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

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

The strikeouts, innings pitched, complete games, and wins continued to pile up for Mickey Lolich late in the 1971 season. By the time it was over, the lefthanded ace had cemented his place as one of the greatest pitchers in Detroit Tigers’ history.

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

When he was on the verge of winning 20 games for the first time in his career, Mickey Lolich was asked if reaching that milestone would mean more to him than winning three games in the 1968 World Series. Surprisingly, he said that it would, and he had an interesting answer. He explained,

"“I’d have to say in its own way, it is bigger. A World Series only lasts for a week and a half. But when you win 20 games over a full season and pitch 300 innings, it’s like you’re a proven machine. You’ve proven that you’re durable and that you can go that long out there. It’s like the difference between a guy who wins a drag race – maybe he runs down the track in six seconds flat and sets a world record – and the guy who wins a 500-mile race. It’s a little harder to race 500 miles, just like it’s a little harder to pitch 300 innings than it is to win three games.”"

Lolich had already pitched 279 innings when he took the mound for the first game of a doubleheader at Comiskey Park in Chicago on August 17 in search of that 20th win. It was the first time that he’d be pitching on four days rest, instead of the usual three. With the third out in the second inning, he passed his previous career high (280.2) in innings pitched.

The Tigers had jumped out to a 5-0 lead by the end of the third, which seemed like it’d be a good cushion for their ace to work with. Lolich gave up a couple runs in the bottom of the third. The White Sox added another run in the sixth on a solo home run by Steve Huntz. Lolich was one strike away from a 1-2-3 inning when Huntz went deep.

Detroit led 5-3 until the bottom of the eighth. Back-to-back bloop singles into center brought Huntz up with one out. Lolich tried to get him to ground into an inning-ending double play, but Huntz jumped on a fastball low and in and hit a three-run bomb. His two homers off Lolich that evening were the only two that Huntz hit all year in a 35-game stint with the Sox. The Tigers went down in order in the ninth and lost 6-5.

Instead of celebrating a 20th win, Lolich was forced to reflect on his ninth loss of the season. He remarked,

"“The thing that upsets me is losing that five-run lead. That was pathetic. When I got that lead, I figured there was no way I was going to get beat. I knew I’d give up a couple runs. I always do, but I figured I had the game won for sure.Ever since I started getting close to 20, about the time I won my 15th or 16th, I kept hoping I’d get it on my first shot. I wanted to get in clean and get it over with.”"

The quest continued at Tiger Stadium on August 21 as the Tigers hosted the Brewers. The Saturday afternoon crowd on hand to see if Lolich could become the first Tigers lefty to win 20 since Billy Hoeft in 1956.

It didn’t look good early on. Andy Kosco hit a two-run homer in the first, and Lolich had to escape a bases loaded jam in the second. He was finally able to set the Brewers down in order in the third. The Tigers’ offense then took over. Aurelio Rodriguez tripled to lead off the bottom of the third and scored on Eddie Brinkman’s single. Lolich walked, and Dick McAuliffe’s three-run home run gave the Tigers a 4-2 lead.

Lolich cruised from there, reeling off three straight 1-2-3 innings. A seventh inning single proved to be harmless, and Lolich fired off another clean inning in the eighth. By that point, the Tigers had increased their lead to 7-2.

Kosco led off the ninth with a single, but Lolich retired the next two Brewers. With one out left to go, he hit Ellie Rodriguez with a pitch. It was the first batter that he’d hit since June 28. Lolich then struck out Bob Heise to end the game. Lolich was the newest member of the 20-win club, and the champagne soon flowed in the Tigers’ clubhouse. Lolich said,

"“The only time I was really worried was when I was in the bullpen warming up. I wasn’t throwing good at all. I couldn’t seem to get any velocity on the ball. I don’t know if it was nervous tension or what. I know I didn’t feel that shook up. I’ve felt all along that I was going to win 20 this year. It was just a question of when.When I saw I wasn’t throwing good, I knew I’d have to go for the corners until I came around. But that didn’t seem to work. When I got behind, I guess I just went after the hitters harder and started making some real good pitches.”"

The win was Lolich’s 21st complete game of the year, which tied him with Oakland’s Vida Blue for the league lead. Blue had the edge in wins at that point, with 22. Lolich struck out nine Brewers for a total of 248 on the season. That put him six behind Blue. Lolich admitted that he was paying attention to Blue, who started the All-Star Game for the AL at Tiger Stadium in July. About his fellow southpaw, Lolich said,

"“He’s helped me go harder all the time. Every time I read he won a game or struck out so many, it kind of spurred me on.”"

