Monday, June 2, 2014

The Meteoric Rise & Fall of Larry Jaster: Dodger Killer

Larry Jaster's major league career began with a flourish, late in the '65 season.   The 21-year old southpaw made his Cardinal debut in a meaningless September 17 game - working one perfect inning against the Dodgers - a team he would later become notorious for shutting out a record five times the very next season.

Jaster earned his shot to become a starting pitcher thanks to his successful audition in the waning days of the dismal '65 season.  The Cardinals were already well out of the pennant race when Jaster was called up, so management decided to see what this kid could do as a starter.  He made three starts - all complete game victories.  Looking back on it, maybe going nine innings in three successive starts took its toll on that 21-year old arm.  Maybe not.  Either way, his ERA was a Koufax-like 1.61 heading into the '66 season; and the young southpaw's rookie status was intact.

Jaster loved pitching against the Los Angeles Dodgers - especially in 1966.  Five starts - five National League-leading complete game shutouts, with scores that almost seem contrived in their symmetry:  2-0, 2-0, 4-0, 4-0, and 2-0.  Against the rest of the league, Jaster was mediocre - 6-5 with a 4.66 ERA.  But he owned the Dodgers.  He knew it, they knew it; everybody knew it.  It didn't matter what lineup manager Walter Alston put together.  They were like those wild and crazy guys on SNL - they just couldn't score.

Jaster's first start/shutout against LA came on April 25, 1966 at Dodger Stadium.  The victim:  Claude Osteen.  Jaster must have been nervous in that hostile environment.  The Dodgers roughed him up for seven hits; that would be the season high for the Dodger lineup against the 22-year old southpaw.  He walked no one; apparently he feared no one - at least no one wearing a Dodgers uniform.  Never a big strikeout artist, Jaster fanned seven in his first blanking.  Eight was his career high.

Shutout number two - July 3, 1966 - victimized Don Drysdale, once again at Dodger Stadium.  This time LA could only muster three hits, although Jim Lefebvre did draw the team's first base on balls against Jaster.  And they cut down on the strikeouts to just five.  So at least they had that going for them.

Number three - July 29, 1966 - victimized Drysdale again, this time at Busch Stadium.  Five hits, two walks, and a career-high eight strikeouts.  I think the home crowd got him psyched.

Number four - August 19, 1966 - back to Dodger Stadium with another repeat victim:  Claude Osteen.  Five hits, three walks, seven strikeouts.  Where's Sandy Koufax when you need him?  Or maybe fight rookie fire with another, even younger rookie?

The record-setting fifth shutout - September 28, 1966 at Busch Stadium.  The victim:  21-year old Rookie Don Sutton, who at least got it back to a 2-0 deficit.  Four hits, two walks, four strikeouts.

The Cardinals opened the '67 season at home against the San Francisco Giants.  Naturally, it was Gibson vs Marichal, and on this night, Gibby pitched a complete game 6-0 shutout.  For some reason, the Dodgers were the scheduled opponent for game two, on April 14, 1967.  Naturally, Jaster was the starter, and for the first six innings, kept LA scoreless.  By this time, the Cardinals had forged an insurmountable 8-0 lead.  But the Dodgers scored a moral victory with a two-out run in the seventh-inning.

The scoreless streak was over.  Jaster had gone 52.2 innings before the Dodgers finally scored a run - on a sacrifice fly.  Maybe that inspired them; or maybe Jaster was running out of gas.  After working a scoreless eighth, the first two batters reached base in the ninth-inning, signaling the end of his night.  He didn't get any help from the bullpen, as both runners eventually came around to score on a new rookie phenom who was getting his first dose of major league hitters - Dick Hughes - who quickly settled down after this shaky first appearance, winning 16 games, primarily as a starter, that season.

Jaster's next start against the Dodgers on April 24 (at Dodger Stadium) was brutal.  In 2.1 innings pitched, Jaster was mauled for four runs on four hits - two of which were home runs.  He was fortunate to escape without the loss, getting a no-decision in a game the Dodgers eventually won in 13 innings, 6-5.

He started against LA again on June 10, 1967 at Busch Stadium II.  This time, he pitched extremely well, but again had another no-decision for his effort.  He went nine innings, allowing two runs on three hits and two walks.  He tied  his career-high strikeout total  - eight batters - but the game would continue until Roger Maris' walk-off three-run home run in the eleventh-inning.  Final score:  St Louis 5 - LA 2.

Nearly two months would pass before Jaster had another shot at his favorite team.  On August 9, 1967, pitching at Busch Stadium II, Larry earned yet another no-decision - but this time he worked a career-high ten innings, allowing just two runs - both runs coming from home runs.  Other than that, the total Dodger offense against the young southpaw consisted of three hits and one walk.  He struck out four.  This game would last eleven innings once again; and once again, the Cardinals walked-off with a win - this time by a 3-2 score.

Finally, on August 25, 1967 - his tenth career start against the Dodgers (at Dodger Stadium) - Jaster's luck ran out.  He had allowed just two runs on four hits (no walks - four strikeouts) through six innings, but the Cardinals had only scored once.  He was lifted for a pinch hitter in the seventh, but to no avail.  This minor blemish on Jaster's Dodger-killing reputation remained intact; and rightfully so.

In '68, Jaster was still the master of LA in his first three starts against them, with two wins and one no-decision.  However, his last start against the Dodgers as a member of the Cardinals came at home on September 9; and it was the worst - and shortest - start of his career:  1.1 IP - 5 H - 6 R - 0 BB - 1 SO - This was only the second loss against the Dodgers in fourteen career starts, but it no doubt hastened his exit from St Louis.  He spent one dreadful season with Montreal, then hung on for two more seasons with Atlanta, but his days as a Dodger killer were a distant memory.

For old time's sake, on October 4, 1972, Jaster made his final appearance on a big league mound in Atlanta - getting the start against the Dodgers; who else?  Jaster pitched reasonably well - 5 IP - 4 H - 2 R - 1 BB - 3 SO - but took the loss, lowering his career record against LA to 9-4.

As a member of the Cardinals, he was 8-2 in 14 games started against LA.  Overall, in 109 innings pitched against LA, he posted a remarkable 1.90 ERA, featuring those five shutouts in his first five starts.  Even taking those out of the equation, in 64 innings work, Jaster still posted a nice 3.23 ERA.  Not bad; not bad at all.

It's hard to explain his mastery against this one team, especially early in his career.  Aside from the five shutouts he had against LA in '66, Jaster only had two others - an August 4, 1967 four-hit 5-0 blanking of the Reds, and a May 31, 1968 2-0 two-hitter against Tom Seaver and the Mets.  He came close, but never shut the Dodgers out after that memorable '66 season.

Whatever Jaster did to the Dodgers in '66 - maybe some savvy baseball analyst in the Baltimore Orioles front office figured it out - and passed that knowledge on to the young World Series-bound Orioles pitching staff - Palmer, Bunker and McNally - All they did was jam 33 consecutive scoreless innings down the LA throats in a four game World Series sweep.  Larry Jaster was no doubt smiling about that scoreless streak which was still a dozen innings shy of what he accomplished in those five starts against the National League champions that season - at the tender age of twenty-two.

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