Randy Lerch

This article was written by Alan Cohen

Randy Lerch (MILWAUKEE BREWERS)There is nothing quite like one’s first view of a big-league ballpark. From a distance you see the light standards rising high into the sky and as you get closer the rest of the building comes into focus. The car ride that Gordon Tillett took his grandson on in 1962 was to a relatively new ballpark. Candlestick Park had opened in 1960 and it was time for Gordon to take his 8-year-old Randy to his first big-league game.

“It was that day I made up my mind someday I would pitch in Candlestick Park. Making it to the majors became an obsession with me. It was my dream, the only thing I ever wanted to do.”1

Randy Lerch would, on April 30, 1977, return to Candlestick Park as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies. The rookie left-hander was making his fourth start of the season and going for his third straight win. Grandpa was there along with Randy’s parents and sister, not to mention more than 100 supporters.

By that time, Lerch was 6-feet-5 and 190 pounds and had a fastball that rivaled those of his more experienced teammates. The Phillies gave the youngster a 6-1 lead on that Saturday afternoon. But the Giants chipped away with a run in the seventh inning and two in the eighth before Ron Reed relieved Lerch and put out the fire. Randy Lerch had realized his childhood dream.

Randy Louis Lerch was born on October 9, 1954, in Sacramento, California. His parents were Robert and Barbara Lerch. Robert was born in 1934, Barbara was born on 1935. They had been married on January 16, 1953, Barbara’s 18th birthday. Randy was the oldest of four children. After Randy came Steve (1956), Sandy (1958), and Jeffrey (1961). Robert had pitched semipro ball in the Sacramento area and was the fire chief in Rancho Cordova, a Sacramento suburb.

Randy’s teammates at Cordova High School in Rancho Cordova included two players who were drafted in the first round in 1972, Jerry Manuel and Mike Ondina. Manuel reached the major leagues and managed the White Sox and Mets; Ondina got as far as Triple A in the White Sox organization. As a high-school junior in 1972, Lerch went 13-0 but he was overused by his coach and his senior year was not as good, resulting in his not being chosen as high as initially expected in the June 1973 amateur draft. He was picked in the eighth round by the Philadelphia Phillies.

Lerch made a steady climb up the Phillies organization, beginning in 1973 with the Auburn Phillies in the short-season Class A New York Penn League, where he went 9-2 with a 2.91 ERA. He led the team in wins and pitched two shutouts.

He married Janet Margaret Brown on December 15, 1973. They had two children, Kristy (born 1977) and Randy Jr. (1978). They were subsequently divorced.

In 1974 Lerch played with the Rocky Mount Phillies in the Class A Carolina League. Suffering from elbow problems, he was limited to 21 starts, posting a 7-6 record with a 3.60 ERA. It was then on to the Reading Phillies in the Double-A Eastern League where he played for manager Bob Wellman and was helped greatly by the presence of coach Tony Gonzalez and roommate Dane Iorg.2 The 20-year-old youngster led the league with 16 wins (against 6 losses) and had a 2.69 ERA. He had an opportunity to impress the Phillies in an exhibition game on July 10. That day, he pitched for the Phillies, allowing four hits in six innings as Philadelphia defeated its Toledo Triple-A farm club, 3-0.3  His control improved from the year before with 45 walks in 177 innings.

He was called up to Philadelphia in September and made three relief appearances. In this first brief tour with the Phillies, Lerch had yet to grow to his full height and weight. He was 6-feet-3 and weighed 175 pounds. Teammate Larry Bowa said he was “thin as a blade but sharp as a razor.” Thenceforth, Lerch was called Blade by his teammates.4 In his debut he pitched the ninth inning of a game in which the Phillies were leading the Cubs by 11 runs. Lerch allowed five runs on four hits and a walk but finished the game. He was more effective in his next two games, pitching three scoreless innings each time.

Lerch’s hopes of making the jump to the big leagues after his big year at Reading were stymied when the Phillies obtained left-hander Jim Kaat (one of Lerch’s heroes) after the season. Lerch pitched with the Oklahoma City 89ers in the Triple-A American Association in 1976. He got off to a good start when he defeated Evansville, 5-1, on May 1 and pitched a 5-0 shutout against Indianapolis on May 6. This prompted coach Ruben Amaro to say, “He’s probably the closest we have to a big-league pitcher.”5 Working under manager Jim Bunning, Lerch was 13-11 with a 3.35 ERA in 29 starts. He struck out 152 batters in 207 innings. He pitched one game for the Phillies in September, getting a save with a three-inning outing in a 9-1 win against the St. Louis Cardinals.

