Home run #: 38
Date: July 11
Opponent: Houston Astros
Location: Busch Stadium
Pitcher: Billy Wagner
Runners on: 1
Distance: 485 feet
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 35
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 36
The gap between #37 and #38 was a bit artificial because in there was the annual pause baseball takes to celebrate excellence (or at least popularity) with the All-Star Game. Fittingly for the year of the home run, the Midsummer Classic was held at Coors Field that year. The idea of Mark McGwire participating in a home run derby in the pre-humidor Coors seems like one of those things that would set records. Instead, Ken Griffey Jr. took home the title while McGwire hit the fewest home runs in the competition. Baseball, amirite?
It took a couple of days after the break for McGwire to get going and in the meantime, Griffey had made a bit of a run, closing to within one of Big Mac and passing up Sammy Sosa in the overall standings. McGwire would get on track in a fairly dramatic way in this one.
Houston was well on its way to a divisional title and the Cardinals were floundering under .500, but that doesn’t mean that when the two teams got together there weren’t dramatics. It might not have the import that it would it in the early 2000s but a Cards/Astros game was still fun to watch. Houston got this one started early with a one-out double by Carl Everett and then a single by Derek Bell against St. Louis’s starter Kent Mercker. Ray Lankford‘s throw went home, keeping Everett at third but letting Bell advance to second. That turned out to be moot when Jeff Bagwell hit a sacrifice fly to bring in Everett and, after a walk to Moises Alou, Sean Berry flew out.
Jose Lima took the mound for Houston and was in control early. He struck out McGwire to end the first and threw three scoreless innings to start the game. Meanwhile, Houston got another run as Bagwell’s fly ball in the third went a little deeper, finding the stands to make it 2-0.
The Cardinals finally got on the board in the fourth. After Lankford struck out and McGwire popped out to first, Brian Jordan drew a walk and then abused Houston catcher Tony Eusabio, stealing both second and third. All that Whiteyball work was cool, but pretty much was irrelevant when Ron Gant, who was batting while Jordan was stirring up dust, parked a Lima pitch into the left field bleachers, tying up the score.
After that, the pitchers took over. Mercker ran zeros through the seventh, with only the last inning having any sort of Astro threat. With one out, Craig Biggio doubled, but then was thrown out trying to advance on an Everett ground ball to shortstop Royce Clayton. Meanwhile, Lima allowed nothing through the eighth, with Tom Pagnozzi being the only person to reach against him in that span.
The bullpens were solid as well. Rich Croushore pitched a perfect eighth and Mark Petkovsek a 1-2-3 ninth. Doug Henry took over for Lima in the bottom of the ninth and immediately walked Ray Lankford on four pitches. This was a problem, because McGwire was coming up. While you hated to pitch to him in that situation, would you really want to move the winning run into scoring position in the ninth inning?
Inexplicably, the Cardinals made that decision for the Astros, as Lankford stole second base on the second pitch of McGwire’s at bat. Of course, Houston then put McGwire on, not risking him ending the game on one swing. Jordan then grounded into a double play and Gant grounded out to end the threat. Can you imagine if that had happened with Mike Matheny as manager? Twitter would have erupted trying to figure out if it was a manager decision or a player decision.
Anyway, Petkovsek worked around a one-out single by Everett in the 10th and Henry a one-out single by Polanco in the bottom of that frame to send it to the 11th still knotted at 2. In the top of the 11th, Jeff Brantley came into the game, which meant disaster wasn’t too far away. He walked Alou to start the frame–never a good start–and followed that up by allowing a single to Berry. With the first two on in extra innings, it’s not surprising (nor really a bad decision, in theory) that Brad Ausmus, who was pinch-hitting for Eusabio, bunted the runners over. (Then again, Ausmus hit .269 with six homers in 1998. You’d almost think if you were going to bunt, might as well let Eusabio stay in, but whatever.)
Lance Painter came in to try to clean up Brantley’s mess. He intentionally walked Ricky Gutierrez to load the bases. Bill Spiers then pinch-hit for Henry and hit the ball deep to left. Everyone tagged up and advanced, with Alou scoring to make it 3-2. Painter then hit Biggio with a pitch, loading them up again, but escaped by getting Everett to ground out.
Down by one in extras, the Cardinals would have to mount a rally against Billy Wagner, closer extraordinaire. That, actually, was easier than expected.
Clayton led off with a single, then Lankford struck out. We see here that the Cardinals put the Astros in a similiar situation that they were in back in the ninth inning. This time, if you intentionally pass McGwire, you put the tying run in scoring position and the winning run on base. Not exactly the way the book tells you to do it, as Matheny found out earlier this year. If you pitch to McGwire….
Give Wagner credit, he had McGwire 0-2 and almost successfully walked the high wire. But his pitch was right on the outside of the plate where McGwire could reach it and the rest is walkoff history.
The (baseball) second half of the race was getting started and the dramatics would come fast and furious the rest of the way.