Over a two-year period, when he lost far more than he won, Astros pitcher Bob Bruce prevailed in a series of duels with Cardinals ace Bob Gibson.
Bruce was 9-18 in 1965 and 3-13 in 1966 for a combined record of 12-31. Gibson was 20-12 in 1965 and 21-12 in 1966 for a combined record of 41-24.
Yet, in the four starts pairing Bruce against Gibson in those two seasons, Bruce was 3-1 with a 1.69 ERA.
Bruce, who died March 14, 2017, at 83, pitched some of his best games against the Cardinals.
In nine years (1959-67) in the majors, primarily with losing Houston clubs, Bruce was 49-71 with a 3.85 ERA.
A right-hander, Bruce was 4-8 with a 2.45 ERA in 20 appearances, including 14 starts, against the Cardinals.
In a relief appearance versus the Cardinals on April 19, 1964, at Houston, Bruce became the 12th major-league pitcher to strike out three batters on nine pitches, according to the Houston Chronicle. Bruce achieved the feat in the eighth inning, striking out Bill White, Charlie James and Ken Boyer on an assortment of off-speed pitches. In the ninth, after yielding a single to Johnny Lewis, Bruce struck out the side. Boxscore
Tim McCarver, Cardinals catcher, said Bruce was a right-handed version of St. Louis left-hander Curt Simmons.
“Bruce is rough on left-handed batters with his slow stuff,” McCarver said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He has a good motion like Simmons. He keeps the ball down. He keeps you honest with fastballs on the hands.”
Said Cardinals infielder Phil Gagliano: “Bruce never gives you anything good to hit.”
Though he started multiple games against Cardinals pitchers such as Ernie Broglio, Ray Sadecki and Ray Washburn, the St. Louis opponent Bruce faced the most was Gibson.
Bruce, pitching for the Houston Colt .45s in their first season in the National League, was paired against Gibson for the first time on July 22, 1962. The Cardinals won, 3-1, on a sweltering Sunday afternoon at Colt Stadium.
With the temperature in the upper 90s, Bruce pitched seven innings, giving up all three runs in the second. Gibson contributed a two-out, RBI-single.
Relying primarily on fastballs and working on three days of rest, Gibson pitched 8.2 innings for the win.
Lindy McDaniel earned the save by getting Billy Goodman to ground out with runners on second and third, two outs, in the ninth.
“I wanted a breaking ball on Goodman and Gibson didn’t have enough left,” Cardinals manager Johnny Keane told the Post-Dispatch when asked why he lifted Gibson. Boxscore
Bruce and Gibson would not be paired against one another as starters for three years. Then Bruce began his stretch of winning three of four against Gibson.
Here’s a look at those games:
Bruce held the Cardinals to two runs in eight innings and got the win in a 5-2 Astros victory at St. Louis on June 4, 1965.
Gibson was burned by home runs from a pair of players who were physical opposites.
In the sixth, Walt Bond, a 6-foot-7 outfielder, hit a two-run home run into the teeth of a wind blowing in from right field.
With two outs in the ninth, Ron Brand, a 5-foot-7 catcher, hit a three-run home run, snapping a 2-2 tie. It was the second of three home runs Brand would hit in an eight-year career in the majors.
Brand had hit Gibson’s first pitch of the at-bat deep but foul. The home run came with the count 1-and-2. “That first pitch was surprise enough,” Brand said. “I hardly ever hit a ball that hard. I never hit two like that in one inning.”
The Cardinals had eight singles off Bruce until McCarver led off the bottom of the ninth with a double. Jim Owens relieved and retired the next three batters, preserving the win for Bruce. Boxscore
Home sweet dome
Bruce pitched a six-hit shutout in a 2-0 victory over the Cardinals at the Astrodome on July 21, 1965. All the St. Louis hits were singles.
Gibson yielded four hits in seven innings, though he injured the little finger on his right hand reaching for a hard grounder by Joe Morgan in the fifth.
With the finger swollen and painful _ the injury later was diagnosed as a torn capsule joint _ Gibson remained in the scoreless game.
Bob Lillis, a former Cardinals infielder, broke the tie that inning with a two-run double, a pop fly to right-center that barely eluded center fielder Curt Flood. “I was a step behind the ball and I might as well have been a day late,” Flood said.
Bruce, described by the Post-Dispatch as “no Humpty Dumpty,” preserved the win by getting McCarver to fly out with two on and two outs in the ninth. Boxscore
Though his injured finger remained swollen, Gibson limited the Astros to four singles in a 3-1 victory at St. Louis on Aug. 5, 1965.
Gibson, who greeted well-wishers by extending his left hand, said, “The finger doesn’t bother me so much when I throw a fastball, but it really smarts when I throw curves. I bunch the fingers to throw curves and the little finger presses against the next finger on curves.”
McCarver drove in two of the three runs off Bruce without a hit. McCarver hit a sacrifice fly in the fourth and his hard groundout to first in the sixth scored Flood from third.
“I’d like to be able to pitch like Gibson _ even with a sore finger,” Bruce said. Boxscore
Eyeing a win
In his final matchup against Gibson, Bruce held the Cardinals to two hits in eight innings in a 6-1 victory at St. Louis on July 8, 1966. Gibson was lifted after surrendering four runs and eight hits in 4.1 innings.
Bruce had entered the game with a record of 1-6 and a 5.98 ERA. An infection in his right eye that threatened his sight had kept Bruce from pitching from April 20 until June 5.
After beating Gibson and the Cardinals, Bruce told the Post-Dispatch he still didn’t have satisfactory vision in the eye. Boxscore
Previously: Ken Boyer and his rare pair of cycles