On October 9, 1968, the Detroit Tigers crushed the St. Louis Cardinals 13-1 in Game Six of the World Series. With that win, the Tigers evened the Series after falling behind three games to one.
This was a Series of two outstanding and evenly matched teams. The Tigers won 103 games in the regular season and captured the pennant by 12 games. The Cardinals, defending world champions, were on a pace to win at least that many games for most of the seasons, but coasted through September, settling for 97 wins and a nine game margin over second place San Francisco.
The Tigers were probably the better team. They outscored opponents by 179 runs; the Cards outscored theirs by 111. The National League was stronger than the American in 1968, but not that much stronger.
In the World Series, though, the Cards would be able to pitch Bob Gibson in three of the seven games, if the Series went that far. Gibson had finished the season with an astonishing 1.12 ERA. In addition, he had won five straight World Series starts.
The Tigers would counter with Denny McLain. He had won an astonishing 31 games. But Gibson was the superior pitcher and most observers believed he was good for at least two wins in the Series.
After Game One, Gibson looked good for three wins, if it came to that. He shut out the Tigers 4-0, allowing only five hits. He also set a World Series record for strikeouts, fanning 17 — one short of the major league regular season record in a nine inning game.
McLain gave up three runs in five innings. He looked nothing like the ace he had been all season.
Mickey Lolich evened the Series in Game Two. He allowed just one run on six hits, as the Tigers coasted to an 8-1 victory over Nelson Briles and the Cards.
Game Three started well for Detroit. They jumped on Ray Washburn for two runs in the third inning. However, St. Louis countered with four runs in the fifth inning off of Earl Wilson. A three run homer by Tim McCarver did most of the damage.
The score was 4-3 entering the top of the seventh inning. Veteran Don McMahon, who had pitched for Milwaukee in the 1957 and 1958 Series, was on in relief for the Tigers. He had set the Cards down 1-2-3 in the sixth.
In the seventh, though, Curt Flood led off with a single. Roger Maris doubled him to third. With first base open, the Tigers elected to pitch to Orlando Cepeda. He smashed a three-run homer. That was that. St. Louis led the Series two games to one.
Game Four was a Gibson-McLain rematch. The outcome was the same, an easy Cardinals win.
Gibson gave up just one run on five hits and struck out ten. McLain didn’t make it out of the third inning. The final score: St. Louis 10, Detroit 1.
Gibson had now won seven consecutive World Series games. Each victory was a complete game. In the 64 innings, he had allowed 11 runs (five of them in his Game Seven win in 1964) and 39 hits, with 76 strikeouts.
Facing elimination, Detroit turned again to Lolich in Game Five. Things looked grim after the Cardinals scored three in the very first inning. A double by Lou Brock, a single by Flood, and another homer by Cepeda did the deed.
But these were the only runs Lolich would give up that day. Meanwhile the Tigers clawed back into the game with two runs off of Briles in the fourth inning. Triples by Mickey Stanley and Willie Horton keyed the outburst.
St. Louis led 3-2 entering the seventh inning. The Cardinals were nine outs away from claiming another championship.
With one out in the seventh, Mayo Smith, the Tigers manager, allowed Lolich, a .114 hitter during the regular season, to bat. Smith may have been influenced by the home run Lolich hit off of Nelson Briles in Game Two, in which the pitcher went 2-4 at the plate.
This time, Lolich singled. That was all for Briles. Red Schoendienst brought on Joel Hoerner.
Hoerner pitched to a 1.42 ERA during the regular season, but had been battered in the 1967 World Series.
He had also struggled in mop-up relief in Game Two of this Series, but come back strongly to earn a three-plus inning save in Game 3.
Dick McAuliffe greeted Hoerner with a single. Hoerner then walked Norm Cash to load the bases with one out.
The great Al Kaline singled to put Detroit ahead 4-3. Norm Cash also singled to make it 5-3. Hoerner had faced four batters and given up three hits and a walk.
Lolich closed out the victory, but not without drama. In the ninth, McCarver led off with a single. With one out, pinch hitter Ed Spezio singled. The tying runs were on base.
Schoendienst then sent Maris up to bat for his pitcher, Ron Willis. Lolich prevailed in this lefty-lefty matchup, striking Maris out.
That left it up to Brock, who was having a fine Series. Lolich retired him on a ground ball. The Tigers had survived.
Mayo Smith called on McLain for Game Six, bypassing Wilson and assuring that, if the Tigers went down, they would do so with their best — McLain and, in the event of a Game 7, Lolich. The Cardinals stayed with their regular rotation, which meant Washburn.
The Tigers scored two off of Washburn in the second inning. In the third, they tagged him and two successors for ten runs. In that inning, Cardinal pitchers walked four Tigers and hit another with a pitch.
McLain redeemed himself, allowing only one run and seven hits. His complete game meant that, unlike the Cardinals, the Tigers would have a rested bullpen for Game Seven. However, neither Gibson nor Lolich had required the services of a relief pitcher in their combined four starts.
Through six games, this Series had followed the pattern of the 1967 Fall Classic between St. Louis and Boston. The Cards had won Games One, Three, and Four. The Tigers (like the Red Sox) had won Games Two, Five, and Six.
Gibson had won his two starts impressively. But, like Jim Lonborg in 1967, so had Lolich.
In Game Seven, Lolich would try to succeed where Lonborg had failed, attempting to beat the great Bob Gibson on just two days of rest.