On the night of August 11, I attended a baseball game that had me sitting quite literally on the edge of my seat from the first pitch on. Indeed, that was the day Wilson Alvarez pitched his no-hitter for the White Sox; but that was done in the afternoon, against the Orioles, in Baltimore. The game I saw was at Wrigley Field, between the Cubs and the New York Mets, and the pitcher on the mound at the start of the game was Rick Sutcliffe.
It's hard to believe now, since Sutcliffe has put together a series of fine performances, but at the time it seemed this game could be his last in the major leagues. The crowd that night was edgy, expectant, and what it expected was the worst. Sutcliffe had not pitched well since coming off the disabled list August 6; he had lasted only two innings in his previous start, in Philadelphia. Before that, he had been hit hard during a minor-league "rehabilitation" assignment in Des Moines, Iowa. He opened the season on the DL in the wake of shoulder surgery that limited him to five starts last year. He had not pitched particularly well early in the season before returning to the disabled list, although he did manage to win his first game since 1989.
The problem, everyone said, was arm strength--no zip on the fastball--and at age 35 he was not likely to see any sudden return to form. He even spoke with sports-writers of retiring. Still, people came out to see one of the last remaining fixtures from the 1984 division-winning team, the club that ended an almost 40-year drought by finishing first but then sustained the Cubs' reputation for iniquity by losing in the National League playoffs to the San Diego Padres. It was Sutcliffe, of course, who pitched the division-clinching game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, back when he had a fastball to go with his slider and curve, when he was all but unbeatable.
Those thoughts come readily to mind now, because it was seven years ago this week that it happened, but they were also fresh in our minds on that night in August, because it seemed they would soon be all we had left of him. Alvarez's no-hitter, which most of us had seen that afternoon on the television, only heightened our senses for this drama. The dichotomies implicit between the two pitchers (Alvarez was young and threw hard, Sutcliffe was old and threw soft. Alvarez had allowed no hits, how many would Sutcliffe allow? Alvarez had made his debut with the White Sox, would this be Sutcliffe's last game with the Cubs?) were readily apparent to anyone who thought to look for them. Our season-ticket next-door neighbor had even brought opera glasses for the occasion, and she kept them focused on Sutcliffe.
There he was, the same old form--red beard, long back, relatively short legs, and quirky, deliberate pitching delivery. The seriousness of his situation was not lost on him: using what was left of his fastball, he came high and tight with a purpose pitch to the second batter, Dave Magadan. He got through the first inning, allowing only a single to Gregg Jefferies, but then ran into trouble in the second, walking leadoff man Howard Johnson, who went to third on a single by Mackey Sasser. Action in the Cubs' bull pen. If Sutcliffe were removed here, he would not likely pitch again for the Cubs. After allowing a sacrifice fly to score a run, however, he forced Kevin Elster to ground into an inning-ending double play.
More trouble in the third, and more action in the bull pen. The first three men all reached base, but one of them on a faulty sacrifice bunt. Runners at second and third with one out, and Sutcliffe again allowed a sacrifice fly, then ended the inning with a strikeout. In the fourth, again the first three men reached, this time all on clean singles. Again the bull pen stirred. Elster, however, tapped right back to Sutcliffe, starting a 1-2-3 double play. When he fanned New York pitcher Sid Fernandez to end the inning, he left the mound with that trademark wipe of the brow with the tip of his mitt, a gesture from the old days never more appropriate or humble than it was now.
After that, his laboring ceased. He had his first three-up, three-down inning in the fifth, and added another in the sixth. After walking the leadoff man in the seventh, he again retired three in a row. And although the game was tied at two, that was enough. Realizing he was third to hit in the bottom of the inning, the fans gave him roaring applause as they stood for the seventh-inning stretch. He had lived to pitch another day.
And another and another. That trademark brush of the brow seemed to signal a turning point. He won his next two starts, in fact, then pitched well in a loss. Then, however, he allowed five hits and four walks in less than five innings and appeared, again, on the verge of retirement--either voluntary or compelled. He missed a start with food poisoning or some sort of stomach virus, then returned to action against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the winningest team in baseball, two weeks ago, on a beautiful late-summer night, with the Wrigley Field ivy just beginning to turn.
It was vintage Sutcliffe, but of the new harvest. He scrapped and battled and wiled his way into the eighth inning, allowing nine base runners and several hard-hit outs, but only a single run. He pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning, again with sirens screaming in the bull pen and again with a force at home and a strikeout. He allowed a one-out double in the second, but pitched out of it. He had his first three-up, three-down inning in the third, finishing with a called strikeout of Bobby Bonilla, who looked utterly frustrated as he watched the ball cross the plate like a three-year-old walking in front of a braking car.
