Opponent: Chicago Cubs
Location: Wrigley Field
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 48
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 41
I can’t help but wonder how the summer of 1998 would have been remembered had it not been for Sammy Sosa pushing Mark McGwire. If Big Mac had just run away with the home run title, hitting 70 when his next closest competitor hit 50, would it have inspired the nation? There were so many things that went on that season–the Yankees winning 114 games and a World Series, Kerry Wood striking out 20, Cal Ripken ending his consecutive game streak, the additions of Arizona and Tampa Bay and the return of Milwaukee to the National League–that if McGwire had dominated the race, it could have just been another star in a laden firmament.
Sosa did make his charge, however, and the race captivated the nation. Before this two game series in Chicago, the two participants had a press conference where they got a chance to really be with each other, to lessen the pressure. Sosa said baseball had been very, very good to him and McGwire had some of his first laughs in public all season. Going into the last game of the series, the two men sat tied atop of the home run standings with 47. That tie would not last the day.
A day game in Wrigley with the two premier sluggers in the game was going to bring out a lot of folks and 39,689 enjoyed a beautiful August afternoon with an epic baseball game. Assuming, of course, you aren’t a big fan of pitching. Then again, if you are a big fan of pitching, Wrigley wouldn’t have ever been your choice of venue.
The Cards struck early, plating runs in the top of the first. Pat Kelly tried to bunt his way on to start the game and failed, but Brian Jordan doubled to left. McGwire gave a hint of what was come by flying out to deep center field but Ray Lankford (now Cardinal Hall of Famer Ray Lankford, thank you very much) singled to bring Jordan in. John Mabry followed with a single and then Fernando Tatis drove in Lankford with a single of his own.
Kent Bottenfield protected that 2-0 lead through the first, even though he walked the first two batters. (Eli Marrero snagged Lance Johnson trying to steal to help put out that threat.) He wasn’t as lucky in the second, as Jose Hernandez homered after another leadoff walk (this time to Henry Rodriguez) to tie the score at 2. The game remained that way until the fourth, when Mark Grace singled and Rodriguez hit his own two-run blast, putting the Cubs up 4-2. Just another game at Wrigley, right?
The Cardinals couldn’t get the offense clicking after that first inning. Jordan singled to lead off the third, but McGwire and Lankford popped out. In the fourth, Marrero singled and stole second. Bottenfield couldn’t advance him, striking out on a bunt attempt, but Luis Ordaz then hit a ball to deep third. Hernandez’s throw got away from Grace, but as Marrero tried to take the extra base and score, Rodriguez threw him out at home. In the fifth, McGwire drew a one-out walk and moved to third on a Jordan double, but Mabry and Tatis couldn’t get him across the plate.
The bottom of the fifth looked like it might have been a huge moment not only for this game but for the entire season. Pitcher Mark Clark flew out and Johnson lined out, but Mickey Morandini singled to get the inning to Sosa. On Bottenfield’s first pitch, Sosa launched his 48th home run of the season, putting the Cubs up 6-2 and, for the first time, putting Sosa ahead of McGwire on the home run race. Minds raced–could the underdog really beat the favorite to the final pole? Could a Cub be celebrated as the next home run king?
While fans buzzed over all those possibilities, the Cardinals started getting to work on that four-run deficit. With one out, Ron Gant pinch-hit for Bottenfield and singled. After an Ordaz popout, Kelly and Jordan singled to load the bases, bringing up McGwire with the bases loaded. Unsurprisingly, the Cubs decided to go to the bullpen to get a fresh pitcher to handle the situation, but Terry Adams then threw a pitch Tyler Houston couldn’t corral, letting everyone move up a base and bringing in Gant. With a base open, the Cubs walked McGwire and the Cubs went back to their bullpen, getting Felix Heredia who forced an inning-ending groundout from Lankford.
John Frascatore shut down the Cubs in the bottom of the sixth and St. Louis went back at it. Mabry reached on an error by Grace to start the inning and Chicago did a double switch, replacing their battery by bringing in Scott Servais to catch and Matt Karchner to pitch. Karchner got Tatis to fly out and Marrero to hit into a fielder’s choice, taking Mabry off the field. Marrero then stole second while Delino Deshields was at the plate, pinch-hitting for Frascatore. Whether that mattered or not is a philosophical discussion, because Deshields then took a 2-2 pitch out to right, making it a 6-5 game.
Rich Croushore worked around a single and a walk in the bottom of the seventh to keep the deficit at one. After Jordan grounded out to start the eighth, McGwire came up for his second plate appearance (and first official at-bat) as the chasing, not the chased.
Karchner started the redhead out with two balls, then slipped a strike in there before throwing ball three. A 3-1 count to McGwire in a one run game? Yadier mind–wait, sorry, that’s a decade or more in the future. Karchner’s fastball didn’t get past McGwire and there was again a tie at the top of the Chasing Roger Maris group.
More importantly, it also tied the game. The Cardinals didn’t manage any more that inning, though Mabry did draw a walk, and the Cubs went 1-2-3 against Lance Painter. In the ninth, Deshields doubled but was left stranded at second and Juan Acevado came in to do the same thing to Chicago that Painter did.
That brought us to the 10th, an inning fraught with anticipation as both sluggers were due up for their respective teams. Terry Mulholland had come in after McGwire’s home run and kept the Cardinals at bay and he continued to do that in the 10th, striking out Jordan to bring McGwire up with one out. Mulholland ran the count to 2-0, meaning he had to come at McGwire or risk walking him. You come at the king, you best not miss. Mulholland missed.
After McGwire’s ball landed in center field, Lankford took advantage of a reeling Mulholland by taking his next pitch out to left-center, putting the Cardinals up 8-6. Tatis doubled with two outs against Don Wengert, but wasn’t able to add to the lead.
With Sosa due up second and the general flammability of the Cardinal bullpen, this game was far from over. Acevado stayed in the game and retired Brant Brown to lead off the inning, meaning Sosa couldn’t tie things up. With that pressure relieved, Acevado ran the count to 1-2 then got a comebacker, retiring the Cubbie slugger. Even with two outs, though, the Cubs weren’t out of it. Grace singled and Rodriguez doubled, putting the tying runs in scoring position. Flaunting the book, Tony La Russa walked Rodriguez, putting the winning run on base, but Manny Alexander was a much weaker hitter and he popped up behind first, ending the game.
This is where things really took off. I remember writing down the home runs from the night before in my work calendar. I remember–and we’ll get to this more close to the end of the series–how McGwire responded immediately to challenges. I remember that, with 50 just on the horizon, it really was now when, not if. The drama of September was coming, but there were still some amazing August moments to relate as well.