January 20, 2019

The day a Twins rookie took the mound opposite Don Larsen, Harvey Haddix and Jim Palmer

As July turned to August, the 1965 Twins found themselves with a five-game lead in the American League heading into an Aug. 2 matchup against a good Baltimore Orioles team, according to Cool Of The Evening, a book by Jim Thielman about that pennant-winning season for the Twins.

But rather than wait and let a rookie pitcher get his first big league start against the lowly Washington Senators (the second version of the Senators, I might add), Twins manager Sam Mele decided that 21-year-old lefty Jim Merritt was ready for the Orioles.

Blade-like and standing six-foot-two, Merritt was one of the last players cut during spring training. He showed remarkable poise, a nice repertoire of pitches, and an exceptional move on his pickoff throw to first base. It was a technique he had taught himself, and after just a few starts in Minnesota both scouts and opposing players decided Merritt’s pickoff move was second only to that of New York’s Whitey Ford.

Merritt retired the first 10 Orioles, according to Thielman’s book. This wasn’t Earl Weaver’s Orioles, and Frank Robinson had yet to join the team, but the lineup still featured Luis Aparicio, Boog Powell and Brooks Robinson. Oriole starter Steve Barber left the game early due to a back problem, so in came Don Larsen, best known for pitching a perfect game in a World Series, followed by Harvey Haddix, best known for pitching a perfect game for 12 innings that he would lose.

After Barber gave up two runs, Larsen and Haddix pitched scoreless baseball until reliever Dick Hall gave up three runs. He was finally replaced by 19-year-old Jim Palmer. Meanwhile, Merritt pitched eight-plus innings, giving up five runs (four earned) with one walk and six strikeouts.

With the game tied at 5-5 in the ninth, Merritt gave way to Twins reliever Johnny Klippstein. Klippstein got the win because Palmer served up a pinch hit home run to Twins outfielder, Jimmie Hall, and the Twins won, 6-5.

This game was also notable because Harmon Killebrew would dislocate his elbow and miss seven weeks of the season. Still, even without one of their best players, the Twins won the league by seven games because Zoilo Versalles and Tony Oliva had monster seasons (Versalles won the AL MVP award that year; Oliva finished second) and under-the-radar players Don Mincher and Hall hit 42 home runs between them.

Merritt spent four seasons with the Twins before being traded to the Cincinnati Reds. He won 20 games for the Reds in 1970.

Extra innings…

-The Twins have reportedly inked left-handed pitcher and former Texas Ranger Martin Perez to a one-year deal, according to various reports. My reaction to this deal is ho-hum because he had a dreadful season in 2018 (2-7, 6.22 ERA) and has a career ERA of 4.63. However, he did pitch close to 200 innings in 2016 and 2017.

COMMENTS

Hi, I’m Rolf Boone, Twins fan.

I became a fan of the Minnesota Twins after a friendly wager in the early 1980s. I survived Ron Davis, the meltdown in Cleveland, Phil Bradley at the Kingdome and then marveled at a rising generation of stars and two World Series wins in 1987 and 1991. Brad Radke made the 1990s bearable, while Kirby Puckett’s eye injury, exit from the game and eventual death made it almost too much to bear. The new century ushered in more talent — Joe Mauer, Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau — and consecutive seasons of playoff baseball, followed by consecutive seasons of losing baseball. A winning season returned in 2015. So here we are. Go Twins.