St. Louis Cardinals

Greatest Cardinals No. 22: LHP John Tudor

NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.

NO. 22: LHP JOHN TUDOR

When the Cardinals brought John Tudor back to St. Louis as a free agent in 1990, it came with the offer of a two-year deal.

But at age 36, having undergone sundry surgeries to his throwing arm that sapped velocity from an already well-sapped fastball, Tudor himself wondered whether even one more season would be one too many.

Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog believed the left-hander was worth the risk, if only because of the guts and guile he’d displayed during a previous four-year stint in St. Louis.

“John Tudor did more with less than any pitcher in the history of baseball,” Herzog said in “You’re Missin’ a Great Game.” “Sonofagun could’ve pitched right handed and won, I believe.”

Besides, Tudor already had given the Cardinals more than they bargained for, including a franchise-record .703 winner percentage and National League pennants in both 1985 and ‘87. Even if his achy arm ran out of juice during the first year, Herzog reasoned, whatever salary Tudor collected had already been earned.

Herzog first identified Tudor as a good fit for the Redbird rotation in 1982, when he posted a 13-10 record and 3.63 ERA pitching for the Red Sox. For a left-handed pitcher in Boston’s Fenway Park, where pitches that drift inside to right-handed batters usually end up as dents on the Green Monster, three games above. 500 was a banner year. To Herzog, it spoke to Tudor’s intelligence and pinpoint control. Plus, whatever mistakes he did make at Fenway would just as often be outs in cavernous Busch Stadium.

Beyond Joaquin Andujar’s 20 wins and Dave LaPoint’s 12, the only Cardinals starter with a winning record in 1984 was rookie Kurt Kepshire, who went 6-5. Herzog wanted pitching depth, and they guy he had in mind was Tudor, who had been traded to Pittsburgh the previous offseason. St. Louis got him on Dec. 12 by sending outfielder-first baseman George Hendrick to the Pirates.

Not much was expected from the Cardinals in 1985 and Tudor had done nothing to buoy their prospects when he went 1-7 through May. That’s when Dave Bettencourt, Tudor’s catcher at Peabody High School in Massachusetts, noticed a hitch in his old battery-mate’s delivery. His phoned-in pitching tip resulted in one of the greatest turnarounds in big league history.

Tudor’s only loss the remainder of the regular season came on July 20, when St. Louis was shutout, 3-0, by the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela. Otherwise, he won 20 games with a 1.37 ERA.

The Cardinals were a surprise, too. With 101 victories, they edged the New York Mets by three games in a contentious race for the National League Eastern Division crown. Tudor came up clutch several times including a Sept. 11 showdown at Shea Stadium with Mets’ ace Dwight Gooden with their respective teams in a tie at the top of the standings.

The two dueled through nine scoreless inning before Cesar Cedeno, who had entered the game for St. Louis as a pinch runner in the eighth, homered off Mets’ closer Jesse Orosco to lead off the 10th inning. Tudor struck out Darryl Strawberry for the game’s final out to preserve a 1-0 win. He had allowed just three hits while striking out seven.

On Oct. 5, after the Mets had defeated the Cardinals two games out of three to pull back within two of first place, Tudor clinched the division by beating the Chicago Cubs on a four-hitter.

After being out-dueled by Valenzuela again in the first game of the National League Championship Series, Tudor picked up a 4-2 win in Game 4. In the World Series, he helped give St. Louis a three-games-to-one lead over Kansas City with wins in Games 1 and 4. The Royals scored just one run off of him on 12 hits in the two starts combined.

Tudor got the ball again for the decisive seventh game. For all intents and purposes, though, the Cardinals had already surrendered to the frustration of a Game 6 meltdown that included umpire Don Denkinger’s infamous blown call. He lasted into the third inning as the Royals went on to their first World Series title.

22 John Tudor smiles.jpg
St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher John Tudor is armed with a bat and a smile as he participates in batting practice at St. Louis Busch Stadium, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 1987, prior to the start of the third game of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy) Rusty Kennedy ASSOCIATED PRESS

Still, it had been a historical season for Tudor.

Eight pitchers in 2018 shared the major league lead for complete games with two apiece. In 1985, Tudor had 10 complete-game shutouts. Despite his rocky start, he finished 21-8 with a 1.93 ERA in 275 innings, striking out 169 batters along the way while walking just 49. With his 24 wins and 1.53 ERA, Gooden won the NL Cy Young vote, while Tudor finished as runner up.

Shoulder troubles and other injuries plagued Tudor throughout the remainder of his career, but he continued to find ways to win. Offseason shoulder surgery and the bizarre knee injury he sustained when Mets’ backup catcher Barry Lyons crashed into him in the Cardinals’ dugout, limited Tudor to 96 innings in 1987. Still, he went 10-2, not counting three postseason wins.

Another surgery to have screws implanted in the balky knee put him on the DL for the start of the 1988 season, but he still managed a 2.29 ERA in 145 innings through Aug. 16. In need of a first baseman, however, the Cardinals traded Tudor to Los Angeles for first baseman Pedro Guererro.

He lasted just 14 innings for the Dodgers in 1989 before Tommy John surgery and torn cartilage put him back on the shelf and led to his free agency.

Even before the surgery, Tudor’s fastball was topping out at about 79 mph. But his success had always been rooted in his ability to change speed on nearly every pitch he threw. Herzog wanted the wily left-hander back and told him he’d be crazy to refuse that two-year offer and all its guaranteed money.

“It was like talking to a brick wall,” Herzog said. Tudor signed on for the single season only.

The Cardinals won just 70 games in 1990, finishing in last place for the first time since 1918, and Herzog resigned. But Tudor, the NL Comeback Player of the Year, went 12-4 with a 2.40 ERA in 146 innings.

The following season he was back home in Massachusetts playing first base for the Wakefield Merchants of the Intercity League — for free.

SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1985-88, 1990

KEY STATS

62-26, 2.52 ERA in St. Louis | Franchise record .705 winning pct. | 19.9 WAR

TOP 100 SCORE: 3.98

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BND Assigning News Editor Todd Eschman has won numerous state and regional awards for his columns, feature stories and news reporting. He was born and raised in Belleville, attended SIU-Carbondale, and is a member of the BBWAA, SABR and St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame.
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