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Opponent: Montreal Expos
Location: Busch Stadium
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 66
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 55
The Cardinals were well out of any playoff picture and had already clinched a winning season, so normally the last couple of games would have been exhibitions to rest starters or a chance for the hometown fans to say goodbye. This season, though, there was something else in the cool September air.
Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa came into the Saturday game of their final series knotted at 66 home runs apiece as the epic home run race headed for its denouement. As noted last time, the Cubs were in Houston, back in those glory days when the Astros were a National League team. Sosa would go two for four to raise his season average to .306 but none of those hits would go for extra bases. McGwire, now that’s a different story. (And, by the way, you can watch the entire game here on YouTube.)
Dustin Hermanson and Manny Aybar matched up in this one. Hermanson, of course, would be traded to the Cardinals before the 2001 season with Steve Kline for Fernando Tatis, who started at third for the Cards in this one, and Britt Reames in a deal that was made mainly to free up a spot in the future for a young third baseman in the minor leagues. (No one really thought that Albert Pujols would actually claim that spot in 2001, but with an excellent spring and McGwire in his corner, he did just that.) I still remember finding out about that deal when Hermanson posted the news in an Expos forum on BaseballBoards.net, where I was a member and active participant on the Cardinals side. (The Expos board also came up with a game called YNOT, which is the forerunner of the Cardinal Six.) BaseballBoards was the place I first had to pick out a handle–it kinda stuck.
Long, rambling, uninteresting history aside, Aybar and Hermanson hooked up for a pitcher’s duel to start this off. Aybar gave up a one-out single to Terry Jones but otherwise was unscathed through the first. Hermanson gave up a one-out triple to J.D. Drew, but struck out McGwire and Ray Lankford to quell that threat.
Save for a couple of threats–such as a one-out triple by Wilton Guerrero in the top of the third, snuffed out by getting Jones to strike out and Fernando Seguignol to ground out–the game quickly moved along until we reached the bottom of the fourth. Drew tried to reach in front of McGwire by bunting his way on, but Hermanson was able to snag it and easily retire the rookie. McGwire was up next and took Hermanson’s first pitch right into the seats in left, taking over the home run lead for the final time.
That put the Cards up 1-0 but they weren’t done with the inning yet. Lankford followed #67 up with a walk and Hermanson, perhaps still rattled by being a part of history, then saw Ron Gant double him in. Tatis, facing the man he would be traded for, drew another walk to put runners on first and second. While Luis Ordaz was up to bat, Gant went ahead and snagged third base to put runners on the corners, which meant when Ordaz grounded out, Gant scored to put the Redbirds up by three.
That lead didn’t last long, though. Shane Andrews led off the top of the fifth with a home run and even though the Expos didn’t score any more there, the seal had been broken. The Cardinals didn’t get anything in the bottom of the inning as Drew’s two-out walk was wasted when McGwire flew out to center field.
Five innings of one run ball probably was about as much as you could expect from Aybar, but with nothing really to lose Tony La Russa let him go out there and start the sixth. Jones and Seguignol singled and Aybar was able to get Vladimir Guerrero to pop out, but TLR wasn’t going to let him go any further. Bryan Eversgerd came in and got his man, getting Michael Barrett to fly out, and then La Russa went back to the pen to bring in Mark Petkovsek. Petkovsek didn’t have the same luck, hitting Bob Henley to load the bases. Andrews then came up and popped up a 2-1 pitch, but Tatis dropped it, allowing the first two runners to score and leaving Expos at second and third.
Orlando Cabrera walked to load the bases up again and the father of the modern bullpen had seen enough. Lance Painter came in and faced a pinch-hitter for a pinch-hitter in F.P. Santangelo, currently a Nationals broadcaster. Santangelo wasted no time, singling on Painter’s first pitch to bring in two and put the Expos on top 5-3. With the lesser Guerrero up next, Painter’s pitch got past Eli Marrero, allowing Cabrera to score and put Montreal up by three. Finally Guerrero grounded out, ending the nightmare.
The good thing about the ’98 Cardinals, as we’ve said often, is that they were never really out of a game. They didn’t score in the sixth and the Expos were quiet in the top of the seventh, but thunder was coming. Placido Polanco and Marrero were retired to start the bottom of the seventh, but Super Joe McEwing made sure that things didn’t end too quickly with a double to center field off of current Cardinal pitching coach Mike Maddux, who had come into the game in the bottom of the sixth. McEwing’s double ended his night as Felipe Alou went to his bullpen to bring out Tim Young to try to get out the lefty Drew. That didn’t go according to plan as Drew singled, plating McEwing to make it 6-4 and bringing the tying run to the plate. And what a tying run it was.
Alou didn’t want Young to have to deal with that and so he brought in Kirk Bullinger. McGwire took Bullinger’s first two pitches, a strike and a ball, to get a feel for the reliever. He must have liked what he saw because he smoked Bullinger’s pitch to center field, carrying his bat aloft in victory.
McGwire’s latest home run make it six-all. Lankford tried to keep the rally going by singling and stealing second, but Gant flew out to left to end the threat.
Jeff Brantley came into the game in the eighth, which is usually a sign that things are going to get very bad, but he actually did a fine job. He walked Ryan McGuire to start the inning but got Henley to ground into a double play. Unfortunately, the Cards couldn’t capitalize in the bottom of the inning and things moved to the ninth and Mike Busby.
Busby got in trouble immediately with yet another triple, this one of the leadoff variety and by Cabrera. Scott Livingstone came in as a pinch-hitter and doubled in Cabrera, putting the Expos up 7-6. Livingstone was left stranded but the run stood up when McEwing grounded out, Drew struck out, and McGwire, with the chance to tie the game in his grasp, instead grounded out to third.
With a two-homer lead over Sosa, it felt almost certain that McGwire would be home run king. The odds of Sosa hitting three home runs in one game, especially a game that mattered (and as such could see Houston pitching around him) were remote. However, this story still had one more chapter left to write.