Anyone desiring a career as a mound mainstay should apply to the Baltimore Orioles. Not that the Orioles need any more mound mainstays just now—they have three 20-game winners in Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally and Jim Palmer—but the Orioles are to a mound mainstay what a houseful of ravishingly beautiful hens is to a mainstay rooster. They make the job so much easier.
Consider the aid and comfort given Cuellar when he started the first game of the American League championship playoff series against the Minnesota Twins on Saturday. Cuellar does not like to pitch in the sort of chill that pervaded the Twins' Metropolitan Stadium, which may explain why his screwball was not working, why his fastball lacked its usual quickness and why he was reached for six runs in 4‚Öì innings. But was he brought low and tagged with a damaging loss? Not at all. The accommodating Baltimore hitters scored 10 runs off Minnesota's mainstay, 24-game winner Jim Perry, and his relief. They even loaded the bases so that Cuellar personally could hit a grand-slam home run of sorts just fair over the right-field fence. And they won 10-6.
On the next two days McNally and Palmer took their turns with a tenacious six-hitter and a snazzy 12-strike-out job, respectively, and the Oriole hitters—including McNally and Palmer—did their part to produce 11-3 and 6-1 victories. Altogether it was the kind of seldom sensational but predictably sufficient pitching that the Orioles' Big Three have been turning in this year, causing word to get out that the team has not only three mainstays, but also three stoppers.
A stopper is even better than a mainstay. He is a pitcher whose consistent presence in the win column, by whatever score, keeps a team from settling into a losing streak. On Saturday and Sunday Minnesota was treated to excellent examples of how these stoppers function. After the first inning of the first game the Orioles were never behind. When Cuellar faltered he had a six-run lead. When McNally gave the Twins their first two hits—both home runs—he had a four-run lead. Those hits made it 4-3, but McNally never let the Twins score again. As they have been all season, Baltimore's stoppers were exactly as good as they had to be.
The Orioles do lose games, and so does one of the Big Three now and then. But all year they never lost more than two straight in which a member of the Big Three was the starter. Baltimore's longest losing streak was three. The team had only two such streaks, and McNally stopped them both.
Palmer, who only once lost as many as two straight decisions himself, snapped four Oriole losing streaks at two, and Cuellar cut two. During August the Orioles stopped the other teams for good. They had only one losing streak longer than a single game and the Big Three went 19-2.
Between them, Cuellar (24-8), McNally (24-9) and Palmer (20-10) won 68 games—the most by three pitchers on the same club since Hal Newhouser, Dizzy Trout and Ruffus Gentry of the wartime 1944 Detroit Tigers and more than any of the fabled Cleveland Big Threes (various combinations of Bob Lemon, Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia and Herb Score) of the '50s. Never once did McNally, Cuellar or Palmer miss a starting turn and together they pitched 54 complete games, 16 more than any other whole pitching staff in the league. Remarkably, Palmer was the only one of the three who finished the regular season with an earned run average under 3.00, and Cuellar was way up there at 3.48. However, as Eddie Brinkman of the Senators puts it, "These guys give up two to four runs a game but when you play them you know you're not going to bust it open."
What makes a stopper—a consistent low-run complete-game pitcher? "One thing," says Dave Leonhard, a well-spoken Johns Hopkins graduate and a well-hit member of this year's less-than-over-powering Baltimore relief corps, "is having horse manure in your bullpen." There were many times when Manager Earl Weaver would have pulled his starter short of a complete game, except that there was no one he could bring in who would make him feel as easy as even a tiring member of the Big Three.
Tom Phoebus, a long reliever and spot starter for the Orioles this year, offers a more classical assessment of what makes the McCuelmer triad so solid: "They are mature pitchers...know their own capabilities...are firm-willed...have that confidence...have that, uh, consistency."
A few minutes later Phoebus returns with an afterthought: "One more thing I forgot. Burning desire."
