September 30, 2023

Harvey vs. Scherzer is Like Deja Vu All Over Again

August 23, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Smoky Joe Wood

Smoky Joe Wood had a season for the ages in 1912.

Tomorrow’s bout between the New York Mets and Detroit Tigers at Citi Field would most likely be ignored outside of New York and Michigan but for the anticipated match-up of two of the game’s best pitchers—24-year-old phenom Matt Harvey and 28-year-old all-but-guaranteed-to-win-the-AL Cy Young Award, Max Scherzer.  Granted the Tigers don’t have anything clinched yet, but they hold a six-game lead over the Cleveland Indians with 34 to play as of this writing.  And the Mets may be in third place, but they’re playing at a .460 clip and are 18 games off the pace.  It’s not exactly a World Series preview.

But every five days Mets fans have the pleasure of watching Harvey ply his trade.  His 2.25 ERA and 187 strikeouts are second only to Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, but his 9-4 record is a testament to lousy run support and should be much better.  Harvey has 12 no-decisions, during which he’s pitched to a 2.42 ERA, and he’s received only 3.5 runs of support per start all season.  Combine that with last year’s anemic support of 2.3 runs per start and it’s no wonder Harvey is only 12-9 in his career despite pitching to a 2.38 ERA in 35 starts.

Scherzer, on the other hand, is receiving 6 runs per start from a lineup that leads the American League in runs per game at 5.06, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve his 18-1 record.  He leads the circuit in wins, winning percentage, WHIP and hits per 9 innings, and is among the top 10 in several other categories, including strikeouts, K/BB ratio and strikeouts per 9 innings.  He was also very good last year, going 16-7 with a 3.74 ERA and fanning 11.1 batters per nine innings.

Hopefully this will be a match-up that will go down in history.

The last century was replete with magnificent pitching duels.  Among them:

  • Ed Walsh vs. Addie Joss on October 2, 1908
  • Hippo Vaughn and Fred Toney tossing a double no-hitter through nine innings on May 2, 1917
  • Joe Oeschger and Leon Cadore dueling to a 1-1 draw through a grueling 26 inning affair on May 1, 1920
  • Carl Hubbell and Tex Carelton combining for 34 shutout innings on July 2, 1933
  • What Jim Kaplan dubbed the “Pitching Duel of the Century,” the match-up between Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal on July 2, 1963 in which Marichal outdueled Spahn, 1-0, behind 16 shutout innings.
  • Sandy Koufax and Bob Hendley allowing only one hit over 17 combined innings on September 9, 1965.

But perhaps none came with more fanfare than the duel between Boston Red Sox ace Smoky Joe Wood and Washington Senators legend Walter Johnson at Boston’s Fenway Park on September 6, 1912.  “The game is being billed like a circus in the newspapers,” wrote Joe S. Jackson in the Washington Post, “and all Boston is mad over the coming contest.”

Walter Johnson

Walter Johnson was arguably the greatest pitcher of all time.

The 24-year-old Johnson had enjoyed consecutive 25-win seasons and posted a 1.61 ERA over 692 1/3 innings from 1910-1911, then picked up right where he left off in 1912 and would go 33-12 with a league-leading 1.39 ERA and 303 strikeouts.  From July 3 to August 23, Johnson won 16 straight games and established a new American League record, breaking the old mark of 14 set by Jack Chesbro in 1904.

In The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium Of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches that came out in 2004, Rob Neyer listed Walter Johnson as having the best fastball of all-time.

“No, I don’t think that Walter Johnson threw as hard in 1910 as, say, Mark Prior did in 2003,” wrote Neyer.  “But in Johnson’s time, the hitters were more impressed by Johnson’s fastball than the hitters today are impressed by Prior’s.”

Wood was only 22 and had shown great promise with the Red Sox, going 47-38 with a 1.98 ERA from 1908-1911, before breaking out and recording one of the greatest seasons of all-time in 1912.  He ended the year at 34-5 with 10 shutouts and a 1.91 ERA, then beat the New York Giants three times in the Fall Classic to complete the best season in franchise history.

Five days after Johnson’s streak began, Wood embarked on a winning streak of his own on July 8 and hadn’t lost since, putting together 13 wins in a row.  But destiny intervened and Johnson and his Senators were in prime position to stop Wood from edging closer to “The Big Train’s” newly-minted record.

Wood just missed the cut on Neyer’s list of great fastball artists, but Walter Johnson himself once insisted “there’s no man alive can throw harder than Smoky Joe Wood.”

