Marking McGwire: #53

Home run #: 53

Date: August 23

Opponent: Pittsburgh Pirates

Location: Three Rivers Stadium

Pitcher: Ricardo Rincon

Score: 2-4

Inning: 8

Outs: 2

Runners on: 0

Distance: 393 feet

End of day Sammy Sosa total: 51

End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 42

“Do you want to know the terrifying truth or do you want to see me sock a few dingers?”

While Mark McGwire’s appearance on “The Simpsons” was still a few months in the future, the line the writers wrote for him harkened back, intentionally or not, to the end of the home run race in 1998.  With the andro issue still in full swing, all McGwire could do was get out to the field, hit some home runs, and hope that changed the conversation.  Just like his home run display distracted the Springfield locals, his run at Maris pushed any other issues off the front page.

Both McGwire and Sammy Sosa were playing afternoon games on August 23rd, with Sosa and the Cubs hosting the Astros in Wrigley Field.  With a three homer lead, it was unlikely but not impossible that Sosa could ride those Chicago winds into a tie with McGwire.  If was available back then, millions of people would have either used the picture-in-picture option or flipped back and forth as these two sluggers took aim roughly 475 miles apart.

Jason Schmidt, the Pirates’ nominal ace, took the mound for the afternoon tilt and retired the first three Cardinals he faced, including McGwire on a groundout to second.  Kent Mercker, going for the Cardinals, wasn’t nearly as lucky.  Mercker started off on the wrong foot by walking Tony Womack to lead things off.  Surprisingly, Womack didn’t try to steal but it turned out to be a moot point as Adrian Brown doubled, scoring Womack.  Brown himself took third when Brian Jordan misplayed the ball.  That turned out to be a costly error as Jason Kendall flew out next, bringing in Brown and making the game 2-0.  Though perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered after all, as Kevin Young finished the scoring with a home run, putting St. Louis down three before they reached their cleanup hitter.

(Meanwhile, Sosa popped out in his first at bat, unable to come through with two on and nobody out.)

The Cardinals, with singles by Jordan and Fernando Tatis, had runners on first and second with one out in the second, but Eli Marrero and Mercker weren’t able to come through.  Miraculously, even though the Pirates got the first two runners on in the second, they weren’t able to add on to their lead.  Schmidt bunted the runners over, but Womack popped out and, after a walk to Brown loaded the bases, Kendall grounded out.

In fact, both offenses put runners on throughout the game but were unable to capitalize.  In the third, Luis Ordaz doubled to start things off and moved to third on a groundout by Pat Kelly.  Unfortunately, the contact play worked as well in ’98 as it often does in ’18 and Ordaz was retired at home when Jordan hit a comebacker to Schmidt.  McGwire and Lankford walked, but Gant’s flyball wasn’t deep enough to elude Brown.  Pittsburgh didn’t do much in the bottom of the frame, with any rally ending when Freddy Garcia was caught trying to steal second.

(In Sosa’s second at bat, Sosa popped out to right field but he was just starting to find his range.)

Tatis got the Cards on the board in the fourth with a solo homer that led off the inning, but even though they got two more runners on after that, nothing else came of it.  The Cardinals cut it to 3-2 in their next turn when McGwire doubled to start it all and moved along on two groundouts, the last one an RBI version by Ron Gant.  Two more St. Louis runners were left on the bases, but at least they were just down by one.

(In the bottom of the fifth at Wrigley, with the Cubs trailing 4-1, Sosa launched #50, cutting McGwire’s down to two.)

When McGwire came up in the sixth, it was still 3-2.  Ordaz and Kelly had struck out swinging, but Jordan salvaged the inning by drawing a walk.  The Pirates were going to pitch to the slugger, but the second pitch got away from Jason Kendall, moving Jordan to second and freeing up first.  Unsurprisingly, Schmidt pitched carefully to McGwire after that and eventually put him on with another walk.  Jeff Tabaka came in from the bullpen and struck out Lankford to end yet another threat.

John Frascatore took over for Mercker in the bottom of the sixth but wasn’t able to keep the deficit intact.  Garcia led off with a double and moved up when Lou Collier bunted him to third.  Doug Strange came off the bench to take Tabaka’s spot in the lineup and grounded out to second, but that was enough to get Garcia home for the Pirates’ fourth run.

The score was still 4-2 in the top of the eighth at Three Rivers Stadium.  Kelly struck out and Jordan grounded out, meaning that with two outs and a two run lead, there wasn’t much stopping Ricardo Rincon from taking on the home run leader.

McGwire fouled off the first pitch and swung through the second.  It’s a testament to just how feared McGwire was that even with an 0-2 count pitchers weren’t excited about challenging him.  Rincon nibbled and missed with two more pitches, evening the count.  McGwire fouled off another pitch.  The stadium likely held its breath as Rincon threw a fastball that wound up belt-high and belted.

McGwire trotted around the bases, now less than 10 home runs away from a new record with still over a month of baseball to be played.  While he was able to get the lead down to 4-3, Lankford grounded out to end the inning and they could get nothing going against Rich Loiselle in the ninth, dropping to 62-68.

(When Sosa batted to lead off the eighth in Wrigley, he stroked one to deep left field, putting him at 51 and just two behind McGwire.)

Two heavyweights, going back and forth.  As the weather started to cool, the tension started to rise.  Who would be the first to Roger Maris?  It didn’t seem like it would be long until we found out.

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