Forgotten pennant push: Jim Kaat, 1967

The American League in 1967 might have had the greatest pennant race of all time. Others have had more dramatic endings, with teams having to settle it in sudden-death playoff games. But over the last two weeks of the regular season, it’s almost impossible that any race could keep as many fans so energized as that season.

Four teams all fought like junkyard dogs for the flag that season—the Tigers, White Sox, Twins and Red Sox. They took it to the wire as with a week to go in the season, all were within a game of first. From September 15 until the last day of the season, all remained within two games of each other. That’s some damn fine riveting drama.

The race might be most remembered for Carl Yastrzemski‘s memorable finish. He put the finishing touches on a last triple-crown season by carrying the Red Sox to glory. From September 15 onward when it looked like anyone’s game, Yaz went 27-for-55 with 11 extra-base hits and 18 RBIs for an inhumane AVG/OBP/SLG/OPS of 491/569/873/1442 down the road. This achievement is frequently remembered as one of the greatest clutch performances in the history of multi-celled beings, which it certainly was.

What you might not be aware of, though, is how close baseball came to commemorating another historically brilliant September sprint. Had things worked out a little differently, we’d all be talking about the insanely hot month of pitching displayed by Jim Kaat down that pennant stretch.

The start

Jim Kaat entered the year the obvious ace of the Twins’ staff with 25 wins. His two winningest teammates combined only had that many. Kaat also had one of the best ERAs in the league and a career-high 304.7 IP and 19 CG while leading Minnesota into second place. Had they given a Cy Young to both leagues back then, he would’ve won.

Expected to compete, the Twins instead hit the ground thudding. They ended April with the worst record in the league at 5-10. They finally hit .500 in late June only to begin a losing streak. Longtime manager Sam Mele got the axe with his scuffling club at 25-25.

Kaat had been the main culprit for their troubles as he’d turned from Cy Young to Cy Yuck. Barely averaging five innings a start, Kaat had a 1-7 record and an ERA of exactly 6.00 when Mele left. The Twins had only won a pair of his dozen starts. He’d actually been improving toward the end, but he clearly wasn’t at his best.

His workload the year before had either given him a bad case of dead arm or had screwed up the arm badly. He’d had a similar problem in ’63, right after setting his previous record for innings and complete games in 1962. The Twins couldn’t win unless Kaat was healthy.

The build up

As it turns out, whatever bothered Kaat cleared up with Mele’s departure. In his next start he held the world champion Orioles to one run in a complete-game victory and then shut out the second-place Tigers in a match-up against Denny McLain. That sparked a stretch where he won five out of six starts with an ERA under 2.00, catapulting the surging Twins into second place in early July.

Just as it looked like the Twins were going to pull away from the pack with Kaat leading the way, the squad had trouble finding the right gear. They alternated hot stretches with cold ones, spending almost all of the next two months in the hunt but out of first.

Like his teammates, Kaat had his frustrations during this time. After pulling his record up to 8-8 with a victory over the Pale Hose on July 9, he couldn’t buy a win. He pitched well enough, but couldn’t get the support.

- On July 14 he allowed three runs—two earned—in a complete game against the A’s, only to lose 3-2.

- On July 25 he held the Yanks to one run in nine innings. The game ended tied 1-1.

- On August 18, he again held the Yanks to one run while pitching a complete game. He lost 1-0.

- In his next start, he shut down the Detroit bats allowing only one run in eight innings. The Twins lost it in the 11th.

In a stretch of 10 starts, Kaat went 1-5 while posting an ERA of 2.54. Clearly he was pitching well. But it wasn’t quite enough. The Twins ended August in second, a mere half-game behind the Red Sox, but with an equally slim lead over the Tigers and White Sox.

If Kaat was going to lead the Twins to victory, he’d have to step up his game.

Forgotten pennant race push: Jim Kaat in September

The calendar turned the page and Jim Kaat went apeshit. Here’s his line for September:

               W       L       G      GS      CG      IP       H       W       K     ERA
Kaat           7       0       9       8       6    65.7      55       6      65    1.51

That’s kicking some serious ass. Put a couple guys that good in the late Roman Empire, and that sucker lasts into the sixth century. It’s not just the ERA, mind you. It’s posting that ERA while throwing such an insanely high number of innings. His teammates went 10-13 over that same stretch, so he was the only thing keeping them in it.

On September 1, he started against the Tigers, who were just a half-game behind Minnesota. Despite some poor defense behind him he led the Twins to a 5-4 win. They now had some (temporary) breathing room while chasing the Red Sox.

Four days later, he started against Cleveland. The Twins were in first but the Red Sox, White Sox and Tigers were all within a game and a half. Kaat bent but didn’t break, allowing only two runs off of 13 hits while walking no one. The Twins won and stayed in first place for another day.

Next time he started, the Twins were tied with Detroit for first. Taking on the flailing Orioles on September 9, he pitched his third complete game of the month. Again two scored, but this time only five even reached base as the Twins won 3-2. Had he lost, they would’ve fallen to third.