With a long-awaited milestone out of the way, Lolich said that his goals for the remainder of the season were to finish with an ERA under 3.00 (he was at 3.01 at the time) and pitch 350 innings. No Tiger had thrown more than 350 innings since Dizzy Trout pitched 352 in 1944. Lolich passed the 300 mark with his eighth straight complete game in his next start on August 25 at home against the Twins, a 6-2 Tigers win, which was Lolich’s 21st.

The White Sox, who had denied Lolich his 20th win, were again a thorn in his side when they snapped his complete-game streak on August 29. Lolich gave up four runs in the first and left after five with the Tigers down 6-2. It was Wilbur Wood, another of the AL’s better lefties that season, who ended up with the complete-game win.

Lolich’s only blemishes in August were the two losses to the White Sox. For the second month in a row, he won five games. The Tigers bounced back from a subpar July to go 17-12. It had been their best month of the season. They took over second place in the AL East, but still trailed the Orioles by 11.5 games.

The flu bug bit Lolich a couple of days after his start against Chicago, but he was able to bounce back and pitch on normal rest against Cleveland at home on September 2. He had shut the Indians out the last time he faced them, back on June 24, but hadn’t pitched a shutout since. Overdue for another, Lolich scattered six hits and didn’t walk anyone as the Tigers rolled to a 7-0 win.

It was an efficient outing for Lolich. Although pitch counts weren’t scrutinized as closely back then, Lolich said he threw 105 pitches in the shutout, which he called “extremely low”. He estimated that he usually threw around 140 or 150 per game.

Lolich’s next start was on a hot Labor Day afternoon in Washington, one that he said was “too hot”. He commented,

"“Today just wasn’t the day to try to strike anybody out. I just wanted to make everybody hit the first pitch or the second pitch and get out of the heat as quickly as possible.”"

He didn’t have to spend too much time in the heat, though. In a game that lasted 2:16, he blanked the Senators 3-0, scattering six hits and one walk. Thanks to a couple of double plays along the way, Lolich faced the minimum in six different innings. The win, his 23rd, tied him with Blue for the league lead. With the season in its final month, Lolich was being talked about as a Cy Young Award candidate. Tigers manager Billy Martin felt like his ace might have an edge over Blue. He quipped,

"“If my man beats him in victories and innings pitched, who’s more valuable to his team?”"

Yankees centerfielder Bobby Murcer (who led the AL in on-base percentage, OPS, OPS+, and offensive bWAR in 1971 and finished second in batting average and slugging percentage) agreed with assessments that Lolich could win the award. He said,

"“I said before the All-Star Game that Lolich would win more games than Blue this year, and I still say it. I just think Lolich is a better pitcher. I’d much rather hit against Blue than against Lolich.”"

Lolich himself chimed in with some pointed comments that seemed to suggest that he also saw himself as the better moundsman, albeit one whose fate had already been decided. He reasoned,

"“I don’t want this to sound like I’m bragging or anything, but look at it this way: he’s 22, and I’m almost 31. I can’t begin to name all the hitters in this league that he can just stand out there and throw his fastball by. I have to pitch a little more in order to win. I don’t have the great fastball and super duper curve like he does.Remember, too, he’s pitching for a first place club that’s running away with their race…It’s hard to conceive of him not winning. He’s been so popular this year, he’s bound to win on that alone. I suppose I will feel bad if I don’t win anything – but I just know he’s going to win it all, and I’m not going to worry about it.”"

He didn’t look like a Cy Young contender against the Red Sox on September 10. Already trailing 4-0 in the top of the sixth, Lolich was pulled after giving up a triple, double, and another triple without getting anyone out. He was charged with all six runs in the Tigers’ 6-1 loss. Lolich only struck out one and gave up three home runs for the first time all season.

Lolich turned 31 on September 12. As a birthday gift of sorts, he got some national publicity in the form of a Sports Illustrated profile in the issue cover-dated September 13. Writer Ron Fimrite touched upon the difference-maker for Lolich in 1971, a revamped repertoire that included a cut fastball. Firmite wrote,

"“The so-called cut fastball is, in fact, only a variation of the conventional high hard one. Lolich throws it with an almost imperceptible turn of the wrist that causes the ball to swerve laterally at the last instant. He dislikes the term ‘sailing fastball’, implying as it does a certain indecisiveness, but that’s what Martin and others call the new pitch.”"

