Tigers Ace Mickey Lolich’s Incredible 1971 Season – Part One

Mickey Lolich throws a pitch for the Detroit Tigers in 1967.
Mickey Lolich throws a pitch for the Detroit Tigers in 1967. /

Mickey Lolich was one of the best pitchers in Detroit Tigers history. Although the lefthander is primarily remembered for his three wins in the 1968 World Series, his best season was 1971.

The 1971 Tigers were a team in transition. The changes began right after the 1970 season ended. Mayo Smith, the manager of the World Series winning team in 1968, was out following a disappointing 79-93 fourth place finish. Billy Martin, who led the Minnesota Twins to the American League Championship Series as a rookie manager in 1969  – and was fired soon afterward due to a clash with ownership, was in.

Days after the managerial change, Tigers’ General Manager Jim Campbell pulled off a blockbuster trade. He dealt the controversial former ace Denny McLain to the Washington Senators in an eight-player transaction that netted McLain’s replacement in the rotation, righthander Joe Coleman. There was speculation that Lolich could be the Tigers’ next big name to go. Detroit Free Press  Sports Editor Joe Falls wrote,

"“The Tigers are even more disenchanted with him than they were with Denny McLain. They felt Mickey had his chance to be No. 1 this year and let them down. Now they’re willing to trade him, but only if they can get a starting pitcher in return. A possibility: Lolich for Steve Carlton of the St. Louis Cardinals.”"

Lolich had gone from a 19-game winner in 1969 to a 19-game loser in 1970. His ERA (3.80), WHIP (1.397) and hits per nine innings (9.0) represented the lefty’s worst numbers since 1966. That said, he did lead the 1970 Tigers’ starters in ERA, starts (39), complete games (13), shutouts (3), innings pitched (272.2), and strikeouts (230).

Campbell quashed the Lolich trade speculation at the winter meetings that December. He said,

"“I’ve had guys make me offers…but that doesn’t mean I’m going to trade them. If we traded Lolich or Coleman or somebody like that, who would we have to replace them? Nobody. Then we’d be the ones looking for pitching, and that wouldn’t make much sense.”"

Lolich wasn’t fazed by any of the rumormongering. After reporting to spring training, he said,

"“As soon as I heard they traded Denny, I said to myself, ‘Well, now they’ve got to keep me around for at least one more year. That took the pressure off (this past) winter. But then I had nothing to do but try to find the answers to went wrong last season.”"

In a candid conversation with Free Press writer Jim Hawkins, Lolich talked about what had gone wrong for him in 1970. Much of it stemmed from having to carry the burden of becoming the Tigers’ ace during McLain’s three-month suspension and his rocky return. Lolich admitted,

"“I tried to throw my fastball harder than I could…and I just couldn’t throw the ball by guys like I used to be able to do. So when I realized that, I went back to being a sinkerball pitcher. I guess I had myself so fouled up by trying to throw hard that I couldn’t get back into my old groove either. Generally it was just a year when I did everything wrong.”"

Finally freed from McLain’s shadow, Lolich knew that 1971 would be an important season for him. He remarked,

"“I’m 30 years old. Lots of people say ‘Gosh, you’re still a young man, really. But as far as a pitcher is concerned, it’s not young. Most starting pitchers are finished by the time they’re 32 or 33, because they throw so much. My time is coming. I know that. Six years ago, I had everything in front of me. But now, who knows?I mean, I had a bad year last year and suppose I have a bad year this year – my days as a starting pitcher might be over. Let’s be realistic – this might be my last year as a starting pitcher. My next stop might be the bullpen. That’s where all your starting pitchers end up.”"

Although Lolich’s demeanor seemed dour, he was focused on becoming a better starting pitcher. It turned out that he was developing a new weapon for his arsenal, a cutter. In his 2018 memoir, Joy In Tigertown, he wrote,

"“Johnny Sain had tried to teach it to me when he was the Tigers’ pitching coach. No matter how hard he worked with me, though, I couldn’t master it. To throw it, I needed to be confident in it, which I wasn’t. Sain would call me a rock head for not being able to throw it. He would also tell me it wasn’t hard. But I wasn’t getting it. I had to feel it, and I just wasn’t feeling it.”"

