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spirit of '67

The Dude admires how the cards have hung together during albert's injury : "Almost every member of the line-up has increased their intensity and focus, and picked up their game several levels above what they were playing before." similar thoughts expressed in bernie's column a day or three ago, including a roll call of players who have stepped it up.

with the cards preparing to face the defending world champs, these sentiments put me in mind of another champ'ship team -- one that, like the 2006 cardinals, suffered a devastating injury to its best player in the middle of a pennant race. i'm thinking of the team that gave this blog its name -- El Birdos, the 1967 cardinals. they lost bob gibson to a broken leg on july 15 and played without him until september 7 -- a 55-game stretch, one-third of the schedule. imagine this year's cardinals without carpenter for that length of time. . . . then as now, a bunch of players stepped into the breach and more than made up for the franchise player's absence. maybe not the players you would expect.

at the time gibson went down, let's recall, the cardinals had yet to establish themselves as the juggernaut we now remember; they were a young team that, after winning a kind of flukey championship in 1964, had finished 7th in the 10-team nl in 1965 and only 6th in 1966, four games over .500. in 1967 the two-time defending nl champs dodgers, stunned by sandy koufax's sudden retirement, fell out of contention early, leaving the rest of the league to battle it out; the cards, giants, cubs, reds, and braves emerged from the pile. st louis reached the end of may in 2d place and was still there at the trade deadline, ie june 15; they clawed into 1st place on june 19, 1967 -- 39 years ago yesterday -- and built the bulge out to 3.5 games by the all-star break on july 9. gibson's injury took place four games after the break.

the team was 51-34 at the time, a .600 clip; they were 4 games up on the cubs and reds, 4.5 ahead of the giants. gibson, not having his best season, was 10-6 with an uncharacteristically high 3.52 era. with his departure for the disabled list, the st louis rotation consisted of one true rookie, a 28-year-old journeyman named dick hughes; a 22-year-old left-hander in his first full major-league season, steve carlton; a 2d-year player named larry jaster; and one established veteran, ray washburn, who was kind of the jeff suppan of his day. to this mix the cardinals added 23-year-old reliever nelson briles, who had gone 4-15 as a starter the previous season. washburn's career record entering 1967 was 41-37; the other four guys in the gibsonless rotation owned a combined total of 26 major-league wins.

perhaps not surprisingly, given those modest talents, the cardinals were middle-of-the-pack in team pitching. they were allowing 4.02 runs per game through the games of july 15, tied for 5th in the league; two of the teams chasing the cardinals (cincy and sf) ranked well ahead of them in this category, and their other close pursuer (the cubs) was essentially tied. without gibson, the cards' mound disadvantage worsened immeasurably -- and so too did their chances to hang on to their rather slim lead.

but what happened then is the same thing that happened through the 1st 13 games of pujols' injury: a bunch of guys starting playing their asses off. over the next 55 games, the cards reduced their runs-allowed rate by more than a run a game -- from 4.02/game pre-injury to 2.98/game during gibson's convalescence. not surprisingly, they went 36-19 over that span, turning a very spirited four-way race into a rout. when gibson next took the mound, on september 7, the cardinals were 11.5 games out in front.

how'd that happen? the guys in the rotation all pitched well in gibson's absence, but they merely held to form; only dick hughes significantly improved his game -- he went 7-2 with a 2.30 era during the injury, vs 7-3, 3.25 before the injury. but the guys who really rose to the challenge were the relief pitchers. now, you gotta remember, in those days, teams did not regard relief pitchers the way they do today; the bullpen wasn't a vital unit with a very important role (ie, protecting leads) and a bunch of hyper-specialized roles (closer, setup man, LOOGY). in 1967, as a general rule, relievers didn't get called into a game until the starting pitcher had failed. they were mop-up men, all of them . . . . well, almost all. many teams had a "relief ace," but aside from that the bullpen of 1967 consisted of guys who weren't good enough to start; they were just below-average pitchers. check out the cardinal relievers as of july 15:

g inn w-l era
joe hoerner 30 34.2 4-2 2.86
nelson briles 35 51 4-2 3.58
ron willis 34 46.2 1-3 4.94
al jackson 20
(11 gs)
71 6-4 4.94
hal woodeshick 23 24.1 1-0 5.92

joe hoerner was the ostensible "ace" of the 'pen, with 6 saves; he took over the role from 34-year-old hal woodeshick, who in the previous two seasons had made 110 appearances out of the st louis pen and posted a 1.87 era in 130 innings. as you can see, he got off to a rather slow start in 1967; by midseason he'd become a forgotten man, making only 7 appearances (8.2 innings) in the 6 weeks leading up to gibson's injury. ron willis was a rookie who had just turned 24 years old; al jackson was a 31-year-old veteran (also left-handed!) whom the cardinals had rescued from the mets, for which team jackson lost 73 games in a four-year span (1962-65), including two 20-loss seasons ('62 and '65).

with briles' departure for the rotation, the cardinals bolstered the bullpen by acquiring jack lamabe the day after gibson's injury. this well-traveled player, 30 years old, had a 26-32 career record through 1966 and had already pitched for two teams in the first half of 1967, the white sox and mets; the cards got him from new york for a PTBNL, who turned out to be none other than al jackson . . . . the cards had the benefit of both players' services for the balance of 1967. i don't think you could get away with that today.

ok, so there's your motley crew. during the 55 games that bob gibson missed in 1967, here's what they did:

gs inn w-l era
briles 10 75 7-2 1.80
bullpen 1 143 10-5 1.70
TOTAL 11 218 17-7 1.73

and here are the relievers' individual records:

g inn w-l era
willis 23 33 4-0 0.55
hoerner 19 26 0-0 1.04
jackson 13 27 2-0 1.33
woodeshick 13 17 1-1 2.12
lamabe 18 40 3-4 3.15

i'm particularly touched by the way hal woodeshick miraculously rediscovered his form during this stretch; upon gibson's return he made one last appearance, got clocked for 4 runs in a third of an inning, and never appeared in another big-league game. it's like he spent every ounce of his reserves holding things together while gibson was out, and then keeled over and died when gibby came back. . . . well, that's the romantic way to view it.

in any case, 'twas the bullpen that came to the rescue when gibson went out. they took on larger roles, pitched way above their heads, and enabled the cards not only to hold their ground but actually to advance while their best player sat on the shelf. and then they faded into the night -- jack lamabe lasted one more season, al jackson two, ron willis three; woodeshick, you already know. only hoerner and briles had much left to offer; the rest were just the right guys in the right place at the right time.

so there you have it -- the El Birdos formula for surviving a crippling injury. and 39 years from now, the fans may marvel at how never-heard-of-ims like chris duncan and hec luna and so taguchi managed to play like champs while the great Hombre sat with an aching oblique.

all praise to retrosheet for the foregoing information.