Joe Torre’s illustrious managerial career got its start in Atlanta in the early 1980s. It reached its peak with a glorious run at the helm of the New York Yankees that started in 1996. In between those two is a more forgotten part of Torre’s history, the 4-plus years he spent in St. Louis. Torre took over a team that had fallen hard in 1990, ending an otherwise outstanding era under Whitey Herzog. Torre promptly made them winners in 1991. The 1992 St. Louis Cardinals posted another winning season, with more than its share of excitement along the way.
The Cardinals moved to upgrade their power in the offseason, trading Ken Hill, an up-and-coming starting pitcher, to the Montreal Expos for first baseman Andres Galaragga. The trade, to be kind, was a disaster for St. Louis. Hill came into his own. Galaragga, who had been in decline for a couple years in Montreal, was not able to turn it around in St. Louis and needed a subsequent move to Colorado’s Coors Field to get his offensive numbers rejuvenated.
St. Louis still had players who could get on base. A talented young outfield included Bernard Gilkey, Ray Lankford and Felix Jose. Gilkey hit .302. Lankford and Jose both hit in the high .290s. So did 37-year-old shortstop Ozzie Smith. The four players also combined to steal 131 bases. The Cardinals led the National League in both batting average and stolen bases.
But the lack of power dogged them. With Galaragga not stepping up, Lankford’s 20 home runs and .480 slugging percentage were the closest thing St. Louis had to a real power threat. It’s the reason they only finished sixth in the National League in runs scored.
The pitching was better. Bob Tewksbury had a career year at the age of 31. He went 16-5 with a dazzling 2.16 ERA, worked over 230 innings and finished third in the Cy Young voting. Omar Olivares, Rheal Cormier and Donovan Osborne were all young arms that made 29-30 starts and posted ERAs in the high 3s. Lee Smith, the 34-year-old veteran, anchored a bullpen that was deep. Smith saved 43 games. The Cardinals’ staff ERA was fourth in the NL.
Torre’s Cards started slowly, losing nine of their first fifteen. That stretch ended with consecutive walkoff losses to the New York Mets, including a 1-0 decision to went 13 innings. But the next two games saw St. Louis go back home and win two walkoffs, against Montreal. The Cardinals got a 4-3 win when Lankford and Ozzie each hit two-out RBI singles in the ninth. And they outlasted the Expos in a 17-inning marathon that saw Tewksbury come on in relief, pitch the last two innings and then win the game with a two-out single with a man on third.
Those wins started a 16-6 stretch that saw St. Louis move into first place in the NL East. Here’s where we can step back to point out that prior to 1994 the leagues were split into just an East and West division, with the winners moving straight into the League Championship Series. The Cardinals and Cubs were in the East. So were the Pittsburgh Pirates, the two-time defending division champs. As were current occupants from Philadelphia, New York and Montreal (today’s Washington Nationals).
Memorial Day weekend summed up the early part of the St. Louis schedule. On Sunday, the Cardinals beat the Astros 4-3 on a walkoff home run by catcher Tom Pagnozzi. On Monday, the Dodgers came to town. After Lee Smith blew a save in the eighth, St. Louis trailed 5-3. Gilkey’s two-out, two-run double tied it in the bottom of the eighth. Another two-out RBI hit in the ninth, this one from Felix Jose, got the Cards another walkoff win.
They were a half-game up on the Pirates and a game up on the Mets. But St. Louis lost the next two games to Los Angeles, starting a stretch where they dropped five straight series. The record briefly slipped under. 500, before the Cardinals got back to 44-43 by the All-Star break.
St. Louis was still in second place and still within 4 ½ games of Pittsburgh. But a tough schedule was waiting on the far side of the break. The Pirates, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds and Expos would ultimately end up as the four best teams in the National League. In a 16-game stretch against all four, the Cardinals went 4-12.
They were 7 ½ out at the beginning of August. Any marginal hope that remained was shattered when Pittsburgh came into Busch Stadium and swept four straight. On August 9, St. Louis hit a low point with a record of 51-60 and were twelve games out.
The Cards wouldn’t get any close to the Pirates, and the Expos were also coming on in the second half, but St. Louis would salvage some self-respect. They got their record back to 78-78 entering the final week and had a shot at a winning season. They got there in what proved to be appropriate fashion.
Olivares beat Montreal 4-1 in the Monday opener of a three-game set. Then it was time for more walkoffs. St. Louis won Tuesday’s game in ten innings when a two-out error set up the game-winning hit. On Wednesday, they faced Hill and were trailing 2-0 in the eighth. Stan Royer hit a two-run shot to tie the game. Lankford won it in the 11th with an RBI base hit.
St. Louis finished 83-79. It wasn’t the year they were hoping for and certainly not the one that seemed possible back on Memorial Day weekend. But there was no shortage of drama.