Monday, July 1, 2013

Mad Max, Chasing Face?

By Jeff Kallman

Finishing off the Yankees in last fall's American League Championship Series, and mounting a splendid regular season otherwise, made Max Scherzer a feel-good story considering he'd had to shake off his brother's suicide earlier in the season. This season, winning 12without a loss at this writing, Scherzer's more than a feel-good story, he's almost the story for the otherwise Al Central-leading Tigers.

Considering the Tigers have had their share of fielding problems (as of June 26, only the Minnesota Twins and the Houston Astros turned balls in play into outs at a lower rate), Scherzer may be pitching in a little luck. And he knows it. "All I thought about is winning today. My personal record is more a reflection of the team," he told reporters after beating the Rays Friday night. "I don't get caught up in the win-loss record, because it's kind of fluky. Doug (Fister) goes seven innings, one run and gets a no-decision. I go six and (give up) three and get a win. So that's why it's a fluky stat."

Scherzer may not fool himself that he alone is responsible for the company in which he's traveling now, which may be one reason why the Tigers seem to have no problem making sure he doesn't lose thus far. But Scherzer is enough of a baseball historian to know his terrain, and its unlikelihood, no matter how good the pitcher or his team behind him.

Thirteen pitchers including Scherzer have opened seasons at 11-0 or better, beginning with Tom Zachary, a swingman on the 1929 Yankees at 12-0. For this discussion's purpose, I'll define a swingman as a pitcher who appears in relief in half or almost half his season's assignments. Roger Moret (1973 Red Sox: 11-0 to open) pitched in exactly half his games in relief that season. Dennis Lamp (1985 Blue Jays: 11-0 to open) was a former starter working middle relief. Nine pitchers on the roll were pure starters, and one of them (Roger Clemens) pulled it off twice, including his breakout 1986 in which he opened 14-0.

The one relief pitcher on the roll is Elroy Face, the longtime Pittsburgh Pirates relief maestro whose money pitch was a forkball taught him by one-time Yankee relief standout Joe Page. The grip made you wonder how Face threw it for so many years (17 major league seasons) without splitting his pitching hand in half. In fact, after he became the first relief pitcher to save three games in a single World Series (1960), he was invited aboard The Ed Sullivan Show to discuss and demonstrate the pitch, a precursor to the split-finger fastball.

Face opened 1959 with a staggering 17-0 won-loss record and finished the season 18-1 with 10 saves (awarded retroactively, of course) and the National League's winning percentage championship. Look on the surface and Face's accomplishment is nothing short of surrealistic. How the hell did he pull it off? Here's the skinny on all 17 of those 1959 wins before he incurred his only loss of the season. For better or worse, alas, you look deeper and realize that Face in 1959, possibly more than Scherzer thus far this season, got there with more than a little help from his friends even with his final 2.70 ERA on the year.

April 22 — Bob Friend started for the Pirates against Cincinnati and was battered for 6 runs in two full innings. Face was the fourth Pittsburgh pitcher on the day, relieving Bennie Daniels to open the eighth inning with the game tied at seven. Manager Danny Murtaugh, who'd used pitcher Vernon Law as a pinch runner after former Reds star Ted Kluszewski batted for Daniels in the seventh, declined to keep Law in the game. Face surrendered a leadoff bomb to Gus Bell before retiring the next three hitters, hung in to shut down the Reds in order in the top of the ninth, and got the win when the Pirates re-tied the game on a bases-loaded walk (to Roman Mejias) and an RBI single (by Rocky Nelson).

April 24 — Two days later, Face was brought in to save it for Ron Kline against Philadelphia, after two Pittsburgh relievers (Bob Porterfield, Bob Smith) held on to get a 4-3 lead to Face. He got former Red Wally Post to fly out for the side, but in the eighth he surrendered a two-run double to Phillies catcher Carl Sawatski. (Now, there's a name!) Again, Face needed his mates to overthrow a one-run deficit, which is exactly what they did in the top of the ninth: a 2-run double (Smoky Burgess, driving in Bill Virdon and Roberto Clemente), a sacrifice fly (Don Hoak, scoring Dick Schofield, Sr.), and an RBI single. (Bill Mazeroski, driving in Dick Stuart.) Face shook off two singles to keep the Phillies at bay in the ninth for the win.

May 3 — In the first game of a double-header with St. Louis, Face took over for Law to open the eighth in a three-all tie and dueled Cardinals reliever Jim Brosnan (in the middle of the year that would produce his groundbreaking insider memoir, The Long Season) into an extra inning. Face shut the Cardinals out hitless while the Pirates went fast enough and loose enough (a leadoff single, a wild pitch moving the runner up, an intentional walk, a pop out, Brosnan out for Alex Kellner and a bases-loading walk, Kellner out for Howie Nunn) before Mazeroski sent home the game winner with a single to right.

May 7 — Again, Face worked in game one of a doubleheader, this time against the Phillies. Again, he came in to spell Law, who'd pitched nine before the game went to the tenth on a four-all tie. Face surrendered one single (to Ed Bouchee) in the 10th, then pocketed a win when Kluszewski opened the bottom of the tenth with a mammoth shot off Jim Owens, who went all the way for the loss.

