Monday, January 16, 2012

One Season Wonders: George Stone

The 1972 Mets began the season with the tragic loss of manager Gil Hodges to a fatal heart attack.  New manager Yogi Berra took over the team in April and led them to the best start in franchise history.  By late May, the Mets had a 6½-game lead in the NL East.  On June 3, the Mets defeated the Atlanta Braves by the final score of 5-2 to improve their record to 31-12.  But within that victory, the Mets suffered a significant loss, as Rusty Staub was hit by an errant pitch thrown by Braves' reliever George Stone.

Coming into that fateful game, Stone had been one of the worst pitchers in the National League.  He had faced 62 batters in 1972 and allowed more than half of them (32) to reach base.  Opposing batters were hitting a whopping .491 against him over the first two months of the season causing his ERA to balloon to 11.70.  Ironically, his control wasn't that much of a problem, as he had walked only five batters and had yet to hit anyone with a pitch.  Then Rusty Staub's hand got in the way and everything changed for the 1972 Mets.

Prior to the series against Atlanta, Staub was putting up MVP-caliber numbers for the Mets.  In the team's first 41 games, Staub was hitting .323 with seven home runs and 27 RBI.  He also had an excellent eye at the plate, walking 20 times while striking out on ten occasions.  As a result, his on-base percentage was among the league leaders at .403.  His power stroke also placed him near the top of the league in slugging percentage, as Staub was slugging .506 at the time.

Staub continued to play after getting hit in the hand by Stone, but his performance suffered.  On June 18, after playing six innings against the Cincinnati Reds, Staub was taken out of the game and missed a month of action.  At the time, the Mets were still in first place in the NL East, albeit by a slim half-game margin.  Staub came back one month later, played the entire game in an extra-inning affair against the Los Angeles Dodgers, then was promptly placed on the disabled list, where he missed another two months of action.  By the time he came back, the Mets had fallen to third place in the NL East and were 16
½ games behind the eventual division champion Pittsburgh Pirates.  Although the Mets weren't mathematically eliminated until the day after Staub returned to the lineup, their season was lost back in June at the hands of George Stone.

The strong start by the 1972 Mets gave fans reason to believe that their team was going back to the World Series for the second time in four seasons.  They would have to wait another year for that to happen and they would have an unexpected figure play a role in that march to the pennant, a figure who they felt cost them that opportunity in 1972. 

It's Amazin' how one wonderful season can turn boos into cheers.

Soon after the completion of the 1972 season, the Mets felt they needed an upgrade at second base.  Ken Boswell had been with the Mets since 1967 and became their primary second baseman in their championship season of 1969.  But after hitting .273 for the team in 1971, Boswell became an automatic out in 1972, batting .211 in 100 games and reaching base at a .274 clip.  A change was needed at second base and the Braves were making their second sacker available.  On November 2, 1972, the Mets got their man, acquiring three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove Award winner Felix Millan from Atlanta for pitchers Danny Frisella and Gary Gentry.  Millan wasn't the only former Brave to come to New York in the deal, as George Stone made the trek up north to complete the deal.

George Heard Stone had had some success with the Braves early in his career.  From 1968 to 1970, Stone was used as both a starter and reliever for Atlanta, going 31-25 with three saves and a respectable 3.60 ERA.  After falling to 6-8 in 1971, Stone hit rock-bottom in 1972, going 6-11 with a 5.51 ERA.  He also didn't make many friends in New York with his season-changing hit by pitch of Rusty Staub.  But Stone was going to be a Met in 1973, and the team decided to put him in the bullpen to start the season.  That role didn't last for very long.

When the 1973 season began, Jim McAndrew was slated to be the team's fourth starter, behind Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman.  But after his best year in the majors in 1972 (11-8, 2.80 ERA), McAndrew struggled mightily to start the 1973 campaign.  Although he was 3-3 in his first six starts, McAndrew was carrying a 4.73 ERA.  He was also not pitching deeply into games, averaging barely more than five innings per start (32
IP in six starts).  McAndrew earned a save pitching in relief in a 19-inning marathon victory over the Dodgers in late May, but then pitched horribly against the same Dodgers just two days later, allowing five runs on nine hits and three walks in only four innings of work.  A change was needed in the rotation and manager Yogi Berra gave George Stone a chance to redeem himself after a poor 1972 campaign in Atlanta.  It ended up being one of the best decisions made by the team in 1973.

On June 2, 1973, George Stone made his first start for the Mets after making seven relief appearances over the first two months of the season.  Stone was pitching brilliantly out of the pen, allowing only one run in 15 innings of work.  His best performance in relief came in the 19-inning game against the Dodgers in which Jim McAndrew collected his first and only save of the season.  Stone was the winning pitcher in that game, pitching six scoreless innings against Los Angeles.  The extended relief appearance prepared Stone for his first start a week later, this time against the San Diego Padres.  Stone pitched well against the Friars, giving up three runs in six innings.  He allowed only five hits and walked no one.  Unfortunately, the Mets were shut out by the Padres, 3-0, pinning Stone with his first loss of the season.

