When Aurelio Lopez was “Señor Smoke” out of the Tigers’ bullpen

Only one other pitcher threw more innings in relief for the Detroit Tigers than Aurelio Lopez's 713. (John Hiller)

Only one other pitcher threw more innings in relief for the Detroit Tigers than Aurelio Lopez’s 713. (John Hiller)

It was one of the more memorable (and anticipated) games in the history of Tiger Stadium. On August 12, 1980, Mark Fidrych pitched his first game in front of the home fans in over a year. Before a huge crowd, “The Bird” threw eight innings, giving up eleven hits and five runs (three earned), as Boston defeated Detroit 5-4. Reliever Aurelio Lopez pitched the ninth for the Tigers, allowing two hits, but the Red Sox didn’t score off him.

This story is not about that game, however. It’s about the next day’s game, when Lopez, in gut-wrenching fashion, escaped bases-loaded no-out jams in both the 8th and 9th innings to seal a 2-1 victory for the Tigers.

Lopez, also known as “Señor Smoke” and “El Lanzallama” (which means “flame-thrower” in Spanish), was having a fine season as Detroit’s big man out of the bullpen. This was back in the days before there were “stoppers.” They were called “firemen” for a reason. They didn’t enter the game in the ninth inning with three-run leads and pad their statistics with easy saves. They “put out the fire,” so to speak, usually coming on in the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning of a close game, after the starter had tired and the opposing team had put runners on.

In 1980, Lopez was a contender for the Rolaids Relief Man Award, given annually to the best relief pitchers in both the American and National Leagues. It was based on a scoring system of two points for each win, two points for each save, and a point deducted for each loss. Going into the game of August 13, Lopez was in third place in the American League for the award, with nine wins and 16 saves (Dan Quisenberry and Ed Farmer were in first and second place, respectively).

The Tiger starter for the Wednesday, August 13th night game was 21 year-old Dan Petry. He entered with a record of 7-6 in his second big-league season. John Tudor, another sophomore pitcher, took the mound for the BoSox.

Petry gave up a run in the second when a Jim Dwyer single scored Tony Perez. But he worked out of jams in the fourth and sixth, before the Tigers finally got on the board in the sixth when they scored two unearned runs, highlighted by shortstop Mark Wagner’s single.

The score remained Detroit 2, Boston 1 heading into the top of the eighth. Perez led off with a single, and Carlton Fisk hit a ground ball to Tom Brookens at third, who made a poor throw to second baseman Lou Whitaker. Perez was safe, Brookens was charged with an error, and the Sox had runners at first and second with nobody out.

Manager Sparky Anderson brought in Pat Underwood in relief of Petry. Carl Yastrzemski came to the plate. The longtime Boston star laid down a sacrifice bunt toward first baseman John Wockenfuss, who couldn’t handle it cleanly. Yaz was safe at first on the second error of the inning, the bases were loaded, and still nobody was out.

Sparky decided it was time to bring in his fireman. The righty Lopez faced right-handed hitting Dwight Evans and Butch Hobson, and struck them both out (Hobson looking). Sox skipper Don Zimmer then played the percentages, sending up left-handed pinch-hitter Garry Hancock. Lopez struck him out as well, and the Tigers got out of the inning with no damage done.

After his team failed to score in the bottom of the eighth, Señor Smoke went back to work in the top of the ninth. Rick Burleson promptly singled. Dave Stapleton followed with a double, while Burleson took third. Lopez intentionally walked the dangerous Fred Lynn. Just as in the previous inning, Boston had the bases loaded with nobody out.

Perez, who already had a couple of hits in the game, lined out to Whitaker at second, who quickly threw to Wagner at short before Stapleton could make it back to the bag. It was a double play. Boston was still threatening, however, with runners on first and third.

Finally, Lopez struck out Fisk to complete the improbable Tiger win. It had been a nail-biting performance, but Señor Smoke had earned his 17th save. Petry picked up win number eight.

Lopez finished fourth in the Rolaids Relief Man Award standings in 1980 (Quisenberry, Rich Gossage, and Farmer finished 1-2-3 in the scoring system.). Lopez’s 21 saves led the Tigers for the second straight season. Four years later, Lopez was an integral part of Detroit’s bullpen, teaming with Willie Hernandez to give Sparky Anderson two lethal weapons in relief.