Though no one knew it at the time, June 13, 2006 would become a milestone for the St. Louis Cardinals. On that evening in Pittsburgh, reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter fanned 13 Pirates in seven shutout innings of work.
Since then, the Cardinals have gone 422 games and counting without a ten strikeout performance by any pitcher. Unless Carpenter is able to return to his previous proficiency level in 2009, the prospect of the drought being broken any time soon seems unlikely.
Maybe that was partly what Carp was thinking about when he told the Boston Globe the following last weekend:
“After two very frustrating and miserable years, I just want to feel healthy again. I feel if my arm and elbow are fine, I’ll be able to do what I’ve always done.”
One of the things the Cardinals ace has always been able to do on the mound is to get the big strikeout in a crucial situation.
We are all probably ever-so familiar with the Tony La Russa/Dave Duncan “pitch to contact” philosophy. I am not here to bash that, as it has worked for them. It also may at least partially be a reflection of the strengths of a majority their personnel.
On the other hand, is there a more macho play in all of sports than the strikeout – one on one, pitcher against hitter? When the hurler dominates, the batter is returned meekly to his dugout.
Let’s face it. Would the final out of the 2006 National League Championship Series have been remembered even a week later if Adam Wainwright had retired the Mets’ Carlos Beltran on a 6-3 grounder instead of looking at an amazing curveball?
Better yet, Wainwright also polished off the Detroit Tigers’ Brandon Inge on another K to secure the last out of the 2006 World Series. But who remembers the first step, the NLDS win? Yet had that not occurred first, the rest would never have happened. For the record, San Diego’s Dave Roberts grounded out to Albert Pujols. How utterly boring!
Back on point, statman extraordinare Tom Orf pulled some lists that illustrate the dying art of the Cardinals double-digit strikeout performance.
In the last 50 years, since 1959, team pitchers have registered 194 performances of ten strikeouts or more. While that averages almost four per year, the reality is that without Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, who retired following the 1975 season, the Cardinals half-century total would be a meager 120.
To help put those counts into perspective, one man alone, albeit MLB’s leading active strikeout pitcher and second all-time, Randy Johnson, has amassed some 212 games of ten or more Ks since his 1998 debut.
Closer to home, despite the strikeout-averse reputation of the current Cardinals coaches, at first blush, the TLR/DD years look fairly normal. Since 1996, St. Louis pitchers have amassed 60 ten strikeout games. Upon further analysis, however, over 75% of them occurred in the first five seasons of the La Russa reign behind the Benes brothers, Todd Stottlemyre and yes, Rick Ankiel. Andy had ten, Todd eight and Alan and Rick six.
Of course with Ankiel, I am referring to his superb 2000 season, a year in which he registered all six of his ten K performances. That total represents the Cardinals’ highest single season count of such games since Gibson’s seven accrued thirty years earlier, back in 1970.
I already mentioned Gibson’s career total of 74 ten strikeout games. As good as Ankiel was in 2000, Gibson had six different seasons as good or better, led by his magical 1968 campaign, during which he fanned ten or more batters 11 different times.
While Ankiel reached ten six times, he did not fan as many as 12 in any one game. In contrast, over his 17-year career, Gibson fanned 12 or more on a single day 30 different times.
Since 1903, Gibby is also the Cardinals post-season king, with five of the club’s seven 10 or more strikeout games. Mort Cooper and Grover Cleveland Alexander also cracked that list.
Gibson’s top playoff performance was in Game One of the 1968 World Series. On October 2, 1968, he fanned 17 Detroit Tigers while leading the Cardinals to a 4-0 shutout. It was arguably the greatest-pitched game in the history of the old Busch Stadium (Busch Stadium II), and shattered the World Series record of 15 that had been held by Sandy Koufax.
But as many Cardinals fans may know, Gibson doesn’t hold the club’s single game record. That is 19 Ks, collected by Steve Carlton on September 15, 1969. Ironically, the Cardinals lost 4-3 to the Mets that evening. Carlton had set his own team record of 16 two years prior, on September 20, 1967.
Though “Lefty” pitched for St. Louis for just five full seasons, he owned three of the top four highest one-game regular season strikeout totals in team history at the time he left the club. And he still does today. Carlton fanned 16 again on May 21, 1970 and ironically two days later, Gibson repeated the feat. Carlton did it in just eight innings, while Gibson went a full nine.
The Cardinals opponent in that pair of games was none other than the Philadelphia Phillies. Less than two years later, over a salary dispute, Carlton ended up a member of that very club, where he would remain for over 14 years. Lefty went on to finish fourth all-time in Major League Baseball history with over 4000 strikeouts.
Once Gibson retired, the Cardinals’ double-digit strikeout games essentially dried up. For the 12 years from 1976 though 1987, including the “Whiteyball” success years, the club had just three 10 K games. That was an amazing dry run considering the span was of almost 2000 games in duration.
After three years of Jose DeLeon logging a total of nine ten-plus strikeout games from 1988 through 1990, the final five years before La Russa’s arrival for the 1996 season saw six more such contests.
For the years 2001-2004, Matt Morris led the club each season, but totaled only eight 10 K games. Carpenter followed with four in his Cy Young Award 2005 season, which brings us right back to where we started – June 13, 2006, his only ten strikeout game that year – 422 games ago and counting.
Again, a special thanks to Tom Orf for his research, the basis for this article. His lists follow.
St. Louis Cardinals
Most ten or more strikeout games in a season
St. Louis Cardinals
Ten or more strikeout games by season
St. Louis Cardinals
Ten or more strikeout games
|Vinegar Bend Mizell||2||2|
St. Louis Cardinals
Six or more strikeout games – Postseason