April 17, 1965 - The season started poorly for the defending World Series champion St Louis Cardinals, dropping the first three games in '65, prior to hosting the Cincinnati Reds in Game Four. A modest crowd of 15,828 assembled at the antiquated ballpark formerly known as Sportsman's Park, hoping that World Series hero Bob Gibson could restore order for the Redbirds; at least, temporarily.
Hard-throwing 28-year old lefty Jim O'Toole (17-7 - 2.66 ERA in '64) took the mound for Cincinnati; at least, temporarily. Unbeknownst to just about any knowledgeable baseball fan prior to this game, O'Toole was washed up at this relatively tender age; when most players are reaching their peak before the inexorable decline which usually occurs on the wrong side of 30. O'Toole would struggle through a two-run first inning before getting knocked out in the second-inning, failing to retire any of the three batters he faced. His pitching summary: 1 IP - 4 H - 5 R - 2 BB - 0 SO. The rest of the season didn't get much better (3-10 - 5.92 ERA); although he rebounded a bit in '66 and '67 in limited action, he was out of baseball at the age of 30.
Gibson, on the other hand, pitched well enough to keep the Reds scoreless for nine innings, scattering eight hits and four walks, while striking out eleven. Ken Boyer (3 for 4) drove in four of the eight runs the Redbirds would tally in this easy win, but age was beginning to take its toll as well on the NL MVP in '64; one month shy of his 34th birthday, Boyer's production would decline sharply in '65, with career lows in home runs (13), batting average (.260) and slugging percentage (.374).
At the conclusion of what would be a disappointing sub-.500 season for St Louis, Boyer would be traded to the New York Mets for their 28-year old third baseman - Charley Smith, who in '66 would prove to be only a slight upgrade over Boyer's worst season. Smith's largest contribution to the Cardinals' success was getting the New York Yankees to take him prior to the '67 season in exchange for their disgruntled former single season home run king, Roger Maris. While Charley was a total bust for the Yankees, Roger helped the Cardinals win two straight NL pennants and one World Series championship, before happily riding off into the sunset himself, at the age of 34.
April 18, 1967 - In a classic pitcher's duel at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, the Cardinals' Ray Washburn squared off against the durable, crafty and spit balling Gaylord Perry - a future Hall of Famer, who certainly competed like one in this game. Both hurlers allowed just one run through the first nine innings of play; a fourth-inning home run by Julian Javier accounted for the lone St Louis tally. After Washburn retired the side in the ninth, his day was through, allowing just four hits, four walks with five strikeouts; and the lone run.
Perry, on the other hand, apparently had enough Vaseline hidden somewhere to continue the battle into extra innings. The 11th-inning was an unlucky one for Gaylord. It started with a Lou Brock leadoff single, but when Curt Flood grounded into a double play, the Redbird scoring threat seemed to vanish. However, Roger Maris' fly ball to centerfield was dropped by Ken Henderson (Willie Mays had been given the day off), enabling the hustling Maris to reach second base. Orlando Cepeda promptly burned his former team with a base hit that scored what proved to be the winning (unearned) run. Reliever Hal Woodeshick pitched the final 1.1 innings to notch the win. The last batter he faced was the venerable Willie Mays, who grounded out as a pinch hitter to end the game.
In the end, Gaylord Perry got the tough-luck loss after working 11 innings, scattering nine hits with one walk and seven strikeouts. This game was a preview of the unprecedented feats that would happen with both Perry and Washburn at Candlestick the following season. Perry got some measure of revenge when he threw a no-hitter against the Cardinals. The following day, it was Washburn returning the favor against the Giants, with a no-hitter of his own. Back-to-back no-no's by pitchers from opposing teams? It's only happened once in MLB history, by a couple of pitchers who seemed to enjoy the Candlestick Park experience.
April 19, 1996 - The new manager for the St Louis Cardinals - Tony LaRussa - had a reputation for using his bullpen more frequently than most major league managers. As the visiting Redbirds faced the Philadelphia Phillies at Veteran's Stadium in this early season encounter, neither team was able to get anything going, offensively; that is, until St Louis batted in the top of the ninth-inning with the score tied, 0-0. Left-handed swinging John Mabry, who knows a thing or two about the science of hitting (without batting gloves), stroked an opposite field single to left field, and advanced to second base on a successful sacrifice bunt. After a strikeout and a walk left the Cardinals with runners on first and second (two outs), shortstop Royce Clayton's ground-rule double finally brought in the lone run of the game.
Meanwhile, Cards' starting pitcher, Mark Petkowsek, pitched well enough, but LaRussa decided he'd had enough after just four innings of work (3 H - 0 R - 2 BB - 3 SO). Relievers Fossas, Mathews, Honeycutt, Bailey (the winning pitcher), and finally Eckersley (who got the save) each worked precisely one inning, keeping Philadelphia frustrated at the plate. The six Cardinals pitchers combined for the shutout, scattering six hits and five walks, to go along with eight strikeouts.
There was a bit of excitement in the bottom of the ninth, as Kevin Stocker's one-out single rolled just out of the reach of second baseman Luis Alicea into short centerfield. Stocker gambled on stretching it into a double, but Ray Lankford alertly charged the ball aggressively and fired a strike to shortstop Clayton to nail the runner. At the plate, Lankford had a bad day, going 0 for 5; but this crucial outfield assist more than made up that.
This season would lead to a NL Central title for the Cardinals - their first trip to the postseason since '87. That was "it" for the '90s, but the new millennium would be filled with more sustained periods of success for the franchise than any other era.
April 20, 2000 - The Cardinals annihilated the visiting San Diego Padres by the lopsided score of 14-1, as rookie pitcher Rick Ankiel got the win for St Louis, despite serious control issues that would ultimately escalate to epic proportions by the time the postseason rolled around. The game itself quickly got out of hand for San Diego by the time the Redbirds scored six unearned runs in the very first inning. Prior to that, Ankiel managed to escape a first-inning jam of his own when the erratic southpaw walked the bases loaded before wriggling out of trouble with no damage; except perhaps, to his psyche. The patient Tony LaRussa coaxed five innings out of his prized rookie, who allowed no runs on two hits, while striking out four. However, thanks to seven walks and a high pitch count, Ankiel found himself dangerously close to an early exit.
Ankiel the hitter looked like a clone of Stan Musial; another reason he stayed in the game long enough to go 3 for 3 with 2 runs scored and 1 run batted in - thanks to his very first big league home run which came immediately after Eli Marrero hit his second round-tripper of the day, during a four-run fifth inning. The Redbirds also scored four runs in the fourth inning, thanks to Marrero's first home run of the game - a grand slam. Interestingly enough, St Louis only scored in three different innings in this game, but those were some crooked numbers they put up, thanks to some sloppy San Diego defense, timely hitting; not to mention ten walks (the free-swinging Cards' batters also struck out ten times).
Add it all up and it translates into a 3 hour and 30 minute affair, which probably felt more like three and half days for those in the visitor's dugout. One Cardinal player who had a rather quiet evening was slugging first baseman Mark McGwire, who LaRussa removed early from this blowout to give his ailing knees a bit of a break. Taking over the defensive chores at first base was the team's regular catcher, Mike Matheny, who was originally given the night off by TLR so Eli Marrero could have a little fun tonight.