Fifty years ago this weekend, the National League pennant race took a decisive turn. On Saturday morning, the San Francisco Giants led the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Milwaukee Braves by two games. By Sunday evening, the Giants were in third place, a game behind the Dodgers and half a game behind the Braves. The Dodgers had swept a three game series in San Francisco.
The key to the series was the superiority of the Dodgers starting pitching. On Saturday, Roger Craig pitched a complete game to lead LA to a 4-1 victory in the first game. In the second, game, Don Drysdale gave up only one run (unearned) in six innings, as the Dodgers won 5-3. On Sunday, Johnny Podres pitched shut-out ball into the eighth inning. He needed help from Sandy Koufax and Clem Labine in the eighth, but the Dodgers went on to win 8-2.
By contrast, the three Giant starters – Johnny Antonelli, Mike McCormick, and Sam Jones – gave up nine earned runs in 13 innings of work.
Baseball fans of the 1960s would become used to great starting pitching from the Dodgers. But in 1959, the Dodgers had the weakest starters of the three contenders. Only Drysdale pitched more than 200 innings and his record – 17-14, 3.45 ERA – paled in comparison to those of Jones – 21-15, 2.82 ERA – and Antonelli – 19-10, 3.10 ERA.
But Dodgers manager Walter Alston had spread the innings around, and his starters seemed to have more left in the tank down the stretch. Meanwhile Jones was closing in on 50 games pitched and 270 innings worked, with Antonelli having handled a comparable load. For the Dodgers, as noted, only Drysdale had been ridden hard, and at 22 years of age (Jones was 33 and Antonelli 29) he was none the worse for wear.
In fairness to Giants manager Bill Rigney, he was managing in accordance with current practice, Indeed, Milwaukee manager Fred Haney was riding Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette (38 and 32 years old, respectively) as hard as Rigney was riding Jones and Antonelli. Yet Milwaukee was surging right along with LA.
Still, I wince when I see that Rigney brought Antonelli back in relief on Sunday after he was chased as a starter on Saturday. Antonelli would be ineffective in his next (and last) start on Wednesday. Similarly, Rigney had used Jones in relief on the Thursday before his Sunday start against LA even though “Sad Sam” had pitched nine innings the day before (the Wednesday). No wonder Jones had little to offer against the Dodgers.
The 1959 Dodgers got good years from a lot of players, but great years from none. Fortunately, in a number of respects including his juggling of the pitching staff, they got a great year from Walter Alston.
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