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Voices of the Game, day 7: Steve Blass to Jeremy Affeldt

A man more known for a “disease” and two Giants lefties.

Steve Blass pitching in the 1971 World Series. (Not really)
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I keep counting down the playing careers of baseball broadcasters because I started this and it would look bad if I quit now.

If you want to catch up on earlier entries, you can check out the StoryStream. And if you want the rules of the road, check out the first entry.

39. Steve Blass. Pittsburgh Pirates. WAR: 7.0

When a pitcher loses the ability to throw strikes for no discernible reason, it’s known as “Steve Blass disease.” That’s a shame, because Blass was a terrific pitcher before his career was derailed. Blass has become like Tommy John wherein they have ceased to be people in the mind of the fans and have simply become a condition.

The Pirates signed Blass out of high school in Connecticut for $4,000 in 1960. He has been a member of the Pirates organization ever since.

Blass was a right-handed pitcher who relied on a fastball, a slider and a big, slow, roundhouse curve. He made the majors in 1964 but struggled as a 22-year-old swingman who both started and pitched in relief. (His 4.04 ERA as a rookie doesn’t look bad today, but this was the Second Deadball Era.) After spending all of 1965 in Triple-A, Blass returned to Pittsburgh in 1966 and has never left.

Blass’ breakout season was 1968 and even in “The Year of the Pitcher,” Blass had an impressive campaign. He went 18-6 with a 2.12 ERA and seven shutouts. He finished 22nd in MVP voting that year. (Bob Gibson won the Cy Young Award unanimously.)

With the mound lowered in 1969, Blass had a regression, fueled mainly by an uptick in walks. But from 1970 to 1972, Blass was the unquestioned ace of the Pirates staff that won three straight NL East titles and the 1971 World Series.

Blass started Games 3 and 7 for the Pirates in the 1971 World Series. He threw a complete game in both starts and allowed just one run in both starts. He allowed just seven hits over those 18 innings and won both games. He’s still the last National League pitcher to throw a complete game in Game 7 of the World Series. Here’s a link to the telecast of Game 7 of the 1971 World Series.

But after going 19-8 with a 2.49 and finishing second in the Cy Young Award balloting in 1972, Blass got off to a poor start to the 1973 season. At first, it was just written off as a slow start but instead of getting better, it just got worse. He just could not throw a strike consistently and those he did throw were meatballs that got hit hard. There was nothing physically wrong with Blass, but manager Bill Virdon pulled Blass from the rotation. He got three more starts in September. The first two were decent, although the Pirates lost both games. But in the final one against the Mets, he completely fell apart against the Mets and didn’t make it out of the first inning.

Blass’ troubles continued into Spring Training of 1974. He tried to straighten things out in the minors and got one start against the Cubs at Wrigley in mid-April. He walked seven batters in five innings and gave up eight runs. It was the last time he pitched in the majors.

Blass’ career line was 103-76 with a 3.63 ERA over 282 game in ten seasons.

Blass’ problems were purely psychological, although neither he nor the experts he consulted could explain it. He could throw strikes in the bullpen, but his control abandoned him in games. He tried psychoanalysis, meditation, hypnosis and everything else anyone suggested to no avail. Blass retired during Spring Training of 1975 when he realized that the problem just would not go away.

Blass stayed with the Pirates as a part-time community relations representative and worked in sales in the Pittsburgh area until 1983 when he was hired to join Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Prince in the Pirates broadcast booth. In 2005 he went to calling only home games. Blass retired at the end of this past season, finishing 60 seasons as a Pirate. He got a hero’s send-off into retirement from the team and their fans.

38. Javier Lopez. San Francisco Giants. WAR: 8.1

When longtime Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow had to cut back on his workload because of health issues, the team hired not one but two left-handed relievers from their three World Series teams to fill in for him. As luck would have it, they’re ranked consecutively by WAR in our countdown.

Lopez was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in Virginia and attended the University of Virginia, where he was drafted by the Diamondbacks in the fourth round of the 1998 draft. The Diamondbacks converted him to throwing sidearm and moved him to the bullpen in the minors.

The Red Sox took Lopez in the 2002 Rule 5 draft but traded him to the Rockies in Spring Training. He got into 75 games a a reliever for the Rockies in 2003 and posted a 3.70 ERA and one save. That’s pretty good for a pitcher at Coors, but ironically, Lopez was terrific in Denver (1.71 ERA) and awful on the road (6.08 ERA) in his rookie year.

