April 3, 1996: Stottlemyre, Eckersley earn Cardinals firsts in win vs. Mets

On April 3, 1996, the St. Louis Cardinals got their first glimpse of what their offseason additions had bought them.

With a new ownership group following Anheuser-Busch’s sale of the team, the Cardinals had retooled following a disappointing 62-81 season in 1995. Joe Torre had been replaced by Tony La Russa; Andy Benes, Ron Gant, and Gary Gaetti signed with the Cardinals as free agents; and Walt Jocketty made trades to obtain Royce Clayton, Todd Stottlemyre, and Dennis Eckersley.

In the second game of the season, the Cardinals’ saw their new additions pay off as Stottlemyre earned his first win as a Cardinal and Eckersley captured his first save.

After seven seasons with the Blue Jays, Stottlemyre was coming off a 14-7 campaign with the Athletics, where he posted a 4.55 ERA and ranked second in the American League with 205 strikeouts. Recognizing that Stottlemyre was due for a raise in arbitration after earning $1.8 million in 1995, the Athletics dealt him to the Cardinals for outfielder Allen Battle and pitchers Jay Witasick, Carl Dale, and Bret Wagner.

Facing off against Jason Isringhausen and the Mets, Stottlemyre looked sharp in his Cardinals debut. He retired the first 10 batters he faced and struck out the side in the third inning.

Gant gave the Cardinals a 2-0 lead with a third-inning home run to left field. Ray Lankford led off the inning with a single, and Isringhausen said he was distracted by Lankford when the Cardinals outfielder took off for second, even though Lankford retreated back to first.

“When I saw him take off, I flinched,” Isringhausen said. “Once you take your eyes off the plate, you’re in trouble. I see Gant has hit a few home runs. He’ll probably hit a few more.”[1]

In the sixth, Lankford led off the inning with a triple into the right-field corner and Gant scored him on a sacrifice fly to center.

Bernard Gilkey, who was traded to the Mets after the Cardinals signed Gant, tied the game in the bottom half of the sixth. After Stottlemyre retired Rey Ordonez to lead off the inning, Brent Mayne drew a walk and Lance Johnson followed with a double. On a 2-1 pitch, Gilkey homered to left-center to make it a 3-3 ballgame. It was Gilkey’s second home run in as many days and his fifth RBI.

In the top of the seventh, the Cardinals mustered a two-out rally to re-take the lead. Stottlemyre started the rally with a single.

“I never hit a ball out of the infield all spring,” said Stottlemyre, who was playing in his first National League game. “I was just as surprised as anybody else when the ball hit the outfield grass.”[2]

Jose Vizcaino misplayed a ground ball off the bat of Willie McGee to keep the inning alive, and Clayton followed with an RBI single to right that scored Stottlemyre.

“After I scored, I was gassed,” Stottlemyre said.[3]

With two outs in the eighth, catcher Danny Schaeffer battled back from an 0-2 count to hit an RBI single off Jerry Dipoto on a full-count. The run gave the Cardinals a 5-3 lead.

“That’s what we talk about, staying ahead of hitters,” Mets manager Dallas Green said. “You want to bury guys, especially a guy like Schaeffer. We had a chance to stay in the game right there but we didn’t get it done.”[4]

From there, it was up to Stottlemyre and Eckersley to hold the lead. With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Johnson reached on an infield single. Johnson was retired on a ground ball by Gilkey, but with two outs, Stottlemyre walked Rico Brogna to bring the tying run to the plate.

With four outs remaining in the game, La Russa called upon Eckersley to close out the game. Butch Huskey greeted the 41-year-old by blasting a fastball that appeared headed for the outfield seats, but Lankford leaped to rob him of the home run.

“After my heart started back up I think I was more excited than (Lankford) was,” Gant said. “It’s awesome to get a front-row seat on a play like that.”[5]

Gilkey, who previously had Gant’s perspective from left field, said he knew Lankford would make the play, even as Eckersley, expecting an easy out, began to walk toward the dugout.

“I’ve been playing with Ray a long time and I know the ability he has in center field,” Gilkey said. “I was just hoping the ball was a little higher. I’ve seen this so many times, but this was the only time I was a little disappointed he made the catch.”[6]

The home run would have been Huskey’s first after he hit nine for the Mets during spring training.

“I thought it had a chance to go,” he said. “It would have if (Lankford) wouldn’t have stuck his glove up.

“I went in (the clubhouse) and lifted some weights so he won’t have a chance next time.”[7]

Eckersley worked around two singles in the ninth to earn his first save as a Cardinal. He struck out Edgardo Alfonzo to close the game.

“No matter how much experience you have, you’re a little uptight when you come into the game,” Eckersley said. “I felt very uncomfortable, like I’d never been in a game before.”[8]

Stottlemyre’s day ended with his first win as a Cardinal after allowing three runs in 7 2/3 innings. Lankford, Gant, and Stottlemyre each finished with two hits.

Isringhausen, who grew up in Brighton, Illinois, took the loss. He had gone 9-2 as a rookie in 1995 and was making his first appearance of the season.

“I had more butterflies because I was pitching against the Cardinals for the first time,” he said.[9]


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[1] Rick Hummel, “Stottlemyre And Gant Look Like A Million,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 4, 1996: Page D1.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Stottlemyre And Gant Look Like A Million,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 4, 1996: Page D5.

[3] Rick Hummel, “Stottlemyre And Gant Look Like A Million,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 4, 1996: Page D5.

[4] Thomas Hill, “Mets, Huskey fall short,” New York Daily News, April 4, 1996: Page 98.

[5] Rick Hummel, “Stottlemyre And Gant Look Like A Million,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 4, 1996: Page D1.

[6] Rick Hummel, “Gilkey Greets Ex-Team With 5 RBIs in 2 Games,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 4, 1996: Page D5.

[7] Thomas Hill, “Mets, Huskey fall short,” New York Daily News, April 4, 1996: Page 98.

[8] Rick Hummel, “Stottlemyre And Gant Look Like A Million,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 4, 1996: Page D5.

[9] Rick Hummel, “Gilkey Greets Ex-Team With 5 RBIs in 2 Games,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 4, 1996: Page D5

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