Saturday, August 20, 2016

Game of the Day (8/20/91)

Phillies 6, Pirates 5. Pittsburgh's John Smiley and Philadelphia's Tommy Greene were both having seasons that would generally be considered at least among their best, and arguably their best (though WAR would disagree with the latter assertion); Smiley won 20 games, while Greene threw a no-hitter and was generally solid outside of it as well.

Greene was perfect in the first, and Lenny Dykstra led off the home half of the inning with a double. Randy Ready walked, and one out later, the runners pulled a double steal of third and second. John Kruk popped a foul ball up the left field line, but third baseman Bobby Bonilla mishandled it, giving Kruk another chance, and he converted with a sacrifice fly to put the Phillies in front.

Pittsburgh responded with admirable swiftness. Bonilla led off the second with a redemptive double, and Barry Bonds followed with a go-ahead two-run homer. Smiley worked around a Dickie Thon single in the home second, and Orlando Merced's homer in the third pushed the Pirate lead to 3-1. Smiley gave up only a Wes Chamberlain single in the bottom of the third, and his teammates took a shot at extending the lead again in the fourth, starting with a Bonilla single and a Bonds walk. Greene retired the next two hitters, though a groundout moved the runners to second and third. Jose Lind was then intentionally walked to bring Smiley to the plate, and the pitcher struck out to leave the bases loaded.

Charlie Hayes's single made him the only Phillie to reach in the fourth, and Merced's walk was unaccompanied by any other Pittsburgh production in the fifth. Thon led off the bottom of the inning with a single; he was still at first two outs later, but Ready then tripled to score him, and Chamberlain followed with a homer that put the Phils in front 4-3.

The Pirates once again didn't delay in answering, and once again, Bonds was closely involved. He led off the sixth with a walk, moved to third on Mike LaValliere's single, and scored the tying run on Lind's sacrifice fly.

Hayes singled with one out in the home sixth, but was caught stealing on strike 3 to the next hitter, ending that miniature threat. Wally Ritchie relieved Greene in the seventh and notched two quick outs; he then gave up a double to Andy Van Slyke and walked both Bonilla (on purpose) and Bonds (not on purpose) to load the bases. Joe Boever was called to the mound and retired John Wehner to leave all three men on. The Pirates had a much easier time of it in the seventh, as Smiley set the Phils down in order.

Mike Hartley allowed a single and steal to Lind in the eighth, but left him on second; Stan Belinda gave the Phillies nothing at all in the home half of the inning. In the top of the ninth, a Jay Bell single and a Bonilla walk put runners at first and second with one out; Steve Searcy was then called in from the bullpen, and Bonds greeted him with a go-ahead RBI single. Searcy cut the damage off there, keeping his team within range.

That proved crucial a half inning later. Dale Murphy led off the bottom of the ninth with a single. Two outs later, his pinch runner was still stationed on first, and the team's hopes were pinned on their #8 hitter. Said hopes were not misplaced, as on a 1-1 pitch, Thon homered to left, bringing in the tying and winning runs.

Barry Bonds circa 1991 was a magnificent baseball player; he was the reigning NL MVP, and played at an MVP level again, leading the league in OBP and OPS, finishing second in both walks and RBI, and stealing 43 bases and playing magnificent defense in left field to boot. This game was a good one even for him (no outs made, two runs and 3 RBI, all of which either tied the game or put the Pirates in front), and even then, his exemplary WPA of +.593 was only his third-best of the season.

And yet, in this game, he was trumped by a player whose career home run tally was less than Bonds's best single-season total.

In 1982-83, Dickie Thon was the shortstop for the Astros, and was an emerging star. He had posted a 127 OPS+ and over 7 WAR in '83, appeared in the All-Star game, won a Silver Slugger, and finished seventh in the NL MVP voting. He then hit .353 in the first five games of the '84 season - and that was all he would play that year, thanks to a beaning that nearly destroyed his career. He would return and stick in the majors until 1993, but he was never close to being the same player again.

However... in this game, coming very near the end of his career, he singled in the second, singled and scored in the fifth, and hit a come-from-behind walkoff homer in the ninth. It was the third and final walkoff homer of his career (and the only one that ended the game in come-from-behind fashion). And combining it with his other contributions gives a magnificent WPA of +.939, which was a career high by a healthy margin.

So for one day, at least, Dickie Thon got to flash back to a time when he was on the same level as the very best players in baseball.

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