Monday, September 2, 1996 - At Busch Stadium II (Donovan Osborne - Starting Pitcher) - Opponent: Houston Astros (Darryl Kile - Starting Pitcher) - Attendance: 32,955
First place was on the line when the Houston Astros arrived in St Louis for a crucial three-game series with the Cardinals. The first game - a Labor Day special - ended with a dramatic two-out tenth-inning single by Willie McGee - scoring Ozzie Smith from second - to give the Redbirds a thrilling, come-from-behind 8-7 walk-off win. That same tandem accounted for the Cardinals' first run of the game - in the bottom of the first - after Houston broke out on top with three runs off Donovan Osborne in the top half.
After McGee's first RBI of the game cut the Houston lead to 3-1, the Cardinals tied it with a pair of second-inning runs off Houston starter Darryl Kile. A run-scoring double by Donovan Osborne along with an RBI ground out by Ozzie temporarily pulled the Redbirds even, at three runs apiece.
However, Osborne had much greater success in the batter's box than on the mound today.
In the fourth-inning, Sean Berry bashed a lead-off home run to hasten Osborne's early departure. Next up - James Mouton - singled, stole second, and came home on a Rickey Gutierrez RBI single. Next up - Kurt Manwaring - doubled, as Gutierrez stopped at third. After Donovan struck out Darryl Kile to finally record the first out of the inning - he was replaced by Mark Petkovsek - who walked Brian Hunter to load the bases - then struck out Craig Biggio.
However, Jeff Bagwell ripped a single to left - scoring Gutierrez and Manwaring - to give the Astros a formidable 7-3 lead. Or so it seemed.
After Kile retired the first two batters in the bottom of the fourth, manager Tony LaRussa pinch hit for Petkovsek - using Terry Bradshaw - who kept the inning alive with a base hit to right.
That set the stage for Ozzie Smith - who happened to be batting when photographer Rob Anna captured the moment with his panoramic image of Busch Stadium from behind home plate - just as Kile is about to deliver a one ball-one strike pitch to Ozzie - who was about to hit the final home run of his career - a two-run shot to the same area he hit his first home run as a left-handed batter - off Tom Niedenfurer in Game 5 of the '85 NLCS. This final home run for Ozzie cut the four run deficit in half. Houston's lead was now just 7-5.
The St Louis bullpen - Rich Batchelor, T.J. Mathews, Dennis Eckersley, Tony Fossas and Alan Benes - worked the next six innings of scoreless relief - as the Cardinals continued to chip away at the Astros' lead.
Another piece of baseball history occurred in this game, when pinch hitter Bobby Abreu flew out to left field while batting for Kile. It was Abreu's first major league AB - in what would become a very productive career - most notably with the Phillies.
With Kile's day over after five innings of work, Alvin Morman worked the sixth-inning for Houston - and gave up McGee's second RBI single - scoring (who else?) Ozzie Smith from second base. Houston's lead was now just 7-6.
The Cardinals tied it in the eighth, off reliever Xavier Hernandez. With Luis Alicea on second, Ray Lankford delivered a two-out run-scoring double to right field to make it a 7-7 game. And that's where the game stood as the Cardinals took their final turn at bat in the tenth-inning.
With Doug Brocail now pitching for Houston, Alicea drew a lead-off walk. However, Danny Scheaffer's sacrifice bunt attempt failed, as Alicea was forced at second. LaRussa used pinch runner Miguel Mejia - who promptly stole second with Ozzie now batting - and he nearly ended it with a single to left field - but a perfect throw from left fielder James Mouton nailed Mejia at the plate - but that also allowed Ozzie to advance to second on the throw home.
After an intentional walk to Lankford, McGee sent the fans home happy with his fourth hit of the day - a line drive to center - giving St Louis a momentum-building 8-7 walk-off win. The Cardinals would go on to win the next two games as well, to send the Astros packing - in second place - and that's where they stayed.
The Cardinals would close out the month with a 15-9 record, as the Astros were heading in the other direction - 8 - 15. Manager Terry Collins would be out of a job shortly after the season ended. The Angels would be his next employer - at least for a couple of mediocre seasons.
For the Cardinals - an overachieving team in Tony LaRussa's first year as manager - 1996 would end an eight-year postseason dry-spell - and give the franchise its first National League Central title. They have since added seven more division championships, and are hoping 2014 brings them one more. I like their chances, since the team has won seven out of the eight times they entered September with at least a share of the division lead.
As they say, "that bodes well" for this season. We'll see.