Saturday, October 9, 1982 - Game 2 NLCS - At Busch Stadium II (John Stuper - Starting Pitcher) - Opponent: Atlanta Braves (Phil Niekro - Starting Pitcher) - Attendance: 53,408
After scoring an eighth-inning run to tie the game, the Cardinals got the walk-off win in the ninth - by the slimmest of margins - to steal Game Two of the National League Championship Series vs the Atlanta Braves - by a score of 4-3. St Louis also won Game One, so now have a commanding two games to none lead in this best-of-five championship showdown.
As we all know, baseball is a game of inches. For Braves' manager Joe Torre, his defensive maneuvers late in this game sacrificed some precious inches - and probably cost his team a chance to avoid the ninth-inning calamity which turned a line drive off the bat of Ken Oberkfell into the walk-off game-winning hit.
Before all that unfolded, pitching from both sides did a nice job of keeping the opposing lineups from doing much damage. Sloppy defense cost the Cardinals an early run, while Niekro's erratic knuckle ball cost his team an early run, as well.
After Cards starter John Stuper made it through the first-inning unscathed, Niekro wasn't quite as lucky. With two out and Lonnie Smith on second and Oberkfell on third - Niekro uncorked a wild pitch with Darrell Porter at the plate - allowing Oberkfell to race home with the game's first run - and that was the extent of the scoring for the Cardinals until the sixth-inning.
By that time, the Braves had scored three runs - with one very costly unearned run added to the mix. Bruce Benedict started a third-inning rally by drawing a lead-off walk. After Niekro advanced him to second with a sacrifice bunt, it appeared Stuper might be able to navigate through a scoreless inning when he struck out Claudell Washington. But disaster struck when Rafael Ramirez singled to center. Willie McGee, in his haste to prevent Benedict from scoring from second, charged the ball aggressively, but missed it completely - allowing Ramirez to zip all the way around the bases to give the Braves a shocking 2-1 lead.
Atlanta tacked on another run in the fifth when Niekro batted with runners on second and third and nobody out. He helped his own cause with a sacrifice fly - scoring Glenn Hubbard from third - but the runner on second - Benedict - would eventually be stranded. Atlanta would also squander another scoring opportunity later in the game, which further killed their chances of pulling this one out of the fire.
The Redbirds finally got another run home in the sixth, but probably should have scored more. Keith Hernandez started the rally with a base hit to right - then scored on Porter's double down the right field line. Porter himself would be thrown out at the plate, trying to score on an Ozzie Smith single to right. An unusual 9-6-5 assist nailed Porter - so despite collecting four hits in the inning, the Cards had just one run to show for it.
After Atlanta had runners on first and second and nobody out in the eighth, manager Whitey Herzog brought in Bruce Sutter from the bullpen to work his magic. Stuper had pitched well enough, but was on the hook for the loss already - and the situation looked grim with the two runners on base being his responsibility, as well (Chris Chambliss on first and Dale Murphy on second).
Sutter struck out the first batter - Bob Horner - then with Jerry Royster batting - Murphy tried to steal third - but was nailed on a great throw from Porter to Oberkfell. Royster then bounced out to end the threat and shift the momentum in favor of the home team.
The Cardinals immediately cashed in on the opportunity, off reliever Gene Garber. With one out in the eighth, Porter walked. George Hendrick - quiet in the game to this point - let his bat do the talking with a singe to right - advancing Porter to third. McGee then hit a slow roller to the shortstop who got the force out at second - unassisted - but McGee easily beat the relay to first, as Porter scored the tying run.
By that time, in a series of lineup changes and manuevers, center fielder Dale Murphy moved over to left field, as Brett Butler became the new center fielder. As it would play out, that move cost the Braves the game, although probably nobody thought much about it at the time. Thirty-two years later, it seems obvious.
The fateful ninth-inning rally began with a single off the bat of David Green, who was immediately pushed to second on Herr's sacrifice bunt. Next up - Ken Oberkfell - hit a line drive to center field which 5' 10" Brett Butler couldn't quite reach. Cardinal play-by-play broadcaster Jack Buck's description of the play: "Butler came within an eyelash - within an eyelash - of catching that ball!"
Meanwhile, out in left field, 6' 4" Dale Murphy - who probably would have caught that ball had he remained in center field - could only helplessly watch the ball land safely, as a jubilant Green dashed home with the winning run.
Heading back to Atlanta down two games to none was too much to overcome. Putting Butler in center field - simply because he was speedy - was a routine practice throughout his seventeen-year major league career. Defensive metrics tell a different story, however. He was a far better left fielder, so really, he had no business playing center field. Murphy, on the other hand, was a far better center fielder who had no business playing left field.
Especially in the most important game of his career, when a game of inches - six to be exact - proved to be the difference between a game-winning hit or a routine putout.
The opportunistic Cardinals, were of course, very glad to put this one in the postseason win column. They'd find a way to win five more games in October - good for another World Series trophy.