By his next start against Washington on September 13, the Red Sox had swapped places with the Tigers to tie the Twins in first place. In his fourth consecutive quality start, Kaat allowed two runs over eight innings while striking out nine. He also gave up his first walk since the first of the month.

Three days later came a chink in his armor. Again the Twins began the day tied for first. However, instead of being bound to either Boston or Detroit, this time all three were united. Against the White Sox—only 1.5 back themselves—the Twins gave one away. Starter Dean Chance took a 4-1 lead into the ninth but let the first four batters reach base. Faced with a two-run lead, none out and the tying run on second, the Twins summoned demigod Kaat in an emergency relief appearance. A wild pitch and sac fly later, the game was 4-4. Al Worthington then came in and finished the implosion. The Twins fell out of first place.

Kaat made up for it two days later. Chicago had just finished sweeping the Twins into third place when Kaat pitched against a talented young A’s lineup that included Bert Campaneris, Reggie Jackson and Sal Bando. He didn’t allow a single batter to make it past second base. Kaat walked not a soul while striking out double digits. Catfish Hunter matched him goose egg for goose egg. Heading into overtime, the Twins scored in the 10th and Kaat shut KC down one more time. His game score of 92 was the best he ever had in a quarter-century of big-league pitching. The Twins again were tied for first in the incredibly tight race.

On September 22, he faced the Yankees. The Twins hadn’t lost since Kaat’s big game, but were still only tied for first. Against the squad that had so frustrated him in the dog days of summer, Kaat got his revenge. He allowed only two unearned runs in an 8-2 pasting. Again his control was peerless. In the last three weeks he’d thrown 45.3 innings and walked exactly one batter. The Twins had a half-game lead with only seven more to play.

The Twins dropped two of three before his next start, but were only a half-game out. Against the Angels, who had been playing spoiler against the contenders down the stretch, Kaat set another career high with 13 strikeouts in a complete-game victory. Minnesota now had a full game lead and only three left. With the season nearing its end, Kaat remained unstoppable.

High noon

Like any good playoff race worth its salt, it came down to the end of the season. The schedule makers, in their infinite wisdom, had the Twins play the Red Sox in Fenway the last two games of the year. The Tigers were tied with Minnesota, with the Red Sox one game back and the White Sox finally dropped. Kaat, the world’s best pitcher over the last month, had the start in the first game. Win, and he’d force out Boston and keep the pressure on Detroit.

Almost 33,000 crowded into tiny Fenway Park for the game. The Twins jumped out to the quick lead, scoring one before Kaat ever took the mound. He allowed two singles in the first, including one from (of course) Yaz, but got out of it without giving up a run. He allowed a leadoff single to George Scott in the second but seemed to work out any early-game jitters by retiring the next three, the last two by strikeout. Still staked to his slender 1-0 lead, he began the third by whiffing the first batter.

This was baseball drama at its finest. The hottest pitcher in all of baseball was facing off on the road before a partisan home crowd whose team had the best hitter after an absurdly brilliant pennant race with the entire season on the line. It was a tight one-run game and promised to stay close and tense, just like the entire year had been. The top of the order was about to come up again, and this had all the makings for one of the greatest games in baseball history. If he could hold on, Jim Kaat would be the stuff of legend.

But he was done. He had just faced his last batter of the season.

Doctors, scientists, and baseball fans may wonder what the maximum strain a pitcher can place on his arm, but for Jim Kaat 197 outs in 30 days was all his arm could take. Injured, the Twins had to take him out. The Red Sox won, 6-4. They won the pennant the next day as the Tigers lost again. Kaat’s great run has been completely forgotten.

Aftermath

Not only did Kaat not get the glory, but arguably his damaged arm cost him a plaque in Cooperstown. He’d been a terrific pitcher in 1965, maybe the best pitcher in the league in 1966, and the best pitcher down the stretch in ’67. After that, he was little more than a glorified innings eater for the Twins for the next several seasons.

There are different ways of looking at this. Maybe he could’ve done it. He didn’t really return to personal glory until his back-to-back 20-win seasons for Chicago in 1974-5. He ended his career only 17 games shy of 300. Here are his wins per year:

Years      Avg W
1964-7      19.0
1968-73     13.3
1974-5      20.5

His mid-career dead spot came right after the arm injury.

Then again, maybe not. Sure it injured his arm, but he had a history of occasional bouts of dead arm. After his first big season in 1962, he was replacement-level in 1963. He stank in early 1967 after his huge 1966. While he couldn’t win more than 14 games from 1968 to 70, he was a very different pitcher in 1971. For the first time since ’67 he pitched great. And then he injured his arm and missed half the season. In 1975 he threw 300 innings for the second and final time, and dropped off tremendously afterwards. He was an up-and-down pitcher. He might have fallen off anyway.

Personally, even if it did cost Kaat down the road, I don’t blame them for pushing him as hard as they did. When you get your shot you’ve got to take it. And if he’d just been able to hold out 3-6 more innings…

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