May 13 — Face was brought in to open the seventh in the Los Angeles Coliseum after Kline fell behind 4-3 to Don Drysdale and company. He surrendered a mere double to left (Junior Gilliam) in the seventh, watched his mates hang up three in the top of the eighth (Stuart, a 2-run homer; Mazeroski, an RBI double), then shook off two hits and two walks the rest of the way to keep the Dodgers at bay and win, 6-4.

May 14 — The very next day, Face blew a save when he relieved Friend against the Dodgers in the bottom of the eighth, after Duke Snider doubled home Ron Fairly to cut a Pirate lead to 6-3. Entering with pinch-runner Bob Willis on third, Joe Pignatano on first, and one out, Face was greeted by pinch hitter Rip Ripulski singling home Willis and - a walk and a strikeout later - Wally Moon slicing a two-run, game-tying single up the pipe. Stuart smashed a solo homer off Clem Labine in the top of the ninth, though, and Face retired the side in order including two swinging strikeouts in the bottom for the win. It was the third time on the season thus far that Face had turned a blown save into a win.

May 31 — Face ended the month with a flourish in the nightcap of a doubleheader, against the Reds. The game was a high-scoring affair with the Pirates leading 14-11 after six-and-a-half, thanks to Burgess parking a 3-run bomb in the top of the seventh. Face took over for Bob Smith as the fourth Pirate reliever on the day; he matched Cincinnati's Willard Schmidt shutout inning for shutout inning to win.

June — Face would be named the National League's Player of the Month for a performance in which he made 14 appearances, saved 4, and won 5 and only one of the games was a blown save he turned into a win. That came on June 11 in Candlestick Park against the Giants, when he relieved Friend in the eighth and surrendered a one-out 3-run homer to Willie Mays, who was pinch hitting. Only one of those runs was charged to Face (Mays himself); Andre Rodgers was an unearned run since he reached by plunk, and Jackie Brandt had opened the inning with a single off Friend. Face was lifted for a pinch hitter in the top of the ninth after the Pirates dismantled Stu Miller (unearned run-scoring single, sacrifice fly) and Dom Zanni (two-run single, run scoring on a throwing error), and this time Law was brought in to save it for Face. It was the only earned run Face surrendered all month.

July 9 — Face took over for Law with two out in the ninth and a tie game against the Cubs; he worked an inning and a third of one-hit ball as pinch hitter Harry Bright singled home Clemente with the game-winner.

July 12 — In game one of a doubleheader with the Cardinals, Face came in in the top of the eighth to stop the bleeding after the Redbirds, opening the inning in a 5-1 hole, took the game back to within a run against Harvey Haddix, abetted by unearned runs thanks to St. Louis third baseman Ken Boyer reaching on a third base error. Face got George Crowe to pop out to the catcher for the side, but the Cardinals tied it an inning later when Don Blasingame opened against Face with an infield hit, took second on a sacrifice bunt, and scored on Bill White's single. He shut the Cardinals down the rest of the way before Clemente won it in the bottom of the tenth with a one-out RBI single.

August 9 — By now, Face was 14-0 but almost a month without a win. This day, he came in at Wrigley Field to take over for Law, who left in the eighth for a pinch hitter with the Pirates in the hole 2-1. Tony Taylor led off by reaching when Schofield committed a fielding error at shortstop and eventually scored on an RBI single after Face walked Ernie Banks on the house to set up a possible one-out double play. He got out of it with no further damage by getting Moose Moryn to fly out to deep center. The Pirates sent it to extras with a two-run ninth (Clemente, an RBI single; Burgess, a sacrifice fly) and scored twice in the tenth (Dick Groat, RBI single; Nelson, bases-loaded walk), leaving Face to dispatch the Cubs in order in the bottom for the W.

August 23 — Face faced the Dodgers in the nightcap of a doubleheader at Forbes Field. The Dodgers took a 3-1 lead off Law in the eighth and the Pirates put it back to within a run in the bottom off the Dodgers' own relief ace Larry Sherry. Face was the beneficiary when Stuart tied it in the bottom of the ninth with a two-out single and Groat won it in the bottom of the tenth with a two-out bases-loaded single - after the Pirates had squandered an early advantage by turning a leadoff single (Hoak) into a double play.

August 30 — Again in the nightcap of a doubleheader. This time, Face came in to open the top of the tenth and Philadelphia's Bouchee greeted him promptly with a launch over the right field wall, putting the Phillies up 6-5. Face worked the rest of the inning with only a two-out infield hit (Gene Freese) to interrupt, and the Pirates won in the bottom thanks to Stuart's two-run double. It made Face a 17-0 pitcher on the season to date.

The rest of the way — Face made seven more appearances. He blew a save and lost on September 11 against the Dodgers, but over a week later he won his 18th with four-inning, 1-run ball against the Reds. He came into a tie game in the ninth and surrendered a tiebreaker to Johnny Temple (RBI single), but Mazeroski's 2-run triple in the bottom nailed the win.

Face broke Jim Konstanty's record for single-season relief wins (Konstanty won 16 for the pennant-winning Phillies in 1950), but 10 of his wins came after surrendering the tying or lead runs while the Pirate lineup had to re-gain the lead or win it on a walk-off. That may be why Face received no Cy Young Award votes (Early Wynn of the White Sox won it) and finished eighth in the season's Most Valuable Player vote, at a time when only first place votes were cast for the prize.

Right now, Scherzer's only fooling opposing teams, one way or the other. He may be riding a flukish stat, but it's a ride you wouldn't expect him to quit enjoying for as long as he's on the train at all.

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