The October Sports Then and Now Athlete of the Month had one of the best Octobers in World Series history to help lead the Detroit Tigers to a World Series title in 1968.
Considering that the pitching staff for the 1968 Tigers also included 31-game winner Denny McLain is might seem surprising that left-hander Mickey Lolich would become the staff ace as the Tigers won their first World Series title in 23 years.
A powerful lefty from Portland, Oregon, Lolich was 17 years old when he signed with the Tigers and after five years made his major league debut in 1963.
During the 1964 season he showed glimpses of future brilliance with an 18-9 record and 3.26 ERA. Over the next three seasons he won 15 games in 1965 and then 14 games in each of the next two seasons.
By 1968 McLain had become the definitive leader of the pitching staff, but Lolich also proved to be an important cog as the team claimed their first AL Pennant since 1945.
Pitching in 39 games, 32 starts, Lolich posted a 17-9 record and 3.19 ERA.
In the final season before divisional play, the Tigers were able to go right into the World Series to face the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals.
As expected, McLain started the first game of the series, but the Tigers were shutout 4-0 as Bob Gibson struck out 17 batters to give the Cardinals the early advantage.
Lolich started the second game and though he wasn’t quite as dominant as Gibson, Lolich did allow only one run and six hits while striking out nine batters in an 8-1 victory.
St. Louis won the next two games in Detroit, including a 10-1 victory in game four when Gibson again out-dueled McLain, to take a 3-1 series lead.
Needing another strong performance to keep the Tigers alive, Lolich responded by allowing nine hits and three runs in a 5-3 victory.
Still facing a do-or-die situation in game six, Detroit manager Mayo Smith decided to pitch McLain on just two days rest and the Cy Young winner responded with a dominant shutout performance in a 13-1 Detroit victory.
That move left game seven to Lolich, who was also pitching on two days rest. He would be facing the dominant Gibson, who had rested an extra day and was looking for his eighth straight World Series victory dating back to 1964.
Both pitchers didn’t disappoint as through six innings the game was scoreless with Lolich having allowed four hits and Gibson only one.
However, in the top of the seventh after Gibson recorded the first two outs the Tigers had back-to-back hits and then Jim Northrup hit a deep fly to centerfield that Curt Flood misjudged resulting in a triple that scored two runs. Bill Freehan then doubled home Northrup to give the Tigers all the runs Lolich would need.
After Detroit added another run in the top of the ninth, Lolich surrendered a two out solo home run to Mike Shannon to make the score 4-1, but then got Tim McCarver to foul out to end the game and give the Tigers an improbable World Series title.
In three games, Lolich pitched three straight complete games, allowing only five earned runs while striking out 21 batters and allowing only 20 hits and six walks. He was named the MVP of the World Series.
The next season Lolich registered a 19-11 record and 3.24 ERA while earning the first All-Star trip of his career.
After slumping to 14-19 in 1970, Lolich rebounded to become the unquestionable ace of the Detroit staff over the next two seasons.
In 1971 he finished second in the AL Cy Young voting and fifth in the MVP voting while registering a 25-14 record and 2.92 ERA. Lolich led the league with 45 starts, 29 complete games, 376 innings pitched and 308 strikeouts.
The next season he was third in the Cy Young balloting while posting a 22-14 record and 2.50 ERA. The 1972 Tigers returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1968 and Lolich was again the workhorse, though without the same team result as in 1968.
In the opening game, Lolich allowed only one run through 10 innings as the game was tied 1-1. The Tigers took a 2-1 lead on a home run by Al Kaline in the top of the 11th, but Lolich allowed consecutive hits to open the bottom of the inning and was lifted from the game. Both runs scored, including the final run on an error, to give Oakland a 3-2 victory.
With the Tigers trailing two games to one, Lolich was back on the mound for the fourth game and gave another great performance. He allowed only five hits and one run in nine innings, but did not figure in the decision as Detroit overcame a two-run Oakland 10th inning with three runs of their own in the bottom of the inning to win 4-3. The A’s ended up winning the decisive fifth game 2-1, but Lolich did not pitch.
Lolich spent three more seasons with the Tigers before being traded to the New York Mets. He spent one season with the Mets and finished his career with two seasons on the San Diego Padres.
In 16 major league seasons, Lolich posted a 217-191 overall record with a 3.44 ERA and 2,832 strikeouts. Illustrating the difference in how pitchers are used today compared to the 1960s and 1970s, Lolich made 496 career starts and finished 195 of those games (39%).
While Lolich’s career numbers are just short of earning him Hall of Fame induction, he will always be remembered for having one of the best World Series performances of all-time.