But making his way to the majors for a longer stint would prove difficult, especially as the Phillies had nine veterans on the staff. Steve Carlton, Jim Lonborg, Larry Christenson, Tommy Underwood, Jim Kaat, and Wayne Twitchell were accomplished starters and the bullpen was secure with Ron Reed, Tug McGraw, and Gene Garber. But Lerch felt, “I can count. I know what’s going on. I also know that all I need is a chance to get my foot in the door. I’ll take it from there. I’ll run somebody out of a job.”6 True to his word, in 1977 spring training he won the number-four spot in the rotation.

Lerch lost his first start, at home, to the Cubs on April 13. In his next start, five days later at Wrigley Field, he got his first big-league win with one of the best performances of his career. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in a 3-1 victory.

Lerch was 5-2 with a 3.02 ERA through May 16. Then he went into a slump that extended through August and saw his ERA increase to 5.58. In September, he pitched well enough to win three of five decisions, but he did not start after a disappointing two-inning stint against the Cubs on September 21. He finished the season with a 10-6 record and a 5.07 ERA. He didn’t appear in the postseason as the Phillies went with Carlton, Lonborg, and Christenson and were defeated in four games by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the best-of-five National League Championship Series.

The disappointing finish to Lerch’s 1977 season led to a determination to show improvement in 1978. During the offseason, he returned to Philadelphia to train with strength and flexibility expert Gus Hoefling, with whom teammate Steve Carlton had found success. 

The 1978 season was an improvement and ranked among the best of Lerch’s career. He won a career-high 11 games, lost 8 and had a 3.96 ERA. He was especially good in the second half of the season, going 7-2 in his last 15 starts with an ERA of 3.19. (The team was 11-5 in games he pitched during the second half, including a one-inning relief appearance.) He also got to show off his skills as a batter. On April 24 against the Cubs, in a 12-2 win, his third-inning two-run homer against Woodie Fryman gave the Phillies a 2-1 lead, and his RBI double two innings later made the score 3-1. The Phillies broke the game open with a nine-run sixth inning, and the crowed gave Lerch a standing ovation when he came to bat in the seventh inning.7

“I made up my mind I wasn’t going to give in to these guys.” – Randy Lerch, August 1978.8

The Phillies were contending for the NL East championship. They led the division by 5½ games on August 12, but then lost five straight and nine of their next 12 games. Philadelphia still led the division when Lerch took the mound on August 26, but they had lost the first two games of their series at Los Angeles and needed him to stop the bleeding. With the Phillies leading 3-1, the Dodgers put runners on second and third with one out in the seventh and sent up pinch-hitter Reggie Smith, one of the more dangerous bats in their lineup. Lerch struck out Smith and went on to record the last seven outs for the victory.

“I kept myself busy thinking about everything except baseball until I got to the park that night. But doing a job made me feel pretty good.” – Randy Lerch, September 1978.9

The Phillies won five in a row, but had trouble closing the deal as the Pirates were able to pull within one game of the division lead on September 19. Lerch took the mound at Montreal on September 20 in a must-win situation and allowed two runs in eight innings as the Phils won 4-2.

“The game was nerve-wracking,” Lerch recalled a couple of years later. “It was amazing just because we went into Pittsburgh for a makeup doubleheader and we lost both games, giving us a 1½-game lead over the Pirates with two left to play in the season. We had to win one game to clinch and I was scheduled to start that September 30 game.

The race for the division championship went down to the last weekend of the season, and the Phillies traveled to Pittsburgh for four games with the second-place Bucs. Pittsburgh swept a doubleheader on September 29 to pull within 1½ games of Philadelphia and extend their home winning streak against the Phillies to 24 games. Lerch was given the ball on September 30 and yielded a first-inning grand slam to Willie Stargell that gave Pittsburgh a 4-1 lead. The Phillies mounted a comeback and Lerch’s second-inning homer off Don Robinson made the score 4-2. Next time up, in the fourth inning, he homered again off Robinson to make the score 4-3. He left the game for a pinch-hitter in the top of the sixth inning, and the Phillies took the lead. They held on to win 10-8, giving Lerch his 11th win of the season and the Phillies the division championship.

