This week in baseball history — beating the Niekros

The last time we peeked in on Bob Gibson’s historic 1968 season, back in late June, he had pitched five consecutive shutouts. Nor was Gibson done shutting teams out. In July, he blanked the opposition three more times.

In Gibson’s first start in August, he gave up four earned runs (tied for his season high) in 11 innings against the Chicago Cubs. In that start, on August 4, Gibson squared off against future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins. Neither starter took a decision in the Cubs 6-5 victory.

On August 9, Gibson went up against another future Hall of Famer, Phil Niekro of the Atlanta Braves. Few would have pegged Niekro for future fame at the time. In his fourth full season, Niekro was basically a .500 pitcher. His breakthrough would come the following year when he won 23 games.

Heading into the August 9 matchup, Niekro’s ERA was slightly below 3.00, just about average in this “year of the pitcher.” Gibson’s ERA was 1.08, having been pushed over the 1.00 mark by the four earned runs he conceded to the Cubs in his previous outing.

This game was scoreless going into the top of the third. Gibson, grounded out to lead off the inning. Niekro then walked Lou Brock, who stole second base off of the knuckle ball specialist. After Curt Flood struck out, Roger Maris drove Brock home with a two-out single.

Brock who must have been ailing during a lackluster first half of the season, had caught fire in July, raising his batting average 20 points that month. Since July 7, he had stolen 19 bases (counting the one off of Niekro on this day) and been caught only three times. Prior to July 7, he had stolen just 11 bases for the year.

A team fell behind Bob Gibson 1-0 at its peril in 1968, even as early as the third inning. Atlanta still had 21 outs with which to score, but it was probably about even money that they wouldn’t do so.

They didn’t. In the bottom of the third, Marty Martinez singled with one out and Niekro bunted him to second. However, Gibson retired Felipe Alow on a ground ball.

Gibson pitched gave up nothing in the fourth and fifth. In the sixth, Alou reached with a two-out single, but Felix Millan then tapped out to Gibson.

Gibson also conceded a two-out single in the seventh, but Tito Francona was stranded at first base.
The Braves went down in order in the eighth inning.

In the ninth Millan singled with one out. Up came Hank Aaron as the potential winning run. Dangerous Joe Torre followed Aaron in the batting order.

No problem. Gibson retired them both on fly balls.

His final totals: Nine innings, no runs, four hits, no walks, five strikeouts. This was his ninth shutout and 19th complete game of the season.

Five days later, it was the turn of Joe Niekro, Phil’s younger brother, to face Gibson at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Joe, in his second season, had an ERA of over 4.00.

Just as in the previous game, St. Louis scored a run in the top of the third. Maris reached on an error with two outs, and Orlando Cepeda knocked him in with a double.

The Cubs failed to score in a bizarre bottom half of the third. They managed two hits and two walks — close to a game’s worth output against Gibson at times in 1968, but did not produce a run. The key to the inning was a play in which Niekro and Don Kessinger both ended up on third base. Kessinger was tagged out.

St. Louis threatened a big inning in the next frame. Julian Javier tripled with one out and Dal Maxvil brought him home with a single to make the score 2-0. Gibson, a good hitting pitcher on top of everything else, then doubled, sending Maxvil to third. Chicago walked Brock intentionally.

Driving home the two runners in scoring position, in the context of Gibson’s year, would have broken the game open. But Flood lined out to Glenn Beckert who doubled up Gibson at second base.

The Cubs got a run back in the bottom of the fourth. Al Spangler doubled and Jim Hickman drove him home with a two out single.

Gibson had been struggling by his standards up to this point. However, hedidn’t give up another hit (or allow another base runner) until the eighth inning when Billy Williams singled with two outs. In the meantime, St. Louis had added a run in the seventh on a double by Brock and a single by Johnnie Edwards. The hit by Edwards ended Niekro’s day.

Williams’ single in the bottom of the eighth meant that power hitting Ron Santo could tie the time with a home run. Instead, he forced Williams at second base to end the inning.

Ernie Banks led off the bottom of the ninth with a single. Gibson retired Spanler and Randy Hundley, but Hickman singled, sending pinch-runner Jose Arcia to third.

Cubs manager Leo Durocher sent Dick Nen to bat for the pitcher, Phil Regan. Nen was a .210 hitter. Gibson struck him out.

Gibson’s final totals: Nine innings, one run, eight hits, three walks, seven strikeouts. His ERA at the end of the day: 1.07. With two more shutouts in his next three starts, his ERA would fall to 0.99 on September 2.

For now, Gibson had given up just one run in his last 18 innings against two good lineups. In the process, he had defeated the Niekro brothers who would go on to win a combined 489 games (compared to Gibson’s 251).

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