid confronting him -- for in passing morales, a right-handed hitter, he loaded the bases for the left-handed pete lacock. . . . . who whacked a grand slam to put the cubs ahead 11-6.

stubborn to the last, gibson stayed in to finish the inning, retiring don kessinger on a groundball to first. gibson took the throw and made the putout; then he chucked the ball back to the mound in disgust (i am guessing) and walked slowly into the dugout. he took the loss, and the cardinals fell back into a tie with the phillies, 5 games off the pace; they would win just 9 of their last 24 games and finished in a 3d-place tie, 10 and a half games behind.

you look back at the inning and it doesn't seem so terrible -- a couple walks, an infield hit; there was apparently only one well-hit ball. he nearly got out of the inning, and if he had who knows? but he didn't get out of it; the inning continued, and gibson lost the last shred of his dignity. shortly after that game he announced that he would not take the ball anymore. here is his final stat line:

ip h r er w so
1 2 5 5 3 0

it has taken three decades for the franchise to recapture the bearing -- imperious, fearsome -- that bob gibson imbued it with. let's keep that in mind as this season winds down; i've said it many times throughout the season and i'll say it again, st louis may not see another team like this one for many, many years.

thanks to retrosheet for the memories.

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