On April 8, 1969, the Red Sox opened their season down at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. With the new season returned a beloved face to the Red Sox lineup, as Tony Conigliaro began his comeback from the beaning in August of 1967. With his return to a lineup already including Carl Yastrzemski, Reggie Smith, Rico Petrocelli and George Scott, there was plenty of optimism for the Sox.
The Red Sox would send Jim Lonborg to the mound for the opener. They hoped for a return to his 1967 form where Lonborg won the Cy Young Award. His 1968 season had been marred by injury and disappointment. He was opposed by the Orioles 1968 breakout star, Dave McNally. McNally had won 22 games the previous season while posting a minuscule 1.95 ERA and 0.84 WHIP. The Orioles lineup featured sluggers Frank Robinson and Boog Powell. They also had glove wizards Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Paul Blair, who would win 32 Gold Gloves between them.
The Red Sox would lead off Reggie Smith, bat Carl Yastrzemski third, and in his return to the lineup, Tony Conigliaro batted fifth. Rico Petrocelli, who would break out that year with 40 home runs, an American League shortstop record at the time, batted seventh.
The Early Innings
The Red Sox didn’t take long to get on the board for the season. Carl Yastrzemski followed a Reggie Smith walk and Mike Andrews single with an RBI double. The Sox quickly squandered an opportunity for a big inning though. Hawk Harrelson popped out to the catcher, bringing up Tony Conigliaro for his first at-bat back, two men in scoring position. Conigliaro struck out. George Scott then popped out and the threat was over.
The Red Sox would add another run in the third, but again wasted a prime opportunity for more runs. A Hawk Harrelson single scored Yastrzemski to give the Red Sox a 2-0 lead. After back-to-back walks to Conigliaro and George Scott, the Red Sox had the bases loaded with one out. Earl Weaver pulled his ace for Dave Leonhard, and Leonhard got out of the jam with no more harm done.
After cruising through the first two innings, Lonborg allowed a home run to the light-hitting Mark Belanger. Belanger was a wizard in the field, but only hit 20 career home runs. Lonborg then departed the game after walking Don Buford with 2 outs. This was not a good sign for a pitcher who had missed time with injury the previous season. Lonborg wouldn’t pitch again for 17 days, after which he missed another month.
Bullpens Hold Serve
With both teams into their bullpens early, they actually traded zeroes for a while. Both teams were held scoreless in each of the next four innings to enter the eighth with the Red Sox ahead 2-1. Dave Leonhard had pitched 2.2 shutout innings for Baltimore. In the top of the eighth, Dick Hall set the Red Sox down 1-2-3 for his third consecutive shutout inning.
For the Red Sox, Lee Stange had been holding down the fort since Jim Lonborg was replaced. Going into his fifth inning of work though, the Orioles finally got to him for a run to tie the game. Stange ran into a bit more trouble in the bottom of the ninth, but Sparky Lyle came on to induce an inning ending double play and send the game to extras.
With the game headed to extra frames, Tony Conigliaro had the chance to be an extra-inning hero in his return. He came up against Pete Richert with a man on base thanks to an error to begin the 10th. The local boy and fan favorite did not miss this opportunity.
Conigliaro’s home run in his remarkable return put the Red Sox ahead by two in the tenth. However, the Orioles were not ready to admit defeat.
Red Sox left-handed relief ace Sparky Lyle had gotten the Red Sox out of trouble in the ninth, but he ran into his own problems in the tenth. With two outs, he faced Frank Robinson with a man on thanks to a Don Buford walk. Frank Robinson was coming off a down year and was hitless on the day, but this was a man who had 418 career home runs to that point in his career. Robinson took Lyle deep to left-center and out of the stadium to tie the game, ruining the chance for Conigliaro to have a game-winning home run in his return.
Conigliaro the Hero in His Return
After trading zeroes in the 11th, Tony Conigliaro was the leadoff batter in the 12th for the Red Sox. He worked a walk to get his way on base. George Scott followed with a single and Rico Petrocelli drew another walk to load the bases. With a man out, the Red Sox sent up Dalton Jones to pinch-hit for the pitcher. Jones hit a fly ball to right deep enough for Conigliaro to tag and score the go-ahead run.
With the 5-4 lead, the Red Sox sent Juan Pizarro to the mound to try and close out the victory. He had to face Frank Robinson with another chance to tie it, but got him to fly out. He set the Orioles down in order to preserve the Red Sox 5-4 victory. Tony Conigliaro was the hero in his return, reaching base four times, hitting a 2-run home run in the 10th and scoring the game-winning run in the 12th.
Featured image from the Lowell Sun.