The St. Louis Cardinals vs. the Unknown Rookie: April 24, 2004
Ten years ago today, the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers met in Milwaukee for an early-season matchup. Both teams’ records hovered near the .500 mark, neither team sure which direction its season would go. This one game would not provide much clarity on that issue, but it did offer something that hadn’t happened in a major-league game since 1899. Let’s take a trip back in time and look back at a game that will be best remembered for an unknown rookie’s performance.
St. Louis started Woody Williams, who had been one of the team’s best pitchers since being acquired in August 2001. In fact, the “Wood Man” had pitched to a record of 34-14, with a 3.23 ERA and a sparkling 1.14 WHIP. At the time of the trade, Williams was little more than a league-average innings-eater for Toronto and San Diego (his career record was 58-62). The Cardinals were hoping that pitching coach Dave Duncan could work his magic with Williams, like he had so many other pitchers over the years. Never a strikeout pitcher, Williams seemed like a perfect candidate for the “pitch to contact” method that Duncan and manager Tony LaRussa had long preached.
It worked. So well, in fact, that Williams arguably stands as Duncan’s greatest reclamation project during his tenure with the Cardinals. He made his lone All-Star appearance in 2003, when he also reached career-highs in wins, starts, strikeouts and K/BB ratio.
The Brewers countered with Chris Saenz, a 22-year-old righty making his major-league debut. It was a Saturday afternoon game at Miller Park. The roof was closed, despite a game-time temperature of 64 degrees.
Bo Hart (remember him?) led off the game for the Cardinals and struck out swinging. The memory of his scorching first month with the team in 2003 had long-since faded, and Hart was nearing the end of his time with the big-league club.
Ray Lankford was due up next. Ironically, he was the player dealt away to the Padres in the Williams trade. Often the best player on some awful Cardinals teams in the early to mid-1990s, Lankford was in the midst of an awful season in St. Louis in 2001. Never a high-batting average player, he struggled to bat just .235/.345/.496 with 15 homers, 39 RBI and only four steals in 91 games. After a dismal, injury-plagued 2002 season in San Diego, he missed the entire 2003 season with a serious hamstring injury. He re-signed with the Cardinals as a free agent prior to the 2004 season and was aiming for a comeback at age 36. On April 24, the move looked like a good one: Lankford was off to a strong start, sporting a .333/.442/.722 slash line, and he had slugged three home runs, with a 1.164 OPS.
Lankford singled sharply up the middle, then advanced to third as Saenz retired Albert Pujols and walked Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen. Everyone in Miller Park held their breath as center fielder Scott Podsednik squeezed Edgar Renteria’s deep fly ball to end the threat. But the Double-A rookie making the spot start certainly appeared vulnerable.
Podsednik led off the bottom of the first and worked a walk of the normally stingy Williams. Bill Hall singled him over to third. Junior Spivey singled in Podsednik for a 1-0 Milwaukee lead. Then Hall moved to third on a Geoff Jenkins fly ball and scored on a sacrifice fly by Lyle Overbay.
Saenz didn’t let his jittery first inning affect him any further. The only St. Louis baserunner over the next six innings was Pujols, who was hit by a pitch in the third and singled in the sixth. Meanwhile, Williams settled in and breezed through the Milwaukee lineup – until the bottom of the 6th. The Brewers twice had two runners on, but Williams worked his way out of the jam, thanks to a double play and a pickoff. The score remained 2-0.
As the game reached the 7th inning, the bullpen machinations started for both teams, with each starter departing the game, but neither team was able to push a run across. In the 8th, LaRussa sent Marlon Anderson up to hit for Bo Hart (who had whiffed in all three at-bats). The move paid immediate dividends, as Anderson singled to right. Lankford worked a walk from reliever Luis Vizcaino, bringing up the great Pujols in a perfect situation: two on and nobody out. Instead, he bounced into a textbook 4-6-3 double play, leaving Anderson on third with two out. Perhaps letting his guard down after retiring Pujols, Vizcaino uncorked a wild pitch, allowing Anderson to score, trimming the Brewers’ lead to 2-1. Vizcaino was unable to settle down, walking Edmonds and allowing a single to Rolen before being replaced by Dave Burba. As in the first inning, Renteria stood at the plate with a chance to drive in a two-out run for his team; also as happened in the first, Renteria flew out to end the inning.
