Detroit Tigers: Mickey Lolich’s Incredible 1971 Season – Part Three

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

As the Detroit Tigers’ 1971 season continued, lefty pitching ace Mickey Lolich established himself as one of the game’s best pitchers that summer and gained momentum toward achieving an important career milestone.

(Click here for part one, and click here for part two.)

After Mickey Lolich won his 10th game on June 16, his quest for a 20-win season continued in Cleveland on June 20 in the first game of a doubleheader. It was a target that he’d set his sights on long before then. He stated,

"“It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I’ve been a big league pitcher. This is my ninth year in the big leagues, and that’s been my goal every year…I think that’s something every pitcher wants to do. When you retire, you can look back and say ‘Yeah, I won 20 games once in the big leagues’.”"

Lolich already had a pair of wins against the Indians, and the Tigers outscored the Tribe 20-3 in those two games. This time, the Indians wouldn’t make it as easy. Although Lolich struck out 11 through eight innings, the Tigers were down 6-5. It looked like he was on the hook for a loss when Billy Martin sent Gates Brown up to hit for him with two out in the ninth, but Brown’s home run tied the game. The Indians, however, ended up winning 7-6 in 11 innings.

Back at home on June 24, Lolich got another shot at the Indians. He was much more effective. His only real jam came in the fifth. The Tigers led 1-0, but the Indians loaded the bases on two singles and a walk. Roy Foster sent a long fly ball soaring to the left-field seats. It landed foul by mere inches. Lolich said,

"“I thought, ‘Oh, here we go again’. Foster hit two home runs off me on good pitches last week in Cleveland. It just shows you, make one mistake and it can really hurt you. That could have been four runs.”"

Undeterred, Lolich struck Foster out to end the inning. Bolstered by a Norm Cash sacrifice fly and RBI singles from Gene Lamont and Dick McAuliffe, Lolich shut the Indians out 3-0 to get his 11th win. For the second game in a row, he struck out 11.

Up next for Lolich was a first-place Orioles team in Baltimore on June 28. He was firmly in control for the first eight innings, racking up 1-2-3 innings in six of them (including four straight from the second through fifth).

Lolich’s dominance clearly got under the skin of Orioles manager Earl Weaver, who went out in the fifth to complain to home plate umpire Bill Klem that Lolich was loading the ball up with pine tar. In the interest of due diligence, Klem went out to the mound to search Lolich. Lolich recalled,

"“He asked for my glove and hat, and I handed them to him right away. Then he started to unbutton my shirt. But when he saw that I wasn’t wearing a t-shirt (underneath), he stopped because it wouldn’t look too good on national television”."

Things changed for Lolich in the ninth. The Tigers led 4-0 when two walks and a double loaded the bases for Frank Robinson. His sacrifice fly broke the shutout, but it was the second out. Unfortunately, a three-run homer from Brooks Robinson, who was down 0-2 in the count, tied the score. Despite being victimized by the two future Hall of Famers named Robinson, Lolich stuck around through the 13th inning, which ended six minutes after midnight.

Because it had been a nationally televised game, it started later than usual. Due to a curfew law in Baltimore, no inning was permitted to start after 11:59 pm, and the game was suspended until the next day. Lolich had finished with 12 strikeouts. When action resumed prior to the next day’s scheduled game, Fred Scherman took over on the mound. A five-run 15th inning rally gave the Tigers a 9-4 win.

The Tigers finished June in third place. At 42-35, they were six games behind Baltimore. The Orioles came into Detroit for an important weekend series, and Lolich got the start in the Friday night opener on July 2.

Lolich was solid. He kept the O’s off the board through seven innings before a Don Buford double and Merv Rettenmund single tied the game at 1-1 in the eighth. The Tigers struck back quickly and scored two runs in the bottom of the inning. Lolich walked the dangerous Frank Robinson to lead off the ninth, but rebounded and set the next three down. The Tigers won 3-1.

For Lolich, beating Weaver’s team must have been particularly satisfying after the fiery manager’s gamesmanship a few days earlier in Baltimore. In between these two starts, he declared,

"“I don’t think Earl Weaver likes me. I’ve read where he says I’m fat and out of shape. Well, I call it the redemption of the fat man. It’s like the 1968 World Series. Guys watch me and say ‘See wife, see. A fat man can do it.’ I’m a hero to them because I have a little paunch”"

It was Lolich’s 12th win of the season and the talk of a 20-win season was getting a little bit louder. He was willing to contribute to the conversation. He admitted,

"“I think about it a lot. I think I’m right at my peak now. I’m throwing better than I ever have before. In 1969, I had a real good fastball, but now I have control of all my pitches. I can throw them all where I want…I’ve got confidence now I’ve never had before.”"

