Home run #: 64
Date: September 18
Opponent: Milwaukee Brewers
Location: County Stadium
Pitcher: Rafael Roque
Runners on: 1
Distance: 423 feet
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 63
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 52
The last couple of weeks of the 1998 season were like a slow-motion boxing fight when it came to the Race for the Record, a term thrown around a lot that season. As we noted last time, Mark McGwire had hit 63 to creep one ahead of Sammy Sosa, but the next day Sosa hit one to tie him up again. Both players reached the next-to-last weekend weekend of the season at the top of the heap, still looking to edge past the other.
The Milwaukee Brewers got a front row seat to the festivities. The week before, Sosa had hit four home runs to reach 62 against them. Now, McGwire and the Cardinals were visiting with the Cubs coming in right behind. If you couldn’t get tickets at Busch or Wrigley, County Stadium was the next-best place to be.
The Cardinals’ playoff hopes were long gone but they were still trying for respectability, coming in one game under .500 on the season. The Brewers were about 10 games below that mark and, if it hadn’t been for history parading through town, probably would have had sparse crowds as they tried to play out the string. History was there, though, and it was glorious.
This Friday evening affair saw Darren Oliver take on Rafael Roque, a rookie pitcher who made all of nine starts in 1998 and was out of the bigs after five innings in 2000. Roque got the first two outs in the top of the first, then ran McGwire out to a full count before walking him, already focused on what he could do. The walk didn’t hurt him, however, since Brian Jordan followed with a groundout.
Oliver was not so lucky in the bottom of the frame. Fernando Vina, before his time as a Cardinal favorite, drew a walk and stole second after Mark Loretta flew out. Dave Nilsson, who had some good games against the Redbirds earlier in the season, grounded out but Delino Deshields couldn’t make the play, putting runners on the corners. Jeff Cirillo made the Cards pay for their mistake with a single up the middle, bringing in Vina. Jeromy Burnitz (strikeout) and Marquis Grissom (popout) weren’t able to do any more damage, however.
Both pitchers were perfect in the second and Roque set down St. Louis in order in the third. Oliver hit another bump in the bottom of that frame, giving up a one-out double to Loretta. There’s not any real notes on what it was, but something happened to Nilsson as Jose Valentin batted for him here in the third. It worked like a charm as Valentin singled to bring him in, then was stranded as Cirillo and Burnitz were unable to come through.
Roque was coming around to the second time through the lineup and it quickly cost him in the fourth. Ray Lankford doubled, bringing up the Cardinal slugger everyone wanted to see. With a base open, pitching around McGwire was a definite option and Roque did go to 2-0 against him before getting a called strike across. The fourth pitch was also wide but with a 3-1 count Roque tried to get another strike. I guess, in that regard, he was successful.
A pitch above the belt got belted for #64, giving McGwire the lead all alone again. Ironically, in Roque’s next start, he would become the only pitcher (without research, but I feel pretty confident it never happened in ’99 or after) to give up two #64s when Sosa tagged him for that one in the next series.
The home run seemed to unravel Roque. Brian Jordan followed with a walk and moved to second on a wild pitch. Ron Gant struck out, but Fernando Tatis singled, driving in Jordan, and went to second on an error by Darrin Jackson. Luis Ordaz followed with a single that brought Tatis in and made the score 4-2 in favor of the Cardinals.
Things got kinda quiet after that. Oliver gave up a couple of singles in the fourth but got Ronnie Belliard and Vina to end the threat. The Brewers got a couple of singles again in the fifth but that got snuffed by a Burnitz double play.
On the Cardinal side, nothing was happening either. McGwire led off the sixth with a fly ball to deep right center, but #65 would have to wait another day as it was tracked down. Jordan and Tatis both singled after that but Ordaz grounded out to end the inning.
Neither side had any more action until the eighth, when Lankford led off the inning against Eric Plunk by belting one a little deeper than that McGwire shot, getting his 30th home run of the season. That’s a total that would have led the team most years and been a fine season but obviously in this year was a bit overlooked. Kinda the story of Lankford’s career, huh?
McGwire followed Lankford’s homer by popping out to catcher and even though Gant singled with two outs, nothing ever came of it. Mike Busby threw a perfect eighth and Juan Acevedo worked around a one-out single by Jackson to record the save, pushing the Cardinals to .500.
McGwire was back at the top of the heap but Sosa wasn’t done either. This slugfest still had some life in it.