Roger Maris, who memorably hit 61 in ’61 for the Yankees and helped the Cardinals win two pennants in the final two years of his career, turned out to be a pretty good scout and prophet before the 1968 World Series between Detroit and St. Louis.
“Roger told us in August that [Denny] McLain wasn’t going to be the problem,” Tim McCarver, the Cardinals’ catcher that season, told Newsday. “Unfortunately, he was dead on. He said Mickey Lolich would be the big problem.”
Lolich, a lefthander who won 17 games that season but was overshadowed by McLain’s epic 31-win campaign, confounded the Cardinals three times in the Series, including Game 7, when he outdueled Bob Gibson.
Gibson had been marvelous in a well-hyped showdown with McLain in Game 1, striking out a Series-record 17 in a 4-0 victory. “You could see it and feel it with the Tigers that they hadn’t seen anything like Gibson,” McCarver said.
The two aces met again in Game 4, with Gibson registering an easy 10-1 victory. McLain, aided by a 10-run third inning, won Game 6, 13-1, and forced a Game 7.
The seemingly invincible Gibson would face Lolich, pitching on two days’ rest, in Game 7. “After Game 6, [manager] Mayo Smith takes me into the tunnel and asks me, ‘Can you pitch tomorrow?’ ’’ Lolich recalled in a TV interview in 2013. “ ‘Sure, Mayo, if you need me to pitch a couple of innings, I can pitch in relief.’ He says, ‘No, no, not in relief. I want you to start.’ I said, ‘What?’ ’’
No wonder the Cardinals were confident. “Our sense of surety that nobody could beat Gibson certainly was there,” McCarver said. “We’d seen what he did all year. Why would he be different in Game 7?”
Lolich, not a pure power pitcher like Gibson, kept the Cardinals off- balance with his sinker away to righthanded hitters, and the duo matched zeroes for six innings. But in the seventh, the Cardinals’ Curt Flood, an elite centerfielder, misplayed a line drive by Jim Northrup that went over his head for a two-run triple. The Tigers defeated the mighty Gibson, 4-1, to win the Series.
“Look, no excuses, but it rained the night before. It was wet out there and Curt got stuck in the mud [on his first step in],” McCarver said. “But, damn right, Lolich pitched a great game against us and you’ve got to tip your hat. They beat Gibson, and that was astonishing to us.”
— BOB HERZOG