Home run #: 4
Date: April 4
Opponent: San Diego Padres
Location: Busch Stadium
Pitcher: Don Wengert
Runners on: 2
Distance: 419 feet
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 1
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 3
There’s no doubt that Big Mac came out of the gates smoking hot. Even though Ken Griffey Jr. was smashing homers at a close clip to the red-haired slugger, McGwire smacked his fourth one in as many games to start the season, tying a major league record that was held by Willie Mays at the time. It wasn’t the biggest record McGwire set that season but it was the first.
The Cards had trailed 1-0 after a half inning but quickly tied it back up, no thanks to a McGwire strikeout. They got ahead 3-1 on a Royce Clayton single and a Willie McGee groundout, but starter Kent Mercker gave one of them back in the top of the fourth. Both teams then held serve until the bottom of the sixth.
Don Wengert came into pitch for the Padres replacing Pete Smith. Wengert had actually come up with the A’s in 1995, spending parts of a couple of seasons as a teammate of McGwire in the Bay Area. Wengert never had much success, though, and the Padres were stop two of a career that would see him change teams three more times before finally running out of chances in Pittsburgh in 2001.
If this outing was indicative of his normal work (and, judging by his 6.01 career ERA, it probably was), it’s surprising he lasted that long. Wengert gave up a 1-1 single to Clayton and a 2-0 single to Delino Deshields. Had Deshields taken second, it’s probable that McGwire would have received one of those intentional walks that came so frequently as the season went on. Instead, with runners on the corners, Wengert got the green light to face Big Mac.
McGwire swung at the first pitch, then took two out of the zone. The fourth pitch was launched to left center field, stretching the lead to 6-2 and marking the end of Wengert’s day. Sterling Hitchcock, who would eventually spend some time in Cardinal red, came in and allowed two more runs in the frame.
An 8-2 lead would seem to be sufficient but the ’98 Cardinals aren’t known for their pitching, are they? They let the Padres score four more before Kent Bottenfield–still a couple of years removed from his big season as a starter–got three of the four batters he faced in the ninth to bring home a victory for St. Louis.
Four home runs in four games is an incredible way to start a season that everyone expects to be historic. Nobody noticed that, later on that day, Sammy Sosa got his first against Marc Valdes. Nobody knew it but the historic home run chase was now fully underway.