Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Game of the Day (5/24/91)

A's 6, White Sox 5. The two starters in this game were both born in 1966 (albeit 11 months apart), were both right-handed, and both had names that would appear to be spoken in trochaic dimeter. Outside of that, there is very little similarity between Oakland's Joe Slusarski, a rookie on the way to a short and ineffective career, and Chicago's Jack McDowell, already in his fourth MLB season and starting a streak of three consecutive years receiving Cy Young votes.

Despite the uneven matchup, it was Slusarski who was perfect through three innings. McDowell, meanwhile, worked out of a bit of trouble in the first (Rickey Henderson singled and Ernie Riles walked, but a K/CS double play - with Riles being cut down at second while Henderson reached third safely, which tells you how fast Rickey was - defused the issue). The same pair of hitters caused even more trouble in the third, as Henderson walked and Riles homered to put Oakland in front 2-0.

Chicago responded in the top of the fourth, starting with a one-out single by Lance Johnson. A groundout moved Johnson to second, Frank Thomas walked behind him, and Dan Pasqua then singled to score the lead runner. Carlton Fisk was hit by a pitch to load the bases, but Sammy Sosa struck out to leave all three men on.

The next three half innings saw the pitchers work around two-out singles (by Jamie Quirk, Tim Raines, and Henderson, respectively). Oakland threatened more seriously in the home sixth, via a Harold Baines walk, a Dave Henderson single, and a Mark McGwire walk that loaded the bases with two outs, but McDowell escaped the jam - and on the first pitch of the seventh inning, Fisk homered to tie the game at 2.

The White Sox did not stop there. One out later, Scott Fletcher singled, chasing Slusarski from the mound in favor of Curt Young. Ozzie Guillen then singled, Raines walked to load the bases, and Johnson was hit by a pitch, forcing in the go-ahead run. Robin Ventura struck out, putting the A's one out from escape, and Steve Chitren was summoned to record that out; he did so only after walking both Thomas and Pasqua, pushing a brace of additional runs across the plate and extending Chicago's newfound lead to 5-2.

Oakland pulled a run closer in the bottom of the seventh on consecutive doubles by Mike Gallego and Rickey Henderson, the second of which ended McDowell's tenure on the mound. Scott Radinsky relieved and retired the next three hitters without allowing Henderson to come home. Chitren worked around a Guillen single in the top of the eighth, and Radinsky was relieved after allowing a hit to Terry Steinbach in the bottom of the inning. Bobby Thigpen took over to face McGwire - and his first pitch was hammered over the wall for a game-tying two-run homer.

Joe Klink and Dennis Eckersley combined on a 1-2-3 top of the ninth, and the A's went back to work in the bottom of the inning. Rickey led off with a walk and stole second, then moved to third on a sacrifice bunt. Jose Canseco fouled out, and Baines and Dave Henderson were then intentionally walked to load the bases for Steinbach. Steinbach then promptly seized on the weak spot in that strategy, working a five-pitch walk of his own to force in the winning run.

It was Mark McGwire who hit the game-tying homer, and Terry Steinbach who clinched it with a walkoff walk, but the key to the game from Oakland's perspective was actually Rickey Henderson, who in his mini-showdown with fellow great leadoff man Tim Raines, went 3 for 3 with two walks, a steal, two runs (including the game winner) and an RBI. In particular, his walk/steal/advance on sac bunt in the ninth set up the decisive sequence of intentional and unintentional walks, and really showcased the value of having a quality leadoff man (especially the best one ever).

On the other hand, there was Bobby Thigpen. As I've mentioned in this space before (not that it isn't well known anyway), Thigpen set a then-record with 57 saves in 1990. His 1991 helps establish the principle that reliever performance is rather unreliable between seasons, as his ERA nearly doubled, and he blew more saves than he had in the record-setting year while saving barely half as many games.

In other words, if you could pick between two players who finished in the top 5 in the MVP voting in the previous year, you're probably better off taking the Hall of Fame outfielder over the closer.

Game of the Day: Confirming things everyone already knew, since 2014!

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