In the bottom of the 8th, Cardinal reliever Julian Tavarez (who may or may not have been clinically insane) was called on to keep it a one-run game. He failed.
After surrendering a one-out triple to Podsednik, he unloaded a wild pitch of his own. Podsednik scored to make it 3-1. Hall and Spivey put together back-to-back hits for the second time in the game, giving the Brewers runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out. LaRussa replaced Tavarez with lefty Steve Kline, who walked Geoff Jenkins to load the bases. The Cardinals escaped further damage when Overbay hit into the unusual 3-2-3 double play: Pujols made a fine play to nail Hall at home, then catcher Mike Matheny threw back to Pujols and retired the slow-footed Overbay at first.
The Cardinals went quietly in the 9th inning and the Brewers capped off a 3-1 win that gave them a 10-9 record, good for 4th in the NL Central, a half-game better than St. Louis. Williams took the loss, despite turning in a quality start. Tavarez’s outing, while forgettable, ultimately had no bearing on the final result.
Saenz earned the win with six innings of shutout ball, allowing just two hits and three walks. After the shaky first inning, the Cardinals mounted no other scoring threats against the rookie. He was sent back to Double-A after the game and did not make another appearance for the Brewers. In fact, it was his only appearance in the big leagues. He missed all of 2005 and 2006 due to elbow surgery. Saenz attempted to come back in 2007 with the Angels, but was released from the Double-A team after walking 31 batters in 46 innings. He never pitched in the minor leagues again.
According to Wikipedia and Baseball Almanac, Saenz is only the fourth pitcher — and the first since 1899 — to start in his only major league game, pitch at least six innings without allowing a run and be credited with the win. Regardless of injury or effectiveness, that’s something Saenz can hang on to forever.
By the end of April 2004, Hart was sent to the minors and replaced as the everyday second baseman by Tony Womack. Like Saenz, he would not appear in another major-league game.
Lankford’s effectiveness diminished as the season wore on, leading the Cardinals to make another August trade, this one for Rockies outfielder Larry Walker. Lankford would be left off the postseason roster, as St. Louis used Reggie Sanders, Edmonds and Walker as their starting outfield. He retired at the end of the season.
The Cardinals and Brewers finished April 2004 with identical 12-12 records, tied at the bottom of the NL Central standings. That would be the only similarity they shared through the remainder of the season. Milwaukee flat-lined, slumping to a 55-82 mark over the season’s final five months. St. Louis, meanwhile, bounced back from a disappointing 2003 in spectacular fashion – steamrolling its way to 105 wins, tied for the most in franchise history. The Cardinals cruised to the division title, 13 games ahead of the 2nd-place Houston Astros, whom the Cardinals would defeat in a classic seven-game series to reach the World Series for the first time in 22 years. However, could anyone have foreseen that on April 24, 2004? Their performance that night didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Perhaps a game such as this one best illustrates the difference between baseball and football. For one day — any given Saturday, if you will — the worst team in the division was better than the best. In football, that one game often makes the difference between a team making the playoffs or not. A team’s fortunes can change directions as a result. In baseball, though, a single game doesn’t alter a team’s destiny all that often. The beauty of baseball tends to lie in the unexpected thrills that can occur every single day. Maybe it’s a no-hitter. Or a triple play. It might be a slugger smashing four home runs, or a suicide squeeze. Or maybe it’s a rookie from Double-A taming a lineup led by the vaunted “MV3” of Pujols, Edmonds and Rolen, and then never being heard from again. We know that the Cardinals reached greatness in 2004. But on this night, April 24, 2004, it was an unknown rookie who did. And baseball was the better for it.
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