“I remember this, I knew Willie and it was one of those days in batting practice when I was really hitting a lot of balls out of the park and Willie told me later on that he told Robinson to be careful pitching to me because I was swinging the bat good in BP. Robinson responded by saying, ‘Forget it, he can’t hit.’ And Willie told me that after the first home run he went to the mound to talk to Robinson and said, ‘You know what, I told you, this guy can hit so be careful.’ Then after the second home run, Willie went up to Don again and Robinson said, “That —– can hit.”10

Once again the Phillies faced the Dodgers in the NLCS. Los Angeles took a 2-games-to-1 lead and Lerch was given the ball in the fourth game of the series. He left the game with one out in the sixth inning and the Dodgers leading 3-2. The Phillies came back to tie the game and take Lerch off the hook, but the Dodgers won the game with a run in the 10th inning and moved on to the World Series.

Lerch pitched the second highest innings total on the Phillies’ staff in 1979 as he finished under .500 (10-13) for the first time in his career, though his ERA was lower than it had been the season before.

“Our pitching so far has kept us up there, and when we start hitting — which we will — we’ll be awesome.” — Randy Lerch May 4, 1979.11

On May 17 the bats came alive. Lerch was the starting pitcher at Chicago when the Phillies used three-run homers by Mike Schmidt and Bob Boone and a solo shot by Lerch (his fourth and final major-league homer) to take a 7-0 first-inning lead against the Cubs. On his way to his position at shortstop, Larry Bowa shouted to Lerch, “Is that enough runs for you?” Turns out it wasn’t. Each of the first four Cubs batters scored, the last three coming on a three-run homer off the bat of Dave Kingman. Lerch then got one out, but after a double by Jerry Martin, he was yanked by manager Danny Ozark. The game became a sluggers’ duel, and after nine innings, the score was 22-22. The Phillies pushed across a run in the 10th inning to win. By that point, Lerch was at the airport, as the team was flying to Montreal to begin a series the next day.

The team went through injuries to key players, including the double-play combination of Bowa and Manny Trillo, and Lerch wasn’t immune to the injury epidemic that, in early July, shelved three of the team’s starting pitchers. He and his wife went out to dinner with another couple after the game on July 3 and had encountered a group of delinquents when they left the restaurant at 12:45 A.M. They attacked Lerch, who wound up with a broken bone in his right wrist and was out of the lineup until July 11.12 At the time of the injury, he was 4-7 with a 3.61 ERA and had pitched in some bad luck. In five of his seven losses, the Phillies had scored two runs or fewer. The team finished in fourth place.

The 1980 season didn’t start well for Lerch. He lost his first six decisions. Still, he showed spurts of brilliance. He lost a 1-0 decision to Montreal on June 26 and followed that up on July 1, again against the Expos, when he pitched the first 10 innings and received credit for the win when Philadelphia won in the 11th. The win was Lerch’s third of the season. The Phillies removed him from the rotation at the end of July.

He had two starts in August, but they were necessitated by the team’s scheduling of doubleheaders to make up for rainouts. His last win of the season, also his last start, came on August 17 in the second game of a doubleheader against the Mets at Shea Stadium. He pitched into the seventh inning, allowing one run and four hits, as Philadelphia won 4-1 and moved its record to 62-53. They were in third place, 3½ games behind the division-leading Pirates, and primed for a stretch run. Lerch was not a meaningful factor in the season’s last weeks. The Phillies were 29-18 in their last 47 games and won the division title by one game over Montreal. Lerch’s record for the year was an unimpressive 4-14, with an ERA of 5.16.

“They want me to go along (with the team to Houston). They want me to sit on the bench the way a disabled person would. I’ve got more pride than that. I don’t want to go anywhere I’m not wanted. All we’ve gone through in the last few years, it would be nice to be part of the Phillies winning the championship.” — Randy Lerch, October 7, 1980.13

Lerch was not on the postseason roster. He was replaced by Kevin Saucier, a middle reliever who had gone 7-3 with an ERA of 3.42. The Phillies went on to win the World Series for the first time since they entered the National League in 1883.

