This day in baseball history: A Game Seven for the ages

On October 10, 1968, Mickey Lolich took the mound for the Detroit Tigers in Game Seven of the World Series. He was hoping to succeed where Jim Lonborg had failed the year before by beating the incomparable Bob Gibson on just two days rest in a winner-take-all matchup.

Lolich had an advantage over Lonborg. The Red Sox ace was a power pitcher. Lolich relied more on sink. Lack of rest might bestow extra sink on his ball. Lolich himself said that when he was tired, his sinker dipped eight inches instead of four.

Gibson was a power pitcher, but he was working with three days rest. The timetable suited him. He had won two Game Fours and a Game Seven on this schedule. He had also won a Game Seven with just two days rest.

The Cardinals viewed Gibson as invincible. Lolich, though he had won two games in this Series, had no such mystique. His record for the regular season was 17-9 with a 3.19 ERA. In the year of the pitcher, this ERA was higher than the major league average. Moreover, in August Lolich had been demoted to the bullpen, not starting a single game that month.

Even so, Roger Maris, an American League veteran, had warned his teammates that Lolich was the pitcher they should fear, not 31 game winner Denny McLain. This may have reflected, in part, the fact that Maris hit right-handers much better than lefties. Nonetheless, the warning had been prophetic so far in the Series.

As Game Seven unfolded, it seemed clear that, as expected, this would be a pitchers’ duel. Gibson retired the Tigers in order in the first three innings, striking out five of them. The last victim, Lolich, gave Gibson a new World Series record for strikeouts — 32, exceeding the mark he had set in 1964.

In the first three innings, Lolich gave up a single (to Curt Flood) and walks (to Orlando Cepeda and Tim McCarver), but no runs. Later, Lolich would say he got into trouble early by trying to hit certain spots. He righted the ship by just “putting it in there.”

The Tigers finally managed a hit off Gibson in the fourth inning, a one-out infield single by Mickey Stanley. However, Stanley was stranded at first.

The Tigers center fielder during the regular season, Stanley had moved to shortstop for the World Series, replacing Ray Oyler who hit just .135. Jim Northrup moved from right field to center, and Al Kaline, whose bat was indispensable, took over in right field on an everyday basis.

Stanley committed two errors during the Series, but neither was consequential. Meanwhile, the strengthened Tigers lineup produced 34 runs in seven games against a top flight pitching staff.

Lolich and Gibson traded one-two-three innings in the bottom of the fourth and the top of the fifth. In the bottom of the fifth, McCarver led off with a single, but Maris, Dal Maxvil, and Bob Gibson went down in order.

St. Louis manager Red Schoendienst hadn’t started Maris in Lolich’s two previous starts, opting instead for journeyman Ron Davis, a right-handed hitter. But Davis went hitless in seven at-bats against Lolich. So, with everything on the line, Schoendienst overlooked Maris’ struggles against quality left-handers and went with the celebrated veteran who was playing in his seventh World Series in nine years.

Maris, playing in the last game of his career, would fare no better than Davis had.

In the top of the sixth, Gibson again set the Tigers down in order. Through six innings he had given up just the single by Stanley. And through 24 innings of this World Series, he had given up just one run on 11 hits.

The bottom of the sixth, was remarkable. Lou Brock led off with a single. The opportunity was perfect for Brock, who had tormented the Tigers all Series with his base stealing, to get himself into scoring position with no one out.

Brock forced the issue by taking an enormous lead. The idea was to induce a throw from Lolich, take off for second, and beat Norm Cash’s throw there. The move had worked against Lolich earlier in the Series and was a staple of Brock’s baserunning. However, this time Cash’s throw beat Brock.

With one out, Flood singled. Lolich picked him off, as well.

Gibson began the top of the seventh where he had left off, striking out Stanley and getting Kaline on a ground ball. But then, Cash and Willie Horton singled.

Up stepped Jim Northrup, a dangerous hitter whose home run off of Gibson in Game Four accounted for the only run the St. Louis ace had allowed all Series.

Northrup sent a deep fly ball to center field. Curt Flood, a perennial Gold Glove centerfielder, broke in the ball. Quickly realizing his mistake, he turned but stumbled as he chased Northrup’s drive.

It landed behind Flood for a triple. Cash and Horton scored. Northrup then scored on a hit by Bill Freehan.

For years, folks debated whether Flood should have caught Northrup’s drive. The consensus is that he should have, and would have had he broken back on the ball right off the bat. Indeed, he might well have caught the ball even with the erroneous initial break, had his race back been clean.

That it wasn’t clean was probably due to the wet condition of the outfield which caused his spikes to get caught in the turf. Northrup, Flood’s counterpart in center, later confirmed that conditions were poor. In fact, Northrup himself had caught a spike on a fly ball by Julian Javier that he was able to track down nonetheless.

I’ve posted video of the play below. It shows Flood’s stumble but not his false initial break.

The Tigers had now had a 3-0 lead. But they still needed nine outs to win.

St. Louis caught a break in the bottom of the seventh inning when, with one out, Northrup and Horton collided on a ball hit by Mike Shannon, allowing the Cardinals third baseman to reach first. But Lolich retired McCarver on a fly ball and Maris on a pop-up to maintain his shutout.

Phil Gagliano led off the bottom of the eighth, batting for Maxvil. He grounded out. Gibson was due up next and Schoendienst allowed him to bat, just as Mayo Smith had allowed Lolich to bat under similar circumstances when facing elimination in Game Five.

The difference was that Gibson was a good hitting pitcher. Schoendienst’s options, against the southpaw Lolich, were Davis and Ed Spezio. Gibson was a likely as either to get a hit.

He didn’t, though. Instead, he struck out.

Brock followed with a two-out single. Julian Javier then tried to bunt his way on, but Don Wert threw him out.

A tiring Gibson yielded a run in the top of the ninth. Singles by Horton, Northrup, and Wert produced it. The Cardinals now needed four runs in the bottom of the ninth just to tie the game.

Lolich retired Flood and Orlando Cepeda. Shannon then put St. Louis on the board with a home run. However, McCarver’s pop foul ended the game and the Series.

Detroit had rallied from down three games to one, becoming only the third team in major league history to accomplish this. The other two were Pittsburgh (1925) and the Yankees (1958).

Lolich was, of course, the man of the hour. He told reporters:

All my life somebody has been a big star and Lolich was number two. I figured my day would come and this was it.

Informed that, as World Series MVP he had won a car, Lolich, a car and motorcycle enthusiast, said “I hope it has a stick shift.”

Gibson was gracious in defeat. Refusing to blame Flood, he said: “I got beat because the other guy pitched a better game.”

And what a game Lolich pitched to get the better of the valiant Gibson.

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