Sock It to 'Em, Tigers: a First Half Review

Filed under Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, California Angels, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics, Washington Senators
July 10, 1968

The Detroit Tigers closed out the first half of the 1968 American League schedule strong, winning nine of their last ten games and stretching their lead to six and a half games over the second-place Cleveland Indians. Denny McLain (15-4) is grabbing the headlines in the junior circuit with his collection of victories, but the Bengal offense is a juggernaut that could support any hurler. In a season dominated by pitching, the Tigers have 95 home runs, a third more than the next best club, Baltimore, with 64 clouts. The only way it seems to beat Mayo Smith’s troops is to stay close as long as possible as Detroit is only three games over .500 (17-14) in one run games. With the dominance of its offense, the Tigers could easily have a better record than its already major league best 55-28 mark. Veteran Al Kaline led the club through the early weeks, and when Kaline went down in May to injury, the club remarkably improved. Willie Horton is second to Washington’s Frank Howard in home runs (19) and RBI (54). Bill Freehan emerged as a clubhouse leader in Kaline’s absence, and is third in RBI (52). Jim Northrup took advantage of the extra playing time in Kaline’s stead and is among the league leaders with a .282 batting average, and is second in extra base hits (36). Second baseman Dick McAuliffe is getting on base and is second in the league with 54 runs scored. Cy Young winner Earl Wilson (11-3) has not dropped off from his 20-win season last year, and has added a home run stroke to his arsenal. Wilson is seventh on the team with 8 home runs while batting .296 with 16 RBI.

Cleveland is staying in contention due to its strong starting pitching. Luis Tiant (11-5) leads the league with a 1.71 ERA and has joined Sam McDowell (9-8, 2.13) has a one-two punch on par with Detroit’s duo of McLain and Wilson. The bull pen has been a thorn in the side of manager Al Dark. Stan Williams (6-4) has been moved in and out of the rotation in order to bolster the relief corps. The Tribe lost a big bat out of its lineup when Tony Horton (.258, 9 HR, 29 RBI) injured his knee. “So overall, the first half was very good,” commented Dark. “My only complaint is that the Tigers kept winning.”

The Orioles were incapable of putting together any momentum in the first half. The club floated above the breakeven mark, and stands eight and a half games off the pace. Such a position was not good enough for Oriole brass who dismissed Hank Bauer in favor of rookie manager Earl Weaver. It seemed like a strange time to fire Bauer. It would have not been surprising if he had been fired at the end of last season, when the club finished in fifth. Having let it go this long, some people felt the Orioles would ride the season out with Bauer. Things had not gone perfectly for Bauer. Frank Robinson missed some time due the flu, but Boog Powell (.275, 13 HR, 42 RBI) has stepped in as the team’s swat leader. Baltimore’s staff led by Tom Phoebus (9-3, 2.70), Jim Hardin (7-5, 1.83), and Dave McNally (8-6, 1.96) are tied for first in the league with Detroit with a team ERA of 2.35. But someone needs to step up or something needs to happen in order to shake the Birds from this slumber that is keeping them from reaching their peak from two seasons ago.

Minnesota’s pennant dreams took a turn for the worse with the injury incurred by slugger Harmon Killebrew in last night’s All Star Game. Killebrew tore his hamstring muscle in his left leg while stretching for a low throw in the Astrodome classic. Bob Allison was the starting first baseman for the American League All Stars back in 1964, but he hasn’t played the position since 1965. Rich Reese is touted as the No. 1 replacement for Killebrew. Tony Oliva and Ted Uhlaender have turned in passing performances for the first half offense. Dean Chance (8-8; 3.04) has been average, and Jim Merritt (11-7; 2.42 ERA) is the only first half stand out in the first half for Minnesota. On a sour note, the staff leads the league in home runs…allowed, 81 home runs, 19 more than Oakland’s youthful staff.

The Yankees have rebounded from last season’s collapse into the American League cellar. Mel Stottlemyre (9-5) and rookie Stan Bahnsen (7-4) have stabilized the pitching corps. Manager Ralph Houk is missing a late inning fireman as last season’s relief ace, Dooley Womack, has failed (1-5, 6.37 ERA) after registering 14 saves last season. Andy Kosco, exiled from Minnesota, has flourished in the Bombers’ lineup, leading the club with 13 home runs. Mickey Mantle now bats in the 240’s, but the Mick still finds a way to get on base and is tied for second on the club with 10 home runs at the break. Switch hitting Roy White (.259, 10 HR, 29 RBI) has come into his own in his fourth major league season to become a real threat in the lineup. Houk will need for youngsters like White and Horace Clarke to continue with their improvement as others like Bill Robinson (.211) , Tom Tresh (.222), Joe Pepitone (.245) and Womack to step up if the pinstripers wish to return to first division status.

