Friday, May 6, 2016

Game of the Day (5/6/91)

Cubs 4, Astros 3. Houston's Jim Deshaies was a perfectly respectable pitcher, coming off of a stretch of three consecutive 200-inning seasons with ERAs of roughly average or better. There are plenty of pitching matchups in which he might have given the Astros the advantage.

None of those involve pitching against Greg Maddux.

The two teams managed one walk each over the first two innings; Houston's was drawn by Craig Biggio in the bottom of the first, while Chicago's went to Hector Villanueva with two outs in the second. Gary Scott claimed the game's first hit leading off the third; he was promptly caught stealing, but Maddux walked and Jerome Walton singled to put runners at the corners. Ryne Sandberg then fouled out, and Walton was thrown out at second trying to advance on the play, ending the inning.

Maddux was flawless in the home third, and the Cubs rallied more productively in the fourth, as Mark Grace singled and George Bell homered. They didn't stop there, adding a third run on doubles by Andre Dawson and Villanueva. A flyout would move Villanueva to third, and after Scott walked, Maddux reached on a Jeff Bagwell error to bring in the inning's fourth run. Darryl Kile relieved Deshaies and walked Sandberg to load the bases before Grace flied out to strand all three men.

Houston responded in the bottom of the inning, starting with a one-out Biggio single. Luis Gonzalez walked with two away, and Bagwell followed with a two-run triple, cutting the deficit in half. Kile worked a 1-2-3 fifth, while Maddux gave up a pinch walk to Dave Rohde and nothing else. Scott singled against Jim Corsi in the top of the sixth, but Maddux lined into an unassisted double play to second, which... maybe Scott was trying to steal? I'm not sure how else that would work. Anyway, in the bottom of the sixth, Biggio singled, stole second, and scored on a double by Gonzalez, cutting the Chicago advantage to one. Bagwell's flyout moved the tying run to third, but it advanced no further.

Corsi worked around a Grace single in the top of the seventh, and Maddux set the Astros down in order in the home half. Dwayne Henry allowed a two-out Shawon Dunston double in the eighth, but left him at second; Paul Assenmacher supplanted Maddux in the home eighth and also gave up a two-out hit (a single by Ken Caminiti), then also stranded the runner. Curt Schilling and Dave Smith exchanged 1-2-3 ninth innings, and the game ended at 4-3.

This game isn't particularly thrilling in and of itself; there are no lead changes, and once the Cubs pulled ahead, the tying run was only in scoring position once. It does, however, give us a nice glimpse at a few rather interesting players right before they became stars.

1991 marked the debut of the Killer B's in Houston. Craig Biggio had been the team's regular catcher for two variably effective years before this one; 1991 was a solid year, but it wasn't until he made the unprecedented move from catcher to second base in 1992 that he would fully blossom as a star.

1991 was also Jeff Bagwell's rookie year. Bags hit sixth in this game, a lineup position that he wouldn't occupy for long; he moved up to fifth in short order and proceeded to spend the rest of the year (and the next dozen or so) hammering the ball from the middle of the order. His 1991 Rookie of the Year presaged his MVP three years later, and his increasingly promising showings on Hall of Fame ballots in the present day.

But neither of the Houston stars measures up to the man who opposed them on the mound in this game. Greg Maddux had been a rotation stalwart in Chicago for four years, and was on his way to another solid season (15-11, 3.35). Like Biggio, however, he would take his production to new heights a year later, wining the first of the four consecutive Cy Young awards that would establish him as one of the greatest pitchers of all time.

Maddux, Bagwell, and Biggio might not have looked like much in 1991, even if they did all play significant roles in this game. But looking back on it two and a half decades later? This would have been a pretty cool contest to have attended.

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