Good thing Steve Carlton refused to speak with reporters about his pitching excellence through much of his career. Otherwise we might never hear the end of it.
Carlton ranked among baseball’s elite for more than a decade. He became the first pitcher to win four Cy Young Awards, capturing the honor in 1972, ‘77, ‘80 and ‘82. Hundreds of other left-handers performed in the Major Leagues during Carlton’s 24-year tenure, but he was the only one who merited the nickname “Lefty,” as if it conferred legitimacy upon him above all other southpaws.
With Carlton turning 77 on Wednesday, here’s a collection of his top 10 career highlights:
1. A difference-maker like no other
June 7-Aug. 17, 1972
Carlton sustained a 15-game winning streak during this span that encompassed 18 starts. His performance was nothing short of phenomenal. He allowed 104 hits, walked 39, struck out 140 and fashioned a 1.51 ERA in 155 innings. Opponents batted .192 with six home runs off Carlton, who pitched 14 complete games and five shutouts. Carlton’s 27-10 overall record that season was astonishing given the Phillies’ 59-97 finish. Traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia for right-hander Rick Wise in late February after a salary dispute, Carlton set a record by accounting for 46% of the Phils’ victories.
2. Virtually untouchable
Sept. 15, 1969
Having established his slider as his “money” pitch, Carlton set a modern-day record by amassing 19 strikeouts in a nine-inning game. Somehow, the New York Mets engineered a 4-3 victory over the Cardinals and Carlton, who yielded two-run homers to Ron Swoboda in the fourth and eighth innings. Otherwise, Carlton was overpowering. He struck out the side in the first, fourth and ninth innings and retired each Mets starter on strikes at least once. Carlton eclipsed the mark of 18 shared by Don Wilson, Bob Feller and Sandy Koufax, who accomplished the feat twice.
3. Mr. 4,000
Aug. 5, 1986
Carlton’s skills had begun to erode by the time he joined the Giants after the Phillies released him at midseason. But he had enough left to claim Cincinnati’s Eric Davis as his 4,000th strikeout victim. Nolan Ryan was the only other pitcher to have reached 4,000 K's at that time.
4. A nice round number
April 29, 1981
Carlton continued to entrench himself among the all-time greats when he recorded his 3,000th strikeout. He victimized Montreal’s Tim Wallach to reach the milestone number and conclude a first inning in which he struck out the side en route to a complete-game effort in a 6-2 Phillies win. Carlton became the first left-hander and sixth pitcher overall to reach this level.
5. Take that, Cardinals
Sept. 23, 1983
Carlton secured career victory No. 300 while again showing the Cardinals what they missed out on. He struck out 12 and walked one in eight innings while defeating his former team in a 6-2 decision. A respectable .201 career hitter, Carlton contributed a second-inning RBI single off St. Louis starter Joaquin Andujar.
6. To the Hall
A first-ballot inductee, Carlton was named on 95.6% of the ballots (436 of 456), one of the highest figures ever. Besides his quartet of Cy Young Awards, he was selected for 10 All-Star teams and appeared in the top 10 of Most Valuable Player Award voting five times.
7. Finishing kick
Oct. 21, 1980
The Phillies won all four of Carlton’s postseason starts in 1980. He personally earned the decision in three of them, including the World Series clincher -- a 4-1 victory over Kansas City in Game 6. Carlton surrendered four hits and Kansas City’s lone run in a seven-inning effort.
8. Double-dipping on Dodgers
Oct. 4 and Oct. 8, 1983
Carlton won the bookend games in the Phillies' best-of-five National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He lasted 7 2/3 innings in a spine-tingling 1-0 victory in the series opener before yielding one run in six innings as Philadelphia captured the Game 4 clincher, 7-2.
9. One at a time
Carlton never pitched a no-hitter, though he always seemed to be a threat to do so. Between these years, Carlton pitched six one-hitters, though the drama usually failed to build because Carlton would yield a hit relatively early in the game, then shut down the opposition. The exception was June 5, 1979, when Houston’s Jeffrey Leonard singled to open the seventh inning.
10. Last hurrah
Aug. 8, 1987
Carlton was pitching for the Minnesota Twins when he notched his 329th and final career victory. He pitched 8 2/3 innings against the A's and allowed two runs on seven hits in a 9-2 victory. Warren Spahn is the only left-hander with more lifetime wins.