When Lefty Lost a 10-Inning Shutout

On Wednesday, April 18th, Cliff Lee threw a remarkable 10 inning shutout. He was the first Phillie to throw a 10 inning shutout in over 30 years, since Lefty did it in a game against the Expos in 1981. The Phillies also lost that game, 1-0. Here’s the story of that loss.

It’s impossible to overstate Steve Carlton’s greatness. His 1972 season is mentioned in the same breath as Bob Gibson’s 1968 and Doc Gooden’s 1985. He won 329 games and has the 4th most strikeouts in MLB history. He won 4 Cy Young’s and played in 10 All-Star games. Another testament to his greatness? The game he threw on September 21st, 1981, that was strikingly similar to Cliff Lee’s on Wednesday night, with perhaps an even crueler ending.

The 1981 season was cut in half by a contentious strike, and when play resumed the owners decided to split it into halves and declare winners from the first and second halves. (The result was disastrous, with Cincy and St. Louis sporting the two best records in the NL, but neither making the playoffs). The Phillies had won the first half, and thus had nothing to play for in the 2nd half. Therefore, it was no surprise that they went 34-21 in the first half, then went 25-27 in the 2nd half. One of those 27 losses was more painful than the others, however.

Carlton faced off against journeyman pitcher Ray Burris, who would throw for 6 teams over 15 season, winning more games than he lost only four times in his career. But on this day, he was unhittable, shutting down the Phillies frame after frame. Carlton was even more dominant. While Burris only recorded one K, Carlton, put up 12. After 9 innings, the two teams were tied at zero, and they went into extra frames. Burris came out for the 10th and sent the Phils down 1-2-3. Carlton came out in the bottom of the 10th and did the same. And so, after 10 innings, each pitcher had given up 3 hits and had nothing to show for it. They were both pulled for pinch hitters in the 11th.

The game went into the 17th inning, still scoreless. With two outs in the top of the 17th, the Expos sent in a young man named Bryn Smith who had pitched all of 8.2 innings in his career. After giving up a single to Manny Trillo, he induced Len Matuszek to fly out to left and end the inning. In the bottom of the 17th, Andre Dawson singled home Rodney Scott, and the Expos got the win. Bryn Smith faced two batters, retired one and got the win. Steve Carlton faced 35 batters, retired 29, struck out 12, and got an ND. Baseball can be a funny game.

Smith went on to have a very nice career, winning 108 games and finishing with a very respectable 3.53 ERA. But his first one came fairly cheap. Here’s the box score to that game. A very fun box score to look at, as both team had some all-time greats on their roster.

RELATED STORY: Former Phillies pitcher Joe Oeschger throws 20 innings and gets a no-decision.

Lefty’s Slow Descent

25 years ago today, the Phillies said goodbye to the greatest pitcher in the franchise’s history. It was not an easy decision to make. The Phillies had hoped that Carlton would see that his skills had deteriorated, that his fastball no longer had pop or movement, and that he would agree to retire. But Lefty was nothing if not stubborn, and he refused to acknowledge that he was done. Bill Giles explained how it went down at a press conference.

“I met with Steve and his wife, Beverly, a week ago at their Center City apartment, and we discussed his retiring,” Giles said. “He convinced me at that time that he could still pitch, so I decided we’d give him another start.

“But when he was knocked out of the game in the fifth inning Saturday, I decided we had to do something. I couldn’t take it anymore, I couldn’t watch him struggling anymore. And it took me three days to get up the nerve to tell him.

“We met again Tuesday night. He again expressed his belief that he could still pitch and that he did not want to retire. But I told him that it just was not in the best interest of the Phillies to have him keep pitching for us.

“And this is easily the toughest thing I’ve had to do since becoming president of the club. I apologize for my emotions. You build up great attachments to someone who is with a club for 14 years. He’s probably had more impact than any pitcher in this club’s history.”