According to Joe S. Jackson, Washington manager Clark Griffith dared Red Sox skipper Jake Stahl to put Wood on the mound against his ace; Stahl told Griffith to name the day and they’d be ready.  The Post announced that 20,000 spectators were expected for the Friday contest and had the game been scheduled for Saturday it would have drawn a record crowd.  Jackson was wrong—almost 30,000 fans showed up and swamped Fenway Park, setting a new regular season record for a weekday game.

Mel Webb wrote about the overflow crowd in the Boston Globe:

It packed the stands and the bleachers, and trooped all over the outfield inside the stand and bleacher boundaries. In the grandstand the broad promenade was packed solid ten rows deep with fans on tip-toes to see what was going on. The playing field was surrounded completely by a triple, even quadruple, rank of humanity, at least 3,000 assembling on the banking in left field, and the mass of enthusiasts extending around in front of the huge concrete stand.

Joe Wood warms up among a crowd of spectators.

Joe Wood warming up among a crowd of spectators prior to his duel with Walter Johnson.

Being a bit biased, the Boston Globe wrote that many expected Wood to win.  “Going as he is, Wood ought not to have to extend himself much to hold his own today and let his teammates do the rest…many of Wood’s admirers confidently pin their faith on him to win today’s game.”  Jackson admitted in the Post that “Wood is in better shape than the Washingtonian, and has the advantage of pitching for a harder-hitting club.”  But he also reminded readers that two of Wood’s four losses to that point had come at the hands of the Senators.  Former major leaguer turned writer, Tim Murnane, called the bout, “One of the greatest battles of boxmen in years.”

The game lived up to the hype, although the men who covered it couldn’t agree about the amount of luck that contributed to Wood’s 1-0 victory.  Johnson allowed only five hits, but two were consecutive doubles by eventual league MVP Tris Speaker and Duffy Lewis in the sixth inning that produced the game’s only run.  According to Mel Webb:

It was no fluke win, but just the delivery of the necessary punch to keep their splendid headway in the American League race, that returned Jake Stahl’s warriors the winners.  All day it was hard, clean, crisp baseball; steady, rather than of the hair-raising kind, and a battle that it was all glory for Joe Wood to win, yet one that Johnson could lose without a tinge of dissatisfaction over his own great pitching.

Jackson, on the other hand, called Lewis’ double a “fluke” and didn’t give Wood much credit for the victory.

Two great pitchers went to the slab today, in a carefully arranged and advertised duel, for the purpose of deciding the question of the 1912 kingship.  The result proved nothing, save that luck broke with Wood, on the one occasion on which Boston scored against Johnson, a fluke two-bagger that dropped just outside a fielder’s reach sending home the run.  Elsewise it was as even as could be.

Wood allowed six hits to Johnson’s five, including doubles by George McBride and Frank LaPorte, but scattered them throughout the game and benefited from solid defense, including his own, that snuffed potential rallies.  Johnson threw five hitless innings, but allowed two hits in the second and the sixth, the latter frame being the one that cost him the game.

Speaker lined a shot past third baseman Eddie Foster and reached second before left fielder Roy Moran gathered the ball in front of the roped off crowd.  Then the righthanded Lewis crossed everyone up by dropping a fly ball down the right field line that barely eluded the grasp of right fielder Danny Moeller, who was playing “almost over in center field.”

Webb described the play thusly:

Hall of Famer Tris Speaker.

Hall of Famer Tris Speaker.

The ball was almost black and many in the crowd could not see it, but they did see Moeller legging it toward the foul line for all he was worth.  Faster and faster he came, and nearer and nearer the ball came to earth.  Finally with one frantic plunge, Moeller dove after the ball.  For an instant it seemed that he had caught it, but the ball just touched his finger tips and dropped onto the sod.

“Spoke” scored to give the Sox a 1-0 lead they’d never relinquish.  Wood stranded runners at second in the seventh, eighth and ninth, fanning the last two batters he faced to complete the whitewash.  He finished with nine strikeouts to Johnson’s five, walked three to Johnson’s one and stranded eight runners.  With the win Wood improved to 31-4 and Johnson fell to 28-12.  Smoky Joe would go on to win his next two decisions to tie the record, but lost to the Tigers on September 20 to break his string of success.

To this day, only two American League pitchers have matched Johnson’s and Wood’s winning streaks—Lefty Grove in 1931 and Schoolboy Rowe in 1934—but no one has ever topped them.  At least in one season.

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