January 22, 2019

Back to the ’64 Phillies: Pitching Problems on the Horizon

Fifty years ago, the 1964 Phillies ended the month of May with a 25-15 record. They were in first place, only half-a-game up on the Giants and 2-1/2 ahead of the third-place Cardinals. The Reds–the fourth team to figure in the drama to come–were in sixth, 6 games out. As predicted by many pre-season analysts, including in Sports Illustrated, pitching was a Phillies’ strength: through the first 48 days of the season, they had given up the fewest runs in the league and their team 3.15 ERA was second-lowest in the league after San Francisco’s 2.92. Before too much longer, however, a healthy starting rotation was to become very problematic for manager Gene Mauch, which would have significant ramifications in the final weeks of September. This is the third installment in this blog’s continuing series on what happened with the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies.

Gene Mauch began the season with a four-man rotation featuring right-handers Jim Bunning, Art Mahaffey and Ray Culp and southpaw Dennis Bennett. Already by mid-May, as happens all the time in baseball, an arm injury was disrupting the Phillies’ rotation–specifically, the sore elbow bothering Culp. The 22-year old had had an excellent rookie season in 1963, making 30 starts, going 14-11 and making the All-Star team, but pitched poorly in his first six starts of the season. Having pitched as many as five innings only twice, Culp was 1-4 with a 5.81 ERA when Mauch replaced him in the rotation with lefty Chris Short, who would prove to be the second most-valuable pitcher on the staff after Bunning.

Meanwhile, Dennis Bennett–after failing to last five innings in his opening day start–was one of the best pitchers in baseball as the season turned to June.  He led the Phillies with 10 starts, had 5 complete games (one of them a loss), had thrown a shutout, and was 6-3 with a 2.54 ERA. (Bunning was 5-2 with a 2.14 ERA in nine starts through the end of May.) Perhaps of some consequence in light of his 1964 season arc, on May 23 Bennett pitched 13 innings, giving up only two runs to beat the Dodgers but throwing 159 pitches to 51 batters, according to his game log on the website, baseball-reference.com.

Bennett pitched well in his first two starts in June–giving up five runs in 15 innings against the Giants and Dodgers–but the rest of the month did not go so well. Although he was 2-1 in six starts that month, his earned run average in June was a far-less than elite 6.07. It is quite likely that the left shoulder problems that ended up diminishing his effectiveness and depleting Mauch’s corps of reliable starting pitchers (Culp also being damaged goods) began surfacing this month. The genesis of Bennett’s pained pitching shoulder stemmed from a car accident that sent him crashing through the windshield before the start of the 1963 season–his second year in the majors–in which he nonetheless went 9-5.

Both Bennett and Culp pitched through pain in July. Bennett started six games, relieved in three others and had a 3.98 EA in July, but lost four of his five decisions. The pitcher who was confident he would win 20 games in 1964 ended July with a 9-8 record and shoulder pain serious enough that he pitched only 24 innings in August, making only three starts with four stints out of the bullpen to an ERA of 4.88. Bennett lost two of his three starts, lost another game in relief, and twice went six days on ice as his shoulder made him unavailable to Mauch. His last three appearances in August were particularly concerning: Bennett faced 41 batters in 7.1 innings of work, meaning 19 (46 percent) got on base against him; his ERA in those three games–12.27.

As for Ray Culp, his sore elbow limited him to only 18 innings in the month after Mauch took him out of the starting rotation after his May 16 loss to Houston. The only game Culp started during this stretch was the second game of a doubleheader on June 9, which he lost 4-0 to the Pirates in less than five innings of work. The lowly New York Mets–the worst team in baseball–were the cure Culp needed to try to salvage his season. After pitching five innings of one-run relief against them in the first game of a twinbill on June 14 and getting his second win of the season, Culp started the second game of another doubleheader against them on June 19 and pitched a complete game for a 7-2 win. His next start, four days later, was also the back end of a doubleheader, this time against the not-very-good Cubs, in which Culp pitched a shutout and allowed only two to reach base, giving up a walk in the first and a single in the sixth.

Culp was back in the rotation on a regular basis all through July, pitching well with a 4-1 record and 2.42 ERA in six starts and two relief appearances. After another strong outing in his first start in August–six innings, giving up one run against Houston–Culp’s next two starts were less than successful as his elbow pain became increasingly debilitating. Culp came out in the second inning of a start against the Mets on August 15, failing to get an out, and that was that. Culp did not make another start in 1964, appearing in only five more games as a reliever, just one during the September stretch, during which he gave up 19 hits, walked 6, and allowed 18 runs (12 earned) in only 9.2 pain-wracked innings.

Hurtful as it was, Ray Culp’s elbow put him in his manager’s doghouse; Gene Mauch thought Culp was unwilling to pitch through pain. Dennis Bennett, meanwhile, persevered. After his pained August, Bennett returned to the rotation at the beginning of September, making six straight starts on the norm of every four days, and his final start on five days’ rest. By this time–when, as it turned out, the Phillies had become desperate for wins–shoulder pain made Bennett unable to deliver.  He gave up nine runs in his last nine innings of work as the Phillies’ seemingly sure-thing pennant slipped away.

The physical travails of Culp and Bennett forced Mauch to improvise in his starting rotation, although Bennett did make 32 starts in 1964–the second-most on the team after Bunning, who was the undisputed ace and had a 19-8 record. Short, who at first replaced Culp, secured his place in the rotation with a 17-9 record, and his ERA of 2.20 turned out to be even better than Bunning’s 2.63. Mahaffey, with a 12-9 record in 29 starts, was the fourth man in the rotation and a mostly-reliable pitcher until Mauch lost confidence in him at the worst possible time in the desperate final weeks of the season–about which this blog will be almost exclusively devoted to come September. Until then, this series will continue with period updates on the Philadelphia Phillies, 50 years ago.

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