Discover one of baseball's forgotten streaks

May, 17, 2013
5/17/13
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Rick Langford of the Oakland A'sCourtesy of the Oakland A'sGame after game, Rick Langford finished what he started. Surely, no one will ever match him.

On May, 23, 1980, Oakland A’s pitcher Rick Langford threw a complete game against the Texas Rangers.

The A’s lost that day, 3-1, as Langford gave up three unearned runs in a 1-hour, 56-minute duel with Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins.

Five days later, Langford went the distance again, beating the Royals.

Six days after that, on June 3 he pitched a third straight complete game, this time going 10 innings vs. the Indians.

He then pitched another complete game. And another. And another.

By the end of June, Langford’s complete-game streak was eight.

Through July, it was 14 -- including a 14-inning victory.

After five more complete games in August, he was up to 19.

Over the first 12 days of September, Langford went the distance against the Yankees, Orioles and Royals. Langford, who wore No. 22, had thrown 22 consecutive complete games.

Finally, on Sept. 17, in a game at Arlington, Texas, A’s manager Billy Martin marched to the mound after Langford had pitched 8⅔ innings and signaled for lefty reliever Bob Lacey to come on. Lacey induced a groundout from Buddy Bell to save Langford’s 17th victory.

“I remember him standing there like it was yesterday, and he came to get me,” says Langford, 61, now the rehab pitching coach for the Toronto Blue Jays. “He didn’t ask me this time, ‘How are you?’ or ‘You can do it’ or whatever. His comment was, God bless him, ‘I think it’s time now.’ Those were his words. I said, ‘Yes it is.’

“I handed him the ball and walked off.”

Langford's streak was done, but he wasn’t.

Langford pitched complete games in his next three starts. Then, with 19 victories and a chance for No. 20 on the last day of the season, he pitched 10 innings of what turned out to be a 15-inning loss to the Brewers.

His final line for the season: a 19-12 record, 3.26 ERA, 290 innings pitched and a majors-leading 28 complete games -- including 22 in a row.

“I was always amazed he didn’t get more publicity for it,” says Brian Kingman, one of the other four starters on the A’s remarkable five-man rotation that season. “It’s a tremendous achievement.

Adds Kingman: “His achievement was impressive when I was watching it, and now I’m realizing it’s even more impressive.”

* * *

Langford’s streak seems like something out of the dead-ball era in comparison with the way pitchers are used now.

Today, a six-inning outing can be a quality start. The seventh-inning specialist then takes over, followed by the primary setup man and the closer.

Last year’s major league leader in complete games was Justin Verlander of the Tigers, with six. Since 2000, only two pitchers have had 10 or more complete games in a season. Not since 1986 has a pitcher completed 20 games, when the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela did it. And the last pitcher to throw more complete games in a season was Catfish Hunter of the Yankees with 30 in 1975.

The last consecutive-games streak longer than Langford’s was by Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, who completed 28 straight -- eight to close out the 1952 season and 20 to start 1953.

Though the game was different in 1980 -- when a dozen pitchers had 13 or more complete games and 20 percent of starts went the distance (as opposed to 2 percent so far this season) -- most teams had designated closers and bullpen specialists, and managers didn’t hesitate to call on them. It was the era of Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Dan Quisenberry.

But the 1980 Oakland A’s were a throwback to an even earlier era.

[+] EnlargeBilly Martin of the Oakland A's
Vernon Biever/WireImageManager Billy Martin wanted his starters to go the distance.
They had an old-school manager in Martin, a young and talented five-man rotation with pitchers who wanted to finish what they started and a bullpen without a star closer. Those three factors created a staff that threw 94 complete games, the highest total since 1946.

Langford led with 28, but Mike Norris (a 22-game winner) had 24, Matt Keough 20, Steve McCatty 11 and Kingman 10. (In an odd twist, even Lacey -- who led the team with six saves -- threw a complete game in his only start.)

“When I had the ball, my intentions, my effort, my reason behind everything was to complete that game,” says Langford, who also had 14 complete games the year before and 18 and 15 in 1981 and ’82. “It was my game, unless I really screwed it up in some fashion. That was the approach that not only me, but a lot of guys, had.”