"There are some frustrated hitters over there," Sutcliffe said afterward, "because after the first inning I think that food poisoning kind of kicked in on me a little bit, and I didn't have a whole lot left--basically just threw change-ups and moved the fastball around a little bit. It was nice to get the runs early [the Cubs scored two in the first, two more in the third, and another in the fifth], and everybody it seemed made a nice defensive play. The numbers probably look pretty good, but they're not going to indicate how I really pitched because our defense made some great plays."
If Sutcliffe's arm grew tired, it probably wasn't the pitching but the thankful waves to his defensive players that caused it. My scorecard is peppered with explanation points and annotations next to great plays by the Cubs, including a couple of diving stops by Mark Grace at first and a leaping, back-to-the-wall catch by center fielder Doug Dascenzo to end the seventh (Sutcliffe waited at the steps of the dugout to shake his hand). The best inning was the fourth, when Sutcliffe sandwiched two hard-hit outs around a strikeout. Barry Bonds smashed one down the line, but Grace made a leaping stab of it. Steve Buechele watched a back-door curve go by for strike three after ending the first inning by striking out on a fastball. Then Mike LaValliere smashed one to right that Andre Dawson ran down.
"He knows the hitters, he knows how to pitch," said pitching coach Billy Connors afterward, "and sometimes you have to have a little luck."
Connors goes back with the Cubs even further than Sutcliffe does, but they go back together to the 1984 season, when Connors was the pitching coach under manager Jim Frey and Sutcliffe came over from the Cleveland Indians to go 16-1. Connors is a friendly, hands-on coach, in contrast to the dour Dick Pole, whom he replaced in late June. He worked with Sutcliffe in a previous comeback, in 1985 and (until Connors was fired) '86, when the pitcher struggled with arm problems brought on by leg problems.
Sutcliffe is quick to give Connors much of the credit for his ongoing comeback. "There's no question, I wouldn't be out there pitching now if Billy Connors hadn't put his neck on the line and went to Des Moines with me and came back here and insisted that I get another opportunity. Even after the game in Philadelphia, when I came out after two innings, he had to do some talking to get me back out there again. He's always believed in me.
"I mean, I got Billy fired once before," he said with a muffled chuckle, "and had I not pitched well, I might've got him fired again. Hopefully, he's going to be out there a long time."
Sutcliffe has a unique motion, but Connors feels he has a grasp of its fundamental strengths; when asked if he knows Sutcliffe as well as any pitcher he could possibly work with, Connors responded, "Probably, yeah, probably, yeah," like a farmer asked whether he knows the field he's been tilling for years. He knows it, but he also knows it's still a mystery to him.
Having said Sutcliffe seems lucky sometimes, he quickly backtracked on how much of Sutcliffe's success was due to mere chance. "He's pitching good ball games, I don't think it's just luck.
"He's going out there with a goal of trying to make our club next year by pitching well. He's done a pretty good job the last four, five starts."
Yet there is more to returning than simply pitching well. Sutcliffe's contract expires at the end of the season, and he is not likely to be asked back at anything approaching the $2 million salary he's been earning. Most likely, he'll be released during the off-season, but with the understanding that the Cubs would love to see him in spring training. He may get a better offer from some other team, but it won't include standing ovations like the one he received after leaving in the eighth inning. He said afterward of staying in Chicago, "It's the best possible place in the world to play baseball."
Manager Jim Essian said, "I'd be happy to have Rick come back and pitch for me next year," emphasizing the point by saying he was "pitching smart...pretty much putting on a pitching clinic." But he also underscored the whole outing by saying, "He got two big outs in the first, otherwise it could have been an entirely different story." In other words, it could have been the end of the story. That's the mystery of the new Sutcliffe. Depending on pitching smarts rather than overpowering stuff to do the job for him, he gives up some vicious line drives and tries to entice the batters to hit them where the fielders are playing. Is there a dependable method to this, or has he simply been making sacrifices to the baseball gods?
Standing at his locker after the game, ice packs wrapped around his right shoulder and elbow, Sutcliffe was aware of his precarious position. "I approach each game now like it might be my last," he said. "You never know. I don't know how many more starts I've got left.
"I really don't know. My shoulder feels great, and I'm going to face Montreal on Sunday, and that's about it. I don't think my age is really a factor. A guy 35 may play a couple more years. But I get Montreal on Sunday and I'm thrilled about that."
He pitched poorly against the Expos in Montreal, giving up five runs in five innings, but then had his best outing of the year against the Expos last Sunday in Wrigley Field, giving up three hits, no walks, and only one run in a losing cause. That meant he would get the Saint Louis Cardinals this weekend, and if he pitches well then perhaps the Phillies, then maybe the Cardinals in the last home series of the season, and then, as all Cubs' fans know, maybe next year.