A ballplayer’s first game in the major leagues is always special and nerve-wracking. Especially when the debut is made by a starting pitcher. All eyes are on the “new guy” as he takes the mound. The game is in his hands and the pressure is on. It’s a challenge that few hurlers meet.
In 1979, a rookie Tiger pitcher met that challenge and succeeded, and it was made all the more special because he was facing a familiar face on the other side – his brother.
Pat Underwood was 22 years old when he was told by Detroit manager Les Moss that he would be making his big league debut on May 31 against the Blue Jays in Toronto. That made the young left-hander nervous, but when he realized that the Blue Jays would be starting his older brother Tom in the same game, it made the game even more special. It was the first (and as of 2012 the only) time in major league history that a pitcher made his debut starting on the mound against his brother.
If Underwood’s knees were knocking, it didn’t show. The southpaw retired each of the three batters he faced in the bottom of the first with ease, striking out Roy Howell for his first K. In the second inning it was flyball, strikeout, grounder to second. The third was 1-2-3 again: flyball, popout, grounder to second. The younger Underwood looked poised as he retired the side again in the fourth inning, running his string to 12 straight. Finally, veteran Rico Carty slashed a double to right-center to break up the perfect game and remind the young rookie just where he was.
While Pat masterfully handled the Jays, his brother Tom blanked the Tigers on four hits through seven. The game was deadlocked at 0-0 in the eighth inning when Detroit right fielder Jerry Morales punched a leadoff homer over the left field wall to give Pat a 1-0 edge. In the bottom of the eighth, the Jays collected their second hit, a single by Danny Ainge (still years from shooting jump shots for the Boston Celtics). Ainge was advanced to second base, but with two outs, Pat made a veteran play. The rookie twirled from the rubber and fired the ball to Alan Trammell covering the bag at second to pick Ainge off. It was a daring play that ended the inning and preserved the Tigers 1-0 lead.
In the bottom of the ninth, Pat took the mound again, trying to finish off a shutout in his first big league start. But after retiring the first hitter, the left-hander surrendered a groundball double to Alfredo Griffin. That was the end of his night, as Moss called in Dave Tobik to face Bob Bailor. Tobik got Bailor on a flyball to right and was promptly replaced by bullpen ace John Hiller. The veteran southpaw promptly struck out Howell and the Tigers won a thriller, 1-0.
Underwood – Pat that is – had his first big league victory at the expense of his brother, who pitched a helluva game too. Older bro’ Tom went the full nine innings, allowing just one run on six hits.
Any other day, against any other pitcher, Tom would have gotten the win, but that day it was, to use a sinister phrase from The Godfather Part II, “between the brothers.”