Home run #: 55
Date: August 30
Opponent: Atlanta Braves
Location: Busch Stadium
Pitcher: Dennis Martinez
Runners on: 2
Distance: 501 feet
End of day Sammy Sosa total: 54
End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 46
After getting a little extra rest the day before courtesy of a heave-ho by Sam Holbrook (which, as we noted, everyone involved agreed was deserved), Mark McGwire was back in the lineup against the Braves, trying to hold off Sammy Sosa and get to the Roger Maris finish line first. If he won a ballgame along the way, that was just gravy for the Cardinal fans following along. Sosa had homered earlier in the day in Colorado (off of to-be Cardinal Darryl Kile) and McGwire knew at the moment he sat tied with the Cubbie slugger.
Donovan Osborne and Kevin Millwood were the starters in a game that would have seemed to be a pitcher’s duel. Osborne was one of the few bright spots on the Cardinal staff and Millwood might never have lived up to the Hall of Famers that he was in the rotation with but he was always considered a good pitcher, probably a top of the rotation guy at the back of a legendary one. Osborne started off that way, retiring the first three Braves he faced, and Millwood escaped from a jam he created by allowing a single to Delino DeShields, a one-out walk to McGwire, and a wild pitch while facing Ray Lankford. A Lankford strikeout and a Ron Gant popout killed that rally.
Osborne’s luck ran out with the very next batter as the Big Cat Andres Galarraga (who was briefly a former Cardinal but one I had followed since his Expos days) smoked a 1-2 pitch over the left-center field wall to put the Braves on the board. Javy Lopez then singled and Andrew Jones went yard, making the game quickly 3-0. Osborne retired the bottom of the Braves’ order without any more damage and Millwood did the same to the Cardinals in the bottom of the frame.
Unfortunately, the issues weren’t completely behind the Cardinal starter. Gerald Williams led off the third with a hit between Luis Ordaz and Fernando Tatis. Greg Colbrunn flew out, but then Chipper Jones drew a walk to bring up Galarraga. Galarraga hit only 10 home runs in an injury-plagued season wearing the birds on the bat, but hit 20% of that total in this game, cracking another homer here to put Atlanta up 6-0.
Now, given the pitching Atlanta usually had at its disposal, you’d have been forgiven for packing up and heading home here, assuming this was a normal year and you weren’t at the ballpark to watch history. However, the St. Louis offense, as we’ve noted all year long, was really the only thing it had going for it. In the bottom of the fourth, McGwire led off with a single and wound up at third when Lankford doubled. Gant struck out, reviving fears that this rally was doomed, but Tatis singled and moved to second when they threw home, keeping Lankford at third. Lankford didn’t stay there long, though, as Ordaz grounded out, bringing in the newest Cardinal Hall of Famer and making the score 6-2.
John Frascatore came in to start the fifth since Pat Kelly had hit for Osborne in the fourth. He was able to get Chipper Jones and, amazingly enough, Galarraga to fly out, but he couldn’t navigate past Lopez, who took one out to left field to push the lead back out to five.
The Cards then saw that run and raised it one in the bottom of the inning. DeShields singled with one out but was still on first when Brian Jordan flew out. McGwire then doubled, his third time on base so far in this game, and Lankford came through with a two-run single. Suddenly, the game was 7-4, a little more manageable than a six run deficit.
After Frascatore threw another scoreless frame, the Cardinals went back to work. Tatis tripled to center field–I wish there was video of THAT play–and scored when Placido Polanco, pinch-hitting for Frascatore, singled off of Dennis Martinez, who had come in a batter earlier. 7-5 and with the big man in your lineup, this game isn’t quite done yet.
Mark Petkovsek went through the heart of the Braves’ order in the top of the seventh like a hot knife through butter, keeping the momentum squarely in the St. Louis dugout. DeShields walked to start off the bottom of the seventh and Jordan singled to short. Two runners on. Game in the balance. And look who’s coming up.
McGwire took a pitch. He didn’t take a second.
Martinez’s offering was middle-middle and didn’t have enough on it to escape Mac’s clutches. McGwire’s laser to center put the Cardinals on top 8-7, completing their epic comeback.
The rest of the game may have built the drama, but it turned out to be anticlimactic. Andruw Jones singled to start the eighth but was erased on a double play off the bat of Tony Graffanino. The Cardinals got a one-out walk off of Norm Charlton in the bottom of that inning, but nothing came of that. Finally, Juan Acevado allowed a two-out single to Michael Tucker to bring the tying run to the plate, but Chipper Jones popped out to third and the Cardinals, while getting their 64th victory of the season, had defeated the 90-win Braves.
McGwire had a tendency to respond when Sosa would catch (or, in a couple of cases, pass) him, which was part of the reason this race was so dramatic. There was a month of the season left and plenty more homers to be hit.