A.J. Burnett tied a major league record shared by 54 others when he struck out four batters in the sixth inning of last night’s game against the Rockies. In addition to becoming the first Yankee to accomplish the feat, Burnett also became only the second pitcher to do it on at least two different occasions (he previously turned the trick on July 5, 2002 as a member of the Marlins). However, don’t blame Chuck Finley if he isn’t impressed. The Angels’ and Indians’ lefthander did it three times.
Four strike outs in one inning is a rare enough feat. Since 1876, there have been 3,545,338 major league innings, so, in order to display the frequency of this accomplishment, scientific notation is needed. Considering the difficulty of getting four and the logistical barriers to five, Burnett’s shared record might be one of baseball’s most unbreakable. Just don’t tell that to Cliff Johnson.
On April 7, 1976, one day before the start of the regular season, the Houston Astros played an exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins in the New Orleans Superdome. The Astros starting battery that afternoon was Joe Niekro and Cliff Johnson, a utility man who played defense with his bat. The combination of Johnson’s suspect glove and Niekro’s knuckleball proved to be a recipe for a very unusual inning.
In the opening frame of the pre-season finale, Niekro faced six batters and struck out five. How was that possible? Johnson also had five passed balls in the inning, including two on third strikes. Had the game taken place one day later, the Astros’ knuckleballer would have owned one of the most improbable records in major league history. Even without the historical implications, Johnson had an inning he’ll probably never forget.
It was just a tough pitch to handle today. It was doing a little bit of everything. He was throwing it harder and the break on it was different.” – Cliff Johnson, quoted by AP, April 7, 1976
Although that inning in New Orleans wasn’t one of Johnson’s best moments in the big leagues, it might have been the turning point in Niekro’s career. Up until that point, the righthander was a journeyman already on his fifth major league team. Once known as a control artist who featured a more classic repertoire of fastball, slider and curve, Niekro was now in the process of reinventing himself as a knuckleball specialist.
Following a difficult 1970 season with the Tigers, Niekro turned to his brother Phil for lessons on how to throw the knuckler. Later that summer, he finally summoned the courage to throw some in a game, but the pitch remained a work in progress over the next couple of seasons. After the 1972 campaign, the Tigers asked Niekro to refine the pitch in the winter leagues, and he dutifully complied. Then, in 1973, the team sent him to the minors to continue building on his progress. Although Niekro accepted the demotion as the continuation of an opportunity to revive his career, it soon became clear that the Tigers had no interest in having him return to their rotation.
Now they’ve ordered me out of the starting rotation. It’s like getting a guy down and stepping on him and then turning your foot. It’s another stab in the back as far as I’m concerned” – Joe Niekro, quoted by the Toledo Blade, May 29, 1973
Despite being one of the Toledo Mud Hens most effective starters, the Tigers demoted Niekro to their minor league bullpen so the “kids could pitch”. Finally, in August, he was placed on waivers and acquired by the Atlanta Braves.
Niekro felt betrayed by the Tigers, particularly manager Billy Martin, but he couldn’t have asked for a better landing spot. Not only did the Braves give the now 29-year old a chance to start every day in triple-A Richmond, but when promoted to the big leagues, he had the chance to spend some quality time with his knuckleball mentor and brother Phil Niekro, who also happened to be the ace of the Braves’ staff.
Niekro dominated Richmond in 1974, but the Braves shipped him to Houston before the 1975 season, where, as a reliever, he was finally able to put his knuckleball to work for an extended period in the majors. The experiment turned out to be a success, and then, during the following spring, Niekro finally won his way back into the rotation at the age of 31.
During his 11 years in Houston, Niekro finally established himself as a major league starting pitcher. In 1979 and 1980, he won 20 games and finished among the top-5 in the Cy Young balloting, but for the most part, Niekro was a solid innings-eater. Although the knuckleball didn’t bring him the same level of success as his Hall of Fame brother, his 221 wins in the majors isn’t anything to scoff at (or even scuff at, as suggested by the video below).
It’s probably too simple to suggest that Joe Niekro’s success took root during a wild inning in New Orleans. Years of hard work in several minor and major league cities are what eventually afforded him the opportunity at a second career. However, if Niekro ever had any doubts about his ability to really succeed with the knuckleball, they might have been allayed that day.
Whether Cliff Johnson ever recovered is another story.