Detroit Tigers Mickey Lolich’s Incredible 1971 Season – Part Two

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

Mickey Lolich took over as the ace of the Detroit Tigers’ pitching staff in 1971, his ninth season in the Motor City. He was a durable and dependable arm for manager Billy Martin, and 1971 was filled with memorable moments for Lolich.

(Click here for part one)

After a no-decision in Anaheim on May 2, Lolich’s third consecutive road start, he toed the rubber on the Tiger Stadium mound again on May 7 against the Royals. It was one of the rare instances in which Lolich pitched with more than three days in between starts in 1971.

The pesky Royals put a runner on second in each of the first four innings. Two strikeouts in the first, a strikeout and a grounder back to the mound in the second, and inning-ending strikeouts in the third and fourth kept Lolich out of trouble. Meanwhile, Royals’ starter Mike Hedlund held the Tigers at bay. The game stayed scoreless through six.

Kansas City finally broke through in the seventh. After Lolich struck out Hedlund to start the inning, back-to-back singles by Freddie Patek and Cookie Rojas put runners on the corners. Amos Otis grounded to shortstop Eddie Brinkman, who got the force at second, but Otis beat Dick McAuliffe’s relay to Norm Cash. Instead of hitting into an inning-ending double play, the Royals took a 1-0 lead.

Brinkman and Lolich made sure the lead didn’t last very long. Brinkman doubled to lead off the seventh. Lolich followed with a bunt that Hedlund fielded near third base. Hedlund, thinking he could get Brinkman at third, made a wild throw into left field instead. Brinkman scored as Lolich cruised into second. When left fielder Carl Taylor misplayed the ball, third base coach Joe Schultz waved Lolich all the way around. The hefty lefty scored. Thanks to a scene reminiscent of countless Little League games, the Tigers had a 2-1 lead.

Lolich said that he wasn’t used to running like that. The “120-yard sprint”, as he described it, must’ve taken something out of him, because he struggled in the eighth. With one out, the Royals loaded the bases on a single-double-walk combo. That brought Martin to the mound. It was a brief conversation, as Lolich revealed.

"“He said ‘You know you’ve thrown 150 pitches’ and when I told him ‘I’m just loosening up’ he gave me a funny look and said ‘Well, let’s just see how you do against the next guy’.”"

Martin concurred,

"“I asked him how he felt, and he said he felt strong. That’s what I wanted to hear. He told me he was tired at Oakland (three starts prior), so I took him out. I like my pitchers to be honest with me. So when he said he felt strong, I left him in.”"

Lolich made himself and his manager look good. He snuffed out the threat with a big strikeout and a lineout to center. He walked the leadoff hitter in the ninth, but then struck out the last three Royals he faced, putting an exclamation point on the Tigers 3-1 win. Lolich, who said prior to the season that he wasn’t going to focus on strikeouts, ended up with 13.

After taking a loss against the Angels on May 11, Lolich went 13 innings in Washington on May 15. For the first three innings, he was perfect. He walked two in the fourth, and then pitched three more perfect innings. The Senators’ Paul Casanova ruined the no-hit bid with a leadoff single in the eighth. After another single and two walks, the shoutout was gone, but the Tigers were leading 3-1. With two outs in the ninth, Casanova’s two-run homer tied the game.

Lolich threw a 1-2-3 inning in the tenth, but walked former Tiger Elliott Maddox to lead off the eleventh. With the dangerous Frank Howard (who joined the Tigers in 1972) at the plate, Lolich’s wild pitch sent Maddox to second. That prompted an intentional walk to the big power hitter. Luckily, Lolich escaped unscathed and went on to throw a 1-2-3 inning in the twelfth. He stuck around for a scoreless thirteenth, but that was it for him. It was the longest he’d ever pitched in a big league game.

The Tigers lost in the fifteenth on Don Mincher’s walk-off homer against Tom Timmerman. By the end of a game that long, Lolich’s bid for a no-hitter might have been forgotten, but he remembered – and didn’t seem to care. It would’ve been the first no-hitter thrown by a Tiger since Jim Bunning in 1958. Lolich’s teammates took it more seriously than he did. He said that he didn’t believe in jinxes and recalled,

"“When I came in the dugout (after seven innings), it was like a morgue. Nobody was saying anything. I said, ‘Come on you guys. Only six more outs for a no-hitter.’I’m not that type of pitcher. I’ll never throw a no-hitter, and I’ll never worry about it.”"

