Yu Darvish didn’t have much command on Thursday night against the Diamondbacks, but still managed to strike out 10 in his five innings. That made Darvish just the second pitcher to whiff double digits in each of his first two starts with the Dodgers, and the first in 63 years.
The other pitcher wasn’t a veteran like Darvish, but rather rookie Karl Spooner, who had arguably the strongest pitching debut in major league history.
Spooner, a 23-year-old left-hander from Oriskany Falls, New York, debuted with the Dodgers on Sept. 22, 1954, facing the 111-win New York Giants. The caveat here is that Spooner faced the Giants the day after they clinched the National League pennant, though against any lineup what Spooner did was terrific.
The lefty pitched a three-hit shutout and walked three, and struck out 15, setting a record for a major league debut.
Spooner then followed up four days later with another gem against the Pirates. From Richard S. Cohen’s SABR biography of Spooner:
Spooner’s next outing four days later added more hot stove excitement to the “Wait ’til next year” chant of Dodger fans. He struck out 12 Pirates, giving him 27 strikeouts in two successive games. This was a senior circuit record (not just for rookies) and was second only to Bob Feller’s 28 on the major league list. Shutouts in his first two major league starts also placed him in rare company.
Spooner had the world on a string. His home town gave a parade in his honor, and he served as King of the 1955 Winter Carnival in Old Forge, New York, where he allegedly asked if he could keep the beaver skin coat lent to him by a major sponsor to keep him warm in the open air convertible in which he rode for the event’s big parade.
Those were Spooner’s only two starts of 1954, with 27 strikeouts in two shutouts, and just seven hits and six walked allowed. As you might imagine, the future seemed quite bright for the left-hander heading into 1955.
It didn’t work out.
The early promise of Spooner’s stellar debut was undone by a spring training shoulder injury that saw him pitch just 98⅔ innings in his second season, then never again in the majors. More from Cohen:
As Spooner later told author Peter Golenbock, “[Johnny] Podres was supposed to go the first three innings, and I was supposed to go the second three, but Podres got in trouble and only pitched two innings. I tried to warm up real fast. I don’t think I was really good and loose, and I guess I just tried to throw too hard, too soon…I threw a real good curveball to Jim Rivera, struck him out, and I felt a kind of a pull in my shoulder, but it didn’t hurt that much, and so I finished the inning and the next inning. After I took a shower and was dressing, jiminy crickets, it started hurting real bad, and I could hardly even put my damn shirt on. And that’s when I told the trainer.”
There are other explanations of Spooner’s injury mentioned below, but this version was effectively confirmed by Podres — “I remember he had relieved me without really being warmed up” — and by Carl Erskine, who confirmed the sequence of events. Erskine added beautifully, “In those few moments one of the great arms of Dodger pitching had lost its magic.”
Darvish so far has had the magic since joining with the Dodgers, even with the shortened outing on Thursday. Through two starts he has allowed two runs on eight hits and three walks in 12 innings, with 20 strikeouts.
There is a silver lining to Spooner’s 1955, in that he was the winning pitcher on Sept. 8, striking out nine while finishing out the final 5⅔ innings in scoreless fashion against the Milwaukee Braves to clinch the National League pennant, the earliest clinch date in Dodgers history.
Depending on how the rest of the 2017 campaign shakes out, perhaps Darvish can join Spooner in another piece of Dodgers history.