Drug scandals were ongoing during the time Lerch was in the majors and his name and those of several other Phillies players were mentioned during an investigation of doctors who were accused of illegally dispensing amphetamines to the players.14 In February 1981 Lerch, under subpoena, testified that he had twice obtained the antidepressant drug Preludin.15 He was the only player to testify.

Charges against the accused doctors were dismissed and Lerch knew that his time with the Phillies was over. In early March of 1981, he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for outfielder Dick Davis. At the time of the trade, Lerch’s career batting average was .207 with four homers and 22 RBIs. Lerch had batted .267 in 1980. He would not bat during his time with the Brewers.  

With the Brewers in 1981, Lerch went 7-9 with a 4.31 ERA in 23 appearances, of which 18 were starts. He was uneven in the early part of the season with a periodic good start. His first win came in relief on April 20 when he entered the game against Toronto in the 11th inning with the score tied 4-4. After the Brewers scored the lead run in the top of the 12th, he struck out the side for the win, and was given a spot in the starting rotation. On April 26 he pitched eight innings as the Brewers shellacked Kansas City, 11-1, and a month later he had his first complete game of the season, defeating Detroit 5-1. On June 1 he went 10 innings, allowing three runs, in a game the Brewers would lose in 12 innings. The players strike shut down the season from June 12 through August 9. Lerch’s first post-strike win came on August 16 when he pitched into the eighth inning in a 2-0 shutout at Toronto.

As Milwaukee contended for the second-half championship in the AL East, Lerch won back-to-back starts on September 12 and 16, which brought his record for the season to 6-8. On September 30 Lerch entered the game in the fourth inning with the score tied 3-3. The Brewers took the lead in the fourth inning and broke the game open with four runs in the fifth inning. They ended the night in a virtual tie with the Tigers and traveled to Detroit, where they won two of three games to win the AL East second-half title.

Lerch started Game Three of the best-of-five American League Divisional Series at Yankee Stadium with the Yankees leading the series 2 games to none. Fighting off a pregame illness, he allowed only three hits in six innings, coming out of the game in the seventh inning with the Brewers leading 3-1. He was not involved in the decision as the Brewers relinquished the lead before coming back to win 5-3. The series went the full five games with the Yankees winning and advancing to the American League Championship Series.

In 1982 the Brewers found it tough in the early part of the season and finished May in sixth place. Lerch was 3-4 and 5.24 at that point. Harvey Kuenn replaced Buck Rodgers as manager and the Brewers began to jell. By July, the Brewers were in first place and Lerch, winning each of his four decisions from June 13 through July 18, was contributing. On July 10 he shut out Kansas City 7-0, and the Brewers were within a game of the division-leading Red Sox. After the Brewers went into first place, Lerch’s 9-3 win at Chicago on July 18 extended the team’s division lead to 1½ games. But then Lerch had three ineffective outings.

Lerch came back on August 12 with a win at Toronto, but he would not be with the Brewers for the stretch run. He was sold to the Montreal Expos on August 14. Although he went 2-0 with a 3.42 ERA in six appearances (four starts) with the Expos, Lerch was unhappy with the deal that sent him from a possible postseason appearance to a team that, despite some great talent and three future Hall of Famers, was destined to finish in third place.

Lerch’s role with the Expos in 1983 was as a middle-inning reliever. In his scant opportunities as a starter, he had only one success, a 5-2 win at New York on June 11, in which he pitched the first six innings. In 19 appearances (five starts), he was 1-3 with a 6.75 ERA when he was released on July 28. He signed with the Giants on August 9 and was sent to their Triple-A affiliate in Phoenix. He returned to the big leagues in September and made seven relief appearances, registering a 3.38 ERA in 10⅔ innings and winning his only decision in his final appearance of the season, on September 29.

Lerch played the entire 1984 season with the Giants, his last full season in the majors. He missed most of July due to injury but was valuable as the lefty long man in the bullpen. His record was 5-3 with two saves. He appeared in 37 games, pitched 72⅓ innings, and had a 4.23 ERA.

