Steve Carlton marched erectly and uncompromisingly into history tonight, winning his 300th game in a style that befitted his greatness.
With a dozen strikeouts, the 38-year-old Philadelphia left-hander overpowered the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals in their own park, 6-2, for the eighth consecutive victory for the first-place Phillies.
After watching her husband become the ninth pitcher in the 20th Century to win 300, Beverly Carlton said, "I think he's really aiming for 400. He says he's planning to pitch for another 10 years."
Carlton, who earlier this season became baseball's all-time strikeout leader, worked eight innings on this chilly autumn night. He allowed only seven hits, one of them a two-run homer by David Green, and walked one.
Reliever Al Holland worked the ninth inning as the Phillies, who have won 15 of 18, retained their three-game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Carlton's failure to come out for the ninth and accept some sort of cheer or other acknowledgement of his performance was typically bizarre. "Lefty," who after the game continued his longstanding policy of not speaking to the press, had found a new way to surprise everyone.
Moments after the game, however, Carlton came on the field to take bows and wave his wife out of the box seats to share his moment and a kiss. As if in control of all the forces in his game, Carlton even managed to win his 300th in the town where he lives and against the team that made the mistake of trading -- and thereby insulting -- him a dozen years ago.
"I was happy to see him come out (afterward)," Beverly Carlton said. "He's got a great smile."
Carlton, working with the four days rest he prefers, was in charge throughout this game, and even drove in the night's first run with a single. To finish his performance, Carlton allowed a leadoff triple in the eighth, then retired the heart of the Cardinal order -- the Nos. 3-4-5 hitters -- on two swinging strikeouts and a grounder back to the mound.
"It's wonderful. It's very important to him," said Beverly Carlton, who is as vivacious and eager to please as her husband is tacitum. "He was very relaxed today. He walked around the yard and checked the fruit and nut trees. He said, "I wish I was going for 301.""
This powerful performance was, no doubt, satisfying to Carlton who, despite 268 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.10, has only a mediocre 15-15 record in 1983.
But Carlton is nothing if not enduring. If you dropped all the baseball players in the major leagues on a desert island, or in the depths of the jungle, then came back in a year, Carlton would probably be the last man alive. A student of martial arts and Eastern philosophies, disciple of meditation and winning through intimidation, he would simply outlast or outthink or outwork them all.
Tonight, Carlton's son Steve Jr. may have seen the game more in the light his father did."He went home early to beat the traffic," said Beverly Carlton with a shurg. "He said, "Piece of cake, Mom.""
After joinging Early Wynn, Warren Spahn, Gaylord Perry and Lefty Grove as one of only five lively-ballers pitchers to win 300 games since 1924, Carlton's plans were -- to do nothing.
"We have no celebrations planned," said his wife.
Perhaps teammate Mike Schmidt understands Carlton as well as anyone.
"Lefty doesn't feel the pressure to build up stats," he said. "You're lucky if you can get to the point where you can forget that. To him, 300 just happens to be a round number. Not caring has probably gotten him there that much sooner."
Carlton anecdote were the prime topic of this day's conversation. St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog, whose team was eliminated from the race tonight, recalled a day many years ago when he, Carlton and Mike Shannon went goose hunting.
"I kept count and Lefty and Mike drank 36 cans of beer and Carlton ate eight sandwiches along with the beer. I said to myself, "No wonder this guy can pitch. He's just not constructed along the, you know, the normal lines."
"When we got in the goose pits . . . he was in a good mood and he sat there talking about all his theories of pitching, talking about how dumb hitters are," recalled Herzog. "Lefty said, "When the count is 3-1, I throw a strike. But when it's 3-2, I don't."
"Well, to a hitter's mind, that's completely backwards. If a pitcher will challenge you on 3-1, then you know that he'll come after you on 3-2. But Carlton almost never does. I've watched him for years with that in mind and I'll bet that in any game where he strikes out 10 men, he gets five of those strikeouts on ball four; usually on that slider at the feet of right-handers.
"That's not taking anything away from Carlton. He can make that slider look so good, then break it off at your ankles. You almost can't lay off it and you sure as hell can't hit it."
This evening, Carlton struck out seven hitters on sliders that came closer to hitting them in the feet than they did to nicking any corner of the plate. Five of those were on full-count pitches in which to leave bat on shoulder would have meant to walk.
"Lefty's got two sliders," said Claude Osteen, the Phillies' pitching coach. "One of them, the hitter sees real well and can take for a ball. The one he strikes out everybody with they can't see. It comes from the curve ball slot and looks like the other (flat) slider, but it ends up going straight down."
When Carlton's mechanics are messed up, or he lacks rest, that second slider disappears. Then he falls behind count constantly and, as has happened quite often this season, becomes distinctly mortal.
This evening, however, in the heart of a pennant race when he was needed most, the Carlton on display was the eminent Lefty who could step into Cooperstown tomorrow.
"You have to wonder how long he'll have to go, and now much he'll have to accomplish, before all this gets boring," said Osteen. "When will he quit playing the physical price that's required to perform at that level?"
Carlton's father Joseph was in the crowd this evening, and he was going to be asked just that question: how long would his son remain so great?
Joseph Carlton, in a Phillies cap and jacket, put up one hand and said, "No comment."