Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Game of the Day (5/10/91)

White Sox 5, Blue Jays 3 (12). The pitching matchup was a pair of youngsters. Chicago's Alex Fernandez, making the 20th start of his career, was on his way to borderline ace status, which he would hold through the mid '90s before his career was cut short by injuries. Denis Boucher was making his sixth start - and had only 20 more remaining to him, because he was not as good as Alex Fernandez.

Tim Raines led off the top of the first with a single, but was picked off. However, Lance Johnson followed with a single of his own, and Frank Thomas then homered to put Chicago in front 2-0. Carlton Fisk followed with a single before Boucher finally recorded an out against a hitter, as Sammy Sosa struck out and Robin Ventura grounded out to end the inning. Toronto would halve the deficit in the bottom of the inning when Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter singled and John Olerud scored Alomar with a groundout, but Mark Whiten then struck out to strand Carter.

Boucher was perfect in the second; Fernandez issued walks to Manuel Lee and Ray Giannelli, but stranded both of them. Boucher set the Sox down in order again in the third, while Alomar led off the bottom of the inning with a walk only to see Carter hit into a delayed double play (force at second, then caught stealing). Fisk led off the top of the fourth with a single, but Chicago didn't follow that with anything else productive; Toronto had a better chance in the bottom of the inning when Pat Tabler walked and Greg Myers's one-out double moved him to third, but Lee grounded into an out at home and Giannelli grounded out to end the inning with the tying run at third.

Raines doubled with two outs in the top of the fifth; he would be the only hitter to reach base for either team in the inning. The sixth saw several more, starting with a leadoff walk from Thomas. Fisk singled, moving Thomas to second, and Sosa bunted them to second and third. Ventura then grounded to second, and Thomas was thrown out trying to score; Cory Snyder struck out to end the rally. The bottom of the sixth saw an opportunity as well, courtesy of a one-out Whiten single and a two-out walk to Myers, but Lee struck out to leave them both on.

Jim Acker relieved Boucher and kept the bases Sox-free in the top of the seventh. In the bottom of the inning, Fernandez walked Devon White, Alomar, and Olerud, loading the bases with two outs, but Whiten struck out and the tying run stalled in scoring position yet again. Acker was flawless once more in the eighth; Donn Pall replaced Fernandez and worked around a leadoff hit by Tabler. Acker remained on the mound in the ninth until a Ventura single and a wild pitch led to an intentional walk to pinch hitter Dan Pasqua. Bob Macdonald then relieved and induced a pair of groundouts that ended the inning.

Bobby Thigpen relieved in the home ninth and recorded the first two outs on three total pitches. Up next was Alomar, and on a 1-2 pitch, he homered to tie the game at 2. Carter would be hit by a pitch, but was caught stealing a pitch later to send the game to extras.

Raines led off the tenth with a single and was bunted to second. Willie Fraser replaced Macdonald at that point, walked Thomas, and retired the next two hitters to end the inning. With one out in the home tenth, Whiten tripled; Thigpen then walked Ken Williams and Myers to load the bases, induced a force at home from Lee, and coaxed a groundout from Mookie Wilson to leave all three men on.

Craig Grebeck led off the eleventh with a single; Dan Pasqua bunted into a force at second, then moved to second himself on a grounder back to the mound. Scott Fletcher followed with a single that put the Sox in front 3-2. Scott Radinsky relieved Thigpen and recorded the first out in the eleventh - and up stepped Alomar, who, for the second straight plate appearance, hit a game-tying home run.

Fraser allowed a one-out single to Fisk in the top of the twelfth, then served up a go-ahead two-run homer to Sosa. Radinsky set the Jays down in order in the bottom of the inning to end the game; he was likely able to do this because Alomar didn't get to bat again.

Roberto Alomar was 23 years old in 1991, and his Hall of Fame career was just getting started. He'd been a regular in San Diego for the three preceding seasons, but he came into his own in '91, earning his second All Star appearance, his first Gold Glove, and his first MVP votes (he finished 6th in the voting). He also set career highs in virtually every statistical category, including OBP, SLG, hits, doubles, triples, walks, steals, runs, and RBI. His 1990 had been a bit of a step back, but 1991 placed him firmly on the path to Cooperstown, one which he continued to walk for the next decade.

That being said, Roberto Alomar was never a spectacular power hitter; he would hit 210 homers in his career and hit 20 or more 3 times (peaking at 24). Even those modest heights were beyond him in 1991, as he wouldn't crack double digit homers for the first time until two years later. His to-date career high in slugging would be built much more on his 41 doubles and 11 triples than his 9 home runs. So the fact that it was Alomar who hit game-tying homers in consecutive plate appearances, both of which came in potentially game-ending innings, comes as a bit of a surprise here, especially since the first came against Bobby Thigpen, who the previous year had set the MLB record for saves in a season.

Alomar didn't just hit the two homers, either; his single in the first inning led to his scoring Toronto's first run of the day (meaning that he scored all three of his team's runs), and he also drew a pair of walks, including one that helped load the bases while the Jays trailed by a run in the seventh inning. All told, Alomar's contributions add up to a WPA of +1.037, which is the highest mark in his Hall of Fame career, and by a wide margin.

The multiple game-tying homers by a young star second baseman playing for a division winner call to mind an obvious comparison for Alomar's effort: The Sandberg Game from 1984, one of the more famous regular season games in baseball history. Sandberg's WPA in the eponymous contest was +1.063, nearly identical to Alomar's - yet one game is widely remembered over 30 years later, and the other isn't even an afterthought.

There are any number of reasons for this. Start with the context of the games themselves; the '84 Cubs were approaching midseason, locked in a tight divisional race, and facing their archrivals. Meanwhile, the '91 Jays were barely a month into the season, too early for any race to have taken shape yet, and facing a non-divisional foe. Furthermore, the Sandberg Game was played on a Saturday and was broadcast nationally; this Friday night matchup between less-popular clubs would not have had as wide an audience.

Then, there are the teams. The Cubs are one of baseball's most famous franchises and play in a major market; they were also surprise contenders in '84, having failed to post a single winning record since 1972, and not having reached the playoffs since 1945. The '91 Jays were very much the opposite of that, having exceeded .500 every year since 1983; they had won the AL East as recently as 1989, and finished only 2 games back in 1990. And while Toronto is a large market in its own right, its location in Canada is a slight disadvantage in terms of overall publicity.

But there is one more factor that outweighs all of those listed above: The Cubs won their game, and the Blue Jays didn't. The lesson? If you want people to remember the best game in your career as a Hall of Fame second baseman, make sure your team wins it.

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