The Red Sox had roughed up southpaws at home all season, but Kaat, with seven straight wins and a 1.56 ERA in September, had pitched as well as anyone after the All-Star break. His fastball was breaking down and away to righthanded hitters, a good formula to avoid having pitches launched toward the Green Monster in left field.
“You try to tell yourself it’s just another ballgame, but you know it isn’t,” Kaat said in the hours leading up to his biggest start of 1967. One of the tightest American League races involving multiple teams had come down to the final weekend, and the Twins needed only one win to advance to their second World Series in three years.
After two mostly disappointing decades, Red Sox fans came out in full force, rooting their team to complete what had been tagged--after the hit song from the musical Man from LaMancha—“The Impossible Dream.” A World Series atmosphere greeted the Twins.
“I had never heard a crowd holler like that,” said Twins closer Al Worthington. “They hollered from the first inning through the whole night. I think that might have bothered us some. We always scored a lot of runs when we went into Boston, but we didn't score those two games. The noise was deafening.”
Zoilo Versalles opened the Saturday game with a single to left off Red Sox starter Jose Santiago, a swingman who had made just 10 starts in 1967 but pitched brilliantly in August and September. With Boston needing a win to stay alive, Boston manager Dick Williams might have gone with staff ace Jim Lonborg on two days’ rest, but it was Santiago flirting with trouble when he issued a one-out walk to Harmon Killebrew to move Versalles into scoring position.
Tony Oliva singled up the middle to put the Twins in front, 1-0, and Bob Allison followed with another single to load the bases. The Twins were positioned to have a big inning, but Santiago recovered, retiring Rod Carew and Ted Uhlaender on a soft liner and easy groundball to end the early threat.
Despite having worked more than 60 innings already in September, Kaat looked as though he might repeat his pennant-clinching success of two years earlier. He allowed three singles in the first two frames, but four of the first seven outs he recorded were strikeouts.
When he threw a third strike past Santiago to open the third inning, however, he felt a pop in his throwing elbow. After bouncing a pitch 10 feet short of the plate to Red Sox leadoff man Mike Andrews, Kaat was forced to leave the game.
The innings had piled up for two straight seasons—568 in all—and his ninth September start was the breaking point. For Kaat, who was poised to complete Minnesota’s four-month surge to the pennant, suffering an elbow injury in his most important start was crushing.
Nearly 45 years later, Kaat fondly recalls pitching well in an historic pennant race. “I think probably the most satisfying month of pitching I ever had was September of '67,” said Kaat. “It was far and away my best month of pitching.”
For several years after suffering the injury, the 28-year-old veteran would be nowhere near the same pitcher. His elbow didn’t hurt, so he bypassed elbow surgery and continued to pitch.
“They didn't have Tommy John surgery then, and I opted not to have them cut on it,” Kaat explained. “In those days, you really didn't bounce back from ordinary surgery. So I let it heal on its own. It took me a few years to get back to full strength.”
The Twins were still leading 1-0 when Kaat gave way to Jim Perry, who made quick work of the Red Sox in both the third and fourth frames. Twins pitching had quieted Boston’s bats and the Fenway crowd, but the faithful came to life in the fifth when center fielder Reggie Smith led off with a double off the base of the Green Monster.
Although the game was still young, Williams called on Dalton Jones to pinch-hit for starting catcher Russ Gibson. Jones hit a soft grounder that took a funny hop off the edge of the infield grass in front of Carew, who could only knock it down. The infield hit put runners on the corners with no out. Perry rebounded to fan both Santiago and Andrews before third baseman Jerry Adair tied the game by dumping a bloop single into shallow right, just beyond the reach of Carew.
Up stepped Carl Yastrzemski, who pulled Boston’s wagon in the wild pennant race of 1967. On course for the Triple Crown and the favorite for MVP honors, he was the guy the Red Sox wanted at the plate with the pennant on the line. Yastrzemski delivered, slashing a hard hopper that eluded a diving Killebrew at first. Carew came up with the ball deep in the hole, but Yaz was safe when Perry, expecting the ball to reach the outfield, failed to cover first base. Jones came home with the go-ahead run.
The Twins tied the game 2-2 in the sixth, minutes later, leading off Boston’s half of the inning, Red Sox slugger George Scott golfed Ron Kline’s first pitch over the Green Monster. It wasn’t a bad pitch; Kline had kept the ball down. But Scott put Boston in front, 3-2.
The Red Sox all but put the game away in the seventh. With one out, Andrews beat out a check-swing dribbler down the third-base line and Adair followed with a one-hopper back to Kline. The reliever spun toward second base and his throw was in plenty of time to retire Andrews, but Versalles started his relay to first before he had possession of the ball. Both runners were safe.
With Yastrzemski coming to the plate again, Twins manager Cal Ermer opted for a lefty-lefty matchup and brought in Jim Merritt, whose slider could neutralize lefthanded hitters. Merritt fell behind, failing to get Yaz to chase the slider that he had used so effectively against him during the season. Then Yaz jumped on a 3-1 fastball and launched it into the right-field bullpen to put Boston up 6-2. The homer was his major league-leading 44th, and arguably his biggest of the year.
The lead stood up, although Killebrew hit his 44th as well, a two-run shot into the netting above the left-field wall with two outs in the ninth. The late comeback ended abruptly when Oliva, facing Red Sox reliever Gary Bell, lined a hard shot that Adair speared at third base for the final out. The Red Sox had held on for a 6-4 victory.
A mental gaffe and error loomed large in the loss, but after the game, Ermer noted that he was bothered most by the lost opportunity in Minnesota’s first at-bat. Santiago was a swingman, not a frontline starter, and his velocity in the opening inning had Williams on the verge of yanking him. Santiago had run the count to 3-1 to Uhlaender before the Twins outfielder grounded out to end the threat. Williams later said Santiago would have been replaced by Bell had he walked Uhlaender.
The loss dropped the Twins into a first-place tie with Boston at 91-70. In Detroit, Tigers lefty Mickey Lolich tossed a three-hit shutout in the first of two games with the California Angels, It was his third straight shutout in a critical game for the Tigers, who were closing the season with doubleheaders on both Saturday and Sunday.
Now the Tigers were positioned to take first place by a half-game if they could claim Saturday’s nightcap. A six-run eighth inning by the Angels erased a 6-2 Detroit lead, however, and California’s come-from-behind victory left the Tigers a half-game out of first place entering the final day.
Still, the Tigers controlled their own destiny. If they swept Sunday’s twinbill with the Angels, they would face the winner of Sunday’s Minnesota-Boston finale in a three-game playoff to determine who would face the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
I will post about the 1967 Twins and their wild AL pennant race down to Sunday’s final game of the season, culling stories from the upcoming and tentatively titled The Glory Years of the Minnesota Twins: Rock ‘n’ Roll, War and Peace, the Civil Rights Movement and Baseball in the 1960s. I also post on my author page on Facebook.