Anyone desiring a career as a mound mainstay should apply to the Baltimore Orioles. Not that the Orioles need any more mound mainstays just now—they have three 20-game winners in Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally and Jim Palmer—but the Orioles are to a mound mainstay what a houseful of ravishingly beautiful hens is to a mainstay rooster. They make the job so much easier.
Consider the aid and comfort given Cuellar when he started the first game of the American League championship playoff series against the Minnesota Twins on Saturday. Cuellar does not like to pitch in the sort of chill that pervaded the Twins' Metropolitan Stadium, which may explain why his screwball was not working, why his fastball lacked its usual quickness and why he was reached for six runs in 4⅓ innings. But was he brought low and tagged with a damaging loss? Not at all. The accommodating Baltimore hitters scored 10 runs off Minnesota's mainstay, 24-game winner Jim Perry, and his relief. They even loaded the bases so that Cuellar personally could hit a grand-slam home run of sorts just fair over the right-field fence. And they won 10-6.
On the next two days McNally and Palmer took their turns with a tenacious six-hitter and a snazzy 12-strike-out job, respectively, and the Oriole hitters—including McNally and Palmer—did their part to produce 11-3 and 6-1 victories. Altogether it was the kind of seldom sensational but predictably sufficient pitching that the Orioles' Big Three have been turning in this year, causing word to get out that the team has not only three mainstays, but also three stoppers.
A stopper is even better than a mainstay. He is a pitcher whose consistent presence in the win column, by whatever score, keeps a team from settling into a losing streak. On Saturday and Sunday Minnesota was treated to excellent examples of how these stoppers function. After the first inning of the first game the Orioles were never behind. When Cuellar faltered he had a six-run lead. When McNally gave the Twins their first two hits—both home runs—he had a four-run lead. Those hits made it 4-3, but McNally never let the Twins score again. As they have been all season, Baltimore's stoppers were exactly as good as they had to be.
The Orioles do lose games, and so does one of the Big Three now and then. But all year they never lost more than two straight in which a member of the Big Three was the starter. Baltimore's longest losing streak was three. The team had only two such streaks, and McNally stopped them both.
Palmer, who only once lost as many as two straight decisions himself, snapped four Oriole losing streaks at two, and Cuellar cut two. During August the Orioles stopped the other teams for good. They had only one losing streak longer than a single game and the Big Three went 19-2.
Between them, Cuellar (24-8), McNally (24-9) and Palmer (20-10) won 68 games—the most by three pitchers on the same club since Hal Newhouser, Dizzy Trout and Ruffus Gentry of the wartime 1944 Detroit Tigers and more than any of the fabled Cleveland Big Threes (various combinations of Bob Lemon, Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia and Herb Score) of the '50s. Never once did McNally, Cuellar or Palmer miss a starting turn and together they pitched 54 complete games, 16 more than any other whole pitching staff in the league. Remarkably, Palmer was the only one of the three who finished the regular season with an earned run average under 3.00, and Cuellar was way up there at 3.48. However, as Eddie Brinkman of the Senators puts it, "These guys give up two to four runs a game but when you play them you know you're not going to bust it open."
What makes a stopper—a consistent low-run complete-game pitcher? "One thing," says Dave Leonhard, a well-spoken Johns Hopkins graduate and a well-hit member of this year's less-than-over-powering Baltimore relief corps, "is having horse manure in your bullpen." There were many times when Manager Earl Weaver would have pulled his starter short of a complete game, except that there was no one he could bring in who would make him feel as easy as even a tiring member of the Big Three.
Tom Phoebus, a long reliever and spot starter for the Orioles this year, offers a more classical assessment of what makes the McCuelmer triad so solid: "They are mature pitchers...know their own capabilities...are firm-willed...have that confidence...have that, uh, consistency."
A few minutes later Phoebus returns with an afterthought: "One more thing I forgot. Burning desire."