Denny McLain’s dazzling relief performance launched him to his first great season in 1965

Denny McLain racked up 14 strikeouts in less than seven innings of relief in a 1965 game against the Boston Red Sox.

Denny McLain racked up 14 strikeouts in less than seven innings of relief in a 1965 game against the Boston Red Sox.

It was not Dave Wickersham’s evening.

In fact, it had not been Wickersham’s year. After winning 19 for the Detroit Tigers in 1964, the team had been counting on the 29-year-old to be a stud at the top of the rotation, along with Mickey Lolich. But a victory in his first start of 1965 was followed by losses in his next four decisions.

He entered the game of Tuesday, June 15, 1965 with an ERA of 5.46, still seeking his second win of the season. But the Boston Red Sox saw to it that Wickersham would have to wait for another day. He faced six batters in the top of the first inning at Tiger Stadium, retiring only one. The score was quickly 3-0, and the Sox were threatening to add more with runners on first and second.

Detroit manager Charlie Dressen headed out to the mound, where he conferred with Wickersham and catcher Bill Freehan. Dressen had seen enough, and signaled down to the bullpen, where pitcher Denny McLain had begun hurriedly warming up only moments before. The manager liked the kid from Chicago, now 21 and in his third season with Detroit. He had a live fastball and a lot of moxy on the mound.

It was a surprising choice to bring him into the game, however. McLain had made a couple of relief appearances earlier in the season, but he was normally a starter. In fact, he’d just pitched seven innings in a start against Minnesota on the 12th. But Dressen needed someone to stop the bleeding and give the Tigers a chance to get back in the game.

Before the night was out, McLain put in one of the best relief appearances ever by a Tiger pitcher.

He began by striking out Eddie Bressoud swinging for only the second out of the inning. Bob Tillman was called out looking by home plate umpire Johnny Stevens, and the rally had been snuffed out just like that.

The Tigers didn’t score in the bottom of the first. McLain came back to work in the second, and promptly struck out the side. He also fanned the first two batters to face him in the third, making it seven straight K’s since entering the game. Boston’s Lee Thomas finally broke the spell by grounding out to second baseman Jerry Lumpe to end the third.

Detroit cut the margin to 3-2 in the fifth. And although the visitors from Beantown did manage to score twice in the sixth to make it 5-2, they spent most of the evening flailing at McLain’s fastball. He was finally lifted for a pinch-hitter in the seventh, having thrown six and two-thirds innings, giving up two runs on six hits and two walks. He struck out an incredible 14 batters (ten of them swinging), a single-game high for McLain in his career.

The Tigers plated four runs in the eighth, highlighted by a decisive three-run blow by Willie Horton. Fred Gladding, who pitched two hitless innings, striking out four, was credited with the victory.

McLain’s fabulous relief work was a springboard to his first fine season. Before the appearance against Boston, he was 2-3 with a 4.45 ERA in 11 games (9 starts). From that game on, he went 14-3 in 22 games (20 starts), with a 1.98 ERA. 1965 was his first year as a full-time starter, and he finished with a record of 16-6. His WHIP (basically how many baserunners he allowed per inning) was 1.071; the only year he bettered it was in his 31-game-winning season of 1968, at 0.905.

The 1965 Boston Red Sox were not exactly Murderers’ Row. The team lost 100 games that year, but they somehow managed to finish second in the American League in hits and batting average. The most legitimate threats in their lineup were Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Conigliaro, and Felix Mantilla, all of whom fanned against McLain that afternoon.

Against any lineup, 14 strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings of relief is spectacular, putting McLain in rare company. At the time, the major league record for strikeouts in a relief appearance was held by Hall of Famer Walter Johnson, who fanned 15 in 1913. Since then, Randy Johnson has established the all-time mark of 16, which he accomplished as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001.