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Scherzer on a roll, but then there was Gibson

Hall of Famer produced jaw-dropping run of starts en route to record ERA

Not too many years ago, IBM initiated a marketing campaign that used a list of seven seminal baseball statistics to make a point. The numbers stood alone, without identification, in a vertical row.

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Not too many years ago, IBM initiated a marketing campaign that used a list of seven seminal baseball statistics to make a point. The numbers stood alone, without identification, in a vertical row.

Cast your Esurance All-Star ballot for #ASGWorthy players

The numeral 56 was not described as the number of games in Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak. It was just "56." Nor did "Babe Ruth's career home run total" appear with 714. And "Cy Young's career victory total," or words to that effect, were not to be seen near the number 511.

Some knowledge of the game's history was necessary to understand, and some folks did grasp IBM's message.

One who didn't was Terry Bross, then a wannabe pitcher in the Mets' Spring Training camp. He recognized none of the numbers, and he was particularly perplexed by one: 1.12. Even when he was advised that the number involved Bob Gibson, Bross was stumped. One-point-one-two. He acknowledged that number was in the form of an earned run average, but when he was told the ERA was that of one pitcher for one full season -- 304 2/3 innings to be exact -- he refused to accept it. Even printed proof provided the following day didn't persuade him.

Don Mattingly once believed Ruth was only a cartoon character. Bross had no such misguided notions about Gibson's existence; he was certain, though, that the 1.12 in Gibson's statistical resume was fable.

"No one can have a 1.12 ERA for a whole season," Bross said.

But it was true. In 1968, when the greatest pitcher in the long and distinguished history of the Cardinals produced it; in 1991, when Bross questioned it; and today, 47 years after Gibson pitched a fifth straight shutout in a spectacular sequence of 11 starts that made the 1.12 possible.

That season produced the most brilliant long-term pitching performance in Gibson's Hall of Fame career: 11 starts, eight shutouts. When it ended, he had produced what remains the lowest single-season ERA for a qualifying pitcher since 1906.

"That was a pretty good stretch," Gibson said this week from his home in Omaha, Neb. "I had a nice year, didn't I? I don't remember some of the specifics. Hey, I'm almost 80 (Pack Robert Gibson becomes an octogenarian Nov. 9). But I know that season I was locked in from the first day game on."

* * * * *

All of baseball has been properly impressed by the two most recent performances of Max Scherzer -- a one-hitter followed directly by a near-perfect-game no-hitter. Scherzer and the Nationals' defense have given the nation's capital and its satellite communities legitimate reason to bust their baseball buttons.

Two successive games of low-hit or no-hit grandeur are quite the achievement. Two consecutive shutouts or, these days, even two straight complete games qualify as extraordinary. Who isn't eager to see what develops Friday night when Scherzer opposes the badly faded and ill-fated Phillies?

Now, this is not to minimize what Scherzer has accomplished. But what he has done in games against the Brewers on June 14 and the Pirates six days later almost would have qualified as standard operating procedure in the summer of '68.

Sandwiched between the Summer of Love and the summer of Neil Armstrong, Charles Manson, Mary Jo Kopechne, Joe Cocker and Tom Seaver was the summer of Gibson and McLain and Tiant and Marichal and Perry and Koosman and dozens of other pitchers who ruled the baseball world. It was the Year of the Pitcher.

And Gibson was king of the hill, top of the heap. Denny McLain won 31 games and, like Gibson, the Cy Young Award and the Most Valuable Player Award in his league. But the 1.12 ERA distinguished Gibson to a greater degree. Seven big league pitchers produced an ERA lower than 2.00. But Gibson's was half a run lower than the second-best ERA, Luis Tiant's 1.60.

"It was the Year of the Pitcher," Gibson's former teammate Mike Shannon said in 1974. "Half the pitchers in the league had ERAs under 2.00. But when they called it The Year of the Pitcher, we figured they were talking about one pitcher -- Gibby."

The five consecutive shutouts weren't even half the story.

Gibson followed those 45 innings of scoreless baseball with, in order: a one-run complete game, a shutout, another one-run complete game, two straight shutouts and one more complete game in which he allowed one run. He produced an 11-start sequence during which he pushed his record from 4-5 to 15-5 and created an unimaginable 99-inning ERA of 0.27.

"If that wasn't the greatest run of pitching ever, I'd hate to think of one that was better," Astros slugger Jimmy Wynn said years later, when memories of facing Gibson still disturbed his sleep.

"I wake up sweating and thinking, 'I've got to face him later.' We saw him twice during that run. We couldn't touch him either time. ... You couldn't touch him that whole year."

