Marking McGwire: #50, #51

Home run Pitcher Score Inning Outs Runners on Distance
50 Willie Blair 1-0 7 0 0 369
51 Rick Reed 0-0 1 2 0 393

Opponent: New York Mets

Location: Shea Stadium

End of day Sammy Sosa total: 48

End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 41

It seems very possible that the press conference in Chicago took a significant load off of Mark McGwire‘s back.  Realizing he could have fun with this historic run, he pounded 15 home runs in 21 days in a sprint to that historic mark.  Of course, a day like today 20 years ago also helped, as McGwire got two bites at The Big Apple in a twi-night doubleheader at Shea Stadium.

Game one featured Donovan Osborne, having one of his better seasons at this point but, as was Osborne’s legend, having missed much of the season to injury, versus Willie Blair, who had an ERA over 5.00 before this one got underway.  Given the Cardinal offense, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this could get ugly quickly as they had both a solid hurler and a potent offense, but you would be mistaken.

Blair ran through the first inning in order, including a strikeout of McGwire, and Ray Lankford‘s leadoff single in the second until the top of the seventh.  If Twitter had been around, and had anyone really cared much about a 60-64 Cardinals team, there probably would have been a lot of angst about a guy like Blair keeping the Cardinal hitters at bay.  On the flip side, Osborne walked Edgardo Alfonzo in the second and Blair in the third but the Mets weren’t able to do anything either.  With one out in the sixth, Tony Phillips ended Osborne’s bid for baseball immortality by dropping a flare into left for the first Mets hit of the day.  An out later, Matt Franco also singled, but Mike Piazza left them stranded when he struck out the end the inning.

So between the two teams they had three hits and no runs at this juncture of the game.  You’d have expected this in the second game of the doubleheader, not the first.

St. Louis finally broke through in the seventh.  Blair ran the count to 2-0 on Brian Jordan and tried to get a strike past him, but Jordan was having none of it.  After watching that ball sail into the left-center field bleachers, Blair had to turn his attention to Big Mac.

McGwire took a ball, then fouled off the second pitch.  After another pitch went wide, McGwire was in a hitter’s count and, well, hitters hit.  Blair’s breaking pitch broke right down the middle of the plate and McGwire gave it a ride to deep left field, putting up #50 with still a week and a half to go in August.  I remember as a kid when Cecil Fielder hit 50 (actually 51) in 1990 and it was such a big deal because no one had done it in a long time before then.  As the game has changed, 50 is a huge season number these days as well with maybe one or two players reaching that mark in late September.  Fifty for McGwire?  That was just a stop along the path.

The Mets tried to counter in the bottom of the seventh as Luis Lopez and Rey Ordonez both singled with two outs.  However John Olerud pinch-hit for Blair and struck out, ending the last real Mets threat.  Neither team put anybody on in the eighth and ninth and somehow the 1998 Cardinals had pitched well enough to win, a fairly uncommon occurrence.

The teams took a break, got resettled, then came out to do it all again in game 2.  This time, the big guy wasn’t going to wait around.

Pat Kelly faced Rick Reed to start the game and struck out.  (As a side note, I always remember Rick Reed as one of the few replacement players from the 1994-95 strike to actually make it to the big leagues.  Which then meant he wasn’t featured on any game or any sort of marketing because he wasn’t allowed to join the union.  Trivia, man.)  Brian Jordan lined out to the shortstop and then Big Mac stepped in with two outs.

Reed got behind in the count 2-0 but quickly got two called strikes to make it even.  His fifth pitch was also a ball, running the count full.  Reed’s sixth pitch was left chest-high over the plate and didn’t survive re-entry, I don’t believe.

Darren Oliver–and the only reason I ever remember Oliver was a Cardinal was that, until a couple of years ago when the club didn’t settle with Michael Wacha in advance, he was the last Cardinal to have an arbitration hearing–took the mound for St. Louis and kept New York in check in the bottom of the first.

In the top of the second, John Mabry struck out but Fernando Tatis doubled and Eli Marrero singled, putting runners on the corners with one out.  Well, temporarily, because then Marrero stole second to put both runners in scoring position.  Oliver struck out, but Placido Polanco, batting ninth, singled both runners in to put the Cardinals up 3-0.

Oliver would allow a double to Brian McRae and a sacrifice fly to Carlos Baerga to put the Mets on the board in the bottom of the second, but the Cardinals got that run back in the third when Jordan led off the frame with a blast of his own.  McGwire followed with a single and, after Lankford lined out, stole second himself–his only stolen base of the year, so you gotta know Mike Piazza’s reputation as offense-first was pretty justified–but was stranded there by Mabry and Tatis.  It turned out to be their last real chance at a run, something that would come back to haunt them.

Perhaps wanting to make amends for letting a lumbering slugger steal second on him, Piazza hit a home run with John Olerud in the fourth to make the game 4-3.  McGwire’s walk in the fifth was the only base runner either team could muster until the seventh, when it all went south for the Cardinals.

Oliver was still pitching and allowed a double to Jermaine Allensworth to start the inning.  Baerga grounded out, but unlikely hero Rey Ordonez doubled down the left-field line, scoring Allensworth and knotting the game up at 4.  With Reed’s spot coming up, Bobby Valentine pinch-hit with Luis Lopez, who singled, putting runners on first and third for the top of the lineup.  Realizing the danger, Tony La Russa went to the bullpen and called in John Frascatore.  Frascatore did his part, getting Tony Phillips to ground out, but they were unable to keep Ordonez from scoring.  Edgardo Alfonzo lined out and that was that.  Neither team did much of anything in the late innings and the doubleheader was perfectly split.

McGwire ended the day 10 away from Roger Maris.  At bats were starting to become national events, but we hadn’t seen anything yet.

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