This Week in Baseball History: Oct. 11-17

Barry Bonds in a Japanese Home Run Derby? Yes, please.

Oct. 12, 1997 – The Most Infamous Strike Zone

 

Where do you stand on robo-umps? If you are against them, maybe this will change your mind …

It’s Game Five of the 1997 NLCS. Braves vs. Marlins. Series tied 2-2. And it’s shaping up to be a good ole’ fashioned pitchers’ duel.

For Atlanta, they have Greg Maddux. In his previous six seasons, he won four Cy Youngs, and finished second and fifth the other two years. Simply put, at that time Maddux was as unhittable as any pitcher had ever been.

Meanwhile Florida had an exciting budding ace in Liván Hernández, who had defected from Cuba two years prior (he would later be joined in America by his half-brother “El Duque”).

Maddux and Hernández had one thing in common: they didn’t strike out a lot of people (6.1 and 5.6 career K/9, respectively). That would change on Oct. 12, 1997 with Eric Gregg as the home plate umpire.

In the first inning, Hernández let up a leadoff triple to Kenny Lofton and then a walk to Keith Lockhart. Afterwards, he buckled down, striking out Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff swinging. Hernández then struck out Ryan Klesko looking to end the inning and escape trouble. But Klesko may have had some qualms about that pitch.

Unfortunately for the Braves, Gregg was on a mission that day. A mission to single-handedly force MLB to switch to robo-umps.

The strike zone extended well into the batter’s box and then some. Hernández and Maddux both took exceptional advantage of it. But to be honest, Maddux didn’t need the help. Check out these two two-seamers.

How is either team supposed to put together an offense with a zone like that?

Fortunately for the Marlins, Bobby Bonilla, who will be paid $1 million annually by the Mets until 2035 (sorry, Mets fans, for bringing it up), had a two-RBI single in the bottom of the first. Michael Tucker responded with a leadoff solo shot off Hernández the next inning to cut the score to 2 1.

But for the rest of the game, both team’s bats fell silent. From the bottom of the second to the top of the seventh, each pitcher faced just one more than the minimum. Why? Well, they absolutely abused the absurd strike zone.

 

“I’m so damn mad I can’t even see right now,” Jones said. “I know I swung at a couple of pitches that were a foot outside. I asked Eric if they were strikes, and he said yes. I couldn’t help but chuckle.”

When all the bodies had fallen, the Marlins walked away with a Game Five victory thanks to Hernández record-setting 15-strikeout performance — the third-most strikeouts in a playoff game.

His final line: 9 IP, 3H, 1 ER, 2 BB, and 15 K. If you want to watch all 15 Ks, you can do so here.

Meanwhile, Maddux walked away with a solid line of 7 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 1 BB and 9 K. Good, but not enough professor.

 

Oct. 14, 1985 – The Wizard of Oz’s Playoff Walk-Off

 

If there is one thing that Ozzie Smith is not known for, it’s his power. Rather, his lack thereof. The Wizard of Oz accumulated 76.9 bWAR/67.6 fWAR. He did it with a .328 slugging percentage. For reference, his OBP was .337.

Yes, Smith had a higher career OBP than SLG. In fact, Smith is tied with Rabbit Maranville (A+ baseball name) with the fewest homers (28) for anyone with over 10,000 PAs.

1985 was Smith’s most powerful year by his standards. He clobbered a monster regular-season six dingers — in his previous seven seasons combined, he had hit just seven homers. Such an aberration propelled Smith’s Cardinals to 101 wins, earning them a spot to face the Dodgers in the ’85 NLCS.

In the first four games, Smith was a slap-hitting machine, going 7-for-16 with six singles. But the Cardinals lost their first two games as they got outscored 12-3. St. Louis turned the fortune around, winning the next two games handily by a combined score of 16-4. Both teams entered Game Five yearning for a 3-2 series lead.

Even though Dodgers phenom Fernando Valenzuela took the mound, the Cardinals jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead thanks to a two-run double from Tom Herr. Valenzuela was abnormally wild, issuing eight walks in eight innings. But the Redbirds couldn’t put any more runs on the board! Los Angeles responded with a two-run homer from Bill Madlock to tie the score in the fourth. That was all the offense both teams had until the ninth inning.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers brought in Tom Niedenfuer, their workhorse closer (106.1 IP with 19 saves that season). The Cardinals’ leadoff hitter, Willie McGee, popped out to the third baseman. Up next came the Wizard of Oz, hitless for the day. That wouldn’t last much longer.

