For one night, at least, amid the excitement of a pennant chase, John Curtis showed the Cardinals a flash of the high-caliber talent they had expected when they acquired him as the key player in a trade with the Red Sox.
The win moved the Cardinals within a half-game of the first-place Pirates in the National League East with a month remaining and raised hopes St. Louis would earn its first postseason berth in six years.
Seeking a southpaw
Curtis, 26, a left-hander, was projected to join Bob Gibson in anchoring the Cardinals’ rotation in 1974. He had earned 13 wins with the 1973 Red Sox. That impressed the Cardinals, whose 1973 rotation consisted of right-handers Gibson, Rick Wise, Reggie Cleveland, Alan Foster and Tom Murphy.
Figuring they needed a left-handed starter to compete in a division whose most recent champions possessed premium left-handed hitters _ Pirates (Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Al Oliver) and Mets (Rusty Staub and John Milner) _ the Cardinals pursued Curtis.
In December 1973, St. Louis acquired Curtis and right-handers Lynn McGlothen and Mike Garman from the Red Sox for right-handers Reggie Cleveland and Diego Segui and infielder Terry Hughes.
“We needed a left-hander badly,” Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst said to the Associated Press. “I think we’ve got him now.”
Said St. Louis general manager Bing Devine: “A left-hander was of prime importance.”
The Cardinals entered 1974 with a rotation of Gibson, Curtis, Foster, McGlothen and Sonny Siebert. Curtis was the lone left-hander.
He got off to a terrible start, losing five of his first seven decisions as his ERA swelled to 5.83.
Still, Schoendienst kept Curtis in the rotation.
On Aug. 29, a Thursday night, before 6,042 spectators, Curtis got the start against the hapless Padres, who had the worst record in the National League and would finish with 102 losses.
The Padres did have a couple of sluggers who batted right-handed _ Nate Colbert and Dave Winfield, who was in his second season of what would become a Hall of Fame career.
Curtis retired the first 21 batters in a row. Seven perfect innings. Ted Simmons, catching Curtis, hit a home run in the seventh, breaking a scoreless tie.
Winfield led off the Padres eighth. Two months earlier, Winfield had hit a home run off Curtis for the lone run in a 1-0 Padres victory. Boxscore
Now, Curtis was recalling that blast as he faced Winfield while trying to protect a one-run lead and the perfect game.
Winfield watched the first three pitches sail out of the strike zone.
“He’s a pretty free swinger,” Curtis said. “Maybe I was a little too careful.”
Winfield walked. “But that didn’t concern me too much,” Curtis said.
Cito Gaston bunted, moving Winfield to second. Derrel Thomas walked and Dave Hilton flied out to right, advancing Winfield to third.
Fred Kendall was up next. Batting eighth in the order, he had a .237 average and hadn’t gotten a hit in a week.
Kendall singled to left, breaking up the no-hitter and scoring Winfield with the tying run.
“When Kendall got his hit, I wasn’t too let down,” Curtis said. “It was a sort of purpose pitch inside. I was trying to make him swing at a bad pitch.”
Curtis’ work wasn’t done. With Thomas on second and Kendall on first, left-handed slugger Willie McCovey was sent to pinch-hit for pitcher Randy Jones. McCovey, 36, a future Hall of Famer, would hit 22 home runs that season.
This time, he flied out to center.
In the ninth, Padres reliever Larry Hardy retired the first two batters. Then, the Cardinals got four consecutive singles from Bake McBride, Ken Reitz, Jim Dwyer and Mike Tyson _ the latter two driving in a run apiece.
With a 3-1 lead, Curtis set down the Padres in order, clinching the win and a one-hitter. Boxscore
“I had a ballgame to win, not a no-hitter to pitch,” Curtis said. “The way the season has been going for me, you can’t be too selective of your victories. It’s quite a thrill for me. And it comes late in a year when we’re battling for something. That’s an added thrill.”
The Cardinals would finish in second place, 1.5 games behind the Pirates. Curtis was 10-14 in his first year with the Cardinals and led the club in losses. He posted records of 8-9 in 1975 and 6-11 in 1976 before the Cardinals traded him to the Giants.
In 109 games, including 62 starts, Curtis was 24-34 with a 3.88 ERA for the Cardinals.