Lerch became a free agent after the season but there was little interest in his services. He signed with the Phillies on May 21, 1985, and was assigned to Portland in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. In 20 appearances, 17 of which were starts, he was 6-6 with a 2.75 ERA, best among starters on the Portland staff. Back with Portland in 1986, he was 6-5 with a 3.01 ERA when he was called up by the Phillies in June. The team’s roster was in a state of turbulence and Lerch was the 33rd man to play for the Phillies thus far in the season. He was largely ineffective in four June relief appearances, getting his last major-league win with a scoreless one-third-inning relief stint against Montreal on June 14. He was 1-1 with a 7.88 ERA when he was released on June 26. He finished his season and his career with the Louisville Redbirds in the Triple-A American Association, going 4-2 in eight starts with a 3.89 ERA.

Lerch’s major-league career won-lost record was 60-64 with a 4.53 ERA in 253 games.

Immediately after retiring, he was in the restaurant business in California, but grew restless.

In 1989 Lerch played for the St. Petersburg Pelicans of the Senior Professional Baseball Association. The following spring he was in the spring-training camp of the Baltimore Orioles, but knew his playing days were over.

Lerch relocated to New Jersey, worked in construction with the Kline Construction Company, opened a pitching school in Absecon, and played with the Pleasantville team in the Atlantic County (New Jersey) League in 1991.

On August 17, 2000, Lerch was inducted into the Reading Baseball Hall of Fame in consideration of his spectacular season there in 1975.

Lerch relocated to California in 1994 and headed a construction company. He retired from the construction industry in 2014. He remarried in 2008, and he and his wife, Maria, as of 2018 lived about an hour west of Lake Tahoe and visit frequently with Randy’s four grandchildren. His children from his first marriage, Kristy and Randy Jr., lived close by. Kristy has two sons and Randy Jr. has a boy and a girl. In 2015 Lerch was inducted into the Rancho Cordova Sports Hall of Fame.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author used Baseball-Reference.com, the Randy Lerch file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Library, and the following:

Author interview with Randy Lerch, June 6, 2018.

Conlin, Bill. “Starting Over — Lerch Counting on Maturity to Help Him Stay with Phils,” Philadelphia Daily News, February 28, 1986.

Hilt, Ed. “Playoff Exclusion Hurt Lerch — Phils’ Left Hander Dropped from Roster for 1980 Postseason,” Atlantic City (New Jersey) Press, July 17, 1990: D1.

 

Notes

1 Ray Kelly, “Family, Friends Cheer Phils’ Lerch to Victory,” The Sporting News, May 21, 1977: 13.

2 Mike Drago, “Lerch: Reading Was So Natural,” Reading Eagle, August 6, 2000: D4.

3 “Reading Loses Lerch,” The Sporting News, August 2, 1975: 39.

4 Guy Gargan, “Remember the Phillies’ Randy Lerch? He’s Playing for Pleasantville Now,” Atlantic City (New Jersey) Press, June 30, 1991: B1.

5 “A.A. Day by Day,” The Sporting News, May 22, 1976: 39.

6 Ray Kelly, “All Arm-Strong Lerch Asks Is Foot in Door,” The Sporting News, April 2, 1977: 15, 26.

7 Kelly, “Lerch Swings Bat in Phillies’ Style,” The Sporting News, May 13, 1978: 9.

8 Kelly, “Kid Lerch Old Smoothie in Phils’ Crisis,” The Sporting News, September 16, 1978: 15.

9 Kelly, “Clutch Hurler Lerch Takes Heat Off Phils,” The Sporting News, October 7, 1978: 31.

10 Bob Kuenster, “Pitchers Recall Two-HR Games,” Baseball Digest, May-June 2010: 26-31.

11 Associated Press, “Lerch Stops Dodgers on Six Hits,” Gettysburg (Pennsylvania) Times, May 5, 1979: 9.

12 Associated Press, “Three Starting Pitchers Lost to Phillies,” July 5, 1979 (From Randy Lerch File at National Baseball Hall of Fame).

13 Frank Dolson, “Phillies Shaft Two Pitchers,” Boca Raton (Florida) News, October 8, 1980: 2C.

14 United Press International, “Phils Farm’s Doctor Accused,” New York Times, November 22, 1980: 18.

15 Thom Greer, “Will Champion Phillies Be Big Enough to Apologize to Trenton Sportswriter?” Philadelphia Daily News, February 7, 1981:

Full Name

Randy Louis Lerch

Born

October 9, 1954 at Sacramento, CA (USA)

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