Lolich went seven innings in a 12-1 win over the Indians on May 19, but even before the game, people were already looking forward to his next start, which would be a return match against the Senators at Tiger Stadium.

Washington manager Ted Williams had announced that Denny McLain would start one of the games in the series’ scheduled Sunday doubleheader. It would be his first game back in Detroit since being traded away the previous October. Since Lolich would already be pitching that day on regular rest, it seemed that the stars had aligned so that fans would get to see Lolich vs. McLain. The matchup was set for the twin bill’s opener. On the day of the game, Jim Hawkins of the Detroit Free Press set the stage. He wrote,

"“No matter how many times Mickey and Denny deny it, it’s going to be much, much more than just another ballgame. As far as teammates go, there may never have been two greater rivals than Lolich and McLain during their six years and 59 days together as Tigers.Denny used to love to rub it in about all the special privileges that he enjoyed. And he never forgave Lolich for upstaging him with those three dramatic triumphs in the World Series after he had pitched the Tigers to the pennant with his 31 wins.”"

As early as spring training that year, Lolich (possibly foreseeing this matchup and the hoopla that it would generate) tried to downplay any perceived animosity between the two of them. In a interview with Hawkins in March, Lolich said,

"“(McLain) became the hero in Detroit, even though he went off on some of his escapades and caused some trouble. When he pitched, people knew the Tigers would win…Everybody made this big to-do about McLain and Lolich having this rivalry, but I don’t know why. You never heard of Koufax and Drysdale having a big feud on the Dodgers. There’s a No. 1 pitcher and a No. 2 pitcher on every club and that’s never going to change. I realized a long time ago – Denny was a better pitcher than I was.”"

By the time McLain and the Senators visited Detroit for the first time in 1971, however, the fortunes of the two pitchers had been reversed. McLain acknowledged that with a grin as tried to shrug off the hype. He reasoned,

"“Of course, Mickey Lolich is a better pitcher than I am. Look at our records. He’s 6-3, and I’m 4-6…If you really want to get yourself messed up, just start thinking about the guy you’re pitching against instead of the hitter. No, the only time I’d be thinking about beating Lolich is if we were out playing golf or something – just the two of us.”"

A crowd of 53,337 packed Tiger Stadium on May 23 for the game, but the fans weren’t the only ones excited. Veteran Tigers pitcher Dean Chance told a reporter that he was looking forward to what he called “the big duel”. Lolich, who overheard the conversation, joked that it hadn’t been decided whether they’d be using sabres or pistols. Lolich understood what a big deal the game would be, however. He mused,

"“Denny is still a big name in this town. I know that. And he’ll probably get more applause than I do. But that doesn’t bother me.”"

When McLain started warming up before the game, Curt Sylvester of the Free Press reported that the prodigal righty got as many cheers as he did boos. The fans who remained loyal to their Tigers enjoyed seeing Lolich strike out the first two Senators as part of a 1-2-3 first inning.

McLain took his first at-bat against Lolich in the third and popped out to his former rotation mate. It was a moment that Lolich seemed to take in stride. With a grin, he recalled,

"“We’ve known each other for so long. I just smiled at him when he came to bat….He said something to me, too. Something like ‘You wild, flaky left-hander. Don’t hit me.'”"

In Lolich’s first at-bat against McLain, in the third inning with Brinkman on first base, Mickey’s sacrifice bunt back to Denny successfully moved the runner up. Two batters later, Al Kaline’s home run gave the Tigers a 2-0 lead.

Lolich walked the leadoff hitter in the fourth, and then struck out the next three Senators. He was on a roll, and the game stayed 2-0 until Cash’s homer in the seventh doubled the Tigers’ lead.

McLain was scheduled to lead off the eighth, but Don Wert, who also went to Washington with McLain in the blockbuster trade, pinch hit for him. Lolich said that he smiled at Wert too, and then he got his former third baseman to pop up to first. The lefty mowed the Senators down 1-2-3 in the eighth and ninth.

