Curt Flood made some great defensive plays in his career, but the one he pulled off to preserve an extra-inning win in Houston back in '67 - may be his personal best. And it was even televised back in St Louis, for all the Cardinal fans to marvel.
Monday, June 19, 1967 - At the Astrodome - (Bob Gibson - Starting Pitcher) - Opponent: Houston Astros (Mike Cuellar - Starting Pitcher) - Attendance: 23,953
The Astros scored first, in a most unusual way. With one out in the third-inning, Bob Gibson's mound rival - Mike Cuellar - a career .115 hitter - lined one into the right-center field gap, for a rare triple. Cuellar then jogged home when the next batter - Julio Gotay - also tripled. An agitated Gibson retired the next two Houston batters to strand Gotay at third.
With Cuellar keeping the Cardinals scoreless through five innings, Dal Maxvill led off the St Louis sixth-inning with a single to center field. However, after Gibson fouled off a sacrifice bunt attempt on the third strike and Lou Brock's fly ball to center became an easy out - the rally seemed to fizzle.
Then Julian Javier lined a single to left, and Curt Flood coaxed a walk from Cuellar to load the bases for Orlando Cepeda - the exuberant leader of the team he affectionately calls "El Birdos". Cepeda quickly put El Birdos in front, with a two-run single to center, as Flood motored to third. With Mike Shannon batting, Cepeda then stole second as the Cardinals' dugout gleefully roared its approval; however, Shannon popped out to third, in foul territory, to end the inning.
Houston immediately struck back in their half of the sixth. Jimmy Wynn doubled down the line in left field, then Rusty Staub - who hit Gibson well in his career - launched a home run deep to right field - putting the Astros back in the lead - 3-2.
Down by that same 3-2 score in the top of the eighth - with Gibson due to lead-off the inning - manager Red Schoendienst elected use pinch-hitter Phil Gagliano in this spot, with this sage advice: "Get on base, Gags." And he did - drawing a base on balls from the tiring Cuellar, as the Houston bullpen was getting several arms warmed up for possible use.
Manager Grady Hatton may have waited too long to replace his starter, as Lou Brock promptly ripped a double down the line in right, bringing Gagliano home with the tying run. After Javier's sacrifice bunt moved Brock up to third, Flood brought him home with a single to left. After Cepeda ripped another single to left, the call to the bullpen was finally made.
Carroll Sembera replaced the weary Cuellar - but the new pitcher was wild, plunking Shannon with a pitch to load the bases. Hatton wasted no time in bringing in another new arm - Dan Schneider - who avoided further damage by getting Tim McCarver on a pop up to the shortstop, and striking out Roger Maris.
Still, the Cardinals had the lead - 4-3, with just two innings to go. Gibson - who had been removed from the game for a pinch hitter when the Cardinals trailed by a run - was now in a position to pick up the win, if the Cardinal bullpen could take care of business in the final two innings.
After Joe Hoerner worked a scoreless eighth-inning for St Louis, immediate trouble lurked ahead in the ninth. Bob Aspromonte's opposite-field double down the right field line brought the crowd to life - as an agitated Gibson stewed in the Cardinals' clubhouse. Bob Lillis then moved the runner up to third with a sacrifice bunt.
Schoendienst then brought in Nelson Briles to replace Hoerner on the mound - and Nellie did his job on the first batter - striking out pinch hitter Joe Morgan. But he couldn't get that third out before the pesky Julio Gotay's infield hit down the third base line scored Aspromonte with the tying run. The game was heading to extra innings - Gibson was heading to another no-decision.
After a scoreless tenth-inning, McCarver started a one-out eleventh-inning rally off Houston reliever, Barry Latman - with a single to right field. Maris - who struck out with the bases loaded his last trip to the plate - came through this time, with a run-scoring double down the right field line. That was the only run the Redbirds scored, but it would prove to be enough to win - after a bizarre ending.
Briles went back to the mound in the bottom of the eleventh, trying to protect the 5-4 lead - but ran into immediate trouble. Veteran outfielder Jim Landis lined a single to center, moved up to second on Aspromonte's sacrifice bunt, with Bob Lillis next to hit.
Curt Flood - the best defensive center fielder in the game - was well-positioned for what would happen next. Lillis hit a looping line drive into shallow center field - which Landis immediately thought was certain to land safely. Without hesitation, Landis took off from second, and was already rounding third base, as Flood - running at full speed - miraculously snatched the ball with a shoestring catch. Still running at full speed, Flood was able to stay on his feet - finally getting upright just a few strides away from his next destination: Second base.
Maxvill - who was now standing on second base, anticipating the game ending toss from Flood to retire the befuddled Landis - quickly realized Flood was going to handle this one on his own - stepping aside to give his grinning teammate room to step on the bag to complete the game-ending unassisted double play.
For those watching the game in the St Louis area on Channel Five - it was an image that would not be forgotten any time soon - and it made for a lot of animated business-attired Tuesday morning conversation around water coolers from Clayton to downtown St Louis.