June 15, 1965: Denny McLain sets Tigers record with 14 strikeouts in relief
On Tuesday, June 15, 1965, majestic Tiger Stadium held 9,624 spectators who witnessed one of the most historic pitching accomplishments in Detroit Tigers history. The pitching matchup pitted Dave Wickersham (1-4) of the Tigers against Earl Wilson (4-4) of the Boston Red Sox. Wickersham, a 19-game winner in 1964, took the hill to start the game, and was nearly shell-shocked by his first-inning knockout. “I never saw anything like it — they didn’t hit a single ball hard and I’m out of there in a couple of minutes,” he said after the game.1 Wickersham faced six batters, retired one, gave up four hits, and surrendered three runs before he was replaced by a young hurler, Denny McLain. The new hurler started his outing by striking out two Red Sox, Eddie Bressoud and Bob Tillman, to finish Wickersham’s horrendous first inning.
Wilson, on the other hand, had a very strong start, retiring the first six batters he faced. He surrendered only one hit in the first four innings. But in the fifth inning trouble arrived for Wilson; he walked the bases loaded. Wilson then got Bill Freehan to foul out to first base. Then he walked McLain; Willie Horton scored and Wilson’s outing came to an end. Arnold Earley replaced Wilson and got out of the tough situation giving up only one more run. Through five innings, the Tigers trailed the Red Sox, 3-2.
While McLain was on the mound, Tigers fans started to see the “K’s” fly. McLain struck out the first seven batters he faced. In the fourth inning he gave up his first hit. It took the Red Sox until the sixth inning to finally score a run against McLain, when Bressoud doubled to left field, driving in Tony Conigliaro, who had walked. Bressoud then scored on a single by Lenny Green. This gave the Red Sox their final runs of the game, and they led the Tigers 5-2.
McLain finished his night by giving up two hits in the seventh inning while striking out another two batters, bringing his total up to 14. “I had pretty good stuff,” McLain told the mob of reporters jammed around his locker after the game.2 Don Demeter hit for McLain in the bottom of the seventh inning.
The Red Sox’s Earley pitched relatively well until the bottom of the eighth inning, when the Tigers’ offense roared again. Dick McAuliffe, leading off, was hit by a pitch. Jerry Lumpe smacked a double to right field, advancing McAuliffe to third. Gates Brown singled to right field, scoring McAuliffe and advancing Lumpe to third. Red Sox manager Billy Herman replaced Earley with Dick Radatz, who got Al Kaline to pop up to second baseman Felix Mantilla. This brought Horton to the plate and he belted a three-run homer, his 14th of the year, into the left-field seats, to give Detroit a 6-5 lead. Radatz finished his night by striking out the last two batters of the inning.
Chuck Dressen, the Tigers skipper, had brought in Fred Gladding in the top of the eighth. He finished the game for the Tigers by retiring six straight batters in the final two innings, striking out four to bring the team’s final strikeout total to 18. Horton’s home run was the deciding blow.
It was a night to remember, and historians have remembered it. What McLain did was unmatched by some of the greatest pitchers to don the Tigers’ uniform. George Mullin? Harry Coveleski? Tommy Bridges? Schoolboy Rowe? Hal Newhouser? Frank Lary? Jim Bunning? None of them did what McLain did that night. The young right-hander put on one of the most dazzling displays of pitching ever seen in Detroit by striking out 14 batters in 6⅔ innings. His seven strikeouts in a row tied the American League record at the time.3 The consecutive strikeouts remained a Tigers record, and were matched by John Hiller on October 1, 1970, against Cleveland. Doug Fister broke the mark when he struck out nine Kansas City Royals in a row on September 27, 2012. The major-league record (as of 2014) belonged to Tom Seaver of the New York Mets, who fanned 10 straight San Diego Padres on April 22, 1970.
McLain’s 14th strikeout, in the seventh inning, matched the 14 K’s by Bunning against the New York Yankees on June 20, 1958. But they left him one short of the Tigers’ record at the time of 15, set by Paul Foytack against the Washington Senators on July 28, 1956. As of 2014 Anibal Sanchez held the one-game record for the Tigers with 17 strikeouts against the Atlanta Braves on April 26, 2013. (The major-league record of 20 is held by Roger Clemens of the Red Sox; Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks; and Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs. Clemens achieved the feat twice, against the Seattle Mariners on April 29, 1986, and on September 18, 1996, against the Tigers. Johnson fanned 20 Cincinnati Reds on May 8, 2001, and Wood did it against the Houston Astros on May 6, 1998.)
McLain’s Tigers record of 14 strikeouts for a reliever has not been matched through 2014. With changes in how bullpens are used, the club record may never be broken. The major-league record for K's in relief belongs to Johnson, who struck out 16 for the Arizona Diamondbacks on July 18, 2001, against the San Diego Padres, after he took over for the starter, Curt Schilling.
With Gladding’s four strikeouts included, the game total of 18 strikeouts is a Tigers record for a nine-inning game.
McLain’s first major-league season was in 1963, with the Tigers, at the age of 19. He finished his 1965 season with a respectable record of 16-6, 192 strikeouts in 220⅓ innings pitched, and a 2.61 ERA, the second lowest ERA of his 10-year career. His lowest ERA, 1.96, was in 1968, which was his best season in the major leagues; he finished with a record of 31-6. His WAR (wins above replacement value)in 1968 was an amazing 7.4, which means that McLain would have gotten the Tigers 7.4 more wins than a bench pitcher hurling in his place. Finally, he was also named the AL Cy Young Award winner and the AL MVP in 1968.
This article appeared in "Tigers By The Tale: Great Games at Michigan and Trumbull” (SABR, 2016), edited by Scott Ferkovich. To read more articles from this book, click here.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, Retrosheet.org and Baseball-Reference.com were also accessed.
1 Joe Falls, “McLain Murders Bosox — Whiffs 14,” Detroit Free Press, June 16, 1965.
3 Ibid .