Mario Impemba April 28, 2018

Before there was 1968, there was 1967.

Before Mickey Lolich jumped into Bill Freehan’s arms in St. Louis, there was 1967.

It was the year the Tigers almost won it all, and it was Lolich that nearly got them there.

The Motor City was hungry for a title.  The last time the Tigers brought home the goods was in 1945 when they beat the Chicago Cubs in seven games.

Dizzy Trout was a workhorse on that team, winning 18 games, four of them down the stretch.  Hal Newhouser won 25 games that season and was named the American League Most Valuable Player.  But the 1967 Tigers had a lethal duo as well:  Lolich and McLain.

The Tigers trailed the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins by one-half game entering the final day of the 1967 campaign.  Detroit would host the California Angels in a doubleheader, while the Red Sox faced the Minnesota Twins.  The Tigers would have to sweep the Angels to catch the Red Sox-Twins winner.

The Tigers won the opener 6-4 behind Joe Sparma who won his 16th game.  Dick Tracewski and Bill Freehan each had three hits and Willie Horton homered in the win.  The victory kept the Tigers hopes alive.

The Red Sox meanwhile held off the Twins 5-3 which meant the Tigers needed to win the nightcap to force a one-game playoff with the Red Sox at Fenway Park.  How’s that for drama?

The Tigers built a 3-1 lead in the second game, and with Denny McLain on the mound, it looked like the Tigers were trending towards that showdown in Boston.  McLain, however, didn’t have it that day.  He was tagged for three runs in 2 2/3 innings and the Angels would eventually build an 8-5 lead.

Mickey Lolich was dominant for the Tigers in 1967 and 1968.

The Tigers would use eight pitchers, including Lolich who pitched the final inning and a third, allowing no runs and striking out three.  It was no surprise considering Lolich had time after time kept the Tigers afloat in the season’s waning days.  Incredibly the previous day, Lolich struck out 11 and scattered three hits in a 5-0 shutout of the Halos.

In Lolich’s final three starts that September, he threw three consecutive complete game shutouts in victories over the Senators, Yankees and Angels.  He single-handedly kept the Tigers within a game of the Red Sox down the stretch.

From mid-August through the end of the season, Lolich was 9-1 with a 1.31 ERA, authoring one of the most dominating stretches of his career.  In that same stretch, McLain was 3-4 with an ERA north of 5.00.

McLain was certainly the more celebrated pitcher at the time.  He would go on to win 31 games the following year, as the Tigers captured the World Series title.

Yet, the argument could be made that Lolich was equally, if not more important, to the Tigers successes.  Not only did Lolich dominate down the stretch in 1967 to keep the Tigers hopes alive, but in the World Series the very next season, Lolich was Superman.

When Bob Gibson struck out 17 Tigers in game one beating McLain 4-0, it was Lolich who evened the series in Game 2, striking out nine in nine innings while allowing only one run.

Facing elimination in Game 5, Lolich beat the Cards 5-3 with another complete game, striking out eight Cardinals.

Lolich then saved the best for last.  Pitching on two days rest, he defeated the Cards in Game 7 with his third complete game of the series.

The lasting memory of Lolich leaping into Bill Freehan’s arms after the final out was recorded is one that will never die.

Nor will Lolich’s accomplishments in 1967 and 1968.  He nearly pitched the Tigers to back-to-back World Series titles.