Random great game: Cubs-Cardinals, August 8, 1990

I noted in a column last month that there is something special about a great regular season game that holds no larger meaning beyond what happens that day. Not that there is anything wrong with key pennant race contests or epic postseason affairs, but in some ways those Important Contests miss a crucial part of baseball.

In a typical year teams play nearly 2,500 games, almost none of which have any real meaning outside of what happens on the field that given day. It’s tricky to be a baseball fan unless you enjoy the daily grind of runs, hits, and errors. As a result, I personally hold a special place for random games that become wildly enjoyable contests.

One game I have especially fond memories of came on August 8, 1990, between the Cubs and the Cardinals.

Background

Neither team was going anywhere that year. The Cards, in last place that day, were in a transitional period. Longtime manager Whitey Herzog had stepped down earlier in the season, marking the death of Whiteyball. Managing them that day was a man who had first filled out a St. Louis lineup card a week earlier: Joe Torre.

Helming the other dugout was Torre’s future Yankee bench coach, Don Zimmer. Though Zim won accolades the year before for leading the Cubs to a surprise NL East title, the magic had disappeared in 1990. The Cubs were in fifth place, fighting for the greater glory of moving into fourth place in the six-team division.

The only reason to watch this game would be if you happened to find the game itself intrinsically interesting.

Opening act: the first inning

To begin the day, rookie pitcher Mike Harkey led the Cubs onto the field at Wrigley. In an otherwise disappointing season for the Cubs, Harkey had been a diamond in the rough. He sported a 10-5 record for the lackluster squad and had won seven of his previous nine starts with a 3.47 ERA in that stretch. Remove one disastrous start in which he surrendered eight runs in a third of an inning and his ERA was a sparkling 2.22 over the previous seven weeks. Then again, that terrible start came against these Cardinals.

Though Harkey had been central to Chicago’s recent hot stretch, it soon became apparent that he did not have his best stuff on this day. Leadoff batter Milt Thompson lashed out a clean single against Harkey to start the ball game. Two outs later, Harkey walked veteran infielder Pedro Guerrero on four pitches. Harkey managed to avoid giving up any runs, but it was an inauspicious beginning.

Fortunately, it appeared Harkey wasn’t the only pitcher having trouble at the game’s outset. Jose DeLeon was the Cardinal starter on the day, a fact that brought little comfort to the Cardinal fans. DeLeon was famous for posting a dreadful 2-19 record with the Pirates five years earlier. Though he wasn’t as bad as his record, it’s impossible to have a sub-.100 winning percentage unless you’re terrible.

Though he was better in 1990, this year would turn out to be DeLeon’s second 19-loss season, thanks to seven successive losing decisions to end the year. His record was merely 6-11 on this day. Again, his ERA was better than his record, but he was far from intimidating.

Sadly for St. Louis, he began pitching like someone who had and would again lose 19 games in a season. Jerome Walton, 1989′s Rookie of the Year, walked on four pitches, and future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg singled Walton to second. So far, it looked like Wrigley Field had a chance to host one of its patented high scoring games.

A funny thing happened on the way to the slugfest, however. DeLeon hunkered down and suddenly pitched his best baseball of the season. In the ensuing six pitches, he struck out Mark Grace and Andre Dawson. After another easy out he served notice that he was not going to be a pushover.

Entering a stalemate

Unlike DeLeon, Mike Harkey provided no such solace to his teammates. He continued to stumble through the game, trying to get through each inning with good fortune by the skin of his teeth.

He allowed another pair of singles in the second, but benefited from Rex Hudler‘s ill-advised decision to try to swipe second. After the Cubs gunned him down for his effort, Harkey escaped the inning unscathed with only one runner left on base.

St. Louis appeared ready to break the game wide open in the bottom of the third. With runners on first and second and only one out, Pedro Guerrero hit a sizzling shot just barely fair down the third base line. Nine times out of 10, that would garner him a double with at least one RBI. Today, however, things kept going Harkey’s way.

