Cooperstowners in Canada: Bruce Sutter

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Whitey Herzog called Bruce Sutter the “Sandy Koufax of relievers,” and on September 8, 1977, the Montreal Expos certainly felt the same way.

Armed with his overpowering split-finger fastball, the bearded right-hander entered the game at Wrigley Field in the eighth inning with the Cubs and Expos deadlocked in a 2-2 tie. Sutter promptly struck out the side and then was even more impressive in the ninth inning when he fanned Ellis Valentine, Gary Carter and Larry Parrish on nine pitches. That was just the 21st time in big league history that a pitcher had struck out the side on nine pitches. His six consecutive strikeouts also tied a National League record for a reliever. And for icing on the cake, the Cubs closer picked up the win after he retired the Expos in the top of the 10th (no strikeouts) and Chicago first baseman Bill Buckner drove in Dave Rosello with a sacrifice fly in the bottom half of the inning to secure a 3-2 victory.

That performance might have been the most dominant of Sutter’s career, but the Cubs had come to expect this from the 6-foot-2 reliever who evolved into a lights-out closer after minor league pitching coach Fred Martin taught him how to to throw a splitter. Signed by the Cubs as an amateur free agent in 1971, Sutter spent parts of six seasons in the Cubs’ minors before making his big league debut on May 9, 1976.

Starting in 1977, Sutter was an all-star for five consecutive seasons and was named the National League Cy Young Award winner in 1979. After being dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1980, he continued his ninth-inning dominance and two years later, he struck out Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Gorman Thomas for the final out of the 1982 World Series. In all, Sutter, who finished his career with the Atlanta Braves in 1988, topped the National League in saves five times and notched 300 career saves. In 2006, he became the first pitcher to have never started a big league game to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Sutter pitched exclusively in the National League during his 13-year big league career, so he never toed the rubber against the Toronto Blue Jays, but he did regularly face the Expos and he suited up alongside some Canadians.

Here’s a rundown of some of Sutter’s Canadian connections:

– In 76 games against the Expos, Sutter secured 32 saves and posted a 3.42 ERA in 121 innings. He wasn’t as effective at Jarry Park (5.79 ERA) as he was at Olympic Stadium (3.57 ERA).

– What made his aforementioned six-consecutive strikeout performance on September 8, 1977 even more impressive was the fact that three of the Expos – Gary Carter, Andre Dawson and Tony Perez – that he fanned have since been inducted into National Baseball Hall of Fame. Two of them – Dawson and Carter – are also in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. And speaking of Canadian Baseball Hall of Famers, Steve Rogers started and pitched five scoreless innings for the Expos in that game.

– Sutter shared a dugout with Canadian outfielder Terry Puhl (Melville, Sask.) on the 1978 National League All-Star team. The big right-hander ended up being the winning pitcher that game when the National League rallied for four runs in the eighth inning to break a 3-3 tie. Puhl didn’t get into the game, but Rogers hurled two scoreless innings for the National League squad, which was managed by Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda.

– For the record, Puhl was 5-for-18 (.278 batting average) against Sutter over the course of his career.

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– Sutter notched his 200th career save in a game against the Montreal Expos. On April 28, 1984, the 6-foot-2 right-hander got the final four outs at Olympic Stadium in front of 16,727 fans to nail down a win for the Cardinals. It’s interesting to note that in that game the Expos had four Canadian Baseball Hall of Famers hitting back-to-back-to-back-to-back in their lineup: Tim Raines (3rd), Andre Dawson (4th), Gary Carter (5th) and Tim Wallach (6th).

– Given the state of the Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen, it’s surprising that they didn’t make more of an effort to land Sutter after he became a free agent following the 1984 campaign. The previous off-season the Blue Jays had diligently pursued Goose Gossage, before the hard-throwing hurler signed with the San Diego Padres. Sutter would ink a six-year, $9.6-million deal with the Atlanta Braves on December 7, 1984. The following day, the Blue Jays dealt Alfredo Griffin and Dave Collins to the Oakland A’s for closer Bill Caudill.

– Sutter did, however, have an impact on the Blue Jays bullpen in the future. A young right-hander named Duane Ward apprenticed under him in the Atlanta Braves bullpen, before he was traded to the Blue Jays on July 6, 1986 for Doyle Alexander. Ward became the best set-up man in Blue Jays history and excelled in the closer’s role in 1993 (45 saves) after Tom Henke signed with the Texas Rangers.

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– The only Canadian that Sutter played with (aside from Puhl in the 1978 all-star game) was New Denver, B.C., native Ken Crosby. Like Sutter, Crosby was a right-handed reliever. Crosby pitched with Sutter in the minors (Midland, Double-A, 1975; Wichita, Triple-A, 1976) and in the majors (Cubs, 1976).

 

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