Lights Out: Steve Carlton Strikes Out 19 New York Mets in a Losing Effort
When: September 15, 1969
Where: Busch Stadium, St. Louis, Missouri
Game Time: 2:23
The hallmark of a championship team is that it knows how to find a way to win even when it isn’t at its best. Or when its opponent is.
Left-hander Steve Carlton should have sued the 1969 St. Louis Cardinals for lack of support. After dropping two September decisions when the Cardinals scored only two runs total, Carlton struck out 19 New York Mets, but still lost 4-3.
That was the case on September 15, 1969, when the New York Mets faced the St. Louis Cardinals and a flame-throwing future Hall of Famer who was nearly unhittable, but not unbeatable.
The Cardinals’ starting pitcher, Steve Carlton, was having a breakout season in 1969. The 24-year-old Carlton had won 14 games in 1967 and 13 games in 1968, but was becoming more dominant as he matured. He was averaging eight strikeouts per nine innings and entered the game with a 1.92 earned run average. He was also on a two-game losing streak due to lack of support from a Cardinals’ lineup that had produced only two runs in his last pair of starts.
The Mets’ starter was Gary Gentry, who was 11-11 and coming off a six-hit shutout of the Montreal Expos in his previous start. Gentry and Carlton matched scoreless innings in the game’s first two frames, then the Cardinals scored in the third inning when Lou Brock walked and Curt Flood singled. Brock tried to score but was thrown out at the plate, allowing Flood to advance to second base and then score on Vada Pinson’s single.
Carlton allowed three singles in the first three innings, but also struck out seven Mets batters. In the fourth inning, Carlton walked Donn Clendenon to lead off the inning and then gave up a home run to Ron Swoboda. But he struck out three more Mets batters that inning, and had 10 strikeouts through the first four innings though the Cardinals now trailed 2-1.
Carlton finished the 1969 season at 17-11 with a 2.17 ERA, second lowest in the National League.
The Cardinals regained the lead in the fifth inning. With two outs, Brock singled and stole second. Flood singled to center field, scoring Brock to tie the game. Pinson singled to right field, moving Flood to second base. Flood scored the third run on Joe Torre’s single to center. The inning ended with no further scoring when Tim McCarver flied out to left field.
Meanwhile, Carlton continued to be a strikeout machine. He fanned Amos Otis and Tommie Agee in the fifth inning. He struck out Swoboda in the sixth inning. He struck out Otis again in the seventh inning with two runners on base.
That gave Carlton 14 strikeouts for the game.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, Tug McGraw took over for Gentry and pitched a scoreless inning despite an error and a walk. In the top of the eighth inning, Agee led off with a single and then Carlton struck out Clendenon looking, Carlton’s fifteenth of the game. But Ron Swoboda launched his second home run of the game and ninth of the season to put the Mets back on top 4-3. Carlton got his sixteenth strikeout to end the eighth inning.
McGraw retired the Cardinals in order in the bottom of the eighth, and Carlton fanned the side in the ninth inning, giving him 19 strikeouts for the game. But it wouldn’t be enough. Despite an error and a Brock single, the Cardinals couldn’t score against McGraw in the ninth.
Carlton would finish the 1969 season at 17-11 with a 2.17 ERA, second lowest in the National League behind Juan Marichal. He topped 200 strikeouts for the first time in his career, something he would do seven more times. But he would never again strike out as many as 19 batters in a single nine-inning game. In fact, only one left-hander (Randy Johnson) has matched that performance.
Steve Carlton’s heartbreaking 19-strikeout loss is one of the performances featured in Lights Out! Unforgettable Performances from Baseball’s Real Golden Age.
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