Lolich wasn’t as sharp in his next outing on July 6 against the Yankees. He gave up a season-high seven runs on 11 hits, but because of three Tiger errors, only two were earned. On the plus side, he didn’t walk anyone. The Tigers’ bats were also booming, and they won 12-7 to give Lolich his 13th win.

A couple of days later, Lolich found out that maybe Earl Weaver really did like him. Weaver, who would be managing the American League squad in the upcoming All-Star Game at Tiger Stadium, picked Lolich for the pitching staff. Teammates Bill Freehan, Norm Cash, and Al Kaline would be joining him on the team. It was Lolich’s second All-Star nod. His first had come in 1969.

The Tigers got one more start from Lolich before the All-Star break. It was a rematch against Denny McLain in Washington on July 10. The Senators got off to a 2-0 lead in the first when Frank Howard crushed a fastball for an estimated 462-foot home run. Lolich didn’t have any trouble the rest of the way, though. The Tigers didn’t have any trouble with McLain either. He was knocked out after five innings. Even Lolich singled off him. The Tigers won 4-2.

It was Lolich’s 14th win, which matched his total from 1970. He went into the break with a 2.96 ERA and only six losses. In 25 starts, he’d struck out 163 and walked 57 in 206.2 innings. In 1970, he’d gone into the All-Star break with an 8-10 record, a 3.64 ERA, 132 strikeouts, and 64 walks in 153.1 innings and four fewer starts. Lolich had turned 30 in September 1970, and that somehow seemed to be a key to his success in 1971. He said,

"“After 30, you don’t throw so hard anymore, but you’ve been pitching so long that you’ve become smarter out there. You know how to pitch. I never knew what they meant by that because I could always throw the ball real hard. In ’69, I could throw the ball by anybody. This year I’m not throwing as hard as I used to, but I know how to set up hitters better. I became a real smart pitcher.”"

The 1971 All-Star Game on July 13 was the third one played at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit and the first since 1951. It would also be the last one, although nobody would’ve known that at the time. Lolich took his All-Star selection in stride. The main reason he was looking forward to the game was its convenient locale. He remarked,

"“I can spend Monday with my family and then drive downtown Tuesday for the game. But if it was going to be played in Houston or someplace like that where I’d have to fly out on Monday and fly back on Wednesday, I don’t think I’d care to go.”"

With the AL-leading 6-3 after seven innings, Lolich took over mound duty in the eighth. By that point, the Yankees’ Thurman Munson had taken over for Freehan, the AL’s starting catcher. Lolich struck out the Giants’ Bobby Bonds before giving up a home run to the Pirates’ Roberto Clemente in what turned out to be Clemente’s final All-Star at-bat. The Reds’ Lee May and the Cubs’ Ron Santo each grounded back to Lolich.

The Cardinals’ Lou Brock, a Tigers nemesis in the 1968 World Series, laid down a bunt to lead off the ninth, but Lolich fielded it and made the play. The Cubs’ Don Kessinger flew out to Kaline in right, and the Reds’ Johnny Bench popped up to third to end the game. The AL won 6-4, and Lolich was credited with a save.

The Tigers began the season’s second half in Oakland on July 15. Naturally, Lolich got the start. He kept the A’s scoreless through four as the Tigers built a 3-0 lead. The A’s scored two in the fifth and added three in the sixth. He pitched a scoreless seventh. Down 5-4 in the eighth, Lolich was scheduled to lead off the inning. Martin opted for pinch hitter Kevin Collins, whose single triggered a three-run rally that gave the Tigers a 7-4 lead. Reliever Tom Timmerman blew the lead in the ninth, however, and the A’s won 8-7.

Lolich got back to his winning ways in Kansas City on July 19. He scattered eight hits as the Tigers beat the Royals 5-2. He struck out seven and walked one in his complete game performance. With his 15th win in hand, Lolich was in a reflective mood after the game. He said,

"“It’s funny how much of a difference there is in the way a pitcher thinks when he’s winning and the way he thinks when he’s losing. When you’re winning and everything is falling right in place for you, you can hardly wait to get your hands on that ball and go out there again because you know 75 percent of the time, you’re going to win.And when you’re losing, you just hate to come to the park on days you’re supposed to pitch, because you know you’ll go out there and something’ll probably happen, and you’ll get beat again.”"

After a loss to the A’s on July 23, Lolich beat the Royals again on July 27. He took a 4-3 lead into the ninth, but gave up a game-tying home run to Dennis Paepke with one out. It was the second and final homer of the catcher’s 80-game career. Lolich stuck around and threw scoreless innings in the tenth and eleventh. A bases loaded walk-off walk to Aurelio Rodriguez in the eleventh gave the Tigers a 5-4 victory.

