Five days ago, former ’70s New York great Jon Matlack celebrated his 63rd birthday. Today on “Glory Days,” we revisit his finest moment in a Mets uniform, and one of the most important moments in early franchise history.
Dateline: October 7, 1973, Game 2 of the NLCS between the New York Mets and the Cincinnati Reds. The Big Red Machine had topped the upstart (and barely over .500) New Yorkers 2-1 the day before to take a 1-0 series lead. On the hill for the visitors at Riverfront Stadium is a prominent 23-year-old ace-to-be Jon Matlack, the #4 pick in the 1967 draft, who followed up his 1972 Rookie of the Year campaign with a decent ’73 (14-16, 3.20 ERA). His counterpart for the Redlegs was Cincy stalwart Don Gullett in a matchup that would decide whether the best-of-five series would remain just that: a series.
Matlack and Gullett traded scoreless performances the first three innings, but the scoreless tie was broken up in a hurry in the 4th when Rusty Staub tagged a one-out solo home run. From there on out, the game sped on like the late Tommy Agee in center field. Gullet departed after the 5th, but Matlack continued cruising along, scattering two hits and three walks across his first seven frames.
Matlack was more impressive in the 8th, as he struck out Ed Armbrister and Denis Menke in succession and got future hit king Pete Rose to ground out harmlessly to shortstop. In the top of the 9th, New York finally gave their strong arm some strongarm at the plate: Felix Milan hit a one-out single and went to second on Staub’s walk. Cleon Jones’s single brought home Milan, and the two ended up in scoring position after a throwing error. John Milner was walked intentionally and Jerry Grote plated Staub and Jones on a single. Don Hahn singled the bases loaded and Bud Harrelson provided one more run with a base-knock. All of a sudden, and without the benefit of an extra-base hit, the Mets upgraded Matlack’s cushion from one run to five.
The added boost was what Jon needed to retire Joe Morgan (flyout), Tony Perez (flyout), and Johnny Bench (strikeout, his ninth) to end the game. Final score: Mets 5, Reds 0, series tied 1-1. Matlack’s complete-game shutout included holding Cincinnati’s Hall-of-Fame-caliber top four (Rose, Morgan, Perez, Bench) hitless in 16 combined at-bats.
Behind strong performances by Jerry Koosman and Tom Seaver in Games 3 and 5, the Mets pulled off a shocker to beat the Reds and won the National League Pennant. Matlack’s reward for a masterful Game 2 was the start in Game 1 of the World Series. He took a tough loss in that game to the Oakland Athletics and delivered a strong win in Game 4. Unfortunately for him and New York, Bert Campaneris and Reggie Jackson knocked him out in the 3rd inning of Game 7 and the A’s took the world championship (their second of three straight).
Jon Matlack recovered nicely from a disappointing to the 1973 season, as he was named to the All-Star Game the next three years in a row, winning game MVP honors in ’75. After combining for a 46 wins, a 2.89 ERA, and 16 shutouts from 1974-76, he suffered a relapse in 1977 (7-15, 4.21 ERA). That offseason he was traded to Texas in a four-team deal and spent the final six years of his career with the Rangers. He didn’t get any votes in his only year on the Hall of Fame ballot (1989), and he will likely never be inducted into the Mets’ version of Cooperstown, but Matlack’s place in Amazin’ lure as one of the faces of the 1970s will be everlasting.
October 7. A good day for Benny Agbayani in 2000 (his 13th-inning home run wins Game 3 of the NLDS for the Mets) and players’ rights in 1969 (Curt Flood challenges the reserve clause by refusing to report to the Phillies after a trade). Also a good day for poet Allen Ginsberg in 1955 (performs Howl in public for the first time). A bad day for Leon Durham in 1984 (becomes Bill Buckner two years before Buckner in Game 5 of the NLCS) and the Cumberland University football team in 1916 (lost 222-0 to John Heisman’s Georgia Tech squad). A great day for Jon Matlack in 1973.