May 1, 1979 - Before a paid gathering of 6,349, the St Louis Cardinals played host to the Houston Astros at Busch Stadium II. This cavernous structure would be even more deserted by the time this game ended at 10:47 pm, but for those who stuck around (like me, for example) to witness its conclusion, it would be one of the most memorable games in franchise history - known simply as The Roger Freed Game.
The Cardinals' Silvio Martinez delivered the first pitch at 7:38 pm to Astros center fielder, Terry Puhl, who promptly hit a lazy fly ball to Cardinals right fielder George Hendrick, for the first out of the game. It was not going to be a good night for Puhl (who hit .287 in '79) - an 0 for 6 would be his destiny tonight. Martinez went on to retire the side in order.
Taking the mound for Houston was perhaps the most intimidating pitcher in the game - JR Richard, who would go on to lead the National League with a 2.71 ERA in '79, while recording an amazing 313 strikeouts in 292.1 innings of work. Tragically, his career would be shortened by what was first diagnosed as "fatigue" the following season; but what in reality was a life-threatening stroke. On this night, a healthy JR Richard matched Martinez by setting St Louis down in order in the first.
The Astros broke through in the second-inning to score one run, but they ran themselves out of a potentially big inning. Jose Cruz led off with a double down the left field line, then scored on Enos Cabell's single to right field. With Bob Watson at bat, Cabell was thrown out trying to steal second. Watson got the third straight hit off Martinez with another single to right field. Watson then managed to get picked off first to record the second out in the inning; Art Howe then grounded one to Ken Reitz at third who fired a bullet to first baseman Keith Hernandez to retire the side. Three hits; just one run.
Ted Simmons quickly tied the game in the bottom of the second-inning, with a lead-off home run deep to right field. One hit; one run.
Both pitchers settled down to keep the scored knotted at one through five and a half innings. The Cardinals broke through in the bottom of the sixth, with Lou Brock starting things off with a single to center field - his only hit in this game. However, the next hitter, Keith Hernandez (who would go 0 for 5 on the night) bounced into a 6-4-3 double play, apparently ending the rally. It not only was a tough night for the Cards' first baseman; he had gotten off to a slow start with the bat, and by the time this one was over, his batting average would be down to .218. Suffice to say, he snapped out of it, ending the season with a league-leading .344 BA, then being named co-MVP with Pittsburgh's Willie Stargell.
Back to the sixth-inning; Ted Simmons lined a two-out single to right field, then came all the way around to score when George Hendrick ripped a Richard fastball off the center field wall for a stand-up double. That was it; three hits; one run. The Cards now led for the first time in the game; 2-1.
After Martinez held Houston in check in their half of the seventh-inning, the Redbirds made some more noise in the bottom half. Ken Reitz led off with a single to left field, then after a Mike Tyson strikeout, Martinez was allowed to hit for himself; forcing Reitz at second with a grounder to second. With Martinez perched at first base, Gary Templeton lined one in the right center field gap, as Martinez huffed and puffed his way all around to score on the triple. That was it; two hits; one run. The Cards now had an insurance run to go up, 3-1. After retiring the side, Richard's night was over: 7 IP - 7 H - 3 R - 2 BB - 4 SO - 1 HR. Joaquin Andujar would be the new pitcher for Houston in the 8th-inning.
Old school manager Ken Boyer stuck with Silvio Martinez, his winded starter, as the top of the 8th-inning began ominously, with a lead-off double by Alan Ashby. This prompted Boyer to get reliever Mark Littell warmed up down in the bullpen. After Martinez retired the next two batters, it seemed Littell might just be needed for a save opportunity in the ninth. Instead, Craig Reynolds stroked a run-scoring double to right field, then Cesar Cedeno drew a base on balls; still no Littell. Jose Cruz tied the game with a single to center field, finally ending Martinez' outing: 7.2 IP - 7 H - 3 R - 3 BB - 2 SO - All in all, not a bad performance, but one that probably lasted too long for a pitcher who would go on to win 15 games (losing 8) with a nice 3.27 ERA in 1979.
Mark Littell got the final out in the eighth-inning, by striking out the dangerous Enos Cabell with the game on the line. Littell worked a perfect ninth and tenth-inning, while Andujar and Joe Sambito kept the Redbirds in check in the ninth and tenth, respectively.
All hell was about to break loose in the eleventh-inning. Replacing Littell on the mound for St Louis was Tom Bruno, who promptly walked Cesar Cedeno; then with Jose Cruz batting, Cedeno stole second. Cruz then hit a high chopper to Bruno, who retired the batter while Cedeno took third. The next batter, Enos Cabell hit another high chopper that Hernandez grabbed then threw home trying to nail the speedy Cedeno. That strategy backfired, as Cedeno slid in safely while Cabell reached first on the fielder's choice. With Bob Watson now batting for the Astros, Cabell swiped second; setting up an intentional walk to Watson.
With a run in and runners on first and second with one out, Art Howe was retired on a fly ball to center fielder Tony Scott. Bruce Bochy then delivered a run-scoring single to left field, scoring Cabell. That brought up relief pitcher Joe Sambito to hit; and hit he did, driving in the third and final run of the inning with a line drive double down the right field line. That was all for Bruno, as a weary Ken Boyer signaled veteran left-hander Darold Knowles to come in and get the final out of the inning; he did, getting Terry Puhl on a grounder to second, capping off the Houston center fielder's 0 for 6 evening. Little did anyone know, Knowles would be in line for the win after retiring the only batter he would face in this game.
By this time, at least half of the original 6,349 decided it was time to head home. After all, Sambito was almost invincible in 1979; making the All Star team for the first and only time in his career, while posting an impressive 1.77 ERA in 91.1 innings of work; and he was heading back to the mound to begin his second inning of work in the bottom of the eleventh.
Tony Scott started things off well for the Redbirds, reaching base on an infield hit which the shortstop fielded deep in the hole but couldn't make the throw. Ken Reitz then struck out; but Ken Oberkfell coaxed a walk; as did catcher Steve Swisher, of all people, to load the bases. Lead-off hitter Gary Templeton couldn't handle Sambito's fastball, and went down on strikes to record the second out in the inning, as what was left of the "crowd" uttered an almost imperceptible groan. The Cardinals were down to their last out, as Roger Freed was summoned to pinch hit for Jerry Mumphrey (Lou Brock's defensive replacement).
After a trade with Montreal brought Freed to St Louis in '77, the unassuming part-time utility player had become a cult hero with the Redbirds that season, with a .398/.463/.627 slash line in limited play. Just two seasons later, Freed's career would be winding down, but on this particular night, Roger battled the game's best reliever with all the ferocity he could muster; fouling pitch after pitch off, swinging from the heels each time. He had worked the count full, refusing to let a third strike get past him.
Suddenly, he connected on a fastball; his bat exploding like a gunshot as the ball resembled a laser heading towards the handful of joyous fans in the left field pavilion. Just like that, this game was over. A grand salami for Mr Freed, and an unforgettable moment for this fan to have personally witnessed, after a three hour and nine minute 11-inning ordeal.
But it was definitely worth the wait.