Although Lolich had gotten his 16th win, the game marked the fourth time in 1971 that he had pitched extra innings after losing a ninth-inning lead. That may have been his only glaring weakness that season. He explained,

"“Personally, I believe the problem is the fact that my control is too good… I don’t walk many. So when the other team comes up to bat in the last inning and they’re behind, they know the ball is going to be somewhere around the plate. So they figure they might as well take a chance and swing from the heels. What do they have to lose?”"

Lolich wrapped up the month with another extra-inning performance on July 31. It was also his 16th complete game, which set a new career high. The Tigers and Angels had been tied 2-2 since the sixth. With two out in the top of the twelfth, a single and double put the Angels up by a run. The Tigers weren’t able to come back. For Lolich, the bright spots in the 3-2 loss were no walks and a season-high 14 strikeouts. He was perfect through the first five.

Angels catcher Jerry Moses had gotten the first hit off Lolich. The future battery mates (Moses caught Lolich 17 times as a Tiger in 1974) were part of another notable moment together later in the game. When Lolich struck out Moses to lead off the tenth, Lolich reached the 200 mark for the third straight year and fourth time in his career. In each of the previous two seasons, he’d finished second in strikeouts in the AL to the Indians’ Sam McDowell. At this point in the 1971 season, Lolich was chasing Oakland’s Vida Blue for the league lead.

Overall, Lolich had been outstanding in July. He racked up five wins, but the Tigers, as a team, struggled. July was the first month in which they lost more than they won, finishing 13-15. At 55-50, they were in third place, eleven games behind the Orioles. Lolich’s race for 20 was becoming the most compelling thing about the season.

Lolich began August by striking out 14 for the second game in a row when he shut down the Senators on August 4 in a 2-1 complete game win. This time he didn’t have to go into extras to get that many strikeouts as the Tigers secured his 17th win in the regulation nine innings. Prior to the season, Lolich had said that he wasn’t going to focus on getting strikeouts anymore. That was still true, but he explained his rationale a little more. He said,

"“I always used to worry about beating McDowell. But since I lost 19 games last year, I decided ‘Why should I worry about strikeouts?’ Just worry about winning.When I was trying to strike someone out, I’d throw a fastball right down the middle of the plate, but a lot of times, the batter would hit it out. Now I try to find the corners with a curve or slider. I’m getting them to swing at bad pitches and maybe ground out.”"

While Lolich was working his way toward a 20-win season, Blue won his 20th on August 7 when the A’s beat the White Sox 1-0. Lolich got closer when he won his 18th in Boston the next day as the Tigers pounded the Red Sox 8-2. Lolich again went the distance. It appeared that he was getting stronger as the season progressed. He observed,

"“My arm feels fine, and I seem to be throwing the ball well. Actually it seems like all the innings I’m pitching are helping me. My control seems sharper, and I’m getting the ball to the right spots more often.”"

The Brewers put up a fight when Lolich went for his 19th win in Milwaukee on August 12. His first trip through their order was a clean one, but the Brewers scored twice on a walk-sacrifice bunt-double-single combo in the fourth. Two straight walks loaded the bases, but Lolich was able to escape further damage by inducing an inning-ending double play. The Tigers bounced right back to tie the game 2-2 in the top of the fifth. Lolich got back into a groove for the next three innings.

The Tigers took a 4-2 lead in the eighth on a Jim Northrup single, a Bill Freehan triple, and an Aurelio Rodriguez single. The Brewers got a run back in the bottom half of the inning and threatened to add more. With runners on the corners and one out, Lolich got out the inning with a big strikeout and a grounder to third. He was able to set the Brewers down in order in the ninth to wrap up the win.

Lolich had tied his career-high in victories. He was one win away from achieving a longtime goal and also shaking a monkey off his back. He said,

"“I haven’t had that many years where I had a real good shot at winning 20. In 1969, when I won 19, I had one shot at winning my 20th – and that was on the last day of the season, and I was pitching with two days rest…That doesn’t give you much room…I think I’ve been a real good starting pitcher, one of the better ones around. Reliable. Strong. Go to the post every four days. But I’ve never been a 20-game winner, and this is something that’s always been hanging over my head. Everybody forgets about everything else that I’ve done. I keep hearing that all the time, all the time. ‘You’ve never won 20. You’ve never won 20.’ Finally, I think I’m going to put a stop to that.”"

Mickey Lolich’s next opponent would be the Chicago White Sox. They were his 10th conquest back in June. Would they also be his 20th?

(To be continued.)