The Oakland A’s were the darlings of the first month of the season, but swooned in June to drop back into the second division. Yet fans of the relocated club have reason to be encouraged as the A’s can boast of some of the best young talent in the league. Rick Monday, the first overall pick in the amateur draft three years ago, was named Player of the Month in April, and has maintained his performance to be earn an All-Star berth. Reggie Jackson is also fulfilling his promise, leading the team in home runs (16) and RBI (51). Danny Cater (.310, 4 HR, 22 RBI) is another Athletic who is living up to his potential, and it all starts with the spark plug All Star shortstop Bert Campaneris who leads all of baseball with 36 stolen bases. John “Blue Moon” Odom (8-3, 1.83) has overcome his earlier bouts with wildness to blossom into a top of the line starter. Lew Krausse (7-5, 2.42) has shaken off his troubles with owner Charlie Finley last season and pitched effectively in the first half. Jim “Catfish” Hunter (4-8, 3.92) and Jim Nash (6-9, 3.54) have struggled, and both will need to pitch effectively for Oakland to break its fall.

The Boston Red Sox are doing little to prove last season’s surge into the first division was not a fluke. The club is five games under .500 and in seventh place. The batting is keeping pace with last season but with different contributors. Reggie Smith has blossomed into an All Star outfielder, joining his teammates that flank him in the Boston gardens, Yastrzemski and Harrelson, in Houston. Such performances make up for the collapse of George Scott who has lost his first baseman’s job to Dalton Jones, the club’s backup second baseman. But the reason for the poor first half showing in the Hub is the failure of the pitching staff. The club is last in the league in ERA. Jim Lonborg (2-0; 6.04 ERA), injured in an off-season skiing accident, has not made a full recovery. Jose Santiago (8-7; 2.11 ERA) has stepped in as the club ace but he encountered elbow troubles in his last start.

Washington is making some headlines with the power surge of big Frank Howard who leads baseball with 20 home runs at the Break. Weeks ago, Howard was in Triple Crown contention but his average dropped down to .310 lately. The Capital Punisher leads the American League with 56 RBI. But, pitching is again the Achilles’ heel of the Senators. Manager Jim Lemon moaned, if they are to escape the second division, the Senators must come up with some starting pitchers. “When we have to go with anyone besides Joe Coleman or Camilo Pascual we’re in trouble,” said Lemon. “Sore arms, sore shoulders, sore backs, guys in the service…We’ve got to overcome these things and develop a four-man rotation and stick to it.” Lemon will also miss one of his only reliable bull pen arms as Darold Knowles packed his bags for what could be 18 months of reserve duty in Japan.

The White Sox have plunged to new and uncharted depths with their ninth place showing at the All Star Break. Manager Eddie Stanky made some headlines by starting an All-Negro
outfield for the first time on July 5 when Tommy Davis was in left, Buddy Bradford in center and Leon Wagner in right. But such novelties have not helped attendance which off dramatically. The club has been one of the weaker hitting teams in the league and this season is no different as the Chisox are tenth in batting average, on-base percentage and home runs. The pitching which has typically supported the light bats as been off this season as well. One time 20 game winner, Gary Peters, is getting more attention for his bat than his pitching. He is fourth on the club with three home runs, but tenth on the staff with a 4.63 ERA. Carlos Cisco has been a bust, and Joe Horlen is struggling this season as well. The lone bright spot on the mound has been All Star southpaw Tommy John (8-3; 2.04 ERA) but one pitcher does not make a staff.

It has been a forgettable first half for Bill Rigney’s Halos. California dropped ten straight in May, and a couple of five game skids in June that drew the attention of the front office. The silver lining to the monsoon of trouble for Rigney has been the play of bonus baby Rick Reichardt, the lone Angel All Star, and the development of young arms like Tom Murphy who tossed a no-hitter against the Yankees a few weeks ago. However, the bull pen has been a disaster, and blown leads late can be demoralizing to a ball club. Bill Rigney without relief pitchers is like a captain without a crew. “This,” he admitted, “is the worst bullpen I’ve ever had. The worst.”  The fireman last year, Minnie Rojas, has been terrible. Rojas is 3-6 with a 6.18 ERA and four saves. “We’ll look at the whole club during the All-Star break,” said Rigney. “Sammy Ellis is the guy I’d like to move to the ‘pen (Ellis ironically was obtained from Cincinnati for Bill Kelso, one of the last season’s premier relievers.) Relief pitching is one thing. Strikeouts – by Angel batters, not Angel pitchers – are something else. The Angels lead the league with 581 strikeouts, on pace to break the club record set by the rag-tag team that represented Los Angeles in 1961.

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