It didn’t take long for St. Louis Cardinals fans to appreciate Bruce Sutter.
In the Cardinals’ second game of the 1981 season, the right-handed relief ace pitched three nearly flawless innings to earn the save in a 7-3 victory over the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies on April 12 at Busch Stadium.
Sutter, the 1979 National League Cy Young Award winner and Fireman of the Year, had been acquired by St. Louis on December 9, 1980, from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Leon Durham, Ken Reitz, and Ty Waller. The Cardinals were in foremost need of a bona fide closer after eight pitchers combined for a league-low 27 saves in the 1980 season, while the bullpen registered a lofty 3.93 ERA and 1.47 WHIP. Sutter, meanwhile, topped the NL in saves in both 1979 (37, then a league record) and 1980 (28).
After Philadelphia beat St. Louis in the season opener, 5-2, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog did not hesitate to call on Sutter to preserve a 5-3 lead in the seventh inning after starting and winning pitcher Lary Sorensen allowed a leadoff single to Gary Matthews. “I knew we needed a win, now,” Herzog said.1
The Cardinals added an insurance run in their half of the seventh off Sparky Lyle on an RBI single by Keith Hernandez that scored Garry Templeton. After Sutter walked Greg Gross leading off the eighth, he set down Pete Rose on a fly to left, got Manny Trillo to ground into a force out at second base, and struck out Bake McBride.
Tony Scott socked a home run leading off the bottom of the eighth against Mike Proly – his first homer since August 24, 1979 – and Sutter wrapped up the 1-hour, 59-minute affair with a perfect ninth: groundouts by Mike Schmidt and Matthews and a strikeout of Maddox.
Sutter’s line: three innings, no hits, one walk, and four strikeouts. Eight of the nine outs he recorded came via his signature pitch, the split-fingered fastball, and he threw merely 34 pitches in all.2
The Sunday afternoon Jacket Day gathering of 21,462 made Sutter feel at home with chants of “Bruuuuuce!” “The crowd noise was a tingling feeling,” Sutter said.4
The Cardinals held a 1-0 lead through four innings, scoring in the first when Templeton tripled to center leading off against losing pitcher Larry Christenson and scored on a wild pitch with Ken Oberkfell at bat.
Sorensen, also making his Cardinals debut after coming over in an offseason trade with the Milwaukee Brewers, retired the first 10 Phillies he faced. In the fourth, though, they touched him for four consecutive hits, which led to three runs and a 3-1 advantage.
St. Louis retook the lead with a three-run uprising in the fifth. Sixto Lezcano singled leading off and after a balk and a fly out moved him to third, he scored on a sacrifice fly by Tommy Herr. Sorensen, in just his second career at-bat after spending the first four seasons of his career in the American League, singled and scored the tying run on Templeton’s second triple of the game. Templeton put the Cardinals up 4-3 when he crossed the plate as Oberkfell reached on an error by Rose at first base.
Back-to-back doubles by Lezcano and Porter leading off the sixth made it 5-3, knocked out Christenson, and set the stage for Sutter’s successful, albeit extended, St. Louis debut.
“It was a little earlier than I like to come out,” said Sorensen, who averaged 12.5 complete games per season with the Brewers. “But I knew [Sutter] was rested, and Whitey needed to get him in there. He had to show him off. If you’ve got the best, use him.
“I threw only 68 pitches. I felt guilty picking up my paycheck.”5
The Cardinals outhit the Phillies, 13-5, buoyed by three hits from Templeton, who scored three times. Four St. Louis batters each collected two hits: Hernandez, Lezcano, Porter, and Scott.
“We can stay in contention if we stay away from injuries,” Sutter said. “We’ve got eight guys who can all play. They can run. They can play defense. And they can hit. Once we get our confidence rolling, we’re going to be tough to beat.”6
The Cardinals compiled the best overall record in the NL at 59-43, but they finished in second place in the East Division in both halves of the split season that was the result of a 50-day players strike from June 12 through July 31. The second-place finishes kept them out of the postseason. In both halves, St. Louis played fewer games than the first-place teams (Philadelphia in the first half; Montreal in the second half) and could have caught or surpassed the winners with the opportunity to play the same number of games.
Philadelphia lost to Montreal in the best-of-five NL Division Series, three games to two.
After arriving in St. Louis, the 28-year-old Sutter signed a four-year guaranteed contract worth an estimated $3.5 million, becoming the game’s highest-paid reliever. “Bruce Sutter is the best relief pitcher in the history of baseball, according to Whitey Herzog,” Cardinals President August A. Busch Jr. said.7
Sutter went on to save 25 games –again leading the NL – in the strike-shortened 1981 season. It marked the most by a St. Louis pitcher since the save became an officially recognized statistic in 1969. Only one other rescue was a three-inning effort (May 1 vs. Cincinnati), although Sutter did pitch three innings a total of seven times among his 48 outings. He posted a 3-5 record with a 2.62 ERA and snappy 1.07 WHIP. The future Hall of Famer was selected to his fifth consecutive All-Star Game, and he won his second Fireman of the Year Award.
Sutter pitched for the Cardinals through 1984, setting a franchise record with 127 career saves – a total that in 2020 ranked fourth. He spent the balance of his career with the Atlanta Braves (1985-1988), retiring with 300 saves.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author used the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for box-score, player, team and season information, as well as pitching game logs and other pertinent material.
1 Neal Russo, “Sutter Relieves Cards’ Worries,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 13, 1981: 1D.
2 Russo: 1D.
3 Russo: 4D.
4 Russo: 4D.
5 Rick Hummel, “Sorensen Makes Smooth Redbird Liftoff,” The Sporting News, May 2, 1981: 12.
6 Russo: 4D.
7 Rick Hummel, “Sutter Near $1 Million a Year,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 27, 1981: 1D.