None of the three, though, gives a particularly burning impression off the mound. They look like any Cuban guy, any Irish guy and any Southern California guy (Palmer was born in New York but grew up in Los Angeles, and his father Max was an established Hollywood character actor). "McNally is your typical pitcher," says Leonhard, meaning that McNally mixes up a well-controlled fastball, curve and slider the way the model pitcher is supposed to. "Palmer is your two-pitch power pitcher—curve and fastball. Cuellar is tricky—screwball, throws it all different speeds. There's nothing so unusual about any of them, really."
There is nothing so unusual about a starter for the Orioles finishing and winning a lot of games, either. To go along with firm will and burning desire, there is nothing quite like a heap of hitting and fielding behind you. The Orioles were shut out only four times all year when a Big Three pitcher started. Their fielders, next to Cleveland's, gave up the fewest unearned runs in the league and prevented an untold number of runs that would have been earned.
But to say that the Orioles' Big Three were in an ideal position to win 68 games is no more of a detraction than to say that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins had the moon made all the way. And when Leonhard says his three teammates are not so unusual, he does not mean to deny that they are consummate. They have done what pitchers are supposed to do. If everyone did his job as well, the world would be a better place and the American League playoffs would have gone on forever.
Observers agree that the three have at least six important things in common:
1) Each works very hard both during his starts and between them. That means he does a lot of running, thinking, throwing and counseling with Oriole fielders when he is not pitching.
2) Each challenges the hitter. He keeps throwing the pitch he wants to throw no matter how likely it seems that the hitter will foul it off or take it or belt it if it is not thrown just right.
3) Each has excellent control.
4) Each is, as they say, a tough competitor, full of, as they say, desire.
5) Each is a good enough hitter—ask the Twins—to keep from being pulled too often for a pinch hitter, and each fields well.
6) Each knew a period of misery that almost ended his career.
Allie Reynolds, the former stopper for the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees, once observed that he did not become a pitcher until he had arm trouble. "After you hurt yourself," agrees Baltimore Pitching Coach George Bamberger, "you think a bit more. You turn out to be a better pitcher for it."
Cuellar knocked around in the minors for nine years before sticking with Houston in 1966. He won 12 games that year and 16 the next. Then, as Astros' General Manager Spec Richardson says, "We told Mike not to pitch winter ball. We felt he was overworking himself. Maybe he was a little mad at us. Anyway he showed up the next spring and said his arm hurt. I think maybe some of it was in his head."
Cuellar's version is somewhat different. He is, he insists, a man who likes to go down to a Spanish-speaking country in the off season and pitch. Considering the extent of his English and the fact that he was born in Cuba and makes his home in Puerto Rico, it may be that he thinks of United States baseball as his off season. At any rate, when he tried to pitch for Houston in 1968 after an idle winter he was way off. "For a while," he says, "I think I never pitch again. I couldn't throw the ball."
He was 8-11 for Houston that year. In December of '68 he was traded to Baltimore for Curt Blefary, and after a winter of pitching in Puerto Rico he won 23 for the Orioles and shared the Cy Young Award with Denny McLain.
Palmer was another person whose arm troubles were felt by some to be located in his head. It turned out that they were located in his leg. They began in 1967 and lasted through the '68 season, during which he pitched only 37 innings, all in the minors.
"If my arm hurts in Baltimore it's going to hurt in Rochester," Palmer was heard to grumble at one point. He had won 15 games for the Orioles in 1966 and became the youngest pitcher ever to throw a World Series shutout when he stopped the Dodgers 6-0. He felt nobody quite believed him about his sore arm. He was vindicated last year when his problem was diagnosed: his left leg is shorter than his right, causing arm and back strain. Last year, with one shoe padded, he was 16-4, and this year, with any luck, he would have won as many games as his two left-handed friends.
