Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Good Day For Aces (60 Years Ago, July 29, 1956)

On Sunday, July 29th, 1956 (sixty years ago), Billy Pierce won his 16th game of the year and Don Newcombe and Brooks Lawrence won their 15th.

A Good Day for Aces (60 Years Ago, July 29, 1956)

In Chicago's Comiskey Park, southpaw Billy Pierce surrendered 7 hits to run his record to 16-4 as the White Sox beat up on the Red Sox, 11-2. Pierce was the ace of the Chisox staff and one of the best pitchers in baseball. With two months to go in the season, Pierce was well on his way toward being a 20-game winner for the first time in his (so far) nine-year career. The most games he had ever won was 18 in 1953, but Pierce also had three 15-win seasons for Chicago, including 1955the previous yearwhen he was 15-10 and led the majors in both ERA (1.97) and fewest hits plus walks (1.1) per inning . 

Meanwhile in Brooklyn, the Dodgers' Don Newcombe pitched a 5-hit, 1-0 shutout to go 15-5 on the season as the Dodgers downed the Cubs. The only run of the game was a home run by Pee Wee Reese, his 7th, off Chicago starter Jim Davis to break up a scoreless pitching duel in the eighth. Dee Fondy, with a pair of doubles, was the only Cub to reach second base; nobody made it to third. It was Newcombe's second shutout of the season. The first was also against the Cubs, back on May 8 at Wrigley Field, when he shut them down on only three hits. Only one Cub got as far as second base in that one.

Big Newk's victory was his 14th in 21 starts. He also got a win in his only relief appearance, which happened to be . . . against the Cubs, right here at Ebbets Field back on May 20. Having given up 6 runs in 2⅓ innings the previous day, Brooklyn manager Walt Alston called on him with one out in the fourth inning and two runners on, the score tied at 2-2, to get the Dodgers out of the inning. He got a double play and hung around for the rest of the game to pick up the win, his 6th of the year at the time, giving up an unearned run in the eighth. 

Back to July 26: we're now at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh where the Reds' Brooks Lawrence also won his 15th game, giving up just one run on four hits as Cincinnati beat the Pirates, 6-1. For Lawrence, the win was much welcomed after having lost his two previous starts, which were so far his only two losses of the season. Lawrence had gone into the All-Star break undefeated at 12-0 and improved to 13-0 on July 17 when he beat the Dodgers, 4-3. His double in the bottom of the ninth off Sandy Koufax started the game winning rally in that one. His victory that day pushed the third-place Dodgers five games back of the first-place Braves; the Reds were a game out in second.

It was four days later, on July 21 at home against the Pirates, that Brooks Lawrence suffered his first loss of the season, thanks to a three-run 9th-inning homer by Roberto Clemente that overturned a 3-1 Cincinnati lead. Two days later Lawrence won his 14th game pitching two innings of relief against the Pirates. This time he retired Clemente on a grounder to third in the eighth for his final out before being removed for a pinch hitter. The Reds won the game in the last of the eighth, making Lawrence the winning pitcher. He was now 14-1.

On just one day of rest after pitching those two innings in relief, Lawrence was back on the mound. On July 25. At Ebbets Field. In Brooklyn. Against Dodgers' ace Don Newcombe. The two right-handers hooked up in a classic pitchers' duel. Frank Robinson hit his 22nd home run of the season in the third, and Carl Furillo answered by hitting a long fly in the fourth. The game stayed tied at 1-1 until Duke Snider ended it with his 24th home run with one out in the bottom of the ninth. Both Newcombe and Lawrence now had 14 wins, and four days later they each won their 15th.

With two months to go, Newcombe and Lawrence both seemed sure bets to win 20—long the accepted standard of excellence in any given season for a pitcher. (The advanced metrics of recent years, not to mention significant changes in how pitchers are used, including the notion of 6-inning "quality starts" and the use of dedicated 7th and 8th and 9th inning relievers to secure victories, have diminished the importance of the 20-win season.) 

Big Newk had been a 20-game winner twice before, in 1951 (20-9) and 1955 (20-5), and was on a roll since starting the season 6-3 with a 4.15 ERA through May 25. Since then, he was 9-2 with a 3.01 earned run average in 13 starts, including six in a row for the month of July. His only blemish in July was surrendering 6 runs in just 1 inning in Milwaukee in his first start after the All-Star break, but the Dodgers came back to tie the score, taking him off the hook before they eventually lost the game.

Brooks Lawrence was in uncharted territory, for him. His 15th win before the end of July matched the number of games he won as a 29-year-old rookie for the St. Louis Cardinals two years earlier. But he started only 18 games that year, while relieving in 17 others, and was 9-2 as a starting pitcher and 6-4 in relief. The next year, ineffectiveness and health issues severely compromised his season; he pitched terribly (3-8, 6.56, mostly as a reliever); he was demoted; and he became expendable. So he was traded to the Reds for a journeyman southpaw named Jackie Collum. 

Four of Lawrence's 15 wins so far in 1956 had come in 8 relief appearances. He was 11-2 in his 21 starts. After following-up Lawrence's 15th win with another victory in the second game of their Sunday doubleheader, the Reds ended the day at 56-39, 2½ games behind the first-place Braves, but a game-and-a-half up on the third-place Dodgers. Now clearly the dominant starting pitcher on the Cincinnati staff, it was on the health and continued effectiveness of Brooks Lawrence that the Cincinnati Redlegs' 1956 pennant chances arguably rested. 

But Lawrence had now pitched 151 innings, just 7 less than he had pitched for the Cardinals in his 1954 rookie campaign. And there were two months to go, one of them the presumed-to-be-beastly hot August.

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