This Saturday evening game between the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals started off as any other. Both teams had gotten off to slow starts and were looking for anything positive that might turn around their fortunes. Neither manager would enjoy the next six hours, but fans of both clubs were treated to one of the most entertaining games of the decade.
The Braves would start Zane Smith, a young lefty that had seemed to have figured things out in 1987, posting a 15-10 record. His ERA, WHIP and general lack of control might have suggested otherwise, and all would come into play early in this game.
Cris (without an H) Carpenter would be making his major league debut for the Cardinals. Carpenter was the Cardinals top prospect, and we were all excited to see what the young man could do. He had been drafted less than a year ago. Carpenter was fast-tracked and skipped the normal rookie program. He went straight to Louisville (AAA) where he dominated the American Association.
The Cardinals would put the first runs on the board in the home half of the first inning. With two outs, three consecutive singles by Willie McGee, Tom Brunansky and Terry Pendleton would give the Cardinals a 1-0 lead. Weren’t we saying something earlier about Smith’s WHIP ?
The Cardinals would extend that lead in the second, a truly ugly inning for the Atlanta starter. Tony Pena would hit a one out double. In his first major league at-bat, Cris Carpenter would single. Pena would then score on a Vince Coleman single. Ozzie Smith would load the bases with a single, bringing Willie McGee to the plate. With McGee, it was feast or famine – this time the latter. He struck out, probably at a pitch a foot or more out of the strike zone. Smith’s control issued finally came into play when he walked Tom Brunansky, forcing in a run. The Cardinals now led 3-0, and it appeared as if they had Zane Smith on the ropes. But that’s not quite how things would play out.
The young lefty was able to pitch a scoreless third inning, allowing just one base runner.
That would be followed by a quick, but ugly inning from the Cardinals hurler. While he had not exactly been dominating, he had held the Braves scoreless until the top of the fourth inning. A lead-off walk started the troubles. A single, double, triple and sac fly gave the Braves a 4-3 lead before we could even let out an expletive.
It became clear that it was going to be “one of those” nights when the Cardinals reclaimed the lead in the bottom of the inning. Willie McGee would make amends for his earlier strikeout with an RBI single. Terry Pendleton also picked up an RBI with a double, scoring McGee all the way from first base. While he had one of the ugliest swings in the history of baseball, McGee was an absolute delight to watch run the bases.
Charlie Puleo took over for an ineffective Zane Smith. Both Puleo and Carpenter actually pitched two scoreless innings – something we hadn’t seen in a while.
In the seventh inning, Ron Gant would lead off with a double. That would be it for Carpenter as Whitey Herzog pats the young man on the shoulder and turns the game over to his bullpen. First in is Steve Peters. Peters walks the first batter he faces. Dion James bunts both runners up a base, and the Braves have a very promising rally starting.
Herzog goes to his bullpen again, this time calling on Scott Terry. He retires the two batters he faces, but the Braves manage to tie the game on a fielder’s choice.
The game would stay tied at 5 runs apiece for the next four hours. Paul Assenmacher, Jose Alverez and starter Rick Mahler would combine for 13 scoreless innings. The Cardinals had a base runner in nearly every one of those innings, sometimes two, but never got the clutch hit to send the hometown crowd home happy.
On the Cardinals side, Ken Dayley, Todd Worrell and Randy O’Neal were absolutely dominating for eight innings, allowing just two hits.
Jose Oquendo would take over pitching duties in the sixteenth inning. He struggled, but the Braves desire to hit every pitch over the outfield wall kept Oquendo in the game for 4 innings. His luck finally ran out in the top of the nineteenth when Ken Griffey finally decided to plop a double down the opposite field line instead of pulling the ball, like everybody else had been doing. That led to two Braves runs, and that would be difference in the game.
Jose Oquendo would take the loss in four innings of relief.
But that’s not the entertaining part of the game. At the same time that Oquendo came into the game, Whitey Herzog had run out of position players. As a result, he used Jose DeLeon, a starting pitcher, in left field. Well, that’s not quite right. DeLeon would play left field for left handed batters, and then he would trade places with Tom Brunansky in right field when right handed batters came up to hit. The odd switch-a-roo worked effectively for four innings.
When you look at the box score, you will see something like
Jose DeLeon LF-RF-LF-RF-LF-RF-LF-RF-LF-RF-LF-RF
Tom Bruansky RF-LF-RF-LF-RF-LF-RF-LF-RF-LF-RF-LF
Before you laugh at the strategy, you should know that DeLeon did record a putout. Brunansky managed four, but he also had an important outfield assist in the sixteenth when he threw out Ken Griffey, trying to score from second base on a single.
OK, now you can laugh.
Even though Bill Veeck had passed away two years earlier, somewhere he had to be watching this game and thoroughly enjoying it. I know we did, especially as DeLeon and Bruno switched outfield spots in the late innings.