Home run #: 54
Date: August 26
Opponent: Florida Marlins
Location: Busch Stadium
Pitcher: Justin Speier
Runners on: 1
Distance: 509 feet
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 52
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 43
There wasn’t any thought of a pennant race when the Marlins came into Busch Stadium in August of 1998. The Cardinals were 62-69 and Florida, after having won the World Series the year before, had undertaken their epic teardown and were 40 games under .500 at 46-86. The only real reason anyone attended this game, besides a general love of baseball, was following the Mark McGwire Show.
McGwire still had a two-blast lead over Sammy Sosa going into this game with the Marlins and every at bat held a buzz of anticipation and excitement as he got closer and closer to home run history. At this time, the only people ahead of him were Roger Maris (61), Babe Ruth (60, 59, and 54 twice), Jimmie Foxx (58), Hank Greenberg (58), himself (58 the year before between Oakland and St. Louis), Hack Wilson (56), Ralph Kiner (54), and Mickey Mantle (54). To have the 11th best total and it not even be September was mind-boggling.
You might expect a ugly game when two teams with these two records got together, but it actually was a pretty solid game for the first few innings. Darren Oliver retired the first three batters and Kirt Ojala, in the only season that he got more than 30 innings in MLB competition, was able to keep the Cardinals off the board in the first even by pitching to McGwire with Pat Kelly on first. McGwire flew out and even though Kelly stole second and went to third on a passed ball, Brian Jordan couldn’t get him home.
Both pitchers had traded zeroes and limited baserunners until McGwire got his second chance in the fourth. However, with nobody on and one out, the big redhead took a pitch on 2-2 and was rung up by home plate umpire Harry Wendelstedt. Unlike later in the week, this did not cause any serious consternation.
Oliver and Ojala went back and forth in a 0-0 game when the Marlins finally mustered their first real threat in the seventh. Derrek Lee struck out to start the inning, but Cliff Floyd and Kevin Orie followed with singles, putting two on with one out. However, Floyd decided to try for third a little early and was caught stealing when Oliver stepped off. That proved very costly when Randy Knorr and Luis Castillo walked to load the bases, but in a move that would most definitely not happen today Ojala hit for himself and grounded out, ending the threat.
You know how we always seemed to complain that Mike Matheny would let a pitcher hit in a key spot and then he wouldn’t make it out of the next inning? If so, this is going to sound familiar. Ojala allowed a double on a 1-1 pitch to Ron Gant to open the bottom of the seventh and saw Gant score when John Mabry bunted the runner to third (bunting the runner to third with nobody out–I wonder how well peak Tony La Russa would have gone over in peak Twitter) and Ojala threw the ball way. Mabry wound up on second and the Cards had a 1-0 lead. Of course, to prove baserunning outs happen in any era, Mabry was caught trying to go to third on a Placido Polanco groundout. That might have been a big deal because then Eli Marrero singled, moving Polanco to second instead of scoring Mabry. Jim Leyland then went to his bullpen to get Justin Speier, who got Kelly to fly out to end the threat.
Willie McGee had pinch-hit for Oliver in the seventh and so John Frascatore took over in the eighth with no problems, retiring the Marlins in order. That brought up the heart of the Cardinal lineup in the eighth and they delivered. Fernando Tatis tripled to lead off the frame, bringing up McGwire. With nobody out, the Marlins elected to pitch to him rather than to put another runner on base. That was a debatable decision.
Speier got McGwire to foul off the first pitch. He did not foul off the second.
The middle-in pitch met that classic McGwire swing and he launched the ball well over the batter’s eye in center field. This was the fourth-longest home run of his season and the next-to-last that would go over 500 feet.
The Cardinals weren’t done, however. Jordan followed that blast up with a single to left and Gant then doubled him in. Mabry followed and added to his day with a blast as well. That was all for Speier, who had allowed five runs this inning. Donn Pall came in and allowed a single to Polanco but was able to get a double play from Frascatore, who stayed in to hit. (This proved quickly to be an EPIC fail.) Eli Marrero and Kelly followed with singles, but Tatis couldn’t get his second knock of the frame and grounded out.
Remember I said something about an epic fail? It took no time for that to come to pass. Frascatore of course stayed in the game (no reason for him to hit if he wasn’t) and on a 2-1 pitch allowed a home run to Lee. No big deal, right? I mean, that made it 6-1 in the ninth and….
Then he allowed a home run to Cliff Floyd two pitches later. Still, 6-2 and I know this bullpen is shaky but…..
Then he allowed a home run to Kevin Orie two pitches later. Back-to-back-to-back blasts before recording an out. He didn’t get a chance to go for the quadfecta, as Lance Painter came in to try to get some outs. He got Knorr to ground out but walked Castillo and allowed a pinch-hit single to Dave Berg. La Russa, in his infinite wisdom, then went and got human gasoline can Jeff Brantley. Brantley ran the count to 2-2 on Mark Kotsay, then watched the rest of that six-run lead evaporate as Kotsay homered to right center.
From up 6-0 to tied in one frame. The Cardinals still had a shot, of course, as McGwire led off the bottom of the ninth. He singled, but then was forced by Jordan who moved to third on a Gant groundout. Mabry was intentionally walked, but Ray Lankford‘s fly ball off of Antonio Alfonseca didn’t have the distance and the game moved to extra innings.
That was a short-lived extension. Juan Acevado got Lee to strike out, but Floyd singled and Luis Ordaz, who had just come into the game, booted Orie’s grounder. Knorr then doubled in Floyd and while Acevado held the line there, the damage had been done. The bottom of the Cards lineup went 1-2-3 in the 10th and another winnable game was undone by a bullpen that was remarkably bad.
Sosa would hit a home run later in the evening, getting back to within two games and continuing to set up a battle that would go all the way to the last weekend.