Sunday, September 14, 2014

Epic Collapse of the '64 Phillies (Sept 16): Was Mauch's Greatest Blunder Looking Ahead to the World Series?

The standard narrative of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies' epic collapse always begins on September 21, when the Phillies had a seemingly safe 6-1/2 game lead with only 12 remaining on their schedule. On that day began a 10-game losing streak that famously included  manager Gene Mauch starting his two best pitchers--Jim Bunning and Chris Short--twice each on only two days of rest in desperation to salvage the pennant. This Insight makes the case that the unraveling actually began five days earlier--on September 16 in Houston--when Mauch decided to start Bunning for the first time on short rest, a decision the Baseball Prospectus pennant race book, It Ain't Over 'Til Its Over, calls "inexplicable." An examination of the calendar suggests Mauch's decision was hardly that. It seems quite likely instead that he was trying to line up Bunning, his ace, to start Game 1 of the World Series that seemed a certainty to include Philadelphia as the National League participant.

Was Mauch's Greatest Blunder Looking Ahead to the World Series?

At the start of day on September 16, 1964, the Phillies had a six-game lead over the second-place Cardinals with only 17 games remaining; the Giants were 7-1/2 games back and the Reds 8-1/2 back. Despite such a commanding lead, manager Gene Mauch made his biggest strategic blunder of the season: he decided to start Jim Bunning, his ace, in Houston on only two days' rest. But why? The ninth-place Colts (as the team in Houston was than called) were certainly not contenders. Moreover, in his previous start--just three days before--Bunning had pitched and won a 10-inning complete game. Pitch counts were not much (if at all) in managers' minds back then and were not recorded for posterity, but clearly with nine strikeouts and having surrendered two walks and seven hits, Bunning threw well over 100 pitches in his 10-inning effort. So, why?

A look at the calendar suggests that the most plausible reason is that Mauch was trying to set up Bunning--whose record was now 17-4 with an excellent 2.13 ERA--to start the first game of the World Series, for which the Phillies were beginning to print tickets, scheduled to start on Wednesday, October 7. Ironically, Bunning would have been perfectly lined up to start the World Series by making his last five regular-season starts on normal rest except for one thing: a quirk of the schedule had the Phillies and Reds concluding the season in Cincinnati with games on Friday, October 2, and Sunday, October 4, but with an off-day on Saturday, between the two games.

This scheduling presented Mauch with a fraught dilemma. If Bunning continued to pitch on his normal schedule--every fourth day, which was the standard at the time--his last start before the World Series would have been on Tuesday, September 29, giving him a full week off before the Fall Classic began. Starting pitchers establish a rhythm for pitching during the season, and Mauch probably assumed (rightly) that seven days between starts was too long for a workhorse like Bunning, who might lose his edge with so much downtime.

Mauch could have decided to pitch his ace every fifth day for the rest of the season, which would have had Bunning making his final start on Friday, October 2, giving him another four days of rest before taking the mound for Game 1 of the Series. But this would not have been a viable solution for Mauch even if he had been willing to buck the then-conventional practice of three days of rest between starts for top pitchers. With Ray Culp out because of his chronically sore elbow and Dennis Bennett pitching in pain with a bad shoulder, Mauch really had no option to go to a five-man rotation until the start of the World Series.

Instead, if this analysis is correct, Mauch appears to have decided that keeping to the rhythm of three days between starts was preferable and took the gamble of starting Bunning--presumably just this once--on short rest against a very bad team in order to set him up to have proper rest before his final start of the regular season, which would now be on Friday, October 2. That would have given Bunning an extra fourth day off before pitching in Game 1 of the World Series.

At least, that seems likely to have been the plan. With such a comfortable lead, what could go wrong?

It probably didn't matter to Mauch that Bunning on short rest surrendered six runs to the Colts in less than five innings. But the decision ultimately had huge implications for the Phillies' historic unraveling of 1964. For one thing, it meant Bunning was no longer in line to pitch in any of the three games from September 21 to 23 when the Reds came to town; of course, with 8-1/2 games separating the two teams on September 16, who would think any of those games would be important ... but, the Cincinnati Reds were still in play in the pennant chase--even if with virtually no margin to spare.

For an earlier post on the Phillies' pitching problems, see "Pitching Problems on the Horizon" (May 29);

The following is a link to the previous post in this series on the 1964 Phillies, which includes links to those before that:

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