Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Game of the Day (10/5/91)

On October 5, 1991, the Atlanta Braves won their eighth game in a row, 5-2 over the Astros, while the Dodgers were shut out 2-0 by the Giants for their third straight defeat. The results put the Braves two games ahead of the Dodgers in the standings - and since October 5 was the second-to-last day of the season, the Braves wrapped up the year's final division title.

Meanwhile, in the American League, the dreadful Yankees were facing the Indians, who were much worse. The starters were Eric King, who would pitch seven seasons in the majors (including four in which he was almost exclusively a starter) without ever qualifying for the ERA title, and Eric Plunk, who was making the last start of his career but would spend the remainder of the '90s in major league bullpens. If you had asked me to guess which man started for which team, I would have picked Plunk on the Indians (he pitched there for seven years), and I would have been wrong.

But these two unimpressive squads combined to produce Indians 7, Yankees 5 (12), which sounds pretty impressive... and was actually better than it sounds.

Alex Cole led off the game with a walk, but was immediatetly caught stealing, and Plunk retired the next two Indians. The Yankees promptly loaded the bases on a Steve Sax double, a Don Mattingly walk, and an error by rookie third baseman Jim Thome that put Roberto Kelly on base, but King induced three straight popup/fly ball outs to strand all three men. Cleveland then pulled ahead with a hitless run in the second; Whiten reached on a Mattingly error, stole second, was bunted to third, and came home on Thome's groundout.

King allowed singles to Alvaro Espinoza and Bernie Williams in the home second, but left them both on. Both teams saw their first hitter reach in the third; Wayne Kirby walked and was picked off, while Kelly doubled and moved to third on a groundout only to be left there. Plunk set the Indians down in order in the fourth, and the Yanks grabbed the lead in the bottom of the inning. Espinoza, Williams, and Sax all singled with one out to tie the game. Mattingly hit into a force, and Kelly doubled Williams home, taking the lead even though Mattingly was thrown out at the plate to end the inning.

The Indians threatened reciprocation in the top of the fifth, starting with a Mike Aldrete walk and a Thome single that put runners at the corners. One out later, Kirby walked to load the bases; Plunk struck out Cole, and then Mark Lewis hit a single that scored no runs and ended the inning: he hit Thome with the ball. King worked around a Mel Hall single in the home fifth, while Plunk allowed a walk and steal to Carlos Baerga in the sixth before stranding him at second.

New York extended its lead in the bottom of the sixth on an Espinoza single and a Mattingly double, and with two outs, Garland Kiser was called in for King and ended the inning. (There's a joke to be made here about replacing a King with a Kiser, but I'm not sufficiently familiar with monarchist governments to pull it off.) Cleveland rallied in the top of the seventh, starting with a Thome double and an Eddie Taubensee single. Two outs later, Lewis singled Thome home; Greg Cadaret relieved Plunk and allowed a game-tying single to Baerga before ending the inning. The tie proved short-lived, as a Matt Nokes single and a Kevin Maas walk ended Kiser's outing, and Rod Nichols gave up a two-out go-ahead single to Williams.

Reggie Jefferson opened the top of the eighth with a single, and Luis Lopez's walk moved him to second with two away before Cadaret ended the inning by striking out Jose Gonzalez. Mattingly doubled to lead off the home eighth, but was still on second when the inning ended. Cleveland was left with one inning to make up their deficit, and got off to a good start with walks by Cole and Lewis. Baerga bunted the runners into scoring position, but Whiten struck out, leaving the game on Jefferson's shoulders. He came through, delivering a go-ahead two-run single. Darrin Chapin took over for Cadaret and gave up a single to Jerry Browne before Thome grounded out to end the inning.

Now it was the Yankees who were three outs away from defeat - and they responded as well. Facing Steve Olin, Maas opened the home ninth with a single, and pinch runner Mike Humphreys was bunted to second by Randy Velarde. Williams followed with a single to tie the game, then stole second before being left there, sending the game into extras.

With one out in the tenth, Gonzalez walked and stole second. He would move to third on a flyout before stalling there. Olin set the Yankees down in order in the home tenth, and Chapin did the same to the Indians in the eleventh. Williams's two-out single in the bottom of the eleventh produced no lasting effect on the scoreboard.

Chapin remained on the mound for the top of the twelfth, and gave up a double to Lopez with one out. Gonzalez walked, and Cole hit into a force at second. Lewis followed with a double of his own, scoring both runners to put the Indians in front 7-5. Doug Jones took over in the bottom of the inning and gave up two hits, but Mattingly was erased on a double play before Hall's single, so the tying run was never on base before Jones closed it out.

At the conclusion of this game, the Yankees were 70-91 - and they were 13 games ahead of the Indians. Clearly, neither team entered September in contention for anything of note. Which means that both squads were giving plenty of young players chances - and the young players took advantage of them in this game.

Mark Lewis was a 21-year-old rookie shortstop in 1991, and would go on to an 11-year career in the big leagues. In this game, Lewis went 3 for 5 with a double, scored one run and drove in 3. His seventh-inning single pulled the Indians to within a run and moved the tying run to third, his ninth-inning walk allowed him to score the go-ahead run, and his twelfth-inning double provided the winning margin. That adds up to a WPA of +.595, which would be the highest total of his career. It was not, however, the highest total of the game.

Reggie Jefferson didn't play quite as long as Lewis, lasting 9 years as a part-time DH/first baseman/emergency outfielder. He was, however, generally a better hitter than Lewis (as you'd expect for a DH/first baseman/emergency outfielder). In this game, Jefferson went 2 for 5 with a walk and two RBI. The walk contributed to the rally in which the Indians scored the game's first run, and he led off the eighth with a single that represented the tying run, though he would eventually be stranded at second. But his major contribution was a come-from-behind two-run single in the ninth, putting the Indians ahead 5-4. It was a big enough blow to give him a game total of +.634 WPA, which would eventually be the second-highest total of his career - and it also was not the highest total in the game.

That covers Cleveland's rookies (well, mostly - they also had Jim Thome, who went 2 for 6 with a double, run, and RBI, but only +.059 WPA.). But there was one youngster in pinstripes who had a pretty noteworthy game in his own right, going 5 for 6 with a steal, a run, and two RBI. His one-out single put the tying run at third in the bottom of the second - and he duplicated that feat exactly in the fourth, but this time, both the tying and go-ahead runs would go on to score. In the seventh, he singled with two outs, bringing home the go-ahead run. And in the ninth, his one-out single tied the game at 5. He would also single in the eleventh, though that hit would be wasted.

In total, those 5 hits added up to a WPA of +.797, easily the highest of the day despite New York's defeat. More than that, though, the mark of +.797 was also the best of the player's 16-year, Hall-of-Fame-vote-receiving career - one in which he would be a signature player for a dynastic team.

The Yankees may not have realized it quite yet (he was hitting ninth in this game, after all), but they had something special in the young Bernie Williams.

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