Martin knew he had a great rotation -- a Sports Illustrated cover story labeled it “The Five Aces” -- and his bullpen was suspect. So, he went with his starters. And that was just fine with them.

“I enjoyed playing for him,” Langford says. “He was a very veteran-oriented manager, counted on you, trusted you if you were a veteran player to take care of your job. And so as things went on, he would allow us to go.

“You have to have a manger who will allow you to stay out there. Obviously a couple of times a game, there’s going to be runners in scoring position -- [it's] a game’s-in-the-balance kind of thing. … There usually are trials along the way. But he would allow us to pitch through it. On a very few occasions he would come to the mound to speak to me. I never anticipated he was coming to take me out. He was coming to give me a break or break up the momentum of whatever was going on, and he never would come to the mound unless there was an issue.

“He just let me take control of it. He’d say, ‘Hey, just take a couple of deep breaths, you’ve gotten us this far and you’ll take us the rest of the way.' So I did not have to look over my shoulder. I knew it was mine. … I knew what I had to do, and that was to get those 27 outs.”

Langford said the other starters had the same mindset: to be there at the end. He appreciates that Martin put his faith in him.

“There was nothing more thrilling to me than to finish that game and be able to shake the hands of my teammates,” he says.

Kingman, who went 8-20 that season but had a 3.83 ERA, agrees that Martin’s against-the-book approach was a key factor.

“Billy Martin’s philosophy went a great way to allowing it to happen,” says Kingman, 58, who lives in Phoenix and still pitches in a senior league. “A lot of managers, most managers, would not have done that.

“I don’t know if it was McCatty or Keough or Norris, but someone said we didn’t have Dennis Eckersley in the bullpen, either. But how did we know? We never tried to find out,” he adds, laughing.

Langford’s pitching style contributed, too.

He was a sinker-slider pitcher who didn’t walk batters and pitched to contact. Though the team kept pitch counts, it was more for information than as a guide for pulling a starter.

“He was a craftsman,” Kingman says. “He had good control, and I was always amazed at his consistency. He was economical. He threw strikes, he’d get ahead in the count, make you hit his pitch. He’d finish a game in 100 or 110 pitches, whereas most of us would take 30 or more pitches, which is more wear and tear on your arm, and of course the game’s longer.”

* * *

Langford’s 1980 season got off to a bad start. He lasted just 3⅔ innings, giving up five runs in a loss to the Twins.

But over his next 32 starts, he pitched at least eight innings in 31 of them and three times pitched beyond nine, including the 14-inning, 6-5 victory over the Indians on July 20 that marked his 12th straight complete game.

In that one, Langford went to the ninth with a 5-0 lead but allowed one run and then faced Toby Harrah with the bases loaded.

“I could not put him away,” Langford recalls. “I finally hung a slider after how many pitches -- he and I battled each other -- and he hit a grand slam to tie the game.”

Even then, though, Martin stayed with him.

“I went back into the dugout and sat down and no one ever came to me, no one said anything to me,” he says. “I was still in the game. And I went out there and pitched five more. Dave McKay finally got a base hit in the 14th to win it. I was going out for the 15th. I wasn’t coming out.”

Five days later, he beat the Tigers 5-3.

As the streak continued, Langford remembers being in “a really good groove” and having confidence.

“It was very enjoyable for me,” he says. “I took a lot of pride in it.”

He remembers the 20th straight -- an eight-inning, 5-0 loss to the Yankees in New York -- as being special because it tied Roberts’ 1953 streak.

“I remember grinding that one out and thinking, ‘I got 20,’ and then it was just a matter of 'how far can you go with this?'”

When it finally stopped against the Rangers, he recalls feeling as if something very special had come to an end as he walked off the mound.

“It was important to me,” he says of the streak. “I was blessed to be able to do it and I was allowed to because of the trust my manager and all my teammates had in me. They picked up on it and they grinded with me. It was just a lot of fun.”

