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In Case Nobody Noticed, Odds on Hershiser’s Feat Were 2 Million to 1

The Washington Post

Perhaps no seminal baseball record in this century has been performed in such a publicity vacuum as Orel Hershiser’s amazing 59 consecutive shutout innings.

Because no one, including Hershiser, believed that he could possibly break Don Drysdale’s mark of 58 innings, no one, generally speaking, even bothered to notice. Until, suddenly, on Thursday morning, fans across America awoke to discover that Hershiser had already surpassed the two Hall-of-Famers who stood ahead of him: Drysdale and Walter Johnson (55 innings in 1913).

To sense the company Hershiser has been keeping, in his previous game, he passed two other Hall-of-Famers: Bob Gibson (47 innings in ’68) and Carl Hubbell (45 in 1933). To value the spine-tingling quality of this new mark, remember that it’s still intact. When Hershiser starts his first game of the ’89 season, his regular-season record (just like Hubbell’s 24 straight wins in ’36 and ’37) will continue with him.

Amid the clutter of the Olympics and football, not to mention the remnants of baseball’s pennant races, Hershiser has been a mere to-be-continued tale. Even on Wednesday it was presumed that, with a sixth straight shutout, he could only tie Drysdale’s record. Who would have dreamed that the game would be 0-0 after nine innings and Hershiser could break the record on the spot? (For those who haven’t noticed, baseball always takes care of these loose ends.)

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It’s doubtful at this juncture, even with an entire winter to mull over this monstrous artifact, that he ever will get all the acclaim he deserves. Although we should certainly try to do our best.

First, to what do we compare this new comet in our sky? Since Drysdale, 20 years ago, nobody has had a consecutive-shutout-inning streak worth mentioning.

Hitting streaks mean to batters roughly what shutout-inning streaks mean to pitchers. An average starting pitcher will throw a couple of shutouts a year, just as a mediocre hitter may have one or two 10-game hitting streaks.

In that light, is Hershiser’s record the equal in difficulty, historic weight and sheer shock value of Pete Rose’s National League record hitting streak of 44 games in 1978? Yes, almost certainly. Is it the equal of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak? Almost certainly not. But arguing about it would not be crass.

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How hard is it to pitch a shutout? For Hershiser, real hard. Before this year, he had only 11 in 124 career starts. And, in the last two years, just 2 shutouts in 70 starts.

To grasp the magnitude of the odds against him, some math helps. Until this month--this shocking perfect September of six starts and six unscored upon games--he had averaged a shutout once ever 11.2 starts. It’s convenient that this is very close to the major league norm.

What are the odds on an 11-to-1 shot coming home six times in a row-i.e., 11 to the sixth power? Our calculator says nearly 2 million to 1.

Hershiser’s streak has been as genuinely excellent as it has been invisible. In his six September starts, he allowed 32 hits and 9 walks in 55 innings, compared to 34 strikeouts. The first five shutouts were all vital to the Dodgers’ drive to the division title. Talk about a stretch run.

Of his last five starts, four were on the West Coast at night--which, to folks east of the Mississippi, is tantamount to performing on the dark side of the moon. As soon as Hershiser’s streak got serious, so did the Olympics. Sorry, Orel, no banner headlines. Tom Browning got almost as much attention for one perfect game as Hershiser has for a “perfect” month.

Some fans mistakenly think that the streak will end with the regular season. Not so. Baseball has all these precedents covered. Rube Marquard, for instance, holds the modern record for consecutive wins in a season (19), but Hubbell holds the more majestic mark of 24 over two years. If Hershiser could take his streak to 100 innings (OK, just kidding), the record book has a nice place ready for it.

Post-season imperfection in October also has nothing to do with Hershiser’s record. For example, Hubbell won 16 games to close the ’36 season, then went 1-1 in the World Series, before resuming with 8 wins to start 1937.

It’s said that records are made to be broken, but, in baseball, it sometimes seems that records are actually set so that we will be encouraged, almost forced, to look back at old records.

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For example, hard as it may be to believe, Hershiser is not the first man to pitch 9 or more shutout innings in 6 games in the same month. Big Ed Walsh of the Chicago White Sox did it twice-in August, 1906, and September, 1908. He didn’t even get a consecutive shutout-inning record for his trouble. He pitched so often--464 innings in 49 starts in 1908--that he had other games sprinkled in among the shutouts. In ’08, he not only won 40 games, but pitched in relief 17 times, saving a half-dozen games as an afterthought.

Considered on his cold statistics, Hershiser, who went 30-30 the two seasons after his 19-3 in ’85, might not even win this season’s Cy Young Award. Danny Jackson of the Reds has the same record-23-8. The Mets’ David Cone (19-3) is more games over .500 and still leads Hershiser in ERA.

That, if nothing else, is the reward Hershiser will get for his hidden and historic mark. The award is his now.

Who’d have thought, just a month ago, that the names of Orel Hershiser and Cy Young would go together so naturally?

HERSHISER’S SCORELESS-INNINGS STREAK

DATE OPPONENT/SITE INN. H R ER BB SO SCORE Sept. 5 Atlanta (Road) 9 4 0 0 1 8 3-0 Sept. 10 Cincinnati (Home) 9 7 0 0 3 8 5-0 Sept. 14 Atlanta (Home) 9 6 0 0 2 8 1-0 Sept. 19 Houston (Road) 9 4 0 0 0 5 1-0 Sept. 23 San Francisco (Road) 9 5 0 0 2 2 3-0

* Streak began with 4 scoreless innings in a 4-2 victory over Montreal on Aug. 30

* Hershiser has pitched 6 shutouts this season.

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DRYSDALE’S 1968 SCORELESS-INNINGS STREAK

DATE OPPONENT/SITE INN. H R ER BB SO SCORE May 14 Chicago (Home) 9 2 0 0 3 7 1-0 May 18 Houston (Home) 9 5 0 0 2 6 1-0 May 22 St. Louis (Road) 9 5 0 0 0 8 2-0 May 26 Houston (Road) 9 6 0 0 2 6 5-0 May 31 San Francisco (Home) 9 6 0 0 2 7 3-0 June 4 Pittsburgh (Home) 9 3 0 0 0 8 5-0

* Streak ended with 4 scoreless innings in a 5-3 victory over Philadelphia on June 8, 1968.

* Drysdale pitched 8 shutouts in 1968.


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