Home run #: 63
Date: September 15
Opponent: Pittsburgh Pirates
Location: Busch Stadium
Pitcher: Jason Christensen
Runners on: 0
Distance: 385 feet
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 62
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 51
Given the buildup, given the incredible height that Mark McGwire reached on September 8, it’s probably not too surprising that after that sprint to the finish line, McGwire hit a bit of a wall. Leaving the comforts of home, the Cardinals went to Cincinnati, where McGwire went 0-5 with two walks, then to Houston, where he went 1-9 with a walk. You could hardly fault him for enjoying the moment or just trying to catch his breath with all the focus and adoration on breaking baseball’s long standing record.
The problem is, the season wasn’t over. Not for McGwire and not for Sammy Sosa. Sosa hit #59 September 11, #60 the next night, and cracked #61 and #62 the next, all against the Brewers at Wrigley Field. Both Sosa and McGwire were tied on the historic number at the end of play September 13, but neither could do anything the next night as Sosa went 0-4 in San Diego and Big Mac went 2-4 (both singles) as the Cards opened up a series against Pittsburgh back at Busch. Just because McGwire was first to the mark, as it were, didn’t mean that he’d be the one standing on top when the season ended.
To make up for a game lost earlier in the season, the Cardinals and Pirates had a double header scheduled on September 15. Fearing overwork for his first baseman, Tony La Russa made the decision to sit McGwire for the first game and play him in the second. He didn’t do anything in his full outing, but he made his cameo mean something.
With McGwire out of the lineup, the Pirates well under .500, and a pitching matchup of Donovan Osborne vs. Jon Lieber, folks would have been excused for not caring much about how this game played out. It turned into a bit of a back-and-forth affair with plenty of offense and, at the end, a dash of history.
Osborne and Lieber kept the opposition off the board in the first but Pittsburgh struck in the second. Manny Martinez hit a one-out triple and Freddy Garcia followed that up with a walk. Osborne then allowed another triple, this time to Lou Collier, which put the Pirates up 2-0 before getting out of the inning with a strikeout and a groundout.
Proving that triples weren’t just a Pirate thing, Ray Lankford led off the bottom of the second with one of his own. Fernando Tatis popped out but John Mabry‘s groundout put the Cardinals on the board.
Unfortunately, Pittsburgh got that run back in the third. After getting Kevin Polcovich and Jason Kendall to pop out, Osborne walked Kevin Young. That proved brutal when he ran the count to 3-1 and had to throw a strike to Jose Guillen, who took said strike out of the ballpark. The Pirates increased their lead to 4-1.
The Cardinals had an answer. Delino Deshields grounded out to start the bottom of the third, but then J.D. Drew hit his second home run as a member of the Cardinals, paring the lead to two. Next up was Ron Gant, who singled, and then Lankford topped his triple by smashing a home run. The game suddenly was tied and momentum appeared to be on the Cardinals’ side.
Momentum is a funny thing, of course. Neither team scored in the fourth, but Osborne started off the fifth by hitting Polcovich and allowing a single to Kendall. Young didn’t give Osborne time to get behind in the count, taking his first pitch out to left, putting the Pirates up 7-4.
Curtis King came in after that ball landed and got through the rest of the fifth without incident. Drew countered in the bottom of the frame with another home run, his first professional multi-homer game. Nobody else helped him out, though, and it was 7-5 after five.
King and Sean Lawrence, who had come in to finish the fourth, settled the bats down for a while. In the bottom of the seventh, Lawrence allowed a single to Brian Jordan and a walk to Deshields. With Drew coming up, the Pirates went to their bullpen and got Ricardo Rincon. He induced a 3-6-3 double play and even though Gant then walked to put runners on the corners, Lankford struck out to end the threat.
Perhaps scared by their close call (or perhaps taking advantage of the fact Jeff Brantley was in), the Pirates got their final tally in the top of the eighth. Guillen singled to start the inning and moved to second when Martinez bunted him over. That led to an intentional walk for Garcia to keep the force play in order. However, then Turner Ward drew an unintentional pass, loading up the bases for the pitcher’s spot. Doug Strange pinch-hit and, given Brantley’s track record, I guess we can be glad all he could manage was a sacrifice fly. Still, that made it 8-5 and the Cards couldn’t get much going in the bottom of the inning.
Kendall singled and stole a base in the ninth but nothing came of it. Mike Williams had come on in the eighth and started the ninth off by retiring Jordan on a fly ball. Jason Christensen, who would be a Cardinal for a short time in a few years, then came on to face Deshields, but the Cardinals countered by letting McGwire pinch-hit. Christensen started him off with a ball but his next pitch, a fastball middle-low, got dealt with in the fashion of 62 others.
With nobody on, that was just a little fireworks, a little smoke, before Christensen got Drew to fly out and, in what was probably over-managing, Rich Loiselle came in and got struck out Gant. The Cardinals fell 8-6 but McGwire had broken the tie and, with Sosa going homerless in San Diego for a second straight night, kept the title of Home Run King for another day.