McNally's troubles also cropped up in 1967. In June of that year it was concluded that he had been nursing a sore arm since spring without realizing it. A calcium deposit was found in his elbow. The fluid on the elbow was drained off and cortisone was injected. Still, although he was throwing hard again and had reacquired his slider, which he had mysteriously lost somewhere in the vicinity of Elmira, N.Y. six years before, he was hardly a Gibson or Seaver. All he could do was win. He won 17 straight from September of '68 to the following July, and during this period was rescued from defeat so often by his teammates as to win the nickname McLucky. Now he has become a truly savvy pitcher—and the Orioles still hit.
The Big Three, in a few words, are sound, smart and able. In a time of less than universal displays of solid workmanship across the land, it may be worthwhile to consider their attributes.
CUELLAR. He has superstitions. No one can throw him his glove or the ball. He must pick up each from the ground himself. Before starting each inning he circles the mound and walks up the front of it with his back to the hitter. During the game no one but his regular catcher can warm him up. Even if the catcher is busy putting on his gear between innings, Cuellar will wait. During his pre-game warmups no one but Coach Jim Frey can catch him, and for the whole 15-minute warmup period Catcher Elrod Hendricks—and no one else—must stand there in a batting stance.
Cuellar is known among his teammates as "Crazy Horse." He has a slow screwball, a medium screwball and a fast screwball. In a recent game he threw 55 fastballs (41 for strikes), 34 screwballs (20 strikes) and seven curves (four strikes). Hendricks, who is from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, says that when he and Cuellar talk they speak "40% Spanish, 30% English, 20% pig Latin and 10% jokes. But to tell the truth," he says, "I usually don't get much accomplished when I go out to the mound to talk to Mike."
Usually Cuellar is a quiet, collected and brisk workman on the mound, but sometimes he loses his temper. The first five batters to face him a few weeks ago hit safely and one of the hits was a grand-slam home run. He got into several arguments with the umpire during the bombardment and finally took himself out of the game because he was so upset. His wife Emma says that on the night before he pitches, "We'll be sitting there watching television and suddenly his muscles will jump out and his arm will shoot out."
McNALLY. "Pitching," he says, "is just a matter of not giving up and not giving in." The only exception to this rule is when Frank Howard is up. Howard, McNally confides, "has more than a great deal of confidence when he's against me, and I have less than a little confidence against him. I'd rather walk him and get it over with."
The Angels' Jim Fregosi says: "The question came up the other day, 'Who would you like to have as your pitcher if you had to win one game for everything?' I'd pick McNally." McNally seems always to be pitching out of trouble. Reliever Pete Richert calls him "Super Tarp," because "he takes just enough line to make you think you have him hooked, just like a tarpon, but he'll spit that hook out every time."
PALMER. He tests his reflexes in a game with his roommate, Leonhard. Leonhard throws two baseballs at once and Palmer catches both, one in each hand. "I once caught two 20 times in a row," he says. "And I can catch three at once, too. I'd like to try four, but Dave can't throw four at once."
When he was still looking for his 20th victory and McNally and Cuellar had 23 each, Palmer said, "I think I've pitched as well as Cuellar and McNally. That's what concerns me right now—people around the country think of me as the other starter with the Orioles. Look, I've said you've got to be lucky when you pitch—lucky, lucky—and I haven't been." He also said, "Look at this. My face is broken out in a rash and I know it isn't the strawberries I ate. It must be this trying to win 20. I'm too old for pimples."
When Sonny Siebert of the Red Sox made him hit the dirt with a close pitch early this year, Palmer said, "He's crazy to throw at me because I throw harder than he does."
That, then, is the Orioles' Big Three. Weaver figures that in any Series he has a 50% chance of winning the first game with any one of the three going against the other club's ace. And then "no one can match our guys in the second and third game."
Finally, Weaver faces right up to the question. "If you went into the last game of the season with each of your Big Three needing one win for 20, whom would you pitch?" he is asked.
"Phoebus," Weaver replies.