Home run #: 44
Date: July 26
Opponent: Colorado Rockies
Location: Coors Field
Pitcher: John Thomson
Runners on: 0
Distance: 452 feet
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 38
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 39
Whether it was the pressure or just the natural ebb-and-flow of a season, Mark McGwire had a few homerless games in the second half of July. After his big game on July 20, when he went 4-4 with a homer, McGwire stayed in the park for the last game of that short Padres series, both games of a series in San Francisco, and, remarkably enough, the first two games in the homer heaven that was Coors Field. However, you can’t keep the mix of a legendary slugger and some mile high air quiet forever.
John Thomson faced off against Kent Merker and, belying the fact that these were two high-powered offenses, the game started off as a pitcher’s duel. Thomson got McGwire to end the first when Big Mac’s flyball to left settled into Dante Bichette‘s glove. Merker gave up a two-out double to future Cardinal Larry Walker, who will always be remembered in my house as “Mr. Angry Eyes” because that’s what my wife called him, but got Bichette to ground out without incident. The second and third for both teams went quietly, as the teams went down in order.
The fourth looked like it would go the same way. Royce Clayton grounded out to short while Brian Jordan popped out to second, bringing McGwire to the plate with nobody on and two outs. Thomson tried to get ahead, but his offspeed pitch caught the middle of the plate and McGwire took it for a ride, sending it over the seats in right.
McGwire’s blast set the new Cardinal season season record, passing up Johnny Mize in the team’s record book. No other Cardinal had reached 44 and here it was a few days left in June when McGwire was reaching that mark. (Since that time, Mize has been passed by McGwire again in ’99 and Albert Pujols three times, plus tied by Pujols in a fourth season.)
In defiance of the idea that home runs kill rallies, Ray Lankford followed that blast up with a single and John Mabry walked. While Gary Gaetti was batting, Lankford stole third, but was left there when Gaetti grounded out.
Of course, it couldn’t stay that way for long. In the bottom of the fourth, Ellis Burks led off with a double but was still there after Walker struck out and Bichette grounded out. Mercker couldn’t get completely out of the jam, though, as Vinny Castilla singled, bringing Burks in with the tying run.
Back came the Cardinals and in a most unusual fashion. With one out, Mercker took advantage of the quirkiness that is Coors by lacing a ball to center field, chugging around the bases and winding up on third with a triple. After a Pat Kelly strikeout–remember, this is back when pitchers hit eighth–Clayton singled in the tie-breaking run, making it 2-1.
Both sides went silent after that. McGwire grounded out to start the sixth and popped out to second to start the ninth. The Rockies never threatened until the eighth inning, when Curtis King gave up a single to Kirt Manwaring to lead things off. King was then replaced with Lance Painter, who faced the opposing pitcher, Chuck McElroy. McElroy bunted the runner over but was able to beat it out, putting two on with nobody out. Painter had more success with Neifi Perez, who also bunted but was retired at first.
Still, runners were on second and third and so Tony La Russa went to the bullpen again, tabbing Rich Croushore to face Burks. Croushore got Burks swinging, which was a huge strikeout, then retired Walker on a groundout. Willie McGee hit a solo homer in the ninth, Croushore stayed in to finish it up, and the Cards moved to 49-55 and salvaged the last game of the three game set.
McGwire was still ahead of his competitors, but that gap was going to be closing soon.