Opponent: Florida Marlins
Location: Pro Player Stadium
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 56
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 46
You hear people talk about “the zone”. You hear people talk about getting that extra kick as they get closer to a finish line. That is probably the best way to describe what the first week of September was like for Mark McGwire. Consider that when the month started, he was six behind Roger Maris. Eight days later, he was the home run champion of the world.
The biggest reason for that push and the reason that things worked out so poetically as they did with 61 and 62 (obviously, more on them later this week) is because Mark McGwire abused the Marlins in two straight days. To have four homers in a single series is amazing, but for him not to hit any of those before the seventh inning just was an indication that lightning could strike at any time. Given that he hit 10% of his season total against Florida pitching, it wouldn’t have been surprising if he’d sent a fruit basket or something to the Marlins’ clubhouse.
Jesus Sanchez and Kent Mercker matched up in this one and, for a little while, it looked like a good pitching duel. Ray Lankford walked with one out in the first, but McGwire was unable to come through at that time, grounding into a double play. Derrick Lee was the next person to reach base, singling in the bottom of the second, but the next three batters left him sitting there.
Things started to shift in the top of the third. Placido Polanco tripled to lead off the inning and, after Mercker struck out, Eli Marrero drove him in with a sacrifice fly. Pat Kelly then bunted his way on but was left stranded when Lankford lined out.
Mercker kept the Marlins at bay in the bottom of the third and then the floodgates opened for the Cardinal bats. McGwire led off with a walk and moved to second when Sanchez balked pitching to Brian Jordan. Jordan then got an infield hit, keeping McGwire at second but putting two runners on. A walk to Ron Gant loaded the bases and Fernando Tatis made it 3-0 with a double. With still nobody out, Sanchez pitched carefully to Polanco and walked him on four pitches, bringing the pitcher up.
The great thing about the National League is that there is no DH. Yes, pitchers often fail and yes, sometimes the strategy is blatantly obvious, but when a pitcher comes through, it’s one of the best things ever. Mercker got it to 1-1, then drove Sanchez’s pitch deep to right field, clearing them all and giving him a grand slam. It was the only home run of his career and those four RBI were more than he had in all but one other season. For a career that spanned until 2008, that’s saying something. You wonder if, when someone asks Mercker about ’98, he doesn’t lead with talking about McGwire but, “You know, I also went deep that season.”
Anyway, the game was now 7-0 and, unsurprisingly, Sanchez’s day was done. So the Marlins went to their bullpen and got out a guy that had pitched only eight times that season but his name still would have been immediately recognizable to Cardinal fans of that era–Eric Ludwick.
Now, to us 20 years in the future, the Ludwick name means something different. Ryan Ludwick was a valuable part of the late 2000s version of the squad before he was dealt in a three way trade to get Jake Westbrook around the 2010 trading deadline. (The Indians got some guy named Corey Kluber out of that deal. Not sure whatever happened to him.) Ryan was much more successful than his brother ever turned out to be, but Ludwick’s name went in the history books for one thing.
He was traded (with T.J. Matthews and Blake Stein) for Mark McGwire.
Ludwick, who interestingly enough had come to the Cardinals when they dealt Bernard Gilkey to the Mets, had been traded from Oakland to Florida in the offseason with Kurt Abbott going back to the green and gold. Ludwick had split time between Florida and their AAA team in Charlotte, but had come back up a few days beforehand.
Ludwick got the next three Cardinals to stop the bleeding but the Marlins could do nothing with Mercker in the bottom half of the inning. Which meant that, in the top of the fifth, Eric Ludwick got to face the man he was traded for.
It would have been fitting had McGwire added Ludwick to the long list of pitchers that had given up a blast this year, but instead Ludwick walked him and McGwire was erased on Gant’s double play. In fact, both sides went hitless and in order (with an error and a double play spicing things up in the bottom of the sixth) until the seventh rolled around.
Brian Edmondson took over on the mound and immediately allowed a single to Eli Marrero, but Marrero tried to get greedy with a seven run lead and was cut down at second base. Pat Kelly flew out but Lankford doubled, bringing up McGwire. With the large lead, there was no reason not to face McGwire even with a base open and Edmondson went after him, missing outside with his first pitch and then throwing a wild pitch (moving Lankford to third) with his second. He was able to get McGwire to foul one off but the big redhead didn’t miss the next one, even as it tried to dart down and inside.
Babe Ruth (twice) and Roger Maris.
With the Cardinals up by nine, it’s probably not surprising that Mercker finally allowed some tallies to the Marlins in the bottom of the seventh. Mark Kotsay led off the inning with a bang, putting a ball over the right field wall. Lee singled, Preston Wilson reached on an error, and Orie singled to load the bases. Randy Knorr drove in Lee with a sacrifice fly and Luis Castillo singled in Wilson, bringing the Marlins to within 9-3.
St. Louis wasn’t going to take that lying down, though. Rob Stanifer took over pitching duties and walked Tatis on four pitches to start the eighth. Polanco singled, putting runners on the corners for the pinch-hitter, John Mabry. Mabry doubled them both in and after two flyouts to center field, came home himself on a Lankford double. Again, with the score 12-3, why not pitch to McGwire? They did and he delivered, taking Stanifer’s first pitch to left-center for #59.
McGwire had put his name with the Babe and stood just one more blast from being the third person ever to reach the 60-homer plateau. Breaking the record was now not a matter of if but when and how high he could push it.
The Marlins got one of the runs back when Lee doubled in Cliff Floyd with Mark Petkovsek on the hill in the eighth but, save for a small rally that did nothing in the ninth against Bryan Eversgerd, that was all she wrote. The Marlins were glad to see the end of McGwire but the rest of the country couldn’t get enough.