Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Closer Look: Baseball's Last Iron-Man Pitcher

With each passing baseball season, complete games by pitchers move closer to extinction. A half-century ago, in 1959, starting pitchers completed 60% of their starts. Last year, only 5.6% of all starts were complete games; only one National League team (the Brewers) had more than six. A mere three pitchers in the last 60 years have completed 300 starts in their careers. Two of those, Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts, retired in the 1960s. The third, and possibly the last, pitching iron-man began his career in the 1960s and lasted into the 1980s, making his 303 complete games even more remarkable.

That pitcher is Gaylord Perry, who outdistanced his contemporaries in another aspect of resolute pitching. Today you rarely see a starter remain in the game if it goes into extra innings, but Perry pitched at least 10 innings in a game a whopping 37 times. Compared to Bob Gibson (17 times), Tom Seaver (16), Phil Niekro (15), Steve Carlton (13), and Juan Marichal (12), he seems like Superman.

Yet Perry insists that it was no big deal. “That’s how we were trained in the Giants organization coming through the minor leagues,” Perry says. “We pitched every four days and you stayed in the game until it was over. It was just part of what we did.” Indeed, his first 10-inning effort—and his most famous—was a turning point in his major league career. On May 31, 1964, the 25-year-old right-hander, with his modest six career victories, was brought in to start the 13th inning of a 6-6 battle against the Mets at Shea Stadium. He pitched a scoreless inning, and raised his hopes when the Giants got the first two runners on base in the top of the 14th inning. But Orlando Cepeda lined into a triple play, and the game went on. And on. Perry wound up pitching 10 innings, allowing just seven hits and striking out nine, becoming the winning pitcher when the Giants broke through in the 23rd inning.

A month later, in his next start, Perry pitched a shutout. He joined the Giants’ starting rotation for good in August, and before the season was over pitched 10 innings three more times. Despite allowing just five runs in those 30 innings, he didn’t get the decision in any of those games. Once, his bullpen blew a potential win in the 11th inning. Another time, he was pinch-hit for with the winning run on third and one out, but the Giants couldn’t score the winning run for him. So it goes for marathon pitchers; in the record-setting 26-inning game in 1920, starters Joe Oeschger and Leon Cadore both pitched all 26 innings but got only a 1-1 tie for their efforts.

Perry’s longest outing came on September 1, 1967 at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. He dueled with Mel Queen for nine innings of shutout ball, then continued against the Reds bullpen for seven more. “After the 14th inning,” Perry remembers, “My favorite manager, Herman Franks, said: ‘How are you feeling?’ I said, ‘Herman, I have two more innings in me, then I’m going to the clubhouse.’” Perry breezed through the 16th inning, ending with his 12th strikeout. Having faced a staggering 59 batters, he made way for reliever Frank Linzy, who finished the battle with the Giants winning 1-0 in 21 innings.

Perry’s busiest extra-inning season was 1972, his first year in the American League, when he won the Cy Young Award with the Indians. He toiled at least 10 innings eight times, seven of them complete games. The exception was a hot July night at Texas when he faced 52 batters in 13 shutout innings, winning 2-0 with relief help in the 14th inning. That was the second of three 13-inning outings in his career—all with 52 batters faced. “I had many discussions with my managers about not letting the guys in the bullpen come in to take my place,” says Perry. “I was still strong on the mound and felt I could do the job. I wanted to stay in there.”

One time he was overruled occurred on April 17, 1974, his third start of the season. Facing the Brewers in Milwaukee, he logged 15 innings, retiring the last 12 of the 55 batters he faced. Yet Indians manager Ken Aspromonte chose to remove him. As Perry recalls, “I didn’t get up to the clubhouse before they beat us. I didn’t like that too much.” Reliever Ken Sanders allowed a leadoff home run to Bob Coluccio, and that was that. Perry responded to that frustration by tossing 15 complete games in his next 16 starts, including a 14-game winning streak. Later that season, he had a nine-game complete-game streak, losing the final one on an 11th-inning home run by Bobby Mitchell.

That was one of 17 times when Perry pitched at least 11 innings. Of his 37 extra-inning adventures, 22 were between 1969-1975, when he exceeded 300 innings pitched six times in seven seasons, averaging 321 innings and 25 complete games per season. Finally, in his late thirties, he slowed down a bit, managing a mere-mortal five complete games in 1978 when he won his second Cy Young Award (with the Padres). He pitched 10 innings in a game three more times after turning 40, including a no-decision against the Dodgers the night he recorded his 3000th career strikeout.

Here are some of Perry’s other noteworthy extra-inning adventures:

July 25, 1969: Perry and Cardinals ace Bob Gibson each allowed a 1st-inning run and then reeled off 11 shutout innings. Perry left for a pinch-hitter in the top of the 13th, and a reliever lost the game. Perry allowed seven hits in his 12 innings but was outdone by Gibson, who pitched all 13 innings and yielded just six hits.

August 8, 1971: Perry hit only six home runs in his career. One of them tied up this game in the 5th inning, and Perry wound up pitching 11 innings to outlast Bill Hands of the Cubs, winning 4-2.

September 9, 1972: Only an unearned run kept Perry from pitching a shutout, and he wound up going 10 innings to defeat the Red Sox 2-1 on a Graig Nettles home run, his 20th victory of the season.

October 1, 1972: In his final start of the season, Perry pitched an 11-inning four-hitter, striking out 11 and walking nobody. The Yankees got only one hit after the 4th inning as Perry won 2-1, raising his record to 24-16 and staking a claim to his first Cy Young Award.

May 26, 1973: Both Perry and White Sox started Stan Bahnsen worked 13 tough innings in this battle, one of six games in which Perry faced more than 50 batters. The White Sox wound up winning in the 21st inning.

August 22, 1973: Perry recorded the last 14 outs in a row in this six-hit, 12-inning gem, defeating the White Sox 1-0 on an unearned run.

April 9, 1976: Most pitchers take a little while to build up their stamina early in the season, but here Perry hurled 11 innings in his first start of the season. He dueled Bert Blyleven through nine innings, tied 1-1, before winning 2-1. How strong was this man coming out of the gate? He retired the last 22 batters he faced!

When asked whether throwing so many pitches to so many batters strained his arm, Perry explains, “I’d be out there as long as it takes. And it never affected my next start. Whatever it took, you did it. I thought it was my duty to do that for my team and my family and myself.” That’s the attitude—virtually absent in today’s game—that landed Perry in the #6 spot all-time in innings pitched with 5,350.

“Let me tell you about complete games,” Perry adds. “Robin Roberts, one of my favorite people, completed two more games than I did. But they didn’t let us know about records back then. If they had, I would have gotten three more just to beat him.” Would you have liked to be the manager who told him that he couldn’t?

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