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Bert Blyleven Pitches to the Score

2011/01/12

Sheldon Ocker related this story about Bert Blyleven in Sunday’s Beacon Journal:

There also was a 1981 start he made for the Indians in Fenway Park. Umpire Greg Kosc was refusing (so Blyleven said) to call his curveball for strikes. Blyleven’s complaints fell on deaf ears, so he retaliated by throwing eight consecutive batting-practice fastballs, giving up eight hits, including a double and a home run.

By the time manager Dave Garcia led Blyleven away, he had proven his point to Kosc, and never mind that he gave the Boston Red Sox six runs (and a win).

Blyleven offered this sarcastic assessment of his beef with the umpire: ”I think [Kosc] called a super game. I just asked him how his family was. Then I made some bad pitches.”

As stories go, this is a pretty good one:  “Newly Minted Hall of Famer Once Threw Game to Prove Point.”  Although many of these stories, as remembered 30 years later, turn out to be inaccurate or apocryphal, Blyleven really did melt down against the Sox in Fenway on May 27, 1981.

Coming into the game with the Red Sox, Blyleven had won six straight starts and thrown six straight complete games, including a 10-inning effort against Toronto.  That day, the Indians were nursing a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth, with Kosc behind the plate, when Carl Yastrzemski led off with a double, Jim Rice struck out, and Tony Perez advanced Yaz to third with a ground out.

And then the wheels came off.

Carney Lansford and Dave Stapleton each singled, followed by a Rich Gedman double and a Rick Miller home run.  Davey Garcia watched Blyleven surrender three more singles—making it seven, not eight, consecutive hits—before replacing him with Mike Stanton.  The sequence of events must have taken place quickly, giving Stanton little time to warm up; otherwise, Garcia would surely have pulled Bert after Miller’s homer.  By the time Stanton set down Rice to end the inning, the Tribe trailed 6-3.

Blyleven had allowed only two hits and one walk in 3 2/3 innings before his meltdown, while striking out three.  Pitch counts aren’t available for this game, and Pitch F/X hadn’t been invented, leaving little evidence to support Blyleven’s claim that Kosc was squeezing the strike zone.

But Blyleven has said that he was loath to give up even a single run due to the poor run support he received early in his career, and credits that attitude for his 60 shutouts.  Perhaps with two outs and Yaz on third, Kosc failed to call a critical strike on Carney Lansford.  Perhaps when Lansford singled home Yaz for the Sox’s first run, Blyleven just snapped.

Or maybe—just maybe—the fatigue of throwing 63 innings in his first seven starts finally got to the Hall of Famer.

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