In 1964, Sammy Ellis almost derailed the Cardinals’ pennant run with his nearly flawless relief pitching for the Reds. A year later, the Cardinals briefly derailed Ellis, who was on his way to a standout season as one of the National League’s premier starters.
Ellis, 75, died May 13, 2016. He pitched in the major leagues during the 1960s for seven years: five with the Reds and one season each with the Angels and White Sox. Ellis posted a career record of 63-58 with a 4.15 ERA.
The Reds put Ellis, 23, in their starting rotation in May 1964. He was 3-2 with a 4.62 ERA in five starts, including a loss to the Cardinals on May 30 at St. Louis. Boxscore
To Ellis’ disappointment, the Reds moved him to the bullpen. It was the right choice. Ellis thrived, becoming the 1964 Reds’ best right-handed reliever.
Ellis had an 0.78 ERA in 11 August relief appearances, yielding two earned runs and striking out 22 in 23 innings.
In September, he was even better.
On Saturday, Sept. 19, 1964, the Cardinals opened a three-game series with the Reds at Cincinnati. The Cardinals began the day in second place, six games behind the Phillies and a game ahead of the Reds.
In the first game of a doubleheader, the Reds overcame a 5-4 Cardinals lead when Frank Robinson hit a three-run home run off Bob Gibson in the bottom of the ninth. Ellis got the win, pitching two innings of scoreless relief in the 7-5 Reds victory. Boxscore
The Cardinals recovered and won the second game, 2-0. Ellis pitched a scoreless inning in relief of Billy McCool. Boxscore
In the series finale on Sunday, Sept. 20, the Reds snapped a 6-6 tie with three unearned runs in the eighth off Cardinals closer Barney Schultz and prevailed, 9-6. Ellis, appearing in his fifth game in five days, got the win with two scoreless relief innings and improved his record to 10-3. Boxscore
“I was a bit tired today and I didn’t have as much on the ball as I wanted,” Ellis said to the Associated Press. “After all, I’ve had a pretty busy week, working in the last five games we’ve played.”
In the three games against the Cardinals, Ellis was 2-0 with six strikeouts in five scoreless innings.
By winning two of three in the series, the Reds were tied with the Cardinals for second place, 6.5 games behind the Phillies.
Ellis made 13 relief appearances in September 1964, yielding no earned runs in 22.1 innings and striking out 26.
He kept the Reds in the pennant race until the season’s final day when the Cardinals clinched with a victory over the Mets.
Ellis completed the 1964 season with a 10-3 record and 2.57 ERA. He was 7-1 with a 1.62 ERA in 47 relief stints.
“I’m enjoying the relief pitching this year, but I hope the club doesn’t have the same plans for me next year,” Ellis said to The Sporting News.
The Reds listened. Ellis, 24, joined the Reds’ starting rotation in 1965 and he was a success. He took a 15-7 record and 3.39 ERA into his Aug. 15, 1965, start against the Cardinals at St. Louis.
After retiring the first five batters, Ellis was rocked for four runs in the second inning. He gave up a solo home run to Bob Skinner and a three-run home run to Gibson. In chasing Gibson’s blast, Robinson crashed into the left field wall, suffered a badly bruised left hip and had to leave the game.
Though the Cardinals got hits off Ellis in each of the next five innings, they couldn’t score and the Reds led, 7-4, entering the bottom half of the eighth.
Then the Cardinals rallied.
Bill White led off the inning with a home run off Ellis. Ken Boyer singled and Reds manager Dick Sisler lifted Ellis. The Cardinals roughed up relievers John Tsitouris and McCool, scoring eight in the eighth and earning a 12-7 victory. Boxscore
The final line for Ellis: 7 innings, 12 hits, 6 runs. The hits were the most Ellis yielded in a game in his major-league career.
Asked about taking out Ellis with a 7-5 lead, Sisler said, “What’s a guy going to do? You can’t expect a guy to go nine innings when it’s 98 degrees or more out there on the mound. When we needed help, I put in two guys whose past performances indicated they could do the job for me.”
Ellis rebounded and finished the 1965 season with a 22-10 record and 3.79 ERA. Sandy Koufax (26), Tony Cloninger (24) and Don Drysdale (23) were the only NL pitchers with more wins than Ellis in 1965.
The next year, Ellis lost 19.
His career mark vs. the Cardinals: 6-5 with a 5.50 ERA in 21 appearances, including 10 starts.
Ellis spent 12 years in the big leagues as a coach with the Yankees, White Sox, Cubs, Mariners, Red Sox and Orioles.
Previously: Bob Gibson and his mighty home run seasons
Previously: Bob Gibson vs. Billy Williams: a classic duel