Instead of a double, third baseman Luis Salazar, a man never known for an exquisite glove, made a sensational play and rankled the ball down before it reached left field, and made a lo-o-o-ong throw all the way from the foul grass beyond third to nab Guerrero at first. The runners advanced, but there were two outs and the game was still 0-0. After an intentional walk, Harkey escaped the inning with his unlikely shutout intact.

Harkey pulled off another Houdini act in the fourth: two Cardinals reached base but both died there. After four frames the Cards hadn’t scored a single run despite putting nine men on base. Heck, only once had someone made it to third. As much as Harkey bent, the Cardinals could not break him.

St. Louis couldn’t get too frustrated, however. At least they were threatening to score. The Cubs looked helpless and hapless before Jose DeLeon. After Sandberg’s first-inning single, 10 straight Cubs went down in order—eight of the first nine couldn’t even get the ball out of the infield.

Thus the day was St. Louis’s for the taking. Though the public didn’t track it back then, Harkey had already thrown 78 pitches in four innings. Fatigue mixed with middling pitching should allow the Cards to wallop him later on.

Full-blown stalemate

Baseball has a persnickety habit of being hard to predict. A worn out Mike Harkey should’ve been chased out of the game in short order. Instead, he got stronger. Though a runner made it on every inning against Harkey, St. Louis’s threats became weaker.

One Cardinal made it to first in each of the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings, but never two in the same frame. Rex Hudler continued to help Harkey out by getting picked off of first in the sixth. St. Louis put two on with one out in the eighth, only to hit into an inning-ending double play. (The batter? Hudler, of course.)

Harkey’s escape tricks served merely as holding actions, however, as the Cubs continued to be overwhelmed by DeLeon. After the first inning, he allowed only two base runners while striking out a batter per inning. Chicago couldn’t even get a man on third base against the journeyman starter.

Fortunately for the Cubs, Torre lifted DeLeon for a pinch hitter in the top of the ninth. Unfortunately for the Cubs, they couldn’t score off his replacement.

After the ninth, Mike Harkey’s day was also done. In nine innings, he allowed eight hits and seven walks while striking out three for a Game Score of 67. Though it was nine innings of shutout ball, it was one of the worst pitched nine innings of shutout ball ever seen. Since 1954, in the 8,367 times a starter threw exactly nine innings of shutout ball, only 12 had a lower game score than 67.

Still tied 0-0, the game headed into overtime.

Heroics: the 10th inning

There is something inherently cool about a game tied 0-0 after nine innings. Any attempt to score becomes much more precious, and if the visitors should score in the top frame, the lead would seem forbidding, even if it was just one run. That was the atmosphere at Wrigley.

As shaky as Harkey had been, Chicago’s bullpen proved to be shakier. In the top of the 10th, St. Louis pounded out a pair of doubles and a single for a 2-0 lead. The Cardinals merely needed to prevent an offense that hadn’t even made it to third base from scoring multiple times.

Instead, St. Louis relief ace (and former Cub fireman) Lee Smith proceeded to make things interesting by surrendering consecutive singles to begin the bottom of the 10th. A sacrifice bunt put both runners in scoring position, and an infield groundout brought the first Cub runner home. The Cubs, down to their final out, trailed 2-1.

Zimmer brought in pinch hitter Dwight Smith, runner up in the 1989 Rookie of the Year voting. Alas, he hit the first pitch right to Gold Glove third baseman Terry Pendleton. After fielding the ball cleanly, Pendleton looked over to first, moved the ball out of his glove into his throwing hand—and he dropped it! Pendleton, as sure-handed as they come, muffed an easy play. He recovered quickly, and made a lightning throw to first, but the speedy Smith narrowly beat it out. Meanwhile, the tying run scored.

The teams headed for the 11th.

Heroics upon heroics

The Cubs brought in Steve Wilson as the new relief pitcher. Wilson had the misfortune to be merely the 200th most talented pitcher in the world, a fate causing him to be occasionally derided by those who weren’t among the 200,000,000 best hurlers on the planet. He’d been the ultimate swingman for the Cubs. By that I mean he never pitched well enough in the starting rotation or bullpen to stick to a particular role, but he also didn’t pitch poorly enough in either assignment to be banished from any role.

