Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Recalling Ken Holtzman

     Last Saturday afternoon, Carlos Silva lost to Mark Buehrle and the White Sox; he thus failed to become the first Cub to start a season 9-0 since Ken Holtzman in 1967. On Sunday night, Ted Lilly pitched eight hitless innings but yielded a leadoff single in the ninth; he thus failed to become the first Cub lefthander to toss a no-hitter since Holtzman in 1971.
     So it seems to be a good time to recall Holtzman, a mainstay of the Cub teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
     Holtzman pitched four innings for the Cubs in 1965, at the age of 19. The following year, he went 11-16, just about par for the course considering that the Cubs lost 103 games. By making 33 starts and logging 220 innings, Holtzman demonstrated the durability that was a consistent feature of his career from that point forward. On September 25, he outdueled Sandy Koufax 2-1 at Wrigley Field in one of the last outings of the Dodger great's career.
     Holtzman was sometimes wishfully referred to as "the next Koufax," but there were few similarities except that both happened to be Jewish and lefthanded. Koufax was a flamethrower whose motion was pure power; he drove off the rubber with his left knee scraping the ground. Holtzman's specialty was a looping roundhouse curveball, and he had a somewhat funky delivery that often ended with him spinning off the rubber toward third base.
     In 1967, Holtzman's duties in the National Guard made him unavailable for most of the time. He was superb in his 12 starts, going 9-0 with a 2.53 earned run average. From then on, he was never quite as good as people--particularly manager Leo Durocher--thought he should be. "Leo didn’t think Holtzman had enough aggressiveness to be a winner in the major leagues," said Cubs third baseman Ron Santo. At his best, Holtzman was brilliant. But his record was only 54-53 from 1968 through 1971.
     After the Cubs dispatched him to Oakland for outfielder Rick Monday, Holtzman immediately became the pitcher everyone had expected him to be all along. He won 19, 21, and 19 games in 1972, 1973, and 1974 as the A's became the only club other than the Yankees to win three consecutive world championships. He also went 4-1 in World Series games, winning Games 1 and 7 in 1973.
     Holtzman rejoined the Cubs in 1978 and retired at the end of the following season. For Cub fans, the first of his two no-hitters for the North Siders still resonates. Holtzman's 3-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves on August 19, 1969, put the Cubs 32 games over .500 and eight games ahead of the second-place New York Mets. Holtzman's gem was another in a series of highlights in what had been a storybook year for the Cubs. A quarter of the season remained.

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