Lolich wrote that the pitch finally came to him when he was experimenting with grips in an effort to do a better job of hitting the outside corner against right-handed hitters. When he finally debuted his new cutter in a spring training game, he caught catcher Bill Freehan by surprise. Freehan had called for a sinker. Lolich, in what he described a “smart ass” move, threw the cutter instead. He got the result he wanted, and Freehan loved the pitch.

The battery mates kept this new gem of a pitch to themselves. As Opening Day 1971 drew close, Lolich didn’t even mention it when he talked about what his approach to the new season would be. He stated,

"“What I want to do now is make the batter hit my first pitch. Make him hit my sinker and hit the ball on the ground. I know I’ve got the infield behind me now to make that work.”"

The Tigers had revamped the left side of their infield in the McLain trade, picking up third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez and shortstop Eddie Brinkman from the Senators. That was an element that would benefit Lolich and the Tigers.

With his new approach in mind, Lolich made an interesting declaration on the eve of his Opening Day start at home against the Cleveland Indians. He claimed,

"“You won’t see me strike out hardly anybody this season. I don’t even think about strikeouts anymore.I feel like I finally learned to become a pitcher this spring. I don’t feel like I have to throw the ball by everybody to be effective.”"

However he could get the job done, the Tigers needed Lolich to get off to a good start in 1971. The pitching ranks had been badly depleted.

Coleman, expected to be the No. 2 man in the rotation, suffered a fractured skull when he was struck by a line drive in a late March spring training game and didn’t debut until late April. Lefty Les Cain, who had a nice rookie season as a starter in 1970, was sidelined by shoulder trouble that kept him out until late May. John Hiller, a reliever who was capable of spot starting, suffered a heart attack in January and would be out for the season.

Detroit’s 46-degree weather on April 6 didn’t stop fans from making Opening Day history. The crowd of 54,089 was the largest ever to watch an opener at Tiger Stadium. Lolich generally didn’t mind cooler temperatures, but temps in the 60s were his comfort zone. He said that temps in the 40s were “ridiculous”. He added,

"“The weather was a little cold out there, even for me. The ball was real slippery, and I had trouble getting my breaking ball over.”"

Lolich didn’t have much trouble with the Indians, though. He scattered six hits and walked only one in the Tigers’ 8-2 win. At the plate, he contributed an RBI single. The victory ran his Opening Day record to 4-0.

Although he had announced that strikeouts weren’t going to be a focus anymore, he racked up eight of them. Was Lolich changing his mind already? No. He said that there was only one batter that he was trying to strike out, which was right after he’d given up a triple with one out in the fourth inning. (That triple had cut the Tigers lead at the time to 4-1.) All of the other strikeouts “just happened”.

New manager Martin was impressed with what he saw. He said,

"“Lolich did a tremendous job of pitching to the hitters where he wanted to. He was very sharp all day. He let a couple pitches get away from him, but other than that, he did everything he wanted to do.”"

Despite the cold weather, Opening Day was a good warmup for Lolich, who would face a much tougher test than the Indians in his second start. He’d be going up against the dominant Baltimore Orioles, who won a total of 217 regular season games the previous two years and were eying a third straight trip to the World Series. (After a loss to the “Miracle Mets” in 1969, the Orioles beat the Reds in 1970.) Assessing the Tigers’ chances against the Orioles, Lolich observed,

"“It’s not a head-to head thing with us and Baltimore. Not over a whole season. What we have to do is beat the other clubs, like Kansas City and Milwaukee and Chicago. That’s been the big difference right there. Baltimore has cleaned up against the lower clubs, while we’ve usually been around .500. To catch Baltimore, we’re going to have to capitalize on the weaker clubs.”"

Fans in Baltimore saw a pitching duel between Lolich and future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer on April 10. Each team scored once in the third inning, and then the two hurlers put up nothing but zeroes for the next five innings. Lolich got through the tough Orioles’ lineup mostly by inducing ground balls. He only struck out two all day.

The game was still deadlocked 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth. Boog Powell led off by grounding out to second baseman Dick McAuliffe. Rodriguez couldn’t cleanly field a grounder off the bat of future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. The result was an infield hit. Paul Blair flied to center, but the runner held. Future Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson singled, which sent the other Robinson to second. Martin came out to chat with Lolich, but left him in, even though there were a couple relievers warming in the bullpen.

