The fans thought it was a joke, the players thought time had been called, and the umpires didn’t know what the hell was going on. But for Twins manager Gene Mauch, his decision to have starting pitcher Gary Serum begin their game against the visiting Blue Jays by intentionally walking lead-off batter Otto Velez was a well-calculated one, and as events played out, a stroke of genius as well, as the Twins toppled the Jays 6-3 on a warm summer night at Metropolitan Stadium.
“I was ready to walk Velez the moment I was handed their line-up card,” Mauch told reporters after the game. “If Roy wants to play games, and put a power hitter in the top spot, so be it. It doesn’t mean I have to play along.”
The ‘Roy’ Mauch was referring to was Toronto manager Roy Hartsfield, who moments before game time chose to sit regular lead-off batter Al Woods in favor of Velez, who hits for power, and who has clouted 19 doubles, four triples, and four home runs so far this season. Instead of re-arranging his batting order, Hartsfield simply crossed ‘Woods’ off the lineup card and added ‘Velez’, an unorthodox move that lost some of its gusto the moment Mauch instructed Serum to throw four wide ones to Velez.
Later in the post-game blitz, Mauch tried to steer questions away from the walk and towards the game itself, and the contributions of his Twins squad to the 6-3 final. However, some members of the media—including reporters from The Sporting News and Baseball Digest—wouldn’t let it go, and when Sid Hartman of WCCO’s post-game radio show continued to pressure the manager on the decision, Mauch finally lost his cool. “I’m sorry, Sid, I forgot…did we win tonight? How many runs did the Jays score in the first? How many hits did Velez have…what, none? Listen, don’t you tell me how to manage…I’ll let you know when I need your help!”
After the momentous walk, Serum retired the next three Toronto batters on groundouts, and with the novelty of the game’s first half-inning now behind them, the second-place Twins got down to business, scoring three times in the bottom half of the frame thanks to run-scoring doubles from Mike Cubbage and Dan Ford, good for a quick 3-0 lead.
The Jays countered one inning later, with hot-hitting Doug Ault—yesterday’s SP78 AL MVP—slamming a triple off the wall in left, then jogging home when Roy Howell followed with a slap base hit over second base. Toronto would cut the lead to 3-2 in the third, when Ault struck again, this time with a bloop single to right, which scored Bob Bailor from second after he’d doubled one batter prior.
Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, starter Jim Clancy couldn’t put a reign on the Twins’ batters in the bottom of the frame, giving up a single and two walks with nobody out before catcher Butch Wynegar cleared the bases with a solid double down the right-field line, putting the game out of reach for the sophomore Jays and making a 15-game loser of Clancy (4-15).
The Jays, however, would score again on an Alan Ashby home run in the ninth, his 9th on the year, but by then it was too little, too late, and the Twins found themselves victorious in the first of their short two-game set with Toronto. For Serum, he improved his record to an impressive 11-3, in just his second year as a Twin after spending most of 1977 in the minor leagues. “I don’t know if a game has ever started with an intentional walk, but if that’s how I’m remembered, I’m good with it.”
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