clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

life before bruce

New, 30 comments

i'm not here to defend the bbwwa's election of bruce sutter to the hall of fame. my purpose is to review the context -- which you young guys don't recall, and you old ones may have forgotten -- in which sutter came to the cardinals. a dire set of circumstances indeed. the cardinal pitching staff stunk in 1980, finishing last in the league in earned-run average (3.93). injury and ineptitude forced no fewer than 14 pitchers to make at least one start for that fearsome squad, which -- as a group -- struck out a feeble 4.1 men per 9 innings. the starters were terrible but the relievers were worse; four of `em never pitched a big-league inning after 1980, and another three were out of The Show by 1982.

they sucked from their very first appearance of the year. pete vukovich had thrown a complete game three-hit shutout on opening day, beating the defending champion pirates 1-0, and bob forsch went 8 strong innings the next day and handed a 3-2 lead to the bullpen. ken boyer sent left-hander don hood -- the cards' first-ever free-agent signee -- out for the 9th inning to protect the lead against hard-swinging left-handers dave parker, willie stargell (the reigning co-mvp), and john milner. parker reached on an error, stargell walked, and bill robinson pinch-hit for milner; enter mark littell, the incumbent "closer" if you will, who led the cards in saves in 1979 with 13. littell got robinson and bill madlock to groundout, and the cardinals still led 3-2 with an out to go; but ed ott stroked a 2-run single -- the only hit of the inning -- to put the pirates ahead 4-3. that was the final score.

a month later the cards -- stumbling along at about .500, their season still formless -- went out west for one of their two annual california road trips. in the 1970s these were always dreaded journeys; a 4-5 trip constituted a huge success. they started this particular trip in san diego against ex-cardinal rick wise and took a 2-1 lead into the 9th behind hood (pressed into service as a starter after injuries thinned the rotation). pedro borbon (the elder, not the guy who cursed the 2003 bullpen with his presence) started the inning, yielded a one-out double, and then gave way to ageless jim kaat, who completed the job with a single, intentional walk, and game-ending single: padres 3, cardinals 2. just two games later, on may 16, boyer -- justifiably losing trust in the bullpen -- sent bob forsch out for the 9th to protect his own 3-2 lead against the giants. he got the first man, then yielded a single and a double; mark littell came on and promptly coughed up the game-losing single. the loss dropped the cards to 1-3 on the trip, when by rights they ought to have been 3-1.

on may 21, the last night of the road trip -- and the last game before a seemingly inevitable strike, which the players' union had set for may 23 -- littell and co. yielded four runs in the bottom of the 8th, turning a 3-1 lead into another loss and polishing off a 1-8 west-coast swing. at the 11th hour the strike got miraculously averted (or, at least, postponed for a year), but the cardinals' union rep apparently forgot to notify the relief corps that the season was indeed to continue; on may 23 they inherited a scoreless 9th-inning tie and needed all of two batters to put the cardinals in arrears, setting up a 2-0 defeat. the next night, the bullpen sprung a 5-run leak in the 7th inning, converting a 4-3 lead into an 8-4 deficit; and the night after that, they got tagged for 6 runs in the 8th and 9th innings, turning a 5-5 tie into an 11-5 rout. they reached their nadir three days later, blowing a 5-0 lead as the mets posted 6 runs in the 8th inning to hand the cards their 16th loss in 18 games.

that stretch dropped them to last place, 9 games out and essentially ended the season for the cardinals, who had won 86 games in 1979 and harbored visions of returning to the postseason for the first time in over a decade. the bullpen hardly deserved all the blame for the swoon; the offense averaged but 3 runs a game, and the defense yielded 10 unearned runs. but the relievers achieved failure on a far more spectacular scale. their stats for that 18-game stretch (may 13-30):

ip h bb so hr era whip
starters 100.2 90 41 49 3 3.59 1.31
relievers 36.2 49 27 17 5 8.59 2.07

boyer got fired a week later, whitey herzog took over, and sutter became a cardinal in december 1980, instantly transforming the bullpen from one of the cardinals' primary weaknesses into a major strength. it would remain so for more than 15 years. in that regard, sutter truly helped to redefine the cardinal franchise, giving it something it hadn't had since bob gibson -- what the diaspora calls an intimidation factor.

still doesn't make him a hall-of-famer in my eyes, but opinions vary. see others at get up baby, play a hard 9, bernie's column, the hardball times, baseball analysts, mike's rants, and dan agonistes. see also beyond the boxscore, which in addition to a breakdown of the sutter induction announces its own new inductees to the ray lankford wing of the hall of fame.