The Tigers won 5-0. The shutout was Lolich’s first of the season, which lowered his ERA to 2.63, the lowest it had been since his second start in April. He scattered four hits and walked two while striking out 10. The Tigers’ ace got his seventh win, and McLain was charged with his seventh loss. He saw his ERA rise to 4.09 after giving up four runs in seven innings.

As for the crowd, they “cheered lustily”, according to Sylvester, when Lolich was announced as the winner pitcher and McLain was announced as the loser. The game was the lead story on the front page of the next day’s Free Press. Lolich continued to downplay what everyone else saw as a monumental event. He said,

"“I know Denny and I are going to be pitching against one another a lot more. So why say anything I might be sorry for?I feel good anytime I beat a good pitcher for the other team, whether it’s Denny or Dave McNally or Sam McDowell. It seems like all my career I’ve pitched against the other team’s ace and nobody has ever made a big deal about it before.”"

Instead, it turned out that Lolich’s concern laid elsewhere. He explained,

"“Actually I was worried about this game to a certain extent. I threw 185 pitches in that 13-inning (appearance) at Washington, and at Cleveland last week the arm didn’t feel especially good…Even when I was warming up in the bullpen, I wasn’t throwing all that good. But about the fourth inning, Bill Freehan said the fastball was working and finally I guess I started coming around.”"

With that game finally behind him, Lolich could simply focus on beating his opponent without additional distractions. He went the distance as the Tigers beat the Yankees 4-3 at home on May 27. It was a tight squeeze, though, as the Yanks had the potential tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position in the ninth. Lolich was able to get Thurman Munson to line out to center to end the game. It was a close call, and he knew it. He admitted,

"“I shouted ‘oh-oh’ to myself when Munson connected solidly, but I gained a sigh of relief when I saw (Mickey) Stanley charging in toward the ball. I knew then the ball would hang up and be caught.”"

The win was Lolich’s eighth of the season and his third straight winning start. The Twins slowed his roll by beating him 6-2 in manager Billy Martin’s return to Minnesota on May 31.

Overall, Martin had the Tigers looking decent at the end of May. At 26-22, they were in third place in the AL East, but only two games behind second place Baltimore and 3.5 games behind first place Boston.

June got off to a losing start for Lolich when the White Sox beat the Tigers 3-2 on June 4. Lolich gave up nine hits and walked six, so the outcome could’ve been worse. He bounced back with a complete game 8-3 win over the Brewers on June 8.

Lolich dropped his second decision to the Twins in a 5-4 loss on June 12. With the Tigers up 4-3 to start the ninth, Lolich was one strike away from securing his 10th win of the season. Instead, Danny Thompson singled and Steve Braun walked. Martin summoned Fred Scherman from the bullpen, but Scherman couldn’t slam the door. Both of his inherited runners scored on back-to-back singles, and the Tigers went down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the ninth.

Win number 10 came at home against the White Sox on June 16, but it didn’t come easy. Lolich got off to a good start by setting the Sox down in order in each of the first two innings. By the end of the fourth, however, a 3-0 Tigers lead had become a 3-3 tie. Each team added a run in the fifth. Lolich got back on track with 1-2-3 innings in the sixth and seventh, but the White Sox took a 5-4 lead in the eighth. A walk-single-bunt single combo loaded the bases for Brinkman, whose sacrifice fly tied the game 5-5 in the bottom of the eighth.

Lolich was due up next, but Martin sent Jim Price in to pinch hit. He walked to reload the bases. A sacrifice bunt from Aurelio Rodriguez drove in the go-ahead run. With Lolich as the pitcher of record, Scherman got the job done in the ninth. The Tigers won 6-5. A relieved Lolich remarked,

"“I guess this is a little bit of a redeemer. I suppose it’s a game that I should have lost. But I didn’t, and I’ll take it.”"

It was the earliest in the season that Lolich had gotten his 10th win. The closest he’d come before was June 29 in 1969, but he only finished with 19 wins that season. Twenty wins in 1971 was looking doable.

(To be continued.)