Home run #: 30
Date: June 10
Opponent: Chicago White Sox
Location: Comiskey Park II
Pitcher: Jim Parque
Runners on: 2
Distance: 409 feet
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 20
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 25
Thirty home runs is a heck of a season. Jedd Gyorko was the last Cardinal to hit 30 homers in a season when he did it in 2016. Before that, it was Carlos Beltran in 2012 with 32. Just two Cardinals since the last World Series title have reached that level.
McGwire did it before the middle of June.
Say what you want about the era and the way that McGwire got there, there’s no doubt this was a huge feat. It’s fairly rare for a player to reach 30 by the All-Star Break, but to do so a month before the game? Incredible. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, a McGwire home run didn’t guarantee a win anywhere but the box office for the Cardinals in 1998.
This one started out promisingly enough. The two teams matched zeroes in the first two frames as Jim Parque and Kent Bottenfield allowed one runner combined. The third was a different story, as that legendary explosiveness came out in a good way. Tom Lampkin singled and David Howard beat out a bunt. Willie McGee then singled, loading the bases with nobody out. Ray Lankford worked the count to 2-2 before grounding out to first, allowing Lampkin to score. With one in and one on, McGwire came to the plate. The first pitch was taken for a ball. The second….
A four run lead is nice but it wasn’t going to hold up regularly with this pitching staff. Bottenfield did keep it going, though, putting zeroes on the board in the third and fourth. In the fifth, the Cardinals tacked on. Lankford led off with a double and, with first base open, it’s not surprising that McGwire wound up drawing a four-pitch walk. Brian Jordan then made the White Sox pay for that, doubling in Lankford and putting McGwire at third. Brian Hunter then hit a bullpen that was speared by Mike Caruso at short and Gary Gaetti watched strike three, but Royce Clayton doubled in McGwire and Jordan to make it 7-0.
Bottenfield kept the White Sox off the board in the fifth but in the bottom of the sixth, apparently feeling like things were well in hand, Tony La Russa went to Manny Aybar. Now, in the course of reading these posts, you’ve seen what Aybar can do, so the fact that he faced four batters, got nobody out, and was replaced probably won’t be a surprise to you. Caruso started it with a single to left, followed by a single to center by Frank Thomas. With two on, Albert Belle swung at a 3-0 pitch and belted it over the left field wall, making it 7-3. When Robin Ventura followed that with a double, TLR felt it was time to go get him. John Frascatore came in and limited the bleeding, though he did allow an RBI single to Mike Cameron before getting the third out.
Things settled down until the ninth inning. In the top of the inning, the Cardinals were able to get a little more insurance, Lankford walked and, in a rare move, stole second with McGwire batting. Big Mac struck out and then Lankford stole third before Jordan hit a grounder to short that allowed him to score. 8-4 going into the bottom of the ninth. What could go wrong?
Curtis King came in to get the final three outs and started off strong by striking out Charlie O’Brien. Ray Durham then grounded out and the Cards were one out away from a solid victory. That last step, though, is a doozy.
Caruso singled past Royce Clayton and Thomas, with that great eye, drew a walk on a full count. That brought up Belle, who was in the middle of an incredible year of his own. He’d wind up leading the league with a 1.055 OPS and it was games like this one that pumped up that number. On a full count–yes, this game was one strike away a couple of times, which we know a little bit about–Belle smoked his second homer of the day, plating three and bringing the White Sox to within a run.
Homers are rally killers, right? All King would need to do would get that next out–oops. King left a 1-0 pitch when Ventura could get it and he banged it over the right field wall, tying the game at 8. King got Wil Cordero to strike out but it was too little, too late.
Nobody did anything in the 10th. In the 11th, McGwire was intentionally passed with two outs and nobody on, which got interesting when Jordan walked behind him but ultimately was fruitless when pinch-hitter John Mabry struck out. Sean Lowe, which is really not a name I remember, took over in the bottom of the frame and got Thomas to ground out and kept Belle in the park with a single to short, but Ventura finished it off with his second homer in as many plate appearances.
The pitching of the Cardinals had come home to roost. After this one, the club sat four games under .500 and 10 games back in the NL Central. While they would occasionally bob their heads over the break-even mark in the months to come (and, indeed, finish in the positive at 83-79), they would never get closer than 7.5 out and by the end of the month were in double digits to stay. There was not going to be a pennant race to be concerned about. However, with Sammy Sosa having hit five homers in the first 10 days of June and 11 in the last 17, something perhaps even more memorable was brewing.