Gibson was 32 and in his 10th big league season when his dominance, more than any other factor, prompted baseball to level the playing field -- literally. The mound was lowered from 15 to 10 inches the following season.

"Yeah, that was my reward for having a great season," Gibson said, as his faded curmudgeon ways surfaced. "They made it harder to get outs the next season and every season after that. They could've said, 'Nice job, Bob. Let's see if you can do it again.'"

The totals for those 11 starts are staggering -- for any era. Eight shutouts, three one-run games, 11 complete games, 99 innings, three runs and -- this is the actual total -- 60 left on base. Gibson allowed 72 baserunners and struck out 83. Opponents batted .183 in 306 at-bats in those 11 games. Their slugging percentage -- Gibson allowed no home runs or triples -- was .212, and their on-base percentage was .223.

In starts 12-22, Gibson lowered his ERA more than a point -- from 1.97 to 0.96

Moreover, Gibson was more than a complete-game pitcher in that six-week sequence; he was the complete player. With five hits -- four of them doubles -- four walks, a sacrifice fly and three RBIs in those 11 games, Gibson out-produced the teams he beat, batting .167 but with a .300 slugging average and .277 on-base percentage. And he drove in as many runs as he allowed.

But the ERA trumped everything else Gibson did in 1968.

"I know what they say, 'Every ERA was down that year,'" Tim McCarver, Gibson's catcher and friend, said once. "And it was true. But think about that number -- 1.12. He made 34 starts that year. That means, on average, he pitched so well that all we had to do was score two runs to have an excellent chance of winning. That's remarkable. And in 13 of the 34 [Gibson pitched 13 shutouts, still the most since 1910], all we had to do is score once and we'd win."

Gibson's throwing five consecutive shutouts is not the record. Don Drysdale established the record, throwing six straight en route to his since-exceeded record of 58 successive scoreless innings, also in 1968. Drysdale's streak ended June 8, two days after Gibson's began. Oh, yes, it was The Year of the Pitcher.

Incidentally, Gibson opposed Drysdale in Los Angeles when his own scoreless-innings streak stood at 47. He had not allowed any runs in the final two innings of his complete-game victory against the Mets on June 2, and then threw the five straight shutouts.

"We were in Chicago a week or so before we got to L.A., and reporters were asking me about breaking Drysdale's record," Gibson said. "I didn't even know about it then. But I was aware of it when we gt to L.A., and if I kept my streak going, I was going to get close to his. And I remember that [Dodgers left fielder] Len Gabrielson, when he scored, he jumped on the plate with two feet. Pretty happy he'd protected Drysdale's record."

The run scored on a wild pitch, the only one Gibson threw during the 11-game run.

"Johnny Edwards was catching that day," McCarver said. "I'm glad l wasn't. Bob wasn't real happy when Gabrielson scored. I don't know that I would have stopped it. I was just glad I wasn't out there that night."

(Lest we forget, Orel Hershiser pitched five straight shutouts in September 1988, when he established the still-standing record for consecutive scoreless innings, 59. He followed that streak of five with a scoreless 10-inning start that didn't qualify as a shutout because he didn't pitch a complete game.)

* * * * *

McCarver was Gibson's primary catcher, though Edwards caught four of the 11 games. Nonetheless, McCarver witnessed all of Gibson's starts.

Video: LAD@STL Gm3: McCarver throws first pitch to Gibson

"He was right when he said he was locked in all year," McCarver said this week from Miami. "And the reason he was locked in like he never was in other years was that he had perfect command of the slider he threw to right-handed hitters. Left-handed hitters -- like Ron Fairly, Ken Boswell, Art Shamsky and Pete [Rose] -- could give Gibby some trouble sometimes. But that year, in particular, right-handed hitters had no chance.

"And you know, the great ones -- Seaver, [Sandy] Koufax and Nolan Ryan, once he conquered the curve -- had such great stuff they could use the middle of the plate and still get outs. In '68, Gibby's stuff was great and he could hit the outside corner every time against right-handed batters. He could almost do it with his eyes closed. Remarkable."

Right-handed hitters batted .169 against Gibson in 1968. Left-handed hitters were far more successful: .174.

It was that level of dominance, and the success it fostered, that made Gibson's 22-9 record difficult to justify. One of the game's more mystifying facts is that a pitcher with a 1.12 ERA lost nine times. Then again, Gibson's ERA in the losses was 2.14. Only twice did he allow more than three runs in a loss, and in one of two occasions, three of the six runs against him were unearned. Gibson lost two games 1-0 and another 2-0.

Understandable, it was the Year of the Pitcher.

Marty Noble is a columnist for

St. Louis Cardinals