The club had hoped to send him out Julius Erving style, with an enormous standing ovation for his last start. Instead, two years later, after bouncing around several teams, the end came quietly in Minnesota, where he racked up a 16.22 ERA before the Twins pulled the plug. Sadly, Carlton had long been represented by an agent who was ripping him off, so part of the reason he held on for so long was money. But it was dumbass Tim McCarver who gave the real reason that Lefty held on for so long.

“Lefty has an irascible contempt for being human. To a great degree, he feels superhuman. He refuses to think like other mortals. It’s not in his makeup to ever consider things in realistic, practical fashion.

“Everybody says, ‘If I were in his shoes, I’d quit.’ But if you’re not in his shoes, you don’t understand how he thinks. Part of the things that made him great are part of the things that are making him hang on.”


Was Lefty’s ’72 Season the Greatest Ever? Author Steve Bucci Tells Us

Another great interview with an author. This time it’s Steve Bucci, who has spent over 20 years as a sports journalist, over half of them as a sports anchor and reporter on KYW. He has written several books on the Phillies, his most recent one with Dave Brown called Drinking Coffee With a Fork: The Story of Steve Carlton and the ’72 Phillies. The title comes from a great quote from Willie Stargell, who once said, “Sometimes I hit him (Carlton) like I used to hit Koufax, and that’s like  drinking coffee with a fork.” As most local sports fans know, Lefty’s ’72 season was nothing short of jaw dropping, as he won 27 games for a team that won 59 games all year. Steve tells us whether or not Carlton ever blew up on his less talented teammates, whether Philadelphians knew they were watching something special that year, and the biggest question of them all: was Steve Carlton’s 1972 season the greatest pitching year in MLB history?

JGT: What inspired you guys to write this book?

STEVE: We were inspired by the numbers Carlton put up that season for such  a bad team.  Dave Brown and I thought it would make a good book, because it doesn’t seem possible, does it? How could a guy pitch that well for a team that bad? And I’ve always felt that Carlton’s ’72 has gone largely overlooked in the annals of great seasons. Most people automatically think of Gibson’s ’68, or Guidry’s ’78, or one of Koufax’s great seasons of the mid-60s, but few every mention Carlton in 1972. He was the first, and up until recently, the only Cy Young Award winner from a last place team.  We thought it was time he was given his due.

JGT: If Carlton had played on an even decent team, how many games do you think he would he have won that year?

STEVE: My guess is he would have definitely gotten to 30, which is a magic number in baseball history. There was a players strike that year that wiped out the first week of the season, and cost them six games. The Phillies only played 156. So that may have cost him two or three starts.  As it was, he almost won 30.

JGT: How much of winning that many games for such a terrible team was luck?

STEVE: One can never discount the element of luck as it applies to winning baseball. There is always some degree of it, whether it’s simply the fact that key players stay healthy over the course of 162 games. And Carlton was injury-free throughout the season, and was able to make an astonishing 41 starts. He also had 30 complete games. Think about that, 30 complete games. Guys today don’t have that many in their entire careers.  But, there wasn’t too much luck involved. Every night it seemed he was matched-up against the other team’s best pitcher. Gibson, Marichal, Seaver—as well as pitchers who were not future Hall of Famers but were having good years, such as Milt Pappas of the Cubs, and the Pirates Steve Blass.
JGT: Did Cardinals management trade him to the baseball badlands as a punishment for his stubbornness, or was Rick Wise the best deal they could get for him?

STEVE: Both players wanted more money, and owners back then wouldn’t stand for that. This was before free agency. The owners had all the power, and they exercised it. If you refused their contract offers, there was a good chance they’d move you.  The Cardinals knew the Phillies had a disgruntled pitcher on their hands, too, and would probably be willing to trade him. It was about principle; the owners had to make a stand. But, a baseball writer friend of mine contends that if the Cardinals had any idea what Carlton would become, they never would’ve made the deal, and he’s probably right.  The fact that they thought Wise was on a par with Carlton is another crazy facet to the whole thing.
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