In short, he’s the sort of arm who had value without being especially intimidating. Usually. Today wasn’t a usual day, however. Whatever his normal level of talent, Steve Wilson wasn’t throwing like some standard mail-order swingman this day. For one glorious afternoon he threw like he was some sort of cyborg sent from the future to strike out St. Louis Cardinals.

To start the 11th, Vince Coleman went down looking. Then Milt Thompson went down swinging. And when Wilson blew away Ozzie Smith to strike out the side, he had notched as many strikeouts in that inning as all Cub pitchers in the previous 10 combined.

But Wilson wasn’t done. He began the 12th by blowing away Willie McGee and then caught Pedro Guerrero looking. Finally, Terry Pendleton grounded to second. Sure, he may have been a futurist cyborg come to strikeout Cards, but he was still a Steve Wilson cyborg.

Chicago’s cyborg completely went haywire in the 13th inning, though. Two singles, an intentional walk, and a sacrifice brought a run home for St. Louis, who led 3-2. The Cubs, who hadn’t threatened to score since their 10th inning surprise, needed another miracle.

However, Chicago had one advantage. The Cardinals’ RBI single came from a pinch hitter coming to the plate for St. Louis’s pitcher. Tom Niedenfuer now stepped to the mound. Though a quality reliever for many years, he didn’t have his stuff this day. After allowing a pair of singles (the latter of which put the runner of third), a Jerome Walton GIDP was enough to tie the score, albeit while killing the rest of the rally. The game was 3-3, and still went on.

Steve Wilson not only continued to pitch for the Cubs, but was even allowed to bat in the 14th inning. With two outs and none on, he lashed a double, Chicago’s only extra-base hit that day. Steve Wilson was full of surprises this day. An infield single by Luis Salazar moved him to third, but he died there when the inning ended on a pop-up. However, for the first time, the Cubs were the more dangerous team.

Breaking the stalemate

The Cubs plowed throw the 15th unscathed and then faced Niedenfuer again in the bottom half of the inning. Two singles gave the Cubs a rally for the third straight inning while also chasing Niedenfuer from the game. The new reliever was Scott Terry, who picked up the loss the previous night to the Cubs. With two outs, he plunked Mark Grace on the leg to load the bases.

The Cubs should’ve lost this game a half-dozen times. Harkey had no business throwing nine innings of shutout ball, Pendelton’s error was a fluke, Steve Wilson pitched over his head, and they sneaked through by having the ball bounce their way when it need it to. Yet here they were, just one swing away from a victory.

Now, with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the 15th inning, fan favorite Andre Dawson stepped to the plate. Just three years removed from his MVP season with the Cubs, Dawson was hitting .335 with 21 homers. The crowd could sense this might be the moment. A terrific hitter faced off against a floundering relief pitcher with the game on the line after numerous heroics by the home team: this was how the unlikely win was supposed to be attained.

Terry proved his fortitude by quickly getting two strikes on Dawson. Perhaps the tide was about to turn back in the Cardinals’ favor. The third pitch was outside for a ball. The fans were on their feet cheering Dawson on, and in the dugouts players watched while perched along the railing. 292 minutes after the ump first yelled “Play ball,” Dawson swung on Terry’s next pitch and connected. It was nothing dramatic, just a routine single to left. That’s all it took though: Cubs 4, Cardinals 3. Game over.

This game had a tremendous amount going for it: nine innings of deadlock, a great fielding play, a dominant starting pitching performance, another one which was equal parts gutsy and lucky, a pair of unlikely extra-inning comebacks, a bizarrely brilliant relief performance, and finally a clutch hit by the big bat to finish it.

Fans watched 15 innings of dramatic and hard-fought closely contested ball. If it had happened in October, it would have been remembered forever. Since it’s been denied that fate the best I can do is memorialize it here.

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