While games in September in a close pennant race tend to feel more important that ones from, say, June, they’re technically not. Every single game during the regular season is worth the same no matter under what circumstances they’re played.
Even though that is true, early season games can tend to get lost in the shuffle when thinking about key moments in a pennant race. However as it turns out, sometimes a pitcher taking a walk while hitting can be one key difference that separates two teams.
One June 15th, 1952, the Yankees were in Cleveland playing a doubleheader to end a four-game set. The two teams split the first two games with the Yankees then taking the front end of the doubleheader. That win kept the Yankees half a game in front in the AL, having only recently gotten close to previously leading Cleveland atop the standings.
In the second game of the doubleheader, the Yankees sent Bob Kuzava to the mound in his first start of the season. Up to that point, he had been used out of the bullpen, albeit not especially well. A week before he actually came in to a game in the first inning and ended up throwing a full nine innings, allowing just one run. Despite the solid outing, it only lowered his ERA to just 5.01.
However, that day Kuzava was in pretty good form again. He allowed one run in the fourth inning, but other than that started the day by mostly putting up zeroes. The Yankees fought back and put up two runs in the sixth taking the lead. After that, Kuzava kept on rolling, retiring nine of the next 11 hitters he faced after being given the lead. The Yankees led 2-1 going into the ninth, where the offense began to get going in an effort for some insurance runs.
Yogi Berra and Billy Martin both picked up hits as part of a sequence that loaded the bases with two outs. That brought up the pitcher’s spot and Kuzava. Now, you might think that in a close game against the team you’re fighting in the standings that you might want to send up a pinch hitter for the pitcher. Even though bullpens were used more sparingly in this era, Kuzava was a poor hitter even by pitcher standards with -21 OPS+ for his career. Despite that, Casey Stengel took the gamble in wanting to keep his starter on the mound for the bottom of the ninth. It ended up ... working?
Kuzava managed to draw a walk, plating a run. After that, the lineup shifted back to the top where Phil Rizzuto also walked to drive home a run. Mickey Mantle couldn’t keep it going, but the Yankees now had some breathing room and a 4-1 lead.
In the bottom of the ninth, Kuzava came back out but quickly got in some trouble. He allowed singles on either side of a fly out, and suddenly Cleveland was bringing the tying run to the plate. At that point, Stengel went to his bullpen and brought in Allie Reynolds. After getting a groundout that moved runners to second and third, Reynolds allowed a hit to Dale Mitchell. Suddenly Cleveland was within a run at 4-3 and the winning run was coming to the plate. Reynolds bounced back and picked up the final out of the game.
As it turned out, Kuzava drawing a walk to not only score a run, but keep the inning alive to score a fourth run, ended up being very important. If he doesn’t do that and things play out the same in the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees would’ve lost via walk-off. That wasn’t the only unseen effect that walk would have.
The Yankees spent the rest of the season in first or tied for it, but never got their lead above 5.5 games. Even as the Yankees ended the season on a 13-2 run, Cleveland kept pace nearly the whole way. After dropping the season finale, the Yankees ended with a 95-59 record, just two games ahead of Cleveland. That meant that if the 4-3 June 15th win had gone the other way, that would’ve been enough to turn the two-game lead into a tie, requiring the teams to face off in a tiebreaker. However, because they won it, the Yankees won the pennant and ended up winning their fourth-consecutive World Series. They followed that up with another title in ‘53, winning a record five in a row, a mark which still stands today. Not winning in ‘52 meant their streak would’ve been a still very good but not all-time legendary record-breaking three-peat.
Never take for granted a random Yankee drawing a walk in a random June game. Turns out, it might be quite important down the line.