In 1967, Carl Yastrzemski set the contemporary standard for clutch hitting in a pennant race. After Sept. 1, Yastrzemski hit nine homers and drove in 25 runs in 27 games to take the Boston Red Sox to their "Impossible Dream" pennant.
These days, Eddie Murray, the Baltimore Orioles' switch-hitter, is on a comparable streak that's already longer than Yastzemski's and, in some senses, even more productive.
From Aug. 17, when Baltimore trailed Milwaukee by 7 1/2 games, through Sept. 16, the day the Birds pulled to one game behind the Brewers, Murray had a month that pushed hard against the parameters of what's believed to be possible in baseball. In 31 games, Murray had 11 homers and 38 RBI.
Oriole Manager Earl Weaver knows it's no accident Murray's explosion and his team's recent 27-5 binge came within three days of coinciding exactly.
"Eddie's why we're still there (in the race)," said Weaver.
If Reggie Jackson is Mr. October, then Eddie Murray is Mr. September.
In a six-season career that has almost always found the Orioles in a September pennant race, Murray has accumulated surrealistic stats. In 172 career games after Sept. 1, he's batted .338 with 36 homers and 141 RBI.
"It isn't that you're not bearing down at other times, but I do seem to hit better late," said Murray this week. "Being close gets you going."
It's become a commonplace to say that "Steady Eddie" is the game's most easily overlooked million-dollar-a-year player. If Mr. October is baseball's best headline stealer, then Mr. September is just as adept at avoiding them.
However, Murray is too good to ignore. What we have here is a hitter of Hank Aaron-Frank Robinson quality who's in his prime. Watching Murray hit in the clutch has become one of baseball's most intense pleasures.
Few great hitters have ever stepped up under pressure with such a sense of flexibility and enjoyment. Murray mixes the intuitive and the analytic in a purely personal way. Nobody talks or thinks hitting like Murray.
On one hand, he is the self-proclaimed worst batting-practice hitter on earth. Even in games, he says, "Everybody makes fun of the way I hit. I laugh at the way I hit, too. Sometimes, I'll swing at a curve ball that bounces in the grass (10 feet in front of the plate). I'll stand right there at the plate and laugh at myself, partly to shake it off."
Yet, partly because there's no successful book on Murray, or any consistent history of getting him out when it matters most, he is feared like some mysterious serpent. Since the statistic "Game-Winning RBI" was created, Murray has led the majors. This season, despite missing about 75 plate appearances with a hand injury, Murray has 18 game-winners and, on an incredible 38 occasions, has had the Orioles' game-tying or go-ahead RBI.
"He should be a serious MVP candidate," said Weaver of the cleanup man who is third in the AL in average (.317), third in slugging (.542), sixth in on-base percentage (.393) and has 28 homers and 98 RBI. "Even his numbers don't tell his story, because he's so much better in the tight spots."
From his unorthodox crouches, to his swaying weight-shift, to his habit of hypnotically revolving the bat head in small circles above his head, Murray looks dangerous, idiosyncratic and unpredictable all at the same time.
As a fan, or pitcher, it's hard to fathom what he has in mind, what pitch he's looking for, what stance he has just shifted into and how he may have adjusted to the previous pitch.
Actually, Murray says he has about seven stances. Three right-handed, four left-handed and a special right-handed batting-practice stance that he hasn't yet unveiled in games. "I've changed stances three times on three pitches," he said. "I change so that I can see the ball better, pick up its flight and spin faster. Every pitcher has a different windup and release point, so why should you have one stance for all of them? I keep changing until I find something that feels comfortable against that pitcher.
"That's just the way I am. It's hard to hit the ball if you can't see it."
Murray's standards for himself are unflinchingly high. Five weeks ago, he was having what anyone else would consider a fine season. Murray was almost despondent.
"I have to talk to myself sometimes. In Boston (in August), I couldn't stay back on anything. I couldn't pull the trigger when I got my pitch. On the trip to Minnesota on the plane, I kept telling myself, 'You're hot. You're hot.' And I talked myself into it."
That's when his binge began, but, even now, hitting .360 in his last 13 games, Murray says, self-critically, "Right now, I think I'm half struggling. I feel like I'm only 60 percent 'on' the pitch. You're not completely sure in your own mind what's coming. Sometimes, you're almost 100 per cent 'on' the pitch, yet you can still react and get a piece of the ball if you're wrong."
How is it possible to be certain what's coming?
"The longer you stay around, the wiser you get . . . At times, you feel like you have the whole plate covered and there's no way to pitch you. But, a couple of times a year, you get so you feel like any pitch can get you out. That's when I start changing stances. You won't see me go too many 0-fers without changing."
Those who have tried to dicker with Murray's style have come away perplexed.
"(Former batting coach Jim) Frey couldn't understand the way I hit. My first year, I told him I just looked for the ball and hit it -- any strike. Now, I've learned to let some strikes pass. But, back then, Frey wanted me to 'zone' on certain counts. Look for a pitch in a particular part of the plate.
"I never saw home plate as being that big that you had to divide it into zones," said Murray, wryly. "In fact, very few pitchers make me realize that the plate has an inside and an outside corner.
"This year, (Cleveland's Rick) Sutcliffe -- man, he's a wild somebody, always falling behind in the count, then making great pitches on the black -- and, in one game, Ken Forsch, are the only two that made me think, 'Jeez, he's makin' this plate look awful big. ' "
One of the things Murray takes pride in is his ability to be completely fooled, yet flick a foul ball almost out of the catcher's glove or get a homely mis-hit scratch single. "They've named that swing, 'The Flick,' " said Murray with a grin. "I used to be the king of the cheap hits around here, but J.R. (Cal Ripken) has passed me. Man, he's the be master of those horrible lookin' hits . . .
"Toronto appreciates me. (Blue Jay friend) Al Woods tells 'em what I'm doing. In spring training, they'll yell, 'Hit a home run.' And, a couple of times, I've done it for 'em," said Murray. "This spring, they called for a home run and I shook 'em off. I said, 'I'll dunk one.' "
Sure enough, Murray took an awful-looking emergency swing and hit a bloop off the foul line in the opposite field just over the infield for a double.
"Now, that impressed 'em," said Murray.
The Flick, the emergency swing, the changing stances are all part and parcel of Murray's most basic hitting notion: call it the one-pitch theory.
"I think that if I get one good pitch to hit per at bat, that's all I want," said Murray. "People say I give the pitchers too much credit, but I think that if I get my pitch and don't hit it, I deserve to be out. If you get two good pitches in an at bat, you're just lucky."
Many marvel at Murray's .380 average this season as a right-handed hitter, his natural side. Actually, that's down from his '81 mark of .387. Can anybody really be a consistent .380 hitter against left-handed pitching?
"Don't know," Murray said. "Seems so."
For Murray, the 26-year-old maestro with the magically quick hands, a trip to the batter's box is just the sort of fun that many fans imagined in childhood. "Got some hands," Murray tells his teammates when he feels that any tough pitch can be spoiled and any appetizing offering can be crushed.
These days, Murray has the hands. But, you ask, do his teammates give him a hand?
"This man's not doin' anything special," needles Al Bumbry when Murray's fancy figures are being cited. "That's just what we pay him to do."
When the money's on the line, million-dollar Murray is worth every penny.