Davey Johnson then singled to right, and Frank Robinson beat Al Kaline’s throw to score the winning run. Even in the losing effort, Lolich was pleased with his performance. He said,

"“I felt even better than I did Opening Day. My control was sharp, and my arm was strong. I could have gone a couple more innings if the game had gone extra innings.”"

Lolich didn’t last very long in either of his next two starts. He only went five innings in New York on April 14. Pitching on short rest on April 17, he got shelled by the Red Sox. After giving up seven hits and a walk in only an inning and a third, Martin pulled him. Lolich was charged with six runs (five earned). Martin wasn’t too worried about his ace, though. He explained,

"“Mickey has had a bad cold, and I think that had a lot to do with his ineffectiveness. Everything he threw up there, they hit. But it was just one of those days. Every pitcher has them.”"

A healthy Lolich bounced back on April 21 and avenged his earlier loss to the Orioles. He scattered five hits (three were off the bat of Paul Blair), with none coming after the sixth inning. He walked one and struck out nine. The only blemish in his 5-1 complete game win was a home run given up to light hitting catcher Andy Etchebarren. Lolich made up for that run with an RBI single of his own later on in the game. (It was the first of five straight appearances in which Lolich got a hit.)

The Tigers put on a good show for Lolich’s family on April 25. About a dozen of his relatives traveled down from Portland, Oregon to Oakland watch him pitch. The guests from Detroit thumped the A’s 10-2, and the guests from Portland saw their favorite Tiger strike out seven in seven innings. They also got to see him on the base paths, as Lolich singled, walked, and scored twice.

His only rough inning was the third, when he gave up two runs on three straight hits. The first was a single by A’s pitcher Rollie Fingers (who was making one of the few spot starts that he made early in his career). Lolich had unsuccessfully tried to field it bare handed. He realized his mistake and admitted,

"“If I had kept my paw out of the way, I might have got a shutout. That was the first time in my life that I ever stuck my bare hand out and tried to catch a ball. I don’t know why I did it…it was just instinct.”"

Maybe he actually did it to show off for his family in the stands, but they certainly would’ve been impressed with his overall performance. It looked like Lolich was starting to get into a nice groove, and Martin agreed. He said,

"“Mickey got the ball down where he’s going to be really tough to hit…against righthanders as well as lefthanders. He’s going to be a really big winner for us this season the way he’s going now.”"

Lolich was back on the mound in Kansas City on April 28. Unlike earlier in the month when he’d pitched on only two days rest, Lolich did a better job of keeping his opponents off the scoreboard. However, the Royals’ Dick Drago, a Toledo native who pitched at the University of Detroit Mercy, was just as effective in keeping the Tigers off the scoreboard. The Tigers finally broke the scoreless tie in the eighth. With two out, Lolich bunted for a single. McAuliffe singled, and Rodriguez singled Lolich in from second.

The trek around the base paths may have wore the portly Lolich out a bit. He gave up the tying run on three hits in the bottom of the eighth. The game was still deadlocked after nine. In the top of the tenth, the Tigers had runners on the corners with nobody out. Lolich was due up, but Martin apparently didn’t want to rely on the bullpen later if he could avoid it. Lolich took his at-bat and struck out, but the Tigers ended up breaking the tie one batter later on a McAuliffe sacrifice fly.

Lolich went back to work in the bottom of the tenth. He got into trouble right away by walking leadoff hitter Bobby Knoop, and Freddie Patek bunted for a single. Cookie Rojas crumbled by popping up a bunt attempt, which Freehan gobbled up in foul territory. Amos Otis dropped a slow rolling single along the third base line to load the bases.

Lou Piniella had a chance to do some damage, but Lolich made him his eighth strikeout victim of the game. He got Bob Oliver to fly out to Kaline in right to end the game. The 2-1 victory was Lolich’s fourth of the season, and it was his fourth complete game in seven starts. No other Tigers starter had gone the distance yet.

The Tigers finished April 10-10, but were only 2.5 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East.

(To be continued.)