Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Game of the Day (8/3/91)

Cardinals 6, Pirates 5 (10). St. Louis's Bryn Smith was 35 and had left his best years behind him; after the '91 season, he had about 50 innings left in his career. Pittsburgh's Doug Drabek was on his way to 22 wins and the Cy Young. The matchup wasn't as uneven as it sounds, but it wasn't particularly even either.

Orlando Merced led off the game with a double and advanced to third on an error by Cardinal right fielder Felix Jose, then scored on a Jay Bell groundout. Smith later walked a pair of Pirates before stranding them. Drabek was perfect in the home first, and his teammates padded their lead in the second when John Wehner singled, stole second, and scored on a Merced single.

The Cardinals began their response in the home second. Todd Zeile led off with a single and stole second, then moved to third on a groundout. Tom Pagnozzi walked, and Jose Oquendo singled to score Zeile, though Pagnozzi was thrown out at third on the play to end the inning. Smith worked a 1-2-3 third, then reached on a Gary Redus error to begin the bottom of the inning and scored on a Ray Lankford double to tie the game at 2. Ozzie Smith followed with a bunt hit that moved the go-ahead run to third, but Drabek recovered to leave it there.

Pittsburgh jumped in front again in the top of the fourth. Mike LaValliere led off with a single, Wehner walked, and Jose Lind doubled LaValliere home. Drabek then struck out, and Merced lined to first, but Gerald Perry committed a throwing error in trying to turn the lineout into a double play, allowing Wehner to race home and make it 4-2. St. Louis got one run back in the bottom of the inning when Oquendo singled and Smith doubled him home; it might have been more had Milt Thompson not been picked off earlier in the frame.

Neither team put a runner on base in the fifth. The same was not remotely true in the sixth, as Lind doubled with two outs, moved to third on Drabek's single, and scored on Merced's ground-rule double to push the Pirate lead to 5-3. The Cardinals responded in the home half, courtesy of singles from Jose, Thompson, and Oquendo; there was a sacrifice bunt between the last two singles that moved the runners to second and third, which allowed Jose to score but also resulted in Thompson getting thrown out at home to defuse the rally.

Both starters were pulled after six. Scott Terry walked Bobby Bonilla in the top of the seventh, but erased him on a double play. In the bottom of the inning, Bob Kipper allowed singles to Perry and Zeile, then stranded them both. Terry was perfect in the eighth, and Thompson led off the bottom of the inning with a game-tying home run.

Lee Smith threw a 1-2-3 top of the ninth; Bob Patterson allowed a two-out hit to Perry, then picked him off to send the game to extras. Barry Bonds walked and stole second in the tenth, but Smith stranded him. Zeile, who had been at the plate when Perry was picked off an inning prior, led off the home tenth, worked a 3-1 count, and belted the fifth pitch of the at bat over the left field wall for a walkoff homer.

This is a good game, to be sure, but at a glance it doesn't seem to have much more going for it than that. The highest WPA scores are from hitters (Milt Thompson and Todd Zeile) who had long and productive careers; neither of them even set their season high for WPA in this one, let alone approaching their career bests. But there was one player who did establish a WPA career high in this one: Cardinal starter Bryn Smith.

Wait, what? Smith's WPA was -.331, and he pitched in the majors for 13 years; there's no way he'd have lasted anywhere near that long if -.331 was his career high WPA.

It's not, of course. Smith established his career high in WPA as a hitter. He went 1 for 2 and scored a run, In the at bat that wasn't a hit, he reached third base on an error and then scored the tying run; on the hit, he doubled, and a run scored on that play as well thanks to an error. All told, his efforts were good for a WPA of +.251. Which sounds low to be a career high for a starter who spent over a decade in the NL - until you remember that pitchers generally won't rack up high batting WPAs because they mostly won't hit for themselves in important situations.

So, if Milt Thompson hadn't homered in the eighth inning, Bryn Smith would have taken a deserved loss in (sort of) the best game of his career. Which would have been weird.

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