Friday, September 2, 2016

Brooks Lawrence to the Rescue (60 Years Ago, Sept. 3, 1956)

To those who might have said that Brooks Lawrence's failure to win any of his six starts in August may have cost the Cincinnati Reds the 1956 pennant: if it was not for his gutsy performance against the Milwaukee Braves on September 3rd, the Reds' pennant chances could well have ended right then and there, and it would have been a two-team Milwaukee vs. Brooklyn race to the end, instead of a three-team duel also involving Cincinnati.  

Brooks Lawrence to the Rescue
(60 Years Ago, September 3, 1956)

Trailing the Braves by 3½ games and tied with the Dodgers in second place, the Redlegs traveled to Milwaukee for a critical four-game series that would start with a doubleheader on September 3. This was their chance to cut into the Braves' lead, or it could have been the death knell to their season. That second scenario looked more plausible when their loss in the first game of their doubleheader on a walk-off win by the Braves dropped the Reds 4½ back, especially since they failed to hold onto a 2-0 lead because Hank Aaron hit home runs in the 4th and 7th innings to tie the game, then doubled and scored the winning run on Joe Adcock's single in the 9th. 

In the second game, the Reds held a 5-2 lead in the 3rd when the Braves loaded the bases with nobody out in the last half of the inning. Due up next were Aaron and Eddie Mathews, followed by Adcock. Aaron had 23 home runs, including his two in the first game, 78 runs batted in, and was batting .327. Mathews had 37 homers and 86 RBIs, and had been red-hot since the end of July, having belted 15 round trippers and driven in 38 runs in 39 games since August 1. Adcock had 34 homers, 93 RBIs, and was batting .305.

Did I mention the bases were loaded and there were no outs? Even with a 3-run lead, Cincinnati manager Birdie Tebbetts had no choice but to remove starting pitcher Larry Jansen from the proceedings, because that 3-run lead was looking very precarious. And the reality was: if the Reds hung on to win, they'd be back to a manageable 3½ games behind. But should they lose, they would be 5½ back. That potential two-game swing in the standings could make all the difference going forward. A 3½-game deficit with just 23 games left to play after this one was not too large to overcome, but 5½ games behind just might be.

So, who was he gonna call? Hersh Freeman was the Reds' relief ace, but Tebbetts probably thought it was too early in the game to call on him. Freeman rarely came into games before the 7th inning, and just once as early as the 5th. Art Fowler had often come into games in the early and middle innings and was rested, having last pitched four days ago, 6 innings of shutout ball to get a win against the Giants. There were a few other options, too, but

—With the bases loaded, nobody out, Aaron and Mathews up next, Birdie Tebbetts wanted Brooks Lawrence, even though Lawrence had pitched a 9-inning complete-game victory just two days before. That was his 17th win of the year, but his first as a starting pitcher in more than a month (since July 29, to be precise).

In fact, Lawrence would not look back kindly on August 1956. He had won his first 13 decisions of the season, although four them were in games he came in to relieve. He ended the month of July on a high note with a complete-game victory in Pittsburgh in which he allowed just 4 hits. He was 15-2 at the time. His earned run average was 3.32. 

Then came August. Brooks Lawrence made 6 starts in August and lost them all. His earned run average for the month was a rather unsightly 5.89. Lawrence's one win was in relief, on August 9 against the Cubs; he entered a tie game in the top of the 9th with a runner at second and one out, retired Ernie Banks and Monte Irvin, pitched a scoreless 10th, and came out a winner on Gus Bell's walk-off homer. 

Two of Lawrence's August losses were against the Braves, the team out front in the National League. On August 12, pitching in Milwaukee where a victory would have cut the third-place Reds' deficit from two games behind to one, Lawrence gave up six runs before being sent to the showers in the third inning. Eight days after that, Lawrence gave up only 3 runs in 8 innings against the Braves, but was the losing pitcher because the Reds' offense was limited to a solo bottom-of-the-9th home run by Frank Robinson. All three runs Lawrence surrendered scored on homersa two-run shot by Mathews, who was due up after Aaron in our game in question, and a solo shot by Adcock, due up after Mathews.

Lawrence's most recent engagements with the Braves didn't matter to Tebbetts. Neither did his very bad month of August. What mattered was that the bases were loaded, there were no outs, the Reds' 3-run lead was in jeopardy, the Braves three most dangerous hitters were next up, a loss could be devastating to Cincinnati's pennant chances, AND Brooks Lawrence, for all his August struggles, was his best pitcher.

Brooks Lawrence retired Aaron on a short fly to left and got Mathews to hit into a double play. End of inning. He left the mound with the Reds' 5-2 lead intact. Then he pitched the remaining 6 innings of the game. He gave up 3 runs, but not until after Cincinnati had taken a 5-run lead. And he pitched those 7 innings against the Braves in a must-win game on just one day of rest after pitching a 9-inning complete game. Lawrence was now 18-8, and the Reds were back to 3½ games behind the Braves.

Their season rescued by Lawrence, the Reds won the next two games against the Braves and left Milwaukee in second place, 1½ games behind and half-a-game up on the Dodgers. As of that dateSeptember 5, 1956there were 134 games down for the Cincinnati Reds and 20 to go. 

Pitching on the three days of rest that were typical for pitching aces back then, and assuming he would get them after this intrepid performance, Brooks Lawrence could still to make as many as 6 starts in those 20 games, not taking into account the times his manager might want to use himas he did on September 3 in Milwaukeeto pitch critical innings as a reliever in a must-win game. 

Problem was, Lawrence had now pitched 204 innings, and there were still maybe those 6 starts and some relief appearances to go. The most major league innings he had pitched before this was 158 in his rookie season of 1954 with the Cardinals, a total he exceeded in the first week of August, explaining perhaps why August 1956 was not kind to Brooks Lawrence. 

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