In the bottom of the ninth last Thursday night, with the bases loaded, no one out and the score tied 1-1, George Frazier, a 25-year-old relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, strolled back of the Shea Stadium mound and contemplated the damage of the last few minutes as 7,202 Mets fans, unaccustomed to the luxury of seeing an opponent in such circumstances, sent him raspberries, collect.
Yes, the Cardinals were in a jam again. It was a jam they had brought on themselves, and it echoed a theme of failure they had been playing all season. True, St. Louis had recently reversed its form—from being a team that couldn't pitch to being one that couldn't hit—but not its penchant for losing. In fact, the only thing that would really change last week would be that Manager Ken Boyer, the old St. Louis hero, would, on Sunday, lose his job.
Boyer got canned because of the sort of things that occurred on Thursday. The Cards' starter, Bob Sykes, had allowed only five hits in seven innings, but the St. Louis hitters had got only four hits themselves. Boyer had gone to the bullpen not because the starting pitcher needed help but because his league-leading hitters did. And he pinch-hit for Sykes knowing full well that the St. Louis bullpen has hardly been the place to turn for succor this season.
Frazier had loaded the bases by giving up a hit to Steve Henderson, by walking Joel Youngblood and by failing to field Alex Trevino's bunt. So there he was, alone and with trouble all around him, as if briefly embodying the fortunes of his entire team.
Setting himself, Frazier reached back and fired a slider to Pinch Hitter Mike Jorgensen. Inside, ball one. Frazier let fly again, this time a fastball. Low, ball two. The crowd was stomping and whistling now. A bit unnerved, Frazier fired another fastball. Outside, ball three. The crowd erupted, and Catcher Ted Simmons came to the mound.
"Throw it over," Simmons said. "He hits it to somebody and we still might get out of this."
Frazier walked behind the mound, leaned back and stretched. "Take a deep breath," he said to himself. "Think positive. Get him out." Then he came down the pipe with the obligatory 3-0 fastball, which Jorgensen took. There was only one thing to do now, and Jorgensen was waiting for it. The ball came down the middle again, and Jorgensen stroked it neatly on the screws. The ball jumped off his bat and rose in a line over the head of Rightfielder George Hendrick, who froze in a crouch as the ball sailed past, not turning to watch it go by, not moving at all. The ball hit near the warning track and bounced off the wall. And Henderson trotted in to score the winning run.
So it has been going for a team that was supposed to be a contender in the National League East this year. That the Cardinals aren't remotely close to contending is the reason Boyer was fired between games of a doubleheader on Sunday in Montreal, which, sure enough, the Expos swept, 9-4 and 6-4. Boyer's successor is Whitey Herzog, who won three consecutive division titles with Kansas City before finishing second in 1979 and being fired himself after the season. Herzog inherits a team that has lost 22 of its last 27 games for a stunning 18-33 record, the worst in the majors.
What makes the plight of the Cardinals so curious—and Herzog's new job so frustrating—is their reputation as the best-hitting team in baseball. Four of their starters—Ken Reitz, Keith Hernandez, Simmons and Hendrick—were each hitting around .300 at the end of last week. Garry Templeton has been there much of the year, and Bobby Bonds will doubtless come close before the season ends. As of last Saturday Reitz was leading the league in batting average with .344. Hernandez, the defending champion, was right behind him at .342. Hendrick was among the league leaders in home runs (11) and runs batted in (39). The team led the league in hitting, with an average of .277 and was second only to Philadelphia in runs scored. Yet there they were, trailing the Mets in the East, the Giants in the West. In fact, every team in every division.
The reasons for the collapse may seem as easy to find as the baseball stats in the morning newspaper. The pitching staffs earned run average was the highest in the National League, a lofty 4.20. The Cardinals had given up more runs (239) than anyone else, and their bullpen had just six saves and had been chiefly responsible for opponents winning 11 games in their last at bat.
"Our pitching has taken the brunt of the criticism," says Claude Osteen, the Cardinal pitching coach. "But that hasn't been the entire problem. I'm not pointing my finger at any one person, but we have lost games because of poor defense many times. Pitching has been the culprit on some days, too, and we've also lost because we didn't get timely hits. I'm tired of hearing about the pitching. It's hard to put your finger on who's to blame."
Osteen is right. While the pitching staff, particularly the bullpen, has taken the most heat for the Cardinals' failure, the real reasons go much deeper. St. Louis' shortcomings are complex, and by nature interacting. Taken as a whole, they offer a case study of how an apparently strong young team, a seemingly sure contender, can suddenly turn into a straggler.
Despite the Cardinals' abundance of hitting, it is often inefficient and ineffective. Defensive play has been sporadic. At times Boyer relied on questionable tactics. When the Cards are hitting, they frequently get no pitching; when they get pitching, as they have of late, the bats tend to go silent. And there have been a number of debilitating injuries.
