Home run #: 32
Date: June 17
Opponent: Houston Astros
Pitcher: Jose Lima
Runners on: 0
Distance: 437 feet
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 25
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 26
For the fact that early in the year it look like just a coronation waiting to happen with Mark McGwire and the home run title, a few things happened in the middle of June. One, McGwire went four days without a home run, which isn’t a huge stretch but enough that it slowed his pace a bit. Two, Sammy Sosa had just gone off. On June 15, he hit three home runs against Cardinal-to-be Cal Eldred and had gotten within double digits of McGwire for the first time all year. Big Mac still had the upper hand but for the first time it seemed more like a competition than a solo act.
Sosa had already crushed another one earlier in the day against the Brewers, pulling him to within six of McGwire, when the Cardinals opened up play inside the legendary Astrodome on June 17. Todd Stottlemyre, one of the Cardinals’ best starters on the season, matched up against Jose Lima, who hadn’t become the fun-loving legend he would later on but was already showing a propensity for allowing the long ball. (He’d allow 34 in 1998, which wasn’t even close to his career high.) Lima did most everything else right, though, and it looked to be a good pitching matchup.
That’s the way it started as well. The Cardinals got two singles in the first, including one by McGwire, but couldn’t capitalize on them when Brian Jordan fouled out and Gary Gaetti flew out. Stottlemyre was shaky to start as well, eventually walking the bases loaded, but Carl Everett grounded out and ended the threat. The Cards got Willie McGee on with a single to start the second frame and saw him steal a bag, but the bottom of the order just couldn’t capitalize.
The fact that so many came to bat in the first hurt Stottlemyre in the second. Brad Ausmus singled with one out and Lima bunted him over to second. The lineup then turned over and Craig Biggio got the two-out hit that put the Astros on the board 1-0.
Lima got back to work in the third. Royce Clayton flew out and Delino DeShields struck out, which brought up Mr. McGwire. Lima got McGwire to chase a pitch, then wasted one out of the zone. McGwire missed again on the third pitch but the fourth one was right in his wheelhouse.
The tie game lasted until the bottom of the sixth. Everett, atoning for his earlier missed opportunity, roped the first pitch he saw into the right field bleachers. However, in the top of the seventh, Brian Hunter parked an 0-1 pitch from Lima into the left field seats, retying the game.
Again, it’s amazing to see how baseball has changed over the past 20 years. With the score 2-2, Lima stays in the game and faces the Cards in the bottom of the eighth. Gaetti bunted his way on to lead off the inning (a move that would have sent howls around Twitter had it been around in those days) and David Howard pinch-ran for him. McGee singled, putting runners on second and third. Then Tom Pagnozzi bounced one back to Lima, who threw it away allowing Howard and McGee to score and Pagnozzi to wind up on second.
That finally did it for Lima and Bob Scanlan came into the game, striking out pinch-hitter Ray Lankford before allowing a single to Stottlemyre, who not only was still in the game BUT WAS ALLOWED TO BAT WITH A TWO RUN LEAD AND A RUNNER ON SECOND IN THE EIGHTH. Seriously, I lived through this time and I didn’t realize how gradually baseball changed, even with Tony La Russa in the dugout. This is unheard of today. Well, not completely unheard of given Mike Matheny‘s penchant for letting pitchers hit, but even he would probably pinch-hit in the eighth. Anyway, Clayton grounded out, Pagnozzi scored, and the Cards went into the bottom of the eighth up 5-2.
That’s the way it stood in the bottom of the ninth when Jeff Brantley took over. Oh, goodness, you know where this is going. The 2018 team might have its own bullpen problems, but Brantley was basically what would happen if Greg Holland pitched all the time. He led off the inning by hitting Biggio with a pitch, which really isn’t the way you want to kick off a ninth inning where you have a three run lead. Biggio stole second and Bill Spiers bunted–perhaps to move Biggio to third, perhaps for a hit, I don’t know, but if it wasn’t for a hit that’s Matheny-esque–and wound up at first. So runners on the corners, nobody out, heart of the order coming up.
We talk about TLR being innovative and a guy that liked to make changes, but at least in this stage of his life, he didn’t really want to yank the closer it doesn’t feel like. Brantley got Derek Bell to line out to right, scoring Biggio and making it 5-3. Unfortunately, the next batter was Jeff Bagwell and, well, there’s a reason he’s a Hall of Famer. He crushed Brantley’s first pitch to left field, tying the game up at 5.
Brantley stays in the game–again, amazing–and got Moises Alou to fly out. With two outs, Everett–remember, he’d homered already, and Brantley gets to stay in to face him–singled up the middle and then took an extra base when Brian Jordan muffed the ball. That finally got TLR to come to the mound and signal for a replacement. Curtis King came in and unintentionally intentionally walked Ricky Gutierrez to set up the force. That didn’t matter when Ausmus singled, bringing in the go-ahead run.
You just wonder what this team could have done with a decent bullpen.