JACK BALDSCHUN was the Brad Lidge of a generation that still bears the psychic scars of the most infamous collapse in baseball history. I heard Ray Didinger say on WIP Saturday that the trauma of what happened to the 1964 Phillies nearly caused him to flunk out of Temple University the first semester of his freshman year.
Yeah, it was that bad. . .
Ball writers often flew with the team in those days. The Phillies snapped the epic 10-game losing streak that had melted a 6 1/2-game lead like a flamethrower taking out a snowman by winning the season's last two games in Cincinnati. On the funereal flight back to a numbed city, manager Gene Mauch was asked why he moved Baldschun out of the finisher's role. "Closers" were not yet invented in 1964. Nor were quality starts, pitch counts and arm parts called "labrum," "rotator cuff" and "ulnar nerve."
The question left Mauch plenty of room to spare the feelings of the sturdy redhead who had picked up save No. 20 in the Phils' 147th game, a 4-3 victory over the Dodgers that gave the Phils a 6 1/2-game lead with 15 to play. Then disaster struck the righthanded nibbler who never met an at-bat he couldn't string out to a 3-2 count.
In the next two games of a four-game series in Chavez Ravine, Baldschun absorbed a pair of losses, the second coming in the season's most bizarre game. But first he lost, 4-3, on a two-out single by reserve third baseman Bart Shirley that scored Tommy Davis. Davis had been gunned down stealing second, but Ruben Amaro dropped the ball applying the tag.
Jack's second straight loss came in a bizarre, 16-inning hairpull that portended the collapse to come. It was 3-3 when Mauch went to his relief ace in the bottom of the 14th. Baldschun tightroped out of a jam, then pitched a perfect 15th and retired the first two hitters in the 16th. But he walked the fleet Davis, who promptly stole his second base of a game in which the Dodgers collected 20 hits and would steal six bases. Mauch intentionally walked cleanup hitter Tommy Davis. But that sound strategy blew up when Baldschun unfurled a wild pitch. Mauch had seen enough. Remember, this was Jack's third straight appearance. When Mauch brought in rookie lefthander Morrie Steevens, Baldschun had worked 5 1/3 innings in the series and faced 24 batters. Do that today, the players union will have a manager up on arm-abuse charges.
In another foreshadowing of the onrushing doom, Willie Davis streaked home with a runoff steal.
But Jim Bunning won No. 18 the next day and there were numbers that today are almost scriptural: 6 1/2 with 12 to play, 7 at home . . .
Why did he pitch Baldschun in a reduced role during the collapse? Mauch answered the question 12 games later, winging toward a stricken city. His reply came after a pregnant pause while he trolled for the precise words. It was terse and damning.
"I could see the fear in his eyes."
That not only was a brutally cold assessment of a man who was No. 3 in the league with 21 saves and who carried a 3.15 ERA, but it was inaccurate. Did Baldschun wave the white feather, or was he simply burned out by overwork the same way Bunning and Chris Short would soon be burned out?
Maybe if there had been hi-def cameras giving us the same count-every-pore verite that has revealed Brad Lidge's flop sweat, his shallow hyperventilating, the flatness of his once lethal slider, we could have seen if there was fear in Jack Baldschun's eyes for ourselves. But all we got in 1964 was a wide shot in grainy black and white. And Gene Mauch's irrefutable word for it.
On Meltdown Saturday, when the Phillies and Penn State were blowing leads in a channel-surfing nightmare, Tyler Walker joined the growing list of Phils relievers to come up NRFCT - not ready for crunch time. This is a pitching staff collapsing at the back end.
But in 1964, Mauch's starters were battered early and often, followed by futile middle relief that leaned heavily on elderly warhorses Ed Roebuck and Bobby Shantz. When Baldschun was used in mopup, it was because there was never anything to save.
During the Phillies' vertigo-inducing plunge from that unblowable lead, they led a game as late as the eighth inning just once. In the sixth game of the slide, Mauch brought in Shantz to preserve a 4-3 lead. The elfin lefthander served up a three-run ninth.
In Game 161 in Cincinnati, the Phils scored a four-spot in the eighth to go up 4-3. And Baldschun worked two perfect innings for his 21st save, keeping the Cardinals' magic number at one.
Meanwhile, in real time, in the history that is being written, blown save by blown save, Charlie Manuel and a staff betrayed by injury and human frailty has a five-game lead with seven to play. The magic number is down to three, thanks to Ryan Madson's professional ninth inning yesterday.
It is still Manuel's kingdom for a horse . . . *
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