Nelson Kelley Briles (August 5, 1943 – February 13, 2005) was a Major League Baseball pitcher. A hard thrower whose best pitch was a slider, he exhibited excellent control. Briles batted and threw right-handed.
Born in Dorris, California, he grew up in Chico, California where he played baseball at Chico Senior High School and California State University, Chico. He transferring to Santa Clara University before signing with the St. Louis Cardinals as an amateur free agent in 1963. He spent just one season in their farm system before joining the Cards in 1965.
Though used primarily as a starting pitcher in 1964 with the Tulsa Oilers, Briles pitched out of the bullpen upon his arrival in the majors. He was 1-2 with a 3.29 earned run average and one save as a relief pitcher when he made his first start on September 25 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Though he pitched well (seven innings, one earned run), he was out-pitched by Sandy Koufax, and lost his first major league start. He was far less effective in his next start (six earned runs in seven innings pitched), however managed to win that one thanks to the nineteen runs his Cardinals teammates put on the board.
Briles suffered through a hard luck 1966 season, going 4-15 despite a relatively modest 3.21 ERA. He was 4-3 with a 3.55 ERA and six saves in 1967 when an injury to Bob Gibson (a broken leg suffered at the hands of a Roberto Clemente line drive) forced him into the starting rotation. He lost two of his first three starts, but then won his last nine decisions to end the season at 14-5 with a National League leading .737 winning percentage (the Cardinals also won his two no-decisions during that stretch). His 2.43 ERA was also best on the Cardinals staff.
The Cards finished the season at 101-60 to cruise into the 1967 World Series. Facing the Boston Red Sox, Briles was tabbed as the game three starter. Triple crown winner Carl Yastrzemski emerged as the game two hero for the Bosox with two home runs and four runs batted in. After the loss, Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst commented to the media that Red Sox starter Jim Lonborg was brushing back Cardinal hitters. In Yastrzemski’s first at-bat in game three, Briles hit him on the calf with a pitch causing an argument at home plate between the two teams’ managers. From there, Briles held Yastrzemski hitless on his way to a 5-2 complete game victory. He also pitched two scoreless innings in game six.
Briles won his first four starts of 1968 to bring his winning streak to thirteen games (14 including the post-season). He won a career high nineteen games with a career high 141 strikeouts that year to establish himself as a legitimate number two starter behind Gibson. The World Champion Cardinals returned to the World Series in 1968 to face the Detroit Tigers. Briles made the game two start against Mickey Lolich, and gave up four earned runs in five plus innings to take the loss. Paired up against Lolich again for game five, Briles left the game in the seventh inning with a 3-2 lead and a runner on first. The bullpen, however, was unable to hold the lead.
Briles went 15-13 with a 3.52 ERA in 1969 as the Cards slumped to fourth place in the newly formed National League East. He left in the third inning of his May 12, 1970 start against the Philadelphia Phillies with a pulled muscle in his right leg. He tried pitching through the injury, but was ineffective, and placed on the disabled list for the first time in his career on June 13. He was never able to regain form, and ended the season at 6-7 with a 6.24 ERA. Just as pitchers and catchers were reporting the following season, he and Vic Davalillo were sent to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Matty Alou and George Brunet.