* * *

[+] EnlargeBrian Kingman of the Oakland A's
AP Photo/stfBrian Kingman was one of five A's pitchers to break the 200-inning mark in 1980.
The five A’s starters that season pitched an enormous number of innings. Langford (290), Norris (284⅓), Keough (250), McCatty (221⅔) and Kingman (211⅓) combined for 1,257⅓, the most of any starting staff since the 1950s. And their innings-per-start average of 7.78 ranks among the great staffs of the 1920s and ’30s, according to Hardball Times -- an era when starters completed about 47 percent of games.

But to some, all those complete games and innings spelled doom for The Five Aces. As baseball evolved toward pitch counts and shielding valuable starters from wear and tear for the long run, the 1980 A’s were held up as an example of what not to do.

In 1983, analyst Bill James wrote that Martin’s "Billy Ball" era in Oakland was actually “Billy Burnout,” and that his methods led to the downfall of all five A’s starters.

In 1983, Langford’s career took a nosedive. He went 4-19 from 1983-86 and he was done at age 34. Norris pitched just three more seasons and was gone by age 28 (except for a short comeback in 1990). Keough never pitched more than 100 innings after 1982 and retired in 1986 at 31. McCatty retired at 32. Kingman was out of the big leagues by 29.

Though Langford and Kingman say they wouldn’t change a thing -- they’d do it all over again -- Kingman says he can see from afar that 1980 likely took its toll.

“It seems like our season was sort of a landmark to where people … looked back three or four years later and saw that all of us were pretty much decimated,” he says.

While Kingman doesn’t believe there’s any magic number pitchers should be held to in their starts, he agrees pitchers should be monitored because they’re susceptible to injury as they tire. He admits the A’s staff probably was overused that year.

“I think he (Martin) thought ‘I’m going to use everybody as long as I can,’ ride them like a horse and if they last, great,” says Kingman, who cautions that he didn’t get along with Martin but isn’t “trying to pick on him.”

“It’s not that he didn’t care, but he just figured, ‘I’ll find more pitchers,’ I guess.”

Langford, however, says that 1980 season had nothing to do with his decline. He says he would have been fine if not for being hit on his pitching elbow by a line drive in 1983 -- and then deciding to make his next start anyway. He tore muscle tissue and eventually had to have elbow surgery. That was his undoing, he says.

“The innings didn’t bother me at all,” he says.

It’s an argument that many old-school baseball people agree with, pointing to long, successful careers of Hall of Famers such as Roberts, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale and Warren Spahn, who never seemed affected by heavy workloads.

* * *

These days, Langford works with Blue Jays pitchers coming off of surgery. The pitchers he coaches now would never be expected to go nine innings every time out. It’s a different era, and he’s not saying it’s worse.

But he says he’s glad he pitched when he did. He admits he’s old-fashioned.

“When I watch a game and a guy throws a shutout or a guy’s going deep in the game, I enjoy watching him work,” he says. “The good ones do that. I was watching one the other day. The guy went eight innings, came out winning 1-0, and he turned the ball over. Sure enough, the next guy walks the leadoff guy and it’s like, ‘Oh, geez, here we go.’ The next thing you know, the guy comes around (to score) and the guy doesn’t get his win.

[+] EnlargeRick Langford of the Toronto Blue Jays
Robert Rogers/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesRick Langford now works with the Toronto Blue Jays' injured pitchers.
“I’d like to see those guys finish it. That’s just the way I am.”

Though he knows his complete-game streak never got much national attention at the time -- it was partly obscured by George Brett’s run at .400 -- or in the years since, he’s proud of it.

“Even though I thought it was pretty cool what I was doing, no one else seemed to think it was,” he says, laughing.

Kingman, though, knows it was special.

“I don’t think I’ll live to see anyone break that,” he says.

Looking back, Langford just has one regret: that he didn’t pitch 10 more innings to reach 300 and join Steve Carlton (304 in 1980) as the last to reach that mark.

Also, he marvels at how close he came to pitching every inning of his 33 starts. Thirty-three times nine equals 297. Langford pitched 290 innings.

Says Langford: “That would be something if anyone ever did that, right?”

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