Coors Field caught up to Lopez in 2004 with a 9.64 ERA at home and a 7.52 ERA overall in 64 games. The Rockies placed him on waivers after three bad games in 2005 and the Diamondbacks got him back. He shuttled between Triple-A (where he was good) and Arizona (where he was not) that year and signed with the White Sox as a free agent for the start of the 2006 season.

The White Sox kept Lopez in Triple-A until dealing him back to Boston in June. The Red Sox finally got to do with Lopez what they wanted to do with him when they took him in the Rule 5 Draft in 2002 — turn him into a LOOGY or a “left-handed one-out guy.”

Lopez made 27 appearances for the Red Sox in 2006 and 13 of them were for just one batter. He didn’t throw hard, but his sidearm delivery and sharp slider were extremely hard for a left-handed hitter to deal with. He could also alter his arm angle to give right-handers a different look when he had to face one of them.

Lopez won his first World Series ring as a member of the 2007 Red Sox. He got off to a poor start in 2009, which earned him a trip back to the minors. But he resurrected his career after the Red Sox traded him to the Pirates for the 2010 season. The Pirates flipped him to the Giants at the trade deadline in 2010 and he was a mainstay of their bullpen for all three of their World Series titles, giving him four total rings.

Lopez retired after the 2016 season. You probably remember his last major league appearance when he walked Anthony Rizzo, the only batter he faced, in that four-run top of the ninth inning in the decisive Game 4 of the Division Series against the Cubs. He immediately became a part-time color broadcaster for the start of the 2017 season.

Lopez’s final career line was 30-17 with a 3.48 ERA and 14 saves in 839 games.

37. Jeremy Affeldt. San Francisco Giants. WAR: 9.8

Affeldt was another left-handed reliever on those three Giants World Series teams although manager Bruce Bochy was much more willing to bring Affeldt in to face a right-handed hitter than he was with Lopez.

Affeldt was a third-round pick by the Royals in 1998 out of high school in Spokane, WA. He was a starting pitcher throughout his minor league career, but he pitched mostly out of the bullpen in Kansas City during his rookie season in 2002.

The Royals moved him to the starting rotation in 2003, but he struggled there and was moved back to the pen mid-season. He pitched much better there and finished with a 3.93 ERA and four saves. After one final attempt to make him a starter early in 2004, Affeldt moved back to the bullpen for good and was the Royals closer by mid-May of the 2004 season. (He only had 13 saves as a closer that year in large part because the Royals only won 58 games.)

The Royals organization was a mess in those days and eventually Affeldt struggled alongside the rest of the team in 2005 and 2006. A mid-season trade to the Rockies in 2006 turned out to be a blessing for Affeldt, who was the main left-hander out of the Rockies pen through the 2007 season. He pitched 72 regular season games for the Rockies in 2007 and pitched in all four games of the World Series. Of course the Rockies got swept, but not because of Affeldt who did not allow a run over three innings.

Affeldt signed a one-year deal with the Reds in 2008 because Cincinnati offered him a chance to start. But he couldn’t crack the Reds starting rotation out of Spring Training but pitched well out of the bullpen with a 3.33 ERA over 78⅓ innings.

Affeldt then signed with the Giants for the 2009 season where he became part of the strong pitching staff that led the Giants to three World Series titles. A big part of Affeldt’s legacy is his outstanding performances in the playoffs. Over 33 postseason games, Affeldt had an ERA of 0.86. After some confusion, he was the winner of Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. (That was the game that Madison Bumgarner threw five innings of scoreless relief and it was announced immediately after the game that Bumgarner got the win. But Affledt pitched 2⅓ innings of scoreless relief of Tim Hudson and was on the mound when the Giants took the lead for good. Bumgarner had to settle for a five-inning save and the Series MVP Award.)

As a reliever, Affeldt mostly combined a 92-94 mph fastball with a sharp curve. He retired after the 2015 season having posted a record of 43-46 with 28 saves and an ERA of 3.97 over 774 games and 14 seasons.

Since retiring, Affeldt had dedicated himself to humanitarian causes, including fighting slavery and human trafficking around the globe. He joined the Giants pre- and post-game show in 2016 and now splits broadcasting Giants road games with his former bullpen mate Javier Lopez.

Then there was that time last year when he gave mouth-to-mouth to a dog. He saved a dog’s life.