The injuries have been particularly damaging to what had promised to be a solid starting rotation, which in turn has put more pressure on the chronically weak St. Louis bullpen. John Fulgham, the 24-year-old righthander who had a 10-6 record and 2.53 ERA last season, strained a biceps tendon in his right shoulder so severely that he couldn't lift the arm for three weeks in late April and May. Silvio Martinez, whose 15-8 record led the staff last year, injured his right elbow in early April, was hit hard thereafter and went on the disabled list on June 1. On the same day, Reliever Mark Littell, who had 13 saves in 1979, was also put on the list because of a sore right elbow. Littell's ailment set off a scramble to find a replacement. The Cardinals have already used 16 pitchers this year, including such old-timers as Darold Knowles and Pedro Borbon, neither of whom lasted. Desperate, they even tried starters Pete Vuckovich and Sykes in the bullpen. And 41-year-old Jim Kaat, who signed April 30 after the Yankees released him, has suddenly found new life as an occasionally reliable reliever and starter.
"It's kind of funny," Osteen says. "At one point Kaat retired 12 consecutive batters. It was like he was a savior who had come down from the sky. The first two or three batters he faced, it was bam-bam-bam, all strikes. The crowd went crazy; they weren't used to that. Jim finally told me, 'Hey, wait a minute: I'm no Goose Gossage.' " And he isn't, as his 6.16 ERA in eight subsequent relief appearances showed.
The pitching staff wasn't all that was hurting. Bonds was expected to add speed and power to the lineup, but he injured his hand in the first days of the season and for weeks couldn't swing the bat properly. Last week he was hitting .231, with two home runs, and was just beginning to come back. On May 10 the Cards also lost their second baseman, Ken Oberkfell, when Steve Garvey slid into him and partially tore a ligament in his left leg.
But injuries are too easy a cop-out. Boyer saw the same high batting averages that everyone else did, but he wasn't impressed. He knew better—and just two days before his firing, he gave a good analysis of the Cardinals' failings: "We've been at fault in two areas—not being able to hold teams close and not being able to come back and score runs. And this is a lineup that should be able to come back. A lot of guys are hitting for average, but when you look at our record there's got to be some 'out' men who aren't hitting with men on base."
There is plenty of evidence of that in statistics such as the ones shown in the chart on the bottom of page 27. Failure to advance runners into scoring position is a significant reason why the Cardinals have suffered 21 of their 34 losses by one or two runs. And in their losses they have averaged only three runs per game.
But when they win, they often run up prodigious scores. They don't just kill, they overkill: the average score of their victories has been 7-3. St. Louis has enhanced its run-production figures and batting averages in lopsided wins—10-1 over Philadelphia, 8-2 over Chicago, 9-1 over Houston and 12-2 over San Francisco.
The recent games against the Mets and Expos continued the pattern of Cardinal wins and losses. St. Louis beat New York in the series opener 8-1, giving Pitcher Fulgham far more of a cushion than he needed. In the second game with the Mets, Kaat used all the guile accumulated during his 20 years of big league experience to beat the Mets 1-0 in 10 innings. The Cardinals could do almost nothing against New York Starter Pat Zachry and finally won when Reitz homered off Reliever Neil Allen in the 10th. Nor could the St. Louis hitters do much against Mets Pitcher Craig Swan, who beat them 2-1 in the game that Frazier lost in the ninth.
Moving on to Montreal, the Cardinals seemed to be trying their best to do their worst. After losing 7-2 on Friday, they fell again, 2-1 in 13 innings, on Saturday. Once more St. Louis got superb pitching, but the offense stalled. Bonds homered on the game's third pitch, but that was it. The Cardinals wasted three excellent scoring opportunities, in the second, 11th and 12th innings, leaving three runners at second base and one at third. Vuckovich, the Cards' starter, gave up just four hits in the first nine innings before Relievers Don Hood and Frazier pitched three more scoreless frames. St. Louis then lost when it flouted conventional baseball wisdom. Reliever Jim Otten got in trouble in the 13th when Ken Macha and Jerry White singled and Tommy Hutton sent them to second and third with a sacrifice bunt. With Bill Almon coming to bat, the Cards held a powwow on the mound, Boyer presiding and the four infielders gathered around. With one out, it was assumed that they would walk Almon, thereby setting up a force at home or a chance for a double play. But as the Cardinals have shown all year, they aren't a team about which assumptions should be made. Instead, in a decision that may have contributed to his being fired, Boyer ordered Otten to pitch to Almon, who promptly blooped a single to rightfield to win the game.
With the Cardinals blowing their opportunities and the Expos taking advantage of theirs, the Saturday game showed the difference between a team that's winning and one that's losing. The Expos "executed"—they scored by simple application of the game's fundamental skills. St. Louis didn't execute.
"If Littell had been healthy, he alone could have made the difference in six or seven ball games for us," Boyer says.
And if Bonds and Oberkfell and Martinez and Fulgham hadn't gotten hurt, and if the other Cardinals had hit with timeliness and consistency, and if they had played sharper defensively, and if...but baseball, as Ken Boyer can attest, is not a game played in the subjunctive.
Vuckovich felt lousy when Montreal scored in the eighth and rotten when St. Louis lost in the 13th.
Herzog's new team is nothing to laugh about.
Boyer's last week would've made anyone glum.
To cap off the plunge, even hitters like Templeton went bad.