"What happens in cases like this, when teams seem to come from nowhere, is that a majority of the players are having their best years," explains White Sox Pitcher Steve Stone, who worked for the Cubs last year. "I guess it's just called 'putting it all together.' "
The Cubs put it all together for the first 10 weeks of the schedule, and by June 28 they had opened an 8�-game lead on the second-place Cardinals and Phillies. Then, maybe with visions of Don Young in their dreams—that rookie centerfielder cost the Cubs a loss to the Mets in the fury of the 1969 pennant race when he misplayed a fly ball, thus earning forever the wrath of Leo Durocher—they began to slump and lost 13 of 19 through the All-Star break. For five days last week everything went wrong for the Cubs.
On Tuesday night in New York, Catcher George Mitterwald hit a two-run homer in the top of the seventh to give Reuschel, at the time the league's winningest pitcher with a 12-3 record, a 2-1 lead. But Reuschel quickly yielded the tying run to the Mets, and in the bottom of the eighth, Sutter, the league's best reliever with a 5-1 record, 24 saves and a 1.11 ERA, lost the game when he fed a gopher pitch to rookie Outfielder Steve Henderson.
The next night the Cubs were leading the Mets 2-1 in the sixth inning when the lights at Shea Stadium suddenly flickered and then went out. The New York blackout forced suspension of the game, and the Cubs had to shower and dress in a dark locker room, return to the darkened city by bus and—candles in hand—walk as many as 16 flights of stairs to their hotel rooms, all of which were without air conditioning, of course.
The next morning the Cubs played porter and carried their luggage down the stairs to the lobby, prompting Pitcher Pete Broberg to complain, "I've got a new disease—luggage elbow." They bussed back to Shea Stadium and dressed again in the dark, only to be told that the suspended game and the regularly scheduled game had been postponed. Next: a one-way bus trip to Philadelphia where they lost a doubleheader to the Phillies Friday night. Their once cushy lead now was just two games.
On Saturday afternoon the Cubs had bus troubles getting from their hotel to the stadium, and once they arrived, the gate attendant at first refused to admit Herman Franks because he didn't look like a manager. For all their troubles, though, the Cubs finally had something to be happy about as they beat the Phillies 9-8 on pinch hitter Greg Gross' three-run triple and some strong relief pitching by the ubiquitous Sutter.
"Right now Sutter's the MVP in the National League," says Swisher. Coach Peanuts Lowrey says, "We may not have power or speed, but we've got him." The 24-year-old Sutter has pitched in 45 of Chicago's 88 games. While Franks obviously would prefer not to use Sutter with such regularity, he really has no choice. Aside from Reuschel, a sinker-balling righthander who showed only brief flashes of promise in his first five seasons with the Cubs, Chicago does not have a dependable starter.
Like most effective relievers, Sutter relies on one special pitch. His is something called a "split-fingered fastball," and it seems to be a distant relation of the forkball once employed so successfully by Pittsburgh's Elroy Face. Sutter didn't have his split-fingered fastball when the Cubs spotted him pitching for the semipro Hippey's Raiders in Lancaster, Pa. in 1972 and signed him for a $500 bonus. He didn't have it the next year, either, when Walt Dixon, his manager at Quincy, Ill., reported to the Cubs' minor league department: "When Bruce Sutter is ready for the big leagues, that will be the day the Communists take over."
It was then that Sutter encountered Fred Martin, the Cubs' minor league pitching instructor, and learned how to throw the pitch that, as he says, "has kept me from working the printing presses back home in Mt. Joy, Pa."
To throw his specialty, Sutter places his fingers outside the seams and releases the ball with the same motion he uses for his fastball and slider. By varying the pressure of his fingers, he can make the ball break anywhichway. "It comes up like a fastball for 55 feet," says Mitterwald, "and then it explodes." Pitching Coach Barney Schultz says, "It's really a matter of Sutter being the perfect man with the perfect physique and delivery for the perfect pitch."