Monday, December 8, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part IV--Don Drysdale and Orel Hershiser)

In my last post, we discussed Walter Johnson's streak of 55.2 consecutive scoreless innings, which is still an AL record. It stood as the all time mark in both leagues until Don Drysdale surpassed it in 1968. Drysdale, a towering presence on the mound at 6-foot-6, was one of the most feared pitchers of his generation. He led the league in hit batsmen every year from 1958-1961 and currently ranks among the top twenty of all time in that category with 154. The ornery moundsman once remarked that he started every game angry and stayed that way until it was over. He had very little regard for opposing batters. St. Louis catcher Gene Oliver drilled a deep homer off of Drysdale one day at Dodger Stadium and, after standing idly at home plate admiring his shot, Oliver called loudly to the Cardinals dugout: "Hey, batboy--come get the bat!!" When he came to the plate again, Drysdale deliberately plunked him with a fastball. As Oliver lay on the ground in obvious pain, Drysdale shouted: "Hey, batboy--Come get Oliver!"

Drysdale secured a place in baseball history during the '68 campaign when he assembled a streak of 58 consecutive scoreless innings. In addition to breaking Walter Johnson's all time mark, he eclipsed Carl Hubbell's NL record of 45.1 scoreless frames. "Big D's" streak began with a shutout against the Cubs on May 14. Five straight shutouts followed. Drysdale had a little help along the way. On May 31, his streak stood at 44 innings when the Giants loaded the bases with no outs. Dick Dietz ran up a 2-2 count before Drysdale nailed him in the elbow with a wayward slider. The streak should have ended there, but umpire Harry Wendelstadt invoked a rare ruling, declaring "no pitch" on the grounds that Dietz had made no attempt to get out of the way. Drysdale was able to pitch out of danger, extending his remarkable run. Against the Phillies on June 8, he lasted through four and two-thirds scoreless innings before a sacrifice fly by pinch-hitter Howie Bedell scored Tony Taylor. At one point during the game, Philly manager Gene Mauch asked home plate umpire Augie Donatelli to check Drysdale for contraband. It had been proposed by some (most emphatically by Giants manager Herman Franks) that Drysdale had been throwing spitballs during the streak. When his remarkable run was over, the big right-hander commented to reporters: "I think all good things have to come to an end...There's always somebody around who can break a record. This gives everybody a target to shoot at. I wish him all the luck and will be the first to congratulate him if I'm around to do it."

Drysdale was indeed alive and kicking when his record was broken in 1988--fittingly by another Dodger. Tall and gangly at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Orel Hershiser looked more like a school teacher than an athlete. He went undrafted out of high school and didn't capture any serious attention from scouts until he earned All-Metro Athletic Conference honors while pitching for Bowling Green University in 1979. He became a full-time pitcher in Los Angeles during the '84 campaign, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting. Hershiser received the nickname "Bulldog" from manager Tom Lasorda, who felt that the brainy right-hander could stand to toughen up a bit. An early scouting report alleged that Hershiser had poor control, a weak fastball and threw a mechanically flawed curve. None of that information was applicable in 1988, when he reset the all time mark for consecutive scoreless innings.

Hershiser began his historic run against the Expos on August 3. He followed with five straight shutout wins. Facing the Padres on the last day of the season, he added ten more scoreless innings. Though his regular season record would end shortly into his first appearance of the '89 campaign, his string in '88 continued into the postseason as he shut down the Mets for 8 innings in Game 1 of the NLCS. Interestingly, he had a little help from an umpire while going for the record--just as Drysdale had in '68. During a September 28 start, arbiter Paul Runge made a controversial interference call at second base on a run-scoring double play to keep Hershiser's bid alive. The streak officially ended on April 5, 1989, when the Reds broke through for a run with two outs in the first inning. After Todd Benzinger delivered an RBI single, the crowd in Cincinnati razzed Hershiser loudly.

Hershiser's streak has not been seriously challenged in recent years, though three different hurlers have assembled scoreless strings in excess of 40, the most recent being Clayton Kershaw in 2014.   

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