For Lolich, the cutter had become an impact pitch. In his 2018 memoir, Joy In Tigertown, he said that it changed him as a pitcher because it reduced his walks, which led to lower pitch counts and an increase in innings. He also credited it for extending his career. He elaborated,

"“To me, the cutter was the easiest pitch in the world to throw. All I had to do was change the pressure alongside the ball a little bit, putting a football spin on it with no strain on my arm whatsoever. Really, it was as natural as could be…The cutter wouldn’t break until it was two feet from the plate. By then…the hitter had made up his mind to swing or not to swing. I liked it when a batter would take a step toward first base, thinking it was ball four – only to have the umpire ring them up instead. Many of the guys I faced would come up to me years later and tell me how hard it was to hit ‘that slider’. Slider, cutter, I didn’t care what they called it. I only cared that it worked.”"

As successful as Lolich had been all season long, the second-place Tigers still faced a daunting task. On September 13, they rolled into Baltimore for a series with the first-place Orioles. The Tigers trailed by 10.5 games, but there were seven games left between the two teams. After a series-opening doubleheader split, Lolich got his shot at the Birds on September 14. His counterpart on the mound was Jim Palmer, who was also having a nice season (18-7, 2.73 ERA at the time). Palmer had edged Lolich in a tight pitching duel back in April.

Their rematch began as another pitching duel. Paul Blair’s two-out RBI single off Lolich finally broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the fifth. The Tigers then lit Palmer up in the top of the sixth. Three straight singles from Aurelio Rodriguez, Gates Brown, and Norm Cash to begin the inning tied the game. Bill Freehan followed with a three-run homer. They added a run in the seventh and another in the eighth. Lolich only allowed the one run as the Tigers won 6-1.

Lolich went the distance for the 25th time all season and got his 24th win. He finished with nine strikeouts. When he got Boog Powell to the end the fourth, it was his 272nd strikeout of the season. That topped his previous career-high, set in 1969. When he got Powell in the ninth, it was his 276th. That set a new Tigers season record for strikeouts by a lefty. Hal Newhouser had held the record since 1945.

When his evening in Baltimore ended, Lolich found himself leading the AL in starts, innings pitched, complete games, and wins (but still trailed Blue in strikeouts by 14). He credited a patient manager in Martin. Lolich said,

"“Several times this year, I could have been out of there in the late innings, but Billy stuck with me. That’s why my inning total is so high, and my wins and complete games too.”"

The Tigers went on to win their next two games, at home against the Senators, while the Orioles split two with the Yankees. The Orioles’ lead over the Tigers was 8.5 when they visited Tiger Stadium for a four-game weekend series. The Tigers swept a Friday night doubleheader. Lolich vs. Palmer was once again the matchup on Saturday afternoon, September 18.

The game was scoreless until the bottom of the fourth. With two out and runners on second and third, Palmer intentionally walked Eddie Brinkman to get to Lolich, whose single drive in two. (As a hitter, Lolich had a career-high 15 hits and seven RBI in 1971.) Lolich had no problems with the Orioles’ hitters. He gave up only a solo home run in the seventh. His single turned out to be the game-winning hit, as the Tigers won 2-1. It was Lolich’s 25th victory and 26th complete game.

Lolich struck out 10 Orioles. That cut Blue’s lead in the category down to seven. Lolich’s biggest strikeout in the game, from a historical perspective, was his fourth. When he got Andy Etchebarren to end the second inning, it was his 281st of the season. That broke Denny McLain’s franchise record for strikeouts in a season, which had been set in 1968.

By that point, there should’ve been no doubt that Lolich had clearly emerged from McLain’s shadow. Lolich had become a better pitcher in 1971 than he was before, and he’d also become a wiser pitcher. Looking back at his performance that afternoon, he said,

"“I don’t think I was quite as sharp as I was when I beat them (four days earlier). I’ve reached the point now, where when I go out to the mound, I know I’m not going to be throwing as good as I can. That’s quite a few innings to have pitched, you know.So, I force myself to concentrate a lot more than I usually do. I’m always thinking two or three pitches ahead now…asking myself what will I throw if this pitch is a strike and what will I throw if it’s a ball.”"

With the win, the Tigers had cut the Orioles’ lead to 5.5 games. That would be their last hurrah, however. Although the Tigers went 19-9 that September, it was too late. The Orioles clinched the AL East on September 24.

For Lolich, there were two more accomplishments looming. With 25 wins under his belt, he was one away from tying Hal Newhouser’s franchise record for most wins in a season by a left-handed starter, which was set in 1946. Lolich also had a legit shot at 300 strikeouts.

(To be concluded.)