On October 1, 1962, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants played the first game of a best-of-three playoff to determine the National League pennant winner. It was the fourth such playoff in National League history and the fourth involving the Dodgers. They had lost to St. Louis in 1946 and to the then-New York Giants in 1951, before defeating Milwaukee in 1959.
The Dodgers and the Giants were each worthy of a pennant in 1962. Both had won 101 games, and in neither case was this a fluke. Heading into the playoff, the Dodgers had a run differential of plus 154 runs. The Giants were even better at plus 177.
The Dodgers, though, had coped with the absence of the great Sandy Koufax for more than two months. In mid-July a blood clot in the palm of his pitching hand cut off circulation to the index finger and partly to the next finger and thumb, leaving him unable to pitch. Koufax had been enjoying a breakout, Cy Young caliber year before the injury. Asked about his hard luck, Koufax commented, “I feel like Job; I can’t get mad at anybody except the Lord, and if I do that I’m afraid things will get worse.”
By late September, things had gotten sufficiently better that Koufax returned to the mound. But he was shelled in his return start and only so-so in his two subsequent appearances. Still, when Walter Alston called on Koufax to pitch the first game of the playoff on Monday, it seemed like a reasonable decision. Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres were unavailable, having pitched on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, and Stan Williams had pitched himself out of the rotation with a string of mostly bad performances.
For Giants manager Alvin Dark, the choice of starting pitcher was easy. He would turn to veteran lefty Billy Pierce, a 15 game winner (against only 6 losses) working on four days of rest. Twice a 20 game winner with the Chicago White Sox in the 1950s, the 35 year-old Pierce had found new life with the Giants. Moreover, he had post-season experience, having pitched well as a reliever during the 1959 World Series, in which Koufax had also excelled.
But this duel between Koufax and Pierce was no contest. In the bottom of the first inning, Felipe Alou doubled with two out and Willie Mays, whose home run had propelled the Giants into the playoff the previous day, followed with another homer. When Jim Davenport led off the second inning with a home run and the next batter, Ed Bailey, singled, Koufax was done for the day.
So were the Dodgers. Pierce limited them to three hits and one walk over nine innings. The final score was 8-0. The Dodgers had been shut out for the third consecutive game and their scoreless inning streak stood at 30.
The Giants now were one victory away from the World Series. The Dodgers, losers of five straight, needed to beat the Giants twice.
UPDATE: Speaking of teams making the post-season despite the extended absence of their pitching pheenom, the Washington Nationals clinched the National League East crown tonight. Unlike Sandy Koufax, Stephen Strasburg won’t pitch at all in the post season. However, unlike the 1962 Dodgers, the Nationals have a deep starting pitching rotation.
The odds are that Strasburg’s absence won’t damage the Nats. But the odds also are Strasburg wouldn’t have suffered any damage to his arm had he been permitted to continue pitching periodically this year.