Pinstripe Heat

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Al Downing

When he first came to the big leagues, Al Downing lived and died on the heat of his often-unhittable fastball. And like so many pitchers who experience the inevitable decline in velocity that comes with age, Downing learned to evolve from thrower to pitcher.

But while he was a New York Yankee, what a thrower he was.

As a rookie in 1963, Al Downing averaged 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest strikeout ratio in the league.

As a rookie in 1963, Al Downing averaged 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest strikeout ratio in the league.

A New Jersey native, Downing was signed by the Yankees in 1961 off the campus of Rider University. By 1963, he had worked his way into the Yankees’ starting rotation, an important addition to an already formidable pitching staff. In his rookie season, Downing went 13-5 with a 2.56 ERA. On a Yankees staff that featured Whitey Ford (24-7), Jim Bouton (21-7) and Ralph Terry (17-15), Downing finished second on the staff in shutouts (four) and strikeouts (171), while leading the team (and the league)  in strikeouts per nine innings (8.8). He was the starter (and loser) in Game Two of the 1963 World Series, as the Yankees were shut out by Johnny Podres and the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-0. (The Dodgers took the 1963 World Series in four games.)

Downing won 13 games in 1964, while leading the American League in strikeouts (217) and walks (120).  As the Yankees’ fortunes tumbled, so did Downing’s won-lost record: to 12-14 in 1965 and 10-11 in 1966. He rebounded to a 14-10 record in 1966 with a 2.63 ERA, 10 complete games and four shutouts. But pitching 200-plus innings per season took its toll on Downing the flame-thrower, and he was limited to a combined record of 10-8 over the next two seasons.

Following the 1968 season, Downing was traded by the Yankees with Frank Fernandez to the Oakland Athletics for Danny Cater and Ossie Chavarria. His stay in Oakland lasted only two months, and he was traded again, this time with Tito Francona, to the Milwaukee Brewers for Steve Hovley. His combined record for both teams was 5-13 with a 3.52 ERA. The Brewers traded Downing to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Andy Kosco.

With the Dodgers, Downing had the best season of his career in 1971. He went 20-9 with a 2.68 ERA. He pitched 12 complete games with five shutouts, the most in the National League. He tied with Steve Carlton and Tom Seaver for second in wins (Fergie Jenkins won 24 for the Cubs). And he finished third in the Cy Young voting (behind Jenkins and Seaver). He was named Comeback Player of the Year for the National League.

Downing pitched six more seasons for the Dodgers, compiling a 26-28 record over that period. He retired during the 1977 season with a career record of 123-107.

 

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Make Mine a Mc-Thirty

 

Lights Out: Denny McLain Becomes Baseball’s Last 30-Game Winner

When: September 14, 1968

Where:  Tiger Stadium, Detroit, Michigan

Game Time: 3:00

Attendance: 33,688

 

Only one man on earth knows what it feels like to be a 30-game winner. That man is Denny McLain, and that feeling came to him in a game he nearly gave away.

Denny McLain was 31-6 with a 1.96 ERA in 1968. He pitched 28 complete games, six of them shutouts.

Denny McLain was 31-6 with a 1.96 ERA in 1968. He pitched 28 complete games, six of them shutouts.

McLain was a bulldozer all season long, the league’s best pitcher pitching for the league’s best team. His first two starts resulted in no decisions, but he won his next five starts, was 8-1 at the end of May and 14-2 at the end of June. McLain went 7-1 in July to become a 20-game winner before August 1, and was 5-2 in August to enter the season’s final month with a 26-5 record.

He won his first three starts in September, and the Oakland Athletics came to Detroit on September 14 to face McLain with his 29-5 record and a 1.95 ERA. A’s starter Chuck Dobson and McLain traded zeroes over the first three innings. The A’s scored two runs in the top of the fourth with Reggie Jackson’s twenty-seventh home run of the year. Then the Tigers chased Dobson in the bottom of the fourth with a three-run home run by Norm Cash.

The A’s came back in the top of the fifth, as Bert Campaneris singled in Dave Duncan to tie the score at 3-3. Jackson put the A’s back on top in the sixth inning with his twenty-eighth home run, and the game remained 4-3 through the eighth inning.

McLain retired Sal Bando, Jackson and Dick Green in order in the top of the ninth, throwing a third strike past Green for his tenth strikeout of the game. In the bottom of the ninth, Al Kaline led off with a walk. Dick McAuliffe hit a pop foul to Bando, and then Mickey Stanley singled off A’s pitcher Diego Segui, sending Kaline to third.

Denny McLain was the epitome of balanced productivity during his Cy Young season in 1968. He was 14-2 through June, and 17-4 during the second half of the season.

Denny McLain was the epitome of balanced productivity during his Cy Young season in 1968. He was 14-2 through June, and 17-4 during the second half of the season.

The next batter, Jim Northrup, smashed a hard grounder to Danny Cater at first.  Cater fielded the ball and threw to third to keep Kaline from scoring, but the ball got by Bando, allowing Kaline to score the tying run and advancing Stanley to third. Willie Horton singled to drive in Stanley with the winning run, the run that made Denny McLain the first 30-game winner in the American League in 37 years, and the last man to do it in the Twentieth Century.

 

 

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