This day in baseball history — Koufax delivers, sans curveball

When we last we left the 1965 World Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers had climbed back into it with a 4-0 victory over the Minnesota Twins. The Twins still led 2 games to 1, but faced the prospect of seeing LA aces Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax in three of the remaining four games.

In Game 4, the Dodgers coasted to a 7-2 victory. Drysdale reversed the tables on Jim “Mudcat” Grant, winner of Game 1 by an almost identical score (Game 1 was 8-2).

In Game 5, Koufax turned the tables on Jim Kaat, the winner of Game 2. The immortal left-hander hurled a 4 hit shutout and the Dodgers romped to victory, 8-0.

Now suddenly facing elimination in Game 6, Twins’ manager Sam Mele shortened his rotation, bringing back Grant on two days rest (at the expense of Camilo Pascual). For LA, Walter Alston stuck with the three man rotation, calling on Claude Osteen whose shutout win in Game 3 had triggered the Dodgers’ series comeback.

Grant pitched superbly in a 5-1 complete game win. The Twins had only six hits, but made them count.

The key blows were a two-run homer in the fourth by Bob Allison and a three-run blast by pitcher Grant in the sixth, after the Dodgers had intentionally walked Frank Quilici. In 759 regular season at-bats, the Mudcat hit only 6 home runs.

On October 14, 50 years ago today, the Dodgers and the Twins played Game 7. This time Alston shortened his rotation. He skipped Drysdale and went with Koufax on two-days rest. Mele, his rotation already shortened, named Kaat (also on two days rest) as his starter. So it was a rematch of Games 2 and 5.

After the game, Koufax said that he and Drysdale came to Metropolitan Stadium not knowing who would start. Alston informed them by saying only that he would “like to start the left-hander.”

This was probably a pretext for using a phenomenal pitcher instead of a merely great one. It’s true, though, that the Twins were a better hitting team against right-handers because Tony Oliva devoured righties and Don Mincher and Jimmie Hall displayed big-time power against them. (Against southpaws, Hall sat in favor of light-hitting Joe Nossek).

Koufax was phenomenal because he had two utterly dominating pitches — his fastball and his curve. But in the first inning, he couldn’t get his curve over the plate. He thus walked Oliva and Harmon Killebrew back-to-back with two out, before fanning Earl Battey.

Relying more heavily on his fastball, Koufax settled down. In the second and third innings he gave up only a single to Zoilo Versalles, while striking out four Twins.

The score was tied at 0-0 in the top of the fourth when Lou Johnson led off the inning with a home run. The ball hit the foul pole in left field. As readers of my other posts about the 1965 season may recall, the clutch hitting of Johnson (who replaced the injured all-star Tommy Davis early in the season) was a recurring theme in big games that year.

Ron Fairly followed Johnson’s homer with a double and Wes Parker singled him home. Kaat seemingly had nothing left in the tank, so Mele pulled him in favor of Al Worthington, his best reliever. LA wouldn’t score again.

The Twins threatened in the fifth when the weak-hitting Quilici doubled with one out and pinch hitter Rich Rollins followed with a walk. The free pass to Rollins brought Alston to the mound. According to Alston, the conversation went like this:

Alston: Sandy, what’s going on?

Koufax: I can’t throw the goddamn curveball.

Alston: Well, what are we gonna do?

Koufax: Fuck it! Let’s just blow it by ’em.

Now came the key play of the game. Versalles lashed a grounder down the third base line. It looked like a double — one that, with Drysdale warming up in the bullpen, might chase Koufax. But Jim Gilliam made a diving back-hand stop and touched the bag to force Quilici. Koufax retired Nossek, so the Dodgers maintained their 2-0 advantage.

Gilliam at this stage of his career was not highly regarded defensively; indeed, he was often replaced late in ball games for a better fielder. But he rolled back the years with the defining play of Game 7.

After this, Koufax was virtually untouchable, retiring the Twins in order in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings. In the ninth, though, Koufax would have to face the heart of the Twins’ order — Oliva, Killebrew, Battey, and (if necessary) Allison. And by the way, John “Red” Kennedy replaced Gilliam at third base for defensive purposes.

The overworked lefty with the arthritic left elbow got Oliva on a ground ball to Kennedy to start the inning, but Killebrew delivered a single. The tying run would therefore come to the plate at least one time and probably two.

But Koufax was unfazed. He struck out Battey looking and Allison swinging.

Koufax thus pitched back-to-back World Series shutouts (a four-hitter followed by a three-hitter). If you count back into the regular season, Koufax closed out the year with five shutouts in eight games, all of them vital contests for the Dodgers.

You can read a good summary of Koufax’s incredible 1965 statistical season here. And though Twins fans may not want to see it, you can watch the game, the only World Series contest the Twins have ever lost at home, below.