Thursday, June 16, 2016

Game of the Day (6/16/91)

Rangers 4, Yankees 3 (15). New York started Scott Sanderson, who would end up with a 19-year major league career that encompassed over 160 wins and 2500 innings, but would fly mostly under the radar for that entire time. (In fact, he was on the way to his only All-Star selection in 1991, despite the fact that his first-half ERA would end at 3.93, hardly a stellar figure in this context.)

He was opposed by one of the rare starters whose career would last even longer, albeit with slightly more notoriety attached: one Nolan Ryan.

Ryan opened the game with what might be considered a traditional Nolan Ryan inning: two walks, no hits, no runs. Sanderson also allowed a pair of baserunners in the first, on singles by Ruben Sierra and Julio Franco, and also left them on. Ryan was perfect in the second, and Texas pulled ahead in the bottom of the inning when Juan Gonzalez doubled, Steve Buechele's bunt single moved Gonzalez to third, and John Russell brought him home with a sacrifice fly.

The lead lasted less than one complete Yankee at bat, as Randy Velarde led off the third with a game-tying homer. Nobody else on either team would reach for the rest of the inning, but New York pulled ahead in the top of the fourth. Kevin Maas led off with a single, and Mel Hall then reached on an error by Gary Pettis which put runners at second and third. One out later, Matt Nokes singled Maas home for a 2-1 lead. Jesse Barfield then hit into a double play to cut the rally short.

Neither team managed a baserunner for the next four half-innings. The string of flawless pitching ended with two outs in the bottom of the sixth when Franco walked and Kevin Reimer singled; Gonzalez then doubled both of them home, pushing Texas back in front 3-2.

Ryan was perfect again in the seventh. In the bottom of the inning, Jeff Huson singled and moved to second on a wild pitch, but was then doubled off on Pettis's flyout. Velarde drew a walk to open the eighth, but didn't advance past first. Steve Howe relieved Sanderson in the home eighth and allowed a Sierra single, but Franco hit into a double play to end the inning.

Ryan remained on the mound in the top of the ninth, and Maas connected with his second pitch of the inning for a game-tying home run. Ryan recovered well enough to retire the next three hitters, and Steve Farr set the Rangers down in order, sending the game to extras.

Jeff Russell replaced Ryan in the top of the tenth; he walked Barfield, but then coaxed a double play from Velarde, and nobody else reached base for either team in the frame. Mike Jeffcoat relieved in the eleventh and walked Don Mattingly, then allowed a two-out single to Hall. Goose Gossage took over and plunked Roberto Kelly to load the bases, leading the Rangers to bring in Kenny Rogers, who retired Nokes to leave all three men on. Farr allowed singles to Rafael Palmeiro and Franco in the bottom of the inning, but Palmeiro was erased when Sierra hit into a double play, and Franco was caught stealing.

Joe Bitker worked a 1-2-3 top of the twelfth, while John Hayban worked around a two-out Buechele double in the bottom of the inning. Bitker walked Alvaro Espinoza to start the thirteenth, but he and Lee Gutterman combined to retire the next six hitters, preserving the tie once more. In the fourteenth, Barfield reached on a wild third strike, and Franco drew a walk, but neither of them advanced past first. Bitker was flawless in the fifteenth. Buechele led off the bottom of the inning with a double; he was thrown out at third on John Russell's grounder to short, but Mario Diaz followed with a double that brought Russell home with the winning run.

Mario Diaz was not a very good hitter. Which is mostly why, despite spending 9 years in the major leagues, he amassed less than 900 plate appearances in his career. His overall batting line was .256/.292/.326, and he had more sacrifice bunts and double play grounders combined in his career (41) than extra-base hits (40). Add in the fact that he also didn't show the speed you'd hope for from a backup shortstop (one career stolen base), and you have the profile of a highly ineffective offensive player.

Joe Bitker was not a very good pitcher. He had a career ERA of just over 4.50... in the minor leagues, where he spent parts of eight seasons. In his two brief stints in the majors, Bitker allowed four home runs in 26.2 innings, which is... more than would be considered ideal.

And yet, in this marathon of a game, Bitker and Diaz combined to push the Rangers to victory; Bitker had the highest WPA of his brief career (+.540), and Diaz the second-highest of his much longer one (+.310). I suppose it's somewhat natural that even when these two background players had their day in the spotlight, they had to share it.

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