Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Greatest Game Ever Pitched

July 2, 1963, Candlestick Park, San Francisco-  In baseball, there are many ways to judge a great pitching performance. One cannot argue that the pinnacle of accomplishments for a pitcher is to face 27 consecutive batters in a game without allowing a base runner, a perfect game. But perfect games are sort of like unassisted triple plays, they're freaks of nature. While a perfect game certainly requires a tremendous pitching performance, it also takes the perfect alignment of the stars to pull it off. Because they are so rare, some of the most famous pitching performances are the perfect games. But it could be said that the real test of a pitcher's mettle comes when he has to face adversity, having to pitch himself out of trouble in a close game, and still not allowing any runs.

There was a game along those lines that stands above the others, a game some people call the greatest game ever pitched. In that game, not one, but two future Hall of Famers faced each other. Each faced adversity, yet neither allowed a run until the very last play of the game. The game lasted sixteen innings and in the end, both starters figured in the decision.

It took place on a cool, windy evening (what other kind were there?) in Candlestick Park just before Independence Day. The two pitchers were entirely different from one another, yet mirror images. One was a right hander, the other a southpaw, one was black, the other white. One was at the beginning of his career; he would become the winningest pitcher of his decade. The other, his 300th win already two years behind him, would become the winningest left handed pitcher of all time. Both pitchers had ridiculously high leg kicks which prevented batters from seeing the ball until the moment if left the pitchers’ hands. Both were known for their tremendous control and ability to mix up pitches. And both featured a screwball in their repertoire.

In the 14th inning, during his third or fourth visit to the mound, just to check on the health of his young pitcher, Giants’ manager Alvin Dark was told by Juan Marichel:

Alvin, do you see that man pitching on the other side? He's 42 and I'm 25, and you can't take me out until that man is not pitching.

“That man” was Milwaukee’s Warren Spahn. The respective lineups the two had to face were not so bad either. They included the two men tied for most home runs in the National League that year. Marichal had to face the likes of future Hall of Famers Eddie Matthews, Henry Aaron, and Spahn himself, who was an excellent hitting pitcher. Spahn’s task on the mound was even more formidable. He had to face Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Felipe Alou, Orlando Cepeda and several other strong hitters in the Giant lineup. Despite Spahn giving up nine hits and Marichel eight, inning after inning both men just kept posting zeros on the line score. Not that there weren't chances. Willie Mays threw Norm Larker out at home in the fourth. The Giants got a couple of hits in the seventh but to no avail. The Giants’ Harvey Kuenn led off the 14th with a double. With Mays, McCovey, Alou and Cepeda to follow, the game looked all but over. But it wasn't. Spahn got out of that jam too. Finally after Marichel got the Braves out in the top of the 16th, Dark told him he was through. Devastated, he confided in Willie Mays that he would be outlasted by the old man. Mays who was scheduled to bat second in the bottom of that inning told Marichel not to worry.

Twelve years earlier at the Polo Grounds in New York, Spahn gave up rookie Willie Mays’ (who had been 0 for his first 12 at bats), first career hit, a home run. The rest of his life Spahn famously joked:

I'll never forgive myself, we might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out.

After Spahn’s death, his son Greg said that out of all the pitches his father threw in his illustrious career, the last pitch to Mays on that early morning of July 3rd, 1963 in San Francisco, was the one he wanted back the most.

Mays’ walk off homer in the bottom of the 16th inning won the game for Marichel and the Giants in most likely the greatest pitching duel of all time.

Final score: Giants 1, Braves 0.

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