September 2, 1996: Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee spark Cardinals’ comeback

For the first time since the Whitey Herzog days of the 1980s, the Cardinals were in the thick of a pennant race. So it was fitting that two stars of the 1980s, Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee, led the Cardinals to an extra-inning victory over the Astros on September 2, 1996.

The Cardinals entered the day with a 72-65 record, trailing the National League Central Division leaders, the Astros, by 1 ½ games and leading the third-place Cubs by three games. St. Louis had been streaky during the first half of a 12-game home stand, dropping three straight to the Marlins before sweeping the Rockies in three games.

Heading into the contest, the biggest news wasn’t in relation to the game itself, but two attendees in the stands – Republican Party presidential candidate Bob Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp.

Left-hander Donovan Osborne, a 1990 first-round draft pick who entered the game with an 11-8 record and a 3.14 ERA, was starting the game for the Cardinals. Osborne’s 11 wins matched the career high he had set as a rookie in 1992, when he placed fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting. The Astros were countering with Darryl Kile, who entered with a 10-8 record and 4.17 ERA.

Neither pitcher would last deep into the game.

The Astros jumped on Osborne from the start. Brian Hunter led off the game with a line-drive single to left and Jeff Bagwell pulled a double into left field to drive him home. With two outs, third baseman Sean Berry doubled down the left-field line to score Bagwell and James Mouton hit an RBI single to right to make the score 3-0.

Smith and McGee would get the Cardinals on the scoreboard in the bottom half of the inning. Smith led off with a double to left field and Ray Lankford laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance Smith to third. McGee, starting in place of the injured Ron Gant, followed with an RBI single to left that scored Smith and cut the Astros’ lead to 3-1.

After Osborne retired the side in order in the top of the second, the Cardinals rallied to tie the game. Gary Gaetti and Luis Alicea each singled before Osborne hit an RBI double and Smith brought home a run on an RBI groundout.

However, Osborne would run into trouble again in the fourth inning. Berry led off the inning with a solo home run to left field, and after Mouton reached on an infield single and stole third base, Ricky Gutierrez brought him home with a single to left. Two batters later, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa brought in Mark Petkovsek, who walked Hunter to load the bases.

After Petkovsek struck out Craig Biggio for the second out of the inning, Bagwell hit a two-run single to left to give the Astros a 7-3 lead.

“You knock Donovan out and you’re up 7-3 in the fourth, you feel things are going your way,” Bagwell said. “It seemed like we’d get a nice, easy win but it didn’t work out that way.”[1]

The 41-year-old Smith once again answered in the bottom half of the inning, this time with a two-run home run to right field that made the score 7-5.

Rich Batchelor held the Astros scoreless in the fifth and sixth innings. With one out in the bottom of the sixth, Smith walked and Lankford, who had been batting just .198 against left-handers,[2] singled into left. McGee then followed with a single of his own, scoring Smith and pulling the Cardinals back within a run.

La Russa turned to T.J. Mathews, who struck out three while holding the Astros scoreless in the seventh and eighth innings.

In the bottom of the eighth, the Cardinals tied the score once again on an RBI double by Lankford. Dennis Eckersley worked around a leadoff single by Hunter for a scoreless ninth inning, and after Tony Fossas got the first two outs in the 10th, La Russa called on Alan Benes to record the final out. The last time Benes had come out of the bullpen, he was pitching at Creighton University.

“It’s just a great feeling being able to be part of a big win like that,” Benes said. “I was told that if we happened to get into a situation where we played a couple of extra innings or we used a lot of pitchers, it was possible I would have to get in there. I had a couple of days before my next start.”[3]

With Doug Brocail on the mound for the Astros in the bottom half of the inning, Alicea led off the inning with a single. Danny Schaeffer tried to bunt Alicea to second base, but Bagwell pounced on the bunt and threw out the lead runner. La Russa then called upon Miguel Mejia to pinch run. With Smith at the plate, Mejia stole second to get into scoring position with one out. Smith came through with a single into left, but Mouton threw Mejia out at the plate to keep the Astros’ hopes alive.

“He took a hellaciously wide turn (around third base),” La Russa said of Mejia. “I guarantee you that tomorrow afternoon about 4 o’clock, he’ll be working on his turns. He was probably closer to the guys in the third-base dugout than he was to the third-base coach. Mouton made a great play and a great throw, but on a ground-ball single a guy who runs like the wind should score.”[4]

Smith advanced to second on the play, so the Cardinals still had a runner in scoring position.

“When we were losing early, Willie and Ozzie kept telling us to keep fighting and keep competing,” right fielder Brian Jordan said. “They said it would boil down to the last inning. … When I saw Ozzie get to second base, I had a feeling someone was going to be a hero.”[5]

That someone would be McGee. With two outs in the inning, Brocail intentionally walked Lankford to face the 37-year-old veteran even though he already had three hits on the day. That proved to be a mistake.

As McGee stepped to the plate, Lankford saw McGee scratch his head. Then he scratched his head again. Lankford smiled.

“Any time Willie scratches his head, he’s locked in,” Lankford explained. “When I saw him scratch his head a second time, I knew he was going to come through.”[6]

McGee lined a single into left that scored Smith and gave the Cardinals the 8-7 victory. It was McGee’s fourth single and third RBI of the day. For Smith, it was the fourth time he had scored that day; including the three times McGee drove him home.

“It was outstanding competition,” La Russa said. “We’ve played this club five times with first place at stake. There hasn’t been a bad game yet.”[7]

At the end of the game, Smith was batting .294 with a .368 on-base percentage (OBP) for the season. McGee was batting .302 with a .342 OBP.

“I’m going out, hopefully the way I came in,” Smith said. “I’ve always tried to respect this game. I’ve given my all each and every day.

“Given the opportunity, I could probably still play another two or three years – given the opportunity. All I can ask for is the opportunity. Willie and I are doing what we know we can do and have been asked to do.”[8]

With the win, the Cardinals pulled within half a game of the Astros. They went on to sweep the three-game series as part of an eight-game win streak that catapulted the team into first place.

September proved a month to forget for the Astros, as a nine-game losing streak that ran September 13-24 allowed the Cardinals to open a lead that reached as many as seven games in the final days of the season.

After capturing the National League Central Division crown, the Cardinals swept the National League West champion Padres before falling to the Braves in a seven-game National League Championship Series.


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[1] Rick Hummel, “Another Benes Plays Both Ends,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 3, 1996: Page C5.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Another Benes Plays Both Ends,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 3, 1996: Page C5.

[3] Rick Hummel, “Another Benes Plays Both Ends,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 3, 1996: Page C5.

[4] Rick Hummel, “Another Benes Plays Both Ends,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 3, 1996: Page C5.

[5] Mike Eisenbath, “McGee Can Run (& Hit) But He Can’t Hide,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 3, 1996: Page C5.

[6] Mike Eisenbath, “McGee Can Run (& Hit) But He Can’t Hide,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 3, 1996: Page C5.

[7] Rick Hummel, “Golden Oldies,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 3, 1996: Page C1.

[8] Rick Hummel, “Golden Oldies,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 3, 1996: Page C1.

 

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