Stone would make five more starts over the next month, going 3-2 with a 3.32 ERA, which was respectable, but not great.  However, by then Jim McAndrew had completely lost any opportunity to return to the starting rotation, losing four consecutive decisions and watching his ERA spin out of control to 5.83.  Except for one start in August (another loss), McAndrew was in the bullpen for good, leaving the fourth spot in the rotation to George Stone.  It was an opportunity Stone would take full advantage of.

On a staff that featured Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack, it was George Stone who proved to be the most unbeatable pitcher during the second half of the 1973 season.

From July 14 to August 6, Stone started four games for the Mets, pitching nearly eight innings per start and allowing exactly two earned runs in each of the four starts.  The Mets won all four games, with Stone receiving credit for three of the wins.  Stone suffered a rare poor outing on August 11, a game in which he received a no-decision after he allowed six runs (four earned) in only one-third of an inning to San Francisco.  However, that would be the sole blip in the George Stone machine.  He followed up his outing against the Giants with 8
⅔ innings of one-run ball against the Big Red Machine, with the only run scoring on a ninth-inning RBI single by future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench.  Again, Stone was credited with a no-decision as the Mets went on to lose the game, 2-1, in ten innings.  That no-decision streak would stretch to four in his next start (Stone got a no-decision in the Mets' victory on August 6 to start the streak), but the Mets did manage to win that game against the Dodgers, 4-3.

By late August, the Mets were in last place, a dozen games below .500.  However, despite their ugly 58-70 record, the Mets found themselves only 6
½ games behind the first place Cardinals, who at 65-64 were leading the mediocre National League East.  Even after Tug McGraw told everyone on the team that "Ya Gotta Believe", it was difficult for anyone to believe that the Mets were going to play anything but the spoiler role in the National League East.  But George Stone, despite spoiling the Mets' season in 1972, was not going to be happy with just spoiling other teams' chances in the NL East.  He was absolutely a believer in the 1973 Mets and through his performances over the final month of the regular season, he was going to make everyone a believer, too.

At 58-70, no one was taking the Mets seriously in the lackluster NL East.  But George Stone still had something to prove to Mets fans.  On the night of August 27, 1973, Stone took the Shea Stadium mound against the San Diego Padres, the team that beat him in his first start of the season.  This time, Stone would not be denied.  He pitched seven strong innings, allowing three runs on seven hits while walking no one.  Stone also helped the Mets at the plate in that game.  With the Mets trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the fifth inning, Stone reached first on a catcher's interference call to lead off the inning.  As fate would have it, it would be Rusty Staub who drove him in on the strength of a grand slam home run later in the inning.  Stone's victory on that late August night at Shea would prove to be the game that turned the Mets' season around.

From August 27 to the end of the season, the Mets won 24 of their last 33 games, passing every team in the National League East on their way to an unlikely division title.  George Stone's victory against the Padres began a streak in which he won five consecutive starts.  After defeating San Diego in August, Stone's next four starts were among his stingiest of the season, as he allowed five runs in 27
⅓ innings for a 1.65 ERA.  Those starts were only part of an historic second half of the 1973 season for Stone.  Beginning on July 14, Stone won eight consecutive decisions and gave up three runs or less in 12 of his final 13 starts.  By season's end, Stone was 12-3 with a 2.80 ERA and the Mets were National League East champions for the second time in five years.

It was on to the playoffs for the Mets, where they would face the powerhouse Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS.  After taking a two games to one lead over the Reds in the best-of-five series, George Stone was tabbed to help the Mets win the pennant in Game 4.  Stone was brilliant early on, allowing only two hits and one walk in six shutout innings.  But the Mets were also struggling at the plate, managing only one hit off Reds' starter Fred Norman and reliever Don Gullett through the first six innings.  But that one hit had produced the only run of the game, as the Mets took a 1-0 lead into the seventh inning.  However, one swing off the bat of Tony Perez changed all that, as his homer off Stone tied the game at 1.  Stone was taken out of the game and the Mets eventually lost in 12 innings.  Despite the no-decision, it was Stone's 13th game in 14 starts in which he allowed three runs or less.  The Mets did win the pennant the following night at Shea Stadium and they went on to play the defending World Series champion Oakland Athletics for the 1973 title, a series that may have been decided when Yogi Berra decided NOT to use George Stone.

Perhaps Yogi Berra wouldn't have been so stone-faced in this photo if he had let Stone face the A's.

Against the Oakland A's, manager Yogi Berra decided to go with a three-man rotation, sending Jon Matlack, Jerry Koosman and Tom Seaver to the mound in Games 1, 2 and 3, while using George Stone out of the bullpen.  The move paid off in Game 2 of the World Series, even though it looked as if Berra was never going to use Stone in the game.

