Saturday, September 14, 2013

Two Sox and the End-Game of the 1967 A.L. Pennant Race

Six teams are still in realistic contention for the two AL wild card slots as the season enters its final two weeks.  In 1967, four teams went into the final weekend with a shot at the American League pennant. Of the four teams, the most interesting story lines concerning the pennant-race end-game involved the Chicago White Sox--whose offensive deficiencies paralleled those of their "hitless wonders" namesake from sixty-one years earlier--and the Boston Red Sox, whose rookie manager, Dick Williams, had his own Gene Mauch moment in the final week of the season. 

Two Sox and the End-Game of the 1967 A.L. Pennant Race

The American League has the distinction of playing The Last Great Pennant Race in major league baseball's original structure of, for each league, just one pennant race.  The year was 1967--the year of the "Cinderella" / "Impossible Dream" Boston Red Sox, who had finished ninth, half-a-game out of last place, the year before with 90 losses.   The Chicago White Sox held first place for more than two months from June 11 to August 12, holding a 5-1/2 game lead at one point, but by September were competing with Boston, the Minnesota Twins, and Detroit Tigers in a fierce four-team race that would go down to the wire.  On September 6, all four teams were tied for first.  The four teams were separated by a game-and-a-half going into the final weekend--beginning Friday, September 29--each with a chance to go to the World Series:
  • Minnesota (91-69) was in the best position, one game up on both Boston and Detroit with two to play at Fenway Park on Saturday and Sunday.  If they won both games, the only team that could possibly tie them would be Detroit, and the Tigers would have to win all four of their remaining games against the Angels, which ended up being back-to-back doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday because of a Friday rainout.
  • In an ironic counterpoint to 1949, when the Yankees had to win both weekend games in their home stadium to beat out the Red Sox for the pennant, Boston (90-70) was in the same position now--having to win both games at Fenway to finish ahead of the Twins. To avoid a playoff, however, they also had to count on the Tigers doing no better than splitting their final four games of the season, and for the White Sox to lose one of their last three games.
  • Detroit (89-69) could win the pennant outright only if they won all four of their remaining games and Minnesota split its weekend series in Boston.  A Twins sweep at Fenway, on the other hand, would require the Tigers to win all four of their games just to tie for first place and force a playoff; if the Twins won one or if the Red Sox won both games at Fenway, the Tigers would still need at least three wins to force a playoff with one or the other team. 
  • As the fourth-place laggard, but only a game-and-a-half behind, Chicago (89-70) faced the biggest challenge going into the final weekend, needing to win all three of their remaining games,and the Red Sox to sweep the Twins, and the Tigers to win no more than three of four--and that would only give Chicago a tie for first with Boston and maybe also Detroit, if the Tigers did win three of four.
As it happened, no playoff was needed.  The White Sox were shut out, 1-0, by the Senators on Friday, making it impossible for them to reach 92 victories, thus eliminating them from contention; the Tigers split both doubleheaders, finishing them off; and the Red Sox swept the Twins to win the pennant outright and end a 21-year drought since the last time they had been to the World Series.

With by far the weakest line-up of the contending teams, it was predictable that the White Sox would not be able to pull out the pennant, even having the league's best pitching and defense.  It says something about the resiliency of that team that Chicago stayed in the race till the final weekend, ultimately finishing three games off pace. The White Sox' prospects actually seemed good at the start of play on September 27, when they were only one behind with their five remaining games against two of the league's worst teams--Kansas City and Washington--while their competitors for the pennant were all playing tougher teams, including Boston and Minnesota with two games against each other on the final weekend.  It was then that the predictable fate of teams that have difficulty scoring runs caught up with the White Sox.  They scored only five runs total in losing all five of their remaining games, and were shut out in three consecutive games.

Only the ninth-place Yankees (at this point in their history, no longer the Bronx Bombers) scored fewer runs than the White Sox in 1967, and only Washington had a lower team batting average than Chicago's .225 in a league that hit all of .236. The White Sox were 7 percent worse than the league average in both runs-to-hits and runs-to-runners on base ratios--two indicators of offensive efficiency.  (In case you were wondering, the 1906 "hitless wonders" White Sox, by contrast, were better than the league average in both categories.)  The 1967 White Sox hit only .214 as a team in going 16-14 in the final month of the season, had an on-base percentage of only .276, and only 21 percent of their hits went for extra bases.  While the White Sox hit 18 percentage points below the league batting average for September, the Twins' batting average for the month was 16 percentage points above the league average, the Tigers were 22 points better, and the Red Sox hit for a batting average 24 points higher than the league average. Only two teams had a worse batting average and on-base percentage in the final month than Chicago, neither of them in the pennant race (obviously), and no team had a lower percentage of extra-base hits. (The league average for extra base hits in the final month of 1967 was 26 percent.)  These kinds of stats are certain to subvert great pitching, as indeed they did:  down the September stretch, White Sox pitchers allowed fewer than one base runner per inning and had a superb 2.17 ERA.  But while the adage of pitching wins pennants may be true, you still need to score runs.  Chicago scored two or fewer runs in 12 of their final 30 games.

Like Phillies' manager Gene Mauch with Jim Bunning and Chris Short during his team's epic collapse in the last 12 games of the 1964 NL season, Red Sox manager Dick Williams relied primarily on Jim Lonborg and Gary Bell as his principal starters down the stretch; together they started half of Boston's final 28 games. Lonborg, his best pitcher, was pitching consistently every fourth day, but with three games left on Boston's schedule on September 27, Williams had him start on two days of rest at home against eighth-place Cleveland. The Red Sox trailed the Twins by one game at the time, but with two off days before the final series with Minnesota, Williams probably felt this was a necessary gamble to have his ace pitch twice in the five days before the season ended.  If Lonborg did not start this game against the Indians, he would have pitched the Saturday game against the Twins, but six days from his previous start because of the two days off.  Pitching against Cleveland on two days of rest would leave Lonborg available to start against Minnesota on Sunday--the season finale--with his typical three days of rest.  And Williams helped set up Lonborg's start on short rest by removing him in the seventh inning of his previous start on September 24 with a 7-0 lead.  As it turned out, Lonborg lost his start on short rest to the Indians, lasting only three innings, but pitched a complete game 5-3 victory over the Twins on the final day of the season to send Boston to the World Series--

--Where they (and he, in Game 7) ran into Bob Gibson.  Enough said.

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