The 1972 season was marred by a season-opening strike. When agreement was reached, it was decided to play out the schedule as it had been, even if that meant some teams would play a game or two more than others. That resulted in the Detroit Tigers playing one more game than the Boston Red Sox.
For Detroit the most important game of the season took place on October 2, 1972, at Tiger Stadium. The Red Sox came to town for the final series of the season holding a half-game lead over the Tigers. Detroit had just swept a three-game home series from the Milwaukee Brewers to set up the crucial series. Tigers manager Billy Martin sent left-hander Mickey Lolich (21-14) to the mound to face John Curtis (11-7), Red Sox manager Eddie Kasko’s choice to attempt to tame the Tigers. This was not a must-win game for Detroit, but it was as close to it as could be. If the Tigers lost to the Red Sox on that October night, they would be 1½ games behind with two games to play and no margin for error.
Lolich was coming off a 12-inning, complete-game 3-2 loss to the New York Yankees four nights earlier. The start against the Red Sox would be his last of the regular season. He had already pitched more than 300 innings during the strike-shortened season and the question was whether he had anything left in the tank. He did.
In the top of the first he struck out two Red Sox and the Tigers were looking forward to getting their licks in on John Curtis. With one out, Al Kaline hit a “drive into the lower deck in left” off Curtis for his 10th home run of the year, giving Lolich a 1-0 lead.1
In the second inning Lolich forced Carlton Fisk to ground out to shortstop and then struck out Dwight Evans and Doug Griffin, giving him four strikeouts after two innings. The Tigers threatened in the bottom of the inning when center fielder Mickey Stanley reached second on a single and a wild pitch. But Eddie Brinkman grounded out to Luis Aparicio at shortstop to end the frame.
The top of the third started with Curtis striking out, but then the Red Sox bats seemed to come to life against the lefty Lolich. Singles by Tommy Harper and Aparicio put runners at the corners. Carl Yastrzemski doubled to center field, scoring Harper. Now things got interesting. Aparicio seemed a sure bet to score the go-ahead run, but as he rounded third, he slipped and fell. Picking himself up, he retreated to third base. Meanwhile, Yastrzemski had been hustling around the bases and was standing at third base when Luis returned to the bag. “Then, Yastrzemski half-heartedly started back toward second, but before he retreated more than a few feet, Rodriguez tagged him out,”2the play going from the center fielder to the shortstop to the catcher to third baseman Rodriguez. Reggie Smith was called out on strikes (Lolich’s sixth strikeout of the game) and Aparicio was stranded at third. The Red Sox had lost their best chance to break the game open and the score was tied, 1-1, after 2½ innings. Aparacio was not certain what happened and said after the game, “I dunno why, but I hit the bag wrong at third and I kinda slipped, but I didn’t fall down. Then I hit grass and I fell.”3
Neither team could generate any offense for the next few innings. Lolich continued to strike out the Red Sox: Fisk, Griffin, Curtis, and Yastrzemski struck out in the fourth and fifth. Lolich was in double digits in strikeouts with 10 after five innings.
The fifth and sixth innings were critical for both teams. Leading off the fifth, Tigers third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez “cracked the 1-1 tie with a shot over the 365-foot sign,” giving Detroit a 2-1 lead.4 After Stanley struck out, Eddie Brinkman singled to left field, but was forced out at second on Lolich’s bunt attempt. The inning ended when Tony Taylor grounded out third to first, but the Tigers had the lead. The question in everyone’s mind was, “Could Lolich hold on?”
As Lolich took the mound in the sixth, he knew he had the lead and all he had to do was keep getting the Red Sox batters to make outs. The inning went smoothly with a Petrocelli strikeout, a Fisk fly out to right, and Doug Griffin striking out. Lolich now had 12 strikeouts. In the bottom of the sixth, the Tigers drove Curtis from the mound after Kaline scored the Tigers’ third run on a single to center by Rodriguez. The insurance run gave the Tigers a 3-1 lead with Lolich in control.
Lolich continued his mastery of the Red Sox in the seventh by striking out Harper, getting Aparicio to pop up to first, and striking out Yastrzemski. Tigers fans were beginning to believe — and Lolich did not disappoint them in the eighth inning, although he did not record a strikeout. Reggie Smith led off with a walk and Petrocelliflied out to right field. With Smith at first base, Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk ground into an around-the-horn double play, quelling the rally.
The Tigers struck again in the bottom of the eighth inning. Kaline singled to left field. Catcher Duke Sims laid down a sacrifice bunt that was misplayed by catcher Fisk, allowing Kaline to move to third base. With Sims at first and Kaline at third, Red Sox manager Kasko brought in lefty Bob Veale to face Norm Cash. Cash struck out, but Jim Northrup reached on a fielder’s choice with Kaline thrown out at home plate. Sims moved to second on the play. Kasko went to the bullpen again, bringing in Bob Bolin to face the hot Rodriguez. The Tigers third baseman made Kasko pay for the decision as he singled to left, bringing in Duke Sims for the Tigers’ fourth run. Northrup moved to second, but the rally ended when Mickey Stanley forced Rodriguez at second base.
The Tigers now held a 4-1 lead with Lolich coming back out to the mound for the top of the ninth. He got into a bit of a jam by walking the leadoff hitter, Evans, who moved to second when Griffin grounded out. Because there was no designated hitter in the American League yet, the Red Sox pinch-hit Andy Kosco for Bolin.Lolich hitKosco, putting two Red Sox on base. Lolich dug deep to get his 15th strikeout in Harper and then ended the game when Aparicio flied out to Northrup in left field. Lolich’s15 strikeoutswere one less than the team record of 16, which he’d accomplished twice in 1969.
Tigers manager Billy Martin praised Rodriguez after the game, saying, “After watching Rodriguez for two years in Detroit, I put him right there with [Brooks] Robinson. They are the two best third basemen I’ve ever seen.”5
The 51,518 in attendance at Tiger Stadium, the second-largest crowd of the season, went home happy, but still had to hold their breath for at least one more game. They now led the Red Sox by a half-game with two games to play. Detroit would need to win at least one of those games to win the division.
Mickey Lolich proved again, as he had in 1968 and 1971, that he was the Tigers’ ace. When the team needed someone to step up, he did. Lolich said after the game, “This is probably the best I’ve pitched this year. I had some pretty good stuff.”6
With Detroit winning the American League East by one-half game we will never know if those “missing games” played a factor in the Tigers’ championship.
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.
The Sporting News
1Joe Falls, “Tigers Win…Can Sew It Up Tonight,” Detroit Free Press, October 3, 1972.
2Murray Chass, “Tigers Win, 4-1; Take East Lead,” New York Times, October 3, 1972.
3Charlie Vincent, “‘I Hit Grass and I Fell,’ Looie Moans,” Detroit Free Press, October 3, 1972.
4Falls, “Tigers Win,” Detroit Free Press, October 3, 1972.
5Watson Spoelstra, “Answers to Tiger questions: Aurelio is praised,” Detroit Free Press, October 3, 1972.
6Curt Sylvester, “‘Best I’ve Pitched This Year’– Lolich,” Detroit Free Press, October 3, 1972.