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August 24, 2010

Another Look

Lefty's Remarkable Streak

by Bob Hertzel

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What is it like to be the greatest pitcher on the face of the planet? Steve Carlton knew in 1972, but he wasn’t talking.

It is difficult to imagine today just how good Carlton was that season. Even the numbers do not do it justice, and they are rather impressive, to say the least. He went 27-10 with a 1.97 ERA, pitched 30 complete games out of 41 starts and worked 346 1/3 innings with 310 strikeouts and 87 walks in his first year with the Philadelphia Phillies.

As good as all this seems, consider two facts. First, he started the season 0-5, and second, the Phillies were the Pittsburgh Pirates of the National League in those days, going 59-97 in the middle year of a three-year run of 91 or more losses.

Winning 27 games wasn’t totally unexpected, as Carlton had won 20 the season before and, amazingly, would lose 20 the next year. In 1972, however, Carlton had something to prove. After that 20-victory season in 1971, he conducted a bitter holdout from the Cardinals.

To give you an idea of how the times have changed, Carlton wanted $60,000 after a 20-win season. Cardinals owner Gussie Busch offered $55,000 and refused to budge. Even the 20 victories could not make Busch forgive and forget and he traded the future Hall of Famer to Philadelphia for Rick Wise, who would be a good pitcher, too, even throwing a no-hitter and hitting two home runs in the same game.

But for Carlton? The man’s nickname told you how good he was: "Lefty." It was as if there were no other lefties, not Sandy Koufax nor Warren Spahn. “Lefty” is a special nickname in the pitching business, with Hall of Famers such as Lefty Grove and Lefty Gomez possessing it.

Carlton never forgave the Cardinals and took it out on them throughout his career, going 38-14 against the Redbirds after the trade.

It is hard to imagine how bad that 1972 Phillies team was for which Carlton won 27 games. The rest of the four-man rotation—Ken Reynolds, Bill Champion, and Woodie Fryman—combined to win 10 games. TEN! They went 10-39.

It was a team just starting to build into a powerhouse, with the lineup having John Bateman catching, Tommy Hutton at first base, Denny Doyle at second, Larry Bowa at shortstop, and Don Money at third. For a time the Phillies got their first look at the third baseman of the future, Mike Schmidt, but the Hall of Famer hit only .206 in 13 games with one home run and 16 strikeouts in 40 at-bats. The outfield was Greg Luzinski in left, Willie Montanez in center, and mostly Roger Freed in right.

Certainly there was nothing spectacular about Carlton’s first two months of the season. On May 30 he lost to Jon Matlack and the New York Mets, 7-0, dropping his record to 5-6. He lasted only 4 1/3 innings, giving up six runs on eight hits, his ERA, standing at 2.95, was threatening to go above 3.00.

The next time he lost was on August. 21, after being outdueled by another Hall of Fame pitcher, Phil Niekro, and the Braves 2-1, on a home run by Mike Lum, a rather pedestrian player to be the hero to end a 15-game winning streak.

“During that streak he blocked everything else out,” recalled Larry Shenk, the Phillies long-time public relations director, who traveled with Carlton and the team in those days. Carlton’s concentration on the mound was legendary, so much so that Shenk said that a couple of years later he actually pitched with earplugs to block out the noise and distractions

During the streak, Carlton was nearly unhittable. He did not lose for 18 straight starts, having three no-decisions along the way. In the wins during the streak, his ERA, coincidentally, was 1.12, the same as Bob Gibson put together for the all-time record in 1968, which came to be known as “The Year of the Pitcher.” For the entire streak, including no-decisions, Carlton’s ERA was 1.41. He pitched 155 innings, gave up 104 hits, struck out 140, walked 39 and allowed only six homers.

No one could hit him, not even Hall of Fame players. During the streak he faced Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Robinson, Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente (who walked in a cameo pinch-hit appearance), Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Billy Williams, and Lou Brock. They combined to go 9-for-50, a .180 batting average, with just three RBI. Aaron had four of the hits.

Bench, who twice hit three home runs in a game off Carlton and had 12 in his career against Lefty, had a lone single. Bench's career average against Carlton was .297. Bench also had his 2,000th hit off Carlton.

It was against Bench and the Reds, with 42,638 fans cheering wildly in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, that Carlton won his 15th straight and his 20th game of the year, then came out and addressed the fans after the game, something Shenk had set up.

While Carlton would talk to the media during this time, you cannot find online a quote from him from that day. Carlton’s dealings with the media were always strained and eventually stopped. To Carlton’s credit, he stuck to his guns on this and did not speak only to one or a few writers. It was boycott done on a high level, respected on both sides.

Of course, though, it had to have a down moment and that came when Carlton won his 300th game. Shenk knew Carlton would not talk to the media but felt he had to have a press conference, so he arranged with Carlton to have the media feed questions to Harry Kalas, the broadcaster with whom Carlton was friendly, and Kalas would ask the questions. Carlton agreed.

“The day we arranged that the Philadelphia Inquirer came out with a story that had a seven-column headline that read something like 'Carlton to stay quiet on 300,'" Shenk recalled. “Sure enough, I get a call from Carlton and he says, ‘They’re already sensationalizing it. I’m not doing it.'"

Not that it mattered. Carlton’s accomplishments speak far louder than anything he could say about them.

Bob Hertzel is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bob's other articles. You can contact Bob by clicking here

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