Monday, October 10, 2016

What's With Big Newk in the World Series? (60 Years Ago, 1956)

A few days ago, on the 7th of October, Clayton Kershaw and David Price took the mound in post-season games having to live down mystifying questions as why, in the crucible of October baseball, they have been anything but the elite pitchers they are. Sixty years ago, on October 10, 1956, at Ebbets Field, the Dodgers' Don Newcombe did the same. 

(60 Years Ago):
What's With Big Newk in the World Series?

Don Newcombe was a 20-game winner for the third time in his six big league seasons, which were interrupted by two years of military service during the Korean War. He was, in fact, exceptional, with a 27-7 recordevery one of his wins necessary for the 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers to return to the World Series and have a chance to defend their world championship the year before. Pitching and winning the last game of the season on Sunday, September 30, by which the Dodgers secured the pennant by just one game over the Milwaukee Braves, the Brooklyn ace would not have been ready for Game 1 on Wednesday. He would start Game 2 instead on five days of rest. 

Despite having won 70 percent of his decisions (a 112-48 career record) so far in his career, Newcombe went into the '56 World Series having already earned a reputation for a big-time winner in the regular season turned batting practice pitcher / loser in the Fall Classic.

It all began in his rookie year of 1949, when he broke in with a 17-8 record, and led the Dodgers in starts (31), complete games (19), shutouts (5), innings pitched (244), strikeouts (149), and fewest-hits-per-9 innings (8.2). He was first in the league in shutouts, second in strikeouts, and third in complete games and hits-per-9 innings.

He pitched like the ace he was in the opening game of the 1949 World Series, shutting out the Yankees on four hits through eight innings. At Yankee Stadium no less. But Allie Reynolds was even better, shutting out the Dodgers on just two hits, and Reynolds had two of the four hits Newcombe had given up. But Tommy Henrich, the Yankees' first batter in the ninth, homered. The game was over. The Yankees won. So far, the worst you could say about Newcombe in World Series competition was that he pitched brilliantly, Reynolds pitched better, and Tommy Henrich was ... well, Old Reliable.

Just three days after his anguishing loss, Newcombe took the mound again at Ebbets Field in Game 4, needing to win for the Dodgers to tie the Series at two games apiece. Although he struggled through the first inning, giving up two hits and two walks but being helped out by a double play, Newcombe shutout the Yankees through three. He got only one out in the fourth, however, giving up 3 runs on three doubles and a walk before being sent to the showers. The Dodgers lost the game. The next day they lost the World Series.

Because of his time in the US Army, Newk's next World Series did not come until 1955, a season in which he won 20, lost 5, and led the league in winning percentage and in WHIP. He started the opening game against Whitey Ford and gave up 6 runs on 8 hits before being taken out with two outs in the 6th. He did not pitch again in the World Series, most likely because his arm was sore and he had a bad back. Brooklyn nonetheless won in seven games without him. 

Going into his start in Game 2 of the 1956 Series, Newcombe's line in 3 World Series starts was an 0-3 record and 5.19 earned run average in 17 innings. He was up against Don Larsen, a so-so pitcher whose historic date with fate would come in Game 5. Newk gave up a run in the 1st and 5 in the 2nd, leaving with two outs in the inning after Yogi Berra belted a grand slam to make the score 6-0. The only reason Newcombe did not lose the game was because Larsen couldn't get out of Brooklyn's half of the second as the Dodgers scored 6 runs to tie the score on their way to a 13-8 win and a two-games-to-none lead in the Series.

But Newcombe had now allowed 16 earned runs in the 19 innings he had pitched in four World Series starts. His World Series ERA was now up to 7.58, and over 9.00 since the Tommy Henrich game. And so his reputation for "choking" in the big games went to the mound with him in Game 7. 

The Dodgers' defense of their 1955 championship was on the line. Berra hit a two-run homer in the 1st and another 2-run homer in the 3rd to give the Yankees a 4-0 lead. Newk's day was done when Elston Howard led off the 4th with a home run. The Dodgers lost, 9-0, in what turned out to be . . . The LAST World Series game played in Brooklyn.

In baseball, post-season failures when everything is on the line can be unforgiving because that is when the games are most visible. Charlie Dressen, the Brooklyn manager for whom Newcombe pitched in 1951, once derided his ace's failures in big games as a "terrible flaw." Perhaps Dressen was not remembering that Newcombe's pitching in the last week of that season is what enabled the Dodgers to finish the schedule tied for first, forcing the playoff that ended with Bobby Thomson's home run. Newcombe rose to the occasion in those "big" games. Specifically, Newk had two complete-game victories, including a shutout, and pitching 5 innings of shutout relief in a Dodgers' win in their 154th game on the schedule—all absolute-must win games for Brooklyn—in the last five days of the season.

Perhaps if his World Series record was not 0-4 in 5 starts with an atrocious 8.59 ERA, that might have made a difference the times he has since been considered for Hall of Fame validation. It's not necessarily apparent why some elite players have had such great struggles in the post-season, but it almost certainly has nothing to do with any "terrible flaw"—unless that flaw is taking on the psychological burden of being perceived as, even having to be, the savior because of their excellence during the season. 

Just as few would question today the excellence of either Clayton Kershaw or David Price despite their post-season let-downs, Don Newcombe was an outstanding pitcher—one of the best of his era—without whom the 1949-56 Dodgers would not have been as successful as they were. 

And as we all know, in those two post-season games on October 7 of this year, neither Kershaw nor Price pitched to the level typically expected of them. Kershaw struggled through 5 innings and gave up 3 runs on 8 hits. He got the win and is now 3-6 with a 4.65 ERA in the post-season. Price had another terrible start, giving up 5 runs in 3⅓ innings and is now 2-8 in post-season games with a 5.54 ERA. 

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