Niedenfuer delivered a 1-2 inside fastball. Smith delivered a gift to the right field seats. And Jack Buck delivered one of baseball’s best calls ever.

 

Shades of Scott Podsednik

The Wizard’s unexpected blast put a dagger into the hearts of Dodgers fans. Two days later, with Niedenfuer again on the mound, Jack Clark would twist the knife.

 

Thanks to Smith and Clark, the Cardinals battled their way into the World Series, where they faced the Royals in a grueling seven-game series. The result? Kansas City, for the first time in franchise history, became champions.

 

Oct. 14, 2002 (?) – Barry Bonds’ Japanese HR Derby

 

As a young kid traversing the hallowed grounds of the Old Yankee Stadium, I loved when the National League teams came to town. Nowadays, you may see an inter-league series every month. But back in the early 21st century, those series happened just twice a year.

It added a certain level of intrigue and excitement to these inter-league series. Those were the only time I watched the National League play besides the World Series. So when Barry Bonds played in his first and only series at the Old Yankee Stadium, I had to be there — it was must-watch television. Bonds did not disappoint.

 

In 2002, Bonds was in his absolute prime. Well, to be honest, his prime started during his age-25 season in 1990 and ended only with his last year in 2007. But from ’01 to ’04, Bonds was an entirely different beast, finding his way on base at an obscene rate (.559 OBP) while showing off his even more ridiculous power (.809 SLG). Watching him hit, it was clear that Bonds just played at a higher level than everyone else.

So imagine you are a baseball fan based in Japan. By 2002, MLB had held just two regular-season series in Japan, but neither of them featured the Giants. You may hear these stories of Bonds’ prodigious power, and you can watch his highlights. But to see him in person is a completely different experience. Would that opportunity ever come for Japanese baseball fans?

Why yes, it did.

Want to watch Bonds absolutely crush baseballs inside the Tokyo Dome? Here you go.

 

Now, the title of this video said the home run derby happened on Oct. 14, 2002 … which doesn’t make sense since that was the same date that the Giants clinched the 2002 NL Pennant. What is more likely is that the derby happened a month later during the 2002 All-Star Series in Japan, which featured Bonds, Bernie Williams, Ichiro, Jason Giambi, and more MLB stars.

Unfortunately, I won’t be writing my “This Week in Baseball History” articles during November because, well, we don’t normally have November baseball. Since this a pretty cool video, I wanted to share it with you all while I have the chance.

But wait, there’s more! A couple years later, Bonds returned to Japan with Williams and Giambi for another home run challenge. This one was a bit more … chaotic.

 

Photo By John Cordes/Icon Sportswire | Feature Graphic Designed by James Peterson (Follow @jhp_design714 on Instagram & Twitter)

Alex Kleinman

Journalist who loves the Yankees and the Bears. One gives me strength, the other leads me to existential dread. When I'm not obsessing over baseball, you can find me at a concert, hiking in a National Park or chasing my dog, Frankie, who has probably stolen one of my socks.

  • Avatar Mark says:

    Uhm, I looked it up and saw the video with the date but I am not sure that is correct. The Giants clinched the NLCS against the Cardinals in SF that day.

  • Avatar theKraken says:

    Only in MLB would you put a guy that isn’t even am outfielder in CF. Gavin Lux is not an outfielder. You have to be so baseball illiterate to think even put that idea on the table. There is a 100% chance that both Pollock and Taylor are vastly superior in CF. This is in the playoffs to boot. To think that the sabermetric team is this incompetent is really something. There is absolutely 0% chance that former outfielder Dave Roberts would have come up with that idea on his own. Nobody mismanages their players like the Dodgers. NOBODY. Those privileged brats managing the team have the gift of starting out with one of the more talented groups of players in baseball history. Can you imagine what they would do without overwhelming talent? They have to be privileged brats because anyone with any knowledge or experience with baseball would be ashamed of what they come up with. There is no chance that anyone earned their way into that position. It is criminal to the players and the fans that this is what gets passed off as MLB baseball.

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