The Mets dropped Game 1 of the World Series by the final score of 2-1, so they weren't going to take any chances in Game 2.  After scoring four runs in the top of the sixth inning to take a 6-3 lead, Berra brought in closer Tug McGraw to pitch in the bottom of the sixth.  McGraw got through the sixth unscathed, but gave up a run to Oakland in the seventh.  With a well-rested Stone in the bullpen, Berra left McGraw in the game to pitch the eighth inning.  After retiring the A's in order in the eighth, McGraw was allowed to pitch the ninth inning.  Unfortunately, Oakland tied the game with two runs in the ninth to send the game into extra innings.  Stone was ready to pitch in extra innings, but Berra wasn't ready to give up on his closer.

Tug McGraw had pitched two scoreless innings in Game 1 of the World Series.  One day later, he was not as fortunate, allowing three runs in four innings of work.  Despite the extra work, McGraw was summoned to start the tenth inning against the A's.  His next two innings were spectacular, as the Tugger retired all six batters to face him, with four coming via the strikeout.  The Mets finally responded in the 12th inning, scoring four times to take a 10-6 lead.  Incredibly, McGraw was allowed to start his seventh inning of work, but this time he didn't make it through the inning.  After allowing the first two batters in the 12th to reach base, George Stone was finally summoned to replace McGraw.

Pitching for the first time since Game 4 of the NLCS, Stone gave up an RBI single to his first batter, Jesus Alou, then issued a one-out walk to Mike Andrews to load the bases.  The A's had the bases loaded, veteran pinch-hitter Vic Davalillo representing the winning run at the plate and All-Star Bert Campaneris on deck.  Stone had worked his way into a jam, but reared back and retired Davalillo on a pop-up to second baseman Felix Millan.  With the bases still loaded, he then retired Campaneris on a groundout to shortstop Buddy Harrelson, earning the save and allowing the Mets to tie the series at one game apiece.

The Mets returned to Shea Stadium and won two of the three games at home, taking a 3-2 series lead back to Oakland.  Needing one win to capture their second title, the Mets decided to go with Tom Seaver on three days rest in Game 6, bypassing the opportunity to use George Stone, who had only pitched one inning over the first five games of the series.  It was a move that would forever be questioned by Mets fans everywhere, as Seaver allowed single runs in the first and third innings and the Mets lost, 3-1.

By using Seaver instead of Stone in Game 6, the Mets were left without their ace in Game 7 and were forced to use second-year starter Jon Matlack to pitch the first seventh game in Mets history.  Matlack was knocked out early, allowing four runs in 2
⅔ innings.  By the time the Mets came to bat in the seventh inning, the score was 5-1 and the season was slipping away.  George Stone was finally brought into the game in the bottom of the seventh to stop the bleeding, which he did, pitching two scoreless innings.  However, he would be the last Met to take the mound in 1973, as the Mets were only able to push across one run in the ninth inning, losing the game and the World Series.

If George Stone had started Game 6, this might not have been the only ring won by the Mets in '73.

Although he had a surprisingly good regular season, Stone was barely used in the postseason.  He started one of the five games in the NLCS and was used in relief twice in the World Series, allowing a combined one run on seven hits in 9⅔ innings.  Despite the unfortunate ending to the 1973 season, the Mets expected to contend for the division title in 1974 with George Stone joining Seaver, Koosman and Matlack as part of a formidable rotation.  Instead, they formed the nucleus of one of the most disappointing teams in Mets history.

Stone started 13 games for the Mets in 1974, fighting through injuries and finishing the year with a 2-7 record and a 5.03 ERA.  After finishing one win short of a championship in 1973, the Mets finished 20 games under .500 in 1974.  They did recover to win 82 games in 1975, but Stone did not recapture his 1973 magic, going 3-3 with a 5.05 ERA in 11 starts.  Although he was only 28 years old, Stone's career as a Met was over.

Four years after breaking the hand of Rusty Staub, George Stone was traded to the Texas Rangers for (ironically) a pitcher named Hands.  Neither player involved in the trade ever pitched in the major leagues again.

George Stone was disliked by Mets fans when the team acquired him five months after effectively ending their 1972 season.  But the boos directed at Stone quickly turned to cheers as the 1973 season progressed.  Stone was one of the most unexpected success stories in 1973, helping the Mets advance to the World Series after they had been left for dead in the National League East.  His .800 winning percentage led all Mets pitchers and his 2.80 ERA was second only to Tom Seaver.

Although Stone only won five more games as a Met following the 1973 season, he left an indelible mark in the minds of Mets fans who were rooting for another miracle to occur.  When George Stone was traded to the Mets prior to the 1973 season, he was basically a throw-in in a deal meant to strengthen the middle of the infield.  But he became a key cog in helping his teammates and the fans believe that miracles can happen where you least expect them to.  He may have had only one good season in New York, but what a wonderful season it was for both George Stone and the Mets.

Note: One Season Wonders is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets who had one and only one memorable season in New York.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:
January 2, 2012: Bernard Gilkey
January 9, 2012: Terry Leach


Brian Joura said...

I really enjoyed this piece!

Ed Leyro (and Joey Beartran) said...

Thanks, Brian! Always great to have a respected blogger such as yourself liking my work.


He was actually 1st Met to reach 1st base on Catcher's Interference.