This day in baseball history

On May 12, 1963, Mickey Lolich made his major league debut for the Detroit Tigers. He pitched two scoreless, hitless innings of mop-up relief against Cleveland Indians, striking out the first two batters he faced — Max Alvis and Sam McDowell. He was 22 years old.

Lolich went on to win 217 games, 207 of them for Detroit. And in 1968, he won three World Series contests.

Nineteen sixty-three was something of a lost season for the Tigers. They won only 79 games, compared to 85 the previous year and 101 in 1961. However, they “blooded” several key members of the championship team they would field five years later.

Third baseman Don Wert debuted the day before Lolich. Outfielders Gates Brown, Willie Horton, and pitcher Denny McLain would be called up later in the year. 1963 was also catcher Bill Freehan’s rookie year, although he had played in four games in 1961.

All of these Tigers played key roles in the 1968 championship drive, and McLain was that season’s major league MVP. But Lolich stole the show during the World Series, pitching three complete game victories, including Game 7. All told, he worked 27 innings against St. Louis, allowing only five runs.

Game 7 was a contest for the ages. Lolich pitched it on only two days rest. His opposite number, Bob Gibson, had also pitched a pair of overpowering complete game victories in this Series, and was gunning for his eighth complete game World Series win in a row.

Gibson and Lolich both pitched shut-out ball for six innings. Detroit broke through for three runs in the seventh, thanks to a fly ball by Jim Northrup that center-fielder Curt Flood, a great outfielder, misplayed into a triple.

Lolich needed no further support. Detroit won the game 4-1. Both Lolich and Gibson went all the way.

Lolich was nearly as sharp in his only other post-season series. In the 1972 AL playoffs, against the eventual champion Oakland A’s, Lolich started two games, pitched 19 innings, and allowed just three earned runs. Both of his games went into extra innings. All Lolich had to show for them was a loss and a no-decision.

So Lolich’s final post-season totals are: five starts, a remarkable 46 innings, eight earned runs, and a 3-1 record. I work that out to be a 1.56 ERA.

Lolich’s amazing innings per game count in the post-season is emblematic of his ability to finish what he started. From 1969-1975, the portly left-hander never completed fewer than 13 games in a season, and he completed more than 20 games three times. For his career, Lolich completed nearly 40 percent of his starts.

The post-season aside, Lolich only had two truly outstanding seasons: 1971 (25-14, 2.92 ERA, with 29 complete games and 376 innings pitched) and 1972 (22-25. 2.50 ERA). In 1968, Lolich was 17-9 with a 3.19 ERA. But that was the “year of the pitcher,” and his ERA was only average in that context. In fact, Tiger manager Mayo Smith removed Lolich from the starting rotation for a few games in August after he was roughed up in three consecutive starts.

Take away Lolich’s two great seasons, and you have a good, durable pitcher who, thanks to the 1968 World Series, made baseball history. Add the great seasons back in and you have a very good, durable pitcher who made baseball history. And either way, you have one of the baseball’s most vivid personalities from the 1960s and 1970s.

You can find Lolich’s SABR biography here.

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