April 13, 1968 - A Saturday afternoon game for the Cardinals at Wrigley Field had an ominous beginning, but a familiar ending for the defending World Champions - another come-from-behind victory at the expense of their long-suffering rivals - the Chicago Cubs.
Steve Carlton started the game for St Louis, who failed to score in their half of the first-inning; and before most of the paid crowd of 33,875 even had a chance to get settled into their seats, the Cubbies had chased four runs home - capped off by Ron Santo's three-run home run into the left field bleachers. Carlton would make it through seven innings, and managed to keep Santo & Company at bay the rest of the way. Meanwhile, the Cardinals pecked away, scoring one in the second on a Dick Simpson home run, two in the third on RBI base hits by Orlando Cepeda and Tim McCarver, and another run in the fifth on an RBI single by Curt Flood. The game was all tied, and the Redbirds had the momentum. In the eighth, pinch hitter Phil Gagliano's two-run single broke the deadlock, as the inspired Cardinals went on to score four times, putting the game out of reach. Chicago scored an unearned run in their half of the eighth, but it was too little, too late. Final score: 8-5.
The hitting star of the game was Curt Flood, who had five singles in five at bats, scored one run and drove in two. All told, the Cardinals had sixteen hits - thirteen of which were singles - and they drew three walks, for good measure. This type of offense would certainly prove to be the "exception" in '68 - The Year of the Pitcher - but it was still early in the season; the Cardinals didn't know any better.
April 14, 1970 - Just two years and one day removed from that Saturday game at Wrigley Field, the Cardinals had undergone major changes to its roster. Gone: Curt Flood, Tim McCarver, Orlando Cepeda and Roger Maris. Added: Dick Allen, Joe Torre, Joe Hague and Jose Cardenal. On paper, this seemed like a contending team; in reality, by season's end, it was a sub .500 team. However, on this particular day, the Redbirds were looking good, and came away with a 10-inning 6-5 win over the visiting Montreal Expos; good for a 4-2 record in the new season.
With a small crowd of just 9,891 on hand at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals staked pitcher Bob Gibson to a quick 3-0 lead after two innings. For a while, that seemed to be enough for the ace right-hander, but after surrendering a run in the sixth-inning, Gibson simply ran out of gas in the seventh, facing four batters; retiring none. He was charged with the three runs Montreal scored, and suddenly was on the wrong side of a 4-3 deficit. As a hitter, Gibby fared much better, collecting 2 hits in 3 ABs, scoring one run and driving home another. The Montreal lead was short-lived, as Jose Cardenal's solo home run in the bottom of the seventh tied the game at 4-4, and got Gibson off the hook.
The game remained deadlocked after regulation, but only one extra inning was required to settle this contest. After the Expos pushed a run across off reliever Sal Campisi (the eventual winning pitcher) in the top half of the tenth, the Cardinals came roaring back in the bottom half to win it in "walk-off" fashion. A Jim Campbell RBI single tied the game once again, and with the bases loaded and one out, pinch hitter Cookie Rojas' infield single to third base sent what was left of the small gathering, back to their nice, warm homes.
April 15, 1980 - Ten years and one day after St Louis won that 10-inning affair in front of that small partisan crowd, an even smaller crowd (8,166) ventured out to see the Cardinals clobber the eventual World Champion Philadelphia Phillies, by a score of 7-2. Pete Vuckovich, who pitched a complete game 1-0 shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates on Opening Day (April 10), went the distance for the second straight start, limiting the Phillies to five hits and a walk, while striking out three. Both runs Philadelphia scored were of the "earned" variety, raising the colorful right hander's ERA to 1.00 on the young season. He also handled the bat well on this particular day, doubling home a couple of runs to ensure a postgame interview on Jack Buck's Star of the Game program. Honorable mention goes to 1979's NL co-MVP, Keith Hernandez (3 for 3 with a triple and 2 singles, BB, 1 R, 1 RBI).
Despite all that offense by the home team (12 hits & 3 walks), the hyperactive Vuckovich wrapped up this contest in just an hour and 57 minutes. No muss, no fuss; no visits to the mound to discuss strategy, and no long walks in from the bullpen by a handful of relief specialists. Alas, in the long run, this team would prove to be a high-scoring bunch of misfits with not enough pitching - especially in the back end of the bullpen. That problem would be solved by the time the '81 season began (Bruce Sutter in a trade with the Cubs), and a whole new era of Cardinal baseball (spearheaded by Whitey Herzog) would make the '80s a very successful decade for this franchise; and give fans a reason to show up for the games.
April 16, 1981 - The aforementioned Bruce Sutter would earn his second save as a Redbird (2.2 IP - 1 H - 0 R - 0 BB - 2 SO) in this game between the visiting Cardinals and the still-hapless New York Mets at Shea Stadium. The final score: 5-1, as all five of the St Louis runs came as a result of the long ball - a game-tying solo shot by Darrell Porter, and a pair of two-run blasts by silent George Hendrick and future Met Keith Hernandez. Rookie Andy Rincon (6.1 IP - 6 H - 1 R (unearned) - 1 BB - 2 SO) earned his first career major league win, but arm trouble would end his promising career just a few weeks later; proving that success at this level can be fleeting, especially if the injury bug decides to bite.
On the other side of the equation was the Mets' starting (and losing) pitcher - Mike Scott, who remained injury-free yet toiled in futility with New York; but after a trade to the Houston Astros, became one of the most dominant pitchers in the game over a five year stretch (1985 - 1989), winning the NL Cy Young Award in 1986, and almost preventing his old team's trip to the World Series in a classic NLCS. Former Cardinal-future teammate-future adversary Keith Hernandez later accused the crafty Scott of scuffing the baseballs to make his pitches break in suspicious and nearly unhittable trajectories. Nothing was ever proven, but whatever he was or wasn't doing with the Mets wasn't working; however, whatever tricks he learned with the Astros worked quite well, thank you very much.
Meanwhile, the strike-shortened 1981 season would be a frustrating one for St Louis, who had the best overall record in the NL East, but failed to qualify for postseason play because they finished second in each newly-created "half". Justice was served the following season, as a very good but not "great" team managed to win when it counted, all the way through a Seven Game World Series showdown with a colorful team from Milwaukee.