Those words about his fastball were uttered by former Cleveland Indians manager Al Dark. And Mike Cuellar’s response to that taunt about the left-hander’s speed ball? “Get his a** up there.”
I loved Cuellar. We (Orioles) positively stole him away from the Houston Astros on Dec. 4, 1968. Houston actually sent us three players in the deal. For the former 1965 rookie of the year, Curt Blefary, and John Mason (who?) we got Cuellar, infielder Enzo Hernandez and Elijah Johnson.
Blefary wasn’t terrible in his one year in Houston, as he played a full season and hit a dozen homers.
Cuellar in the meantime was terrific. After winning 42 games in six National League seasons, he won 143 games for the Orioles in eight campaigns.
Put it this way in the three straight World Series trips (1969-71), he averaged just over 22 wins a season.
Super scout Jim Russo found Cuellar toiling for the Astros and recommended the O’s pick him up. What was he throwing up there? There were screwballs and off-speed pitches to boot. Sure folks like Dark wondered why his Indians couldn’t hit him.
So why am I picking out a Cuellar loss to show how good he was? I remembered being so upset at the Birds hitters. Just get a few hits and score some runs for him. He’s pitching his heart out.
It was Oct. 9, 1973. It was game three of the AL championship playoffs. The game was played in Oakland. And Cuellar was dealing.
Maybe the southpaw was slowing down a little in 73. He still won 18 games for the runaway Birds of Baltimore. The O’s won 42 games combined in August and September to win the East by 8 games. We didn’t hit much for power but the likes of Al Bumbry and Rich Coggins ran the bases well.
So it’s pivotal game three of the championship series and Cuellar would battle Oakland lefty Kenny Holtzman.
The O’s struck first in the second inning. Earl Williams (remember him?) clocked a solo homer against Holtzman and it was 1-0. And it looked for awhile that Cuellar might make that one run stand up. He didn’t allow a hit until the fourth. By the seventh, he was breezing. He struck out Gene Tenace and Deron Johnson to open the frame. And Billy Conigliaro bounced to Bobby Grich at second base for the final out. He was six outs away from a shutout.
In the eighth, he struck out both Bert Campaneris and Sal Bando but Joe Rudi managed a clutch single knot the game up at 1-1.
Cuellar pitched into the 11th inning. Campaneris beat him with a solo homer. Cuellar’s losing line was 10 innings pitched, 4 hits, 2 earned runs, 3 walks and 11 strikeouts.
Of course there are plenty of great Cuellar winning moments. Certainly standing out was his wind-blown grand slam homer in game one of the AL playoff series against the Twins in 1970. And get this in July of 70, he had a three-hit day at the plate against the Tigers. He smashed a two-run homer in that win.
On the mound, Cuellar threw four career complete game one-hitters. Most memorable was that August of 1969 outing against a good Twins team. In notching his 15th win of his Cy Young Award season, Cuellar took a no-hitter to the ninth before Cesar Tovar broke it up.
Since the O’s haven’t visited many World Series lately, it’s hard to imagine racking up the post-season stats that Cuellar did. He pitched 44 innings for the Orioles in AL championship series. In those three World Series visits, he logged 41 innings and he pitched to a tidy ERA of 2.61. He split four World Series decisions.
Cuellar died on April 2 of 2010. He was simply wonderful in an O’s uniform.