Home run #: 66
Date: September 25
Opponent: Montreal Expos
Location: Busch Stadium
Pitcher: Shayne Bennett
Runners on: 1
Distance: 375 feet
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 66
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 55
One of the most vivid recollections I have from the home run race is just how short the span of time was that Mark McGwire WASN’T the home run leader, especially after the race really got going. We saw that Sammy Sosa briefly took the lead at 48, but McGwire answered back in his next at bat. While the two players were occasionally tied at the end of the day, McGwire was almost always the person that reached the home run total first with Sosa catching up.
Going into the last weekend of the year, both players had to be ridiculously tired, tired of the long grind, tired of having to be at their best every single at bat, tired of the circus and the pressure and everything that went around this home run circus. The Cardinals finished the year hosting the Montreal Expos while the Cubs were in Houston to finish off the 162 game schedule. (The Cubs would have one last game, hosting the Giants for the right to be the wild card in the NL, as the two teams would be tied at the end of the year.) Everyone continued to watch just to see what the record mark was going to be.
Both players were at 65 as the games started on that Friday night. The Astros and Cubs kicked off just five minutes before the Cardinals and Expos, so ESPN could cut into their programming, going back and forth between the big hitters to see if another home run would be added to the mix.
In St. Louis, the Expos went in order in the first, bringing the Cardinals up to bat. Delino Deshields walked and moved to third on a Brian Jordan single, with Jordan using the throw to move into second. Two on and nobody out for McGwire, but Miguel Batista, well before his time in St. Louis, was having no part of it and walked McGwire. When Ray Lankford struck out and J.D. Drew hit into a double play, Batista’s unwillingness to face Big Mac proved a smart move.
(Sosa, in the top of the first in the Astrodome, popped out to second base.)
Jose Jimenez, who would throw a no-hitter and a two-hitter against Randy Johnson in 1999, was making his third start and continued to mow down the Expos in the second. Unfortunately, the Cardinal bats weren’t doing much better against Batista, who allowed just a walk to Luis Ordaz to mar the second. Montreal would get their first base runner in the top of the third on a hit by Bob Henley, but he was stranded at first. The bottom of the third saw McGwire bat with two outs, but he lined out to deep left field.
While obviously the games progressed at different speeds, it was about this time when Sosa came up against Jose Lima to lead off the fourth in Houston. Lima’s 0-1 pitch caught too much of the plate and Sosa drilled it to left field, becoming the first person ever to hit 66 home runs.
The shockwaves would have propagated quickly in Busch Stadium as the manual scoreboard would have slid Sosa’s name and 66 above McGwire and 65. With just two and a half games left, you had to wonder if McGwire was going to wind up not getting the final record after all, after doing the heavy lifting of breaking Roger Maris‘s mark.
There was still baseball to be played in Busch, though. Terry Jones led off the top of the fourth with a walk and Fernando Seguignol singled, putting two runners on for the now-Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero. Guerrero didn’t do anything too dramatic, but his groundout to first brought Jones in for a 1-0 Expos lead. Brad Fullmer struck out but Shane Andrews singled to third. The ball didn’t get far enough away from Fernando Tatis, however, and Seguignol was out trying to advance to home.
The Cards had an answer in the bottom of the inning and it didn’t take long to deliver it. Batista allowed a single to Lankford and then Drew, making up for his first inning double play, roped the fourth home run of his career to make it 2-1 in favor of the home team. Tatis, Ordaz, and Jimenez went quietly after that but St. Louis had regained the lead.
Unfortunately, Jimenez handed it right back. Henley got to him again, this time doubling to start off the frame. Mike Mordecai bunted him over and then, with September rosters being what they are, Felipe Alou went to the bench, bringing Scott Livingstone in to pinch-hit for Batista. Livingstone’s single plated Henley, tying the game at 2. Wilton Guerrero followed with a hit but Jones hit into a double play to snuff out the remaining threat.
I remember watching the fifth, standing behind a chair my father was sitting in at his house. I don’t know why I had come out there–I think I was just dropping something off–but McGwire was coming up and so we watched riveted to see what would happen. Eli Marrero started off by striking out and Deshields lined out to center, but Jordan singled in front of the big man.
I remember watching McGwire coming to the plate and knowing, with every fiber of my being, that he was going to answer Sosa’s home run. That’s the way the season worked, the dramatics were almost scripted, almost cinematic in their presentation. With two outs (and a meaningless game), Shayne Bennett really had no choice but to go after McGwire. McGwire fouled off the first, then took a ball outside to even things up. He swung through the third pitch and, after Bennett checked on Jordan at first, fouled off another. It was the fifth pitch that wound up proving my gut feeling right.
(Fun to hear Ozzie Smith doing a little color work there.)
McGwire’s shot made it 4-2 St. Louis but they weren’t done in the inning. Lankford followed up McGwire’s blast with a single and then, as he did the inning before, Drew blasted a two-run shot. The man had five home runs in the big leagues and already had two multi-home-run games. When Tatis followed that with a single, Bennett’s night was done. Ordaz doubled off of reliever Rick DeHart, but Jimenez struck out to end the frame.
With a four run lead, Tony La Russa stuck with Jimenez for the sixth. Jimenez retired the first two but then gave up singles to Fullmer and Andrews before his nemesis Henley got his third hit of the night, making the score 6-3.
The Cardinals didn’t do anything in the bottom of the sixth nor the Expos in the top of the seventh. Meanwhile, in Houston, Sosa had grounded out in the sixth, unable to respond to McGwire’s blast. Little did we know that Sosa wasn’t ever going to reach 67.
McGwire led off the seventh, looking to reclaim sole possession of the home run crown. Instead, he singled to left and went to second on a one-out single by Drew. Tatis struck out but Ordaz walked to load the bases with two outs. In the top of the seventh, TLR had executed a double switch so instead of Jimenez, it was John Mabry coming to the dish. The results weren’t much different, though, as Mabry struck out swinging.
The Expos got another run in the eighth when Rick Croushore got the first two outs then walked Fullmer then threw a wild pitch, moving him to second. Andrews also walked and then Henley got his fourth hit, doubling in both runners to make the game 6-5. However, Bryan Eversgerd came in and got pinch-hitter Michael Barrett to ground out, ending that threat.
In the bottom of the eighth, a leadoff double by Eli Marrero meant that, after a Deshields lineout and Ron Gant pinch-hitting and striking out, McGwire came up for one last at bat. Sosa struck out in the ninth and McGwire did the same here, meaning that the sluggers spent their last night tied atop the standings. Juan Acevado retired three Expos in the ninth and the game was over, another Cardinal winner that guaranteed them a winning record on the season.
Two games remained on the schedule. Nobody really knew the show that was in store.