A pair of former Cardinals, Andy Van Slyke and Mike LaValliere, combined to stun St. Louis by making one of baseball’s most sensational defensive plays, one so rare it wouldn’t be accomplished again for 23 years.
On Aug. 21, 2011, in the ninth inning of a game at Detroit, the Indians had runners on second and third with one out when Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson caught a fly ball by Matt LaPorta and unleashed a rocket to catcher Alex Avila, who tagged out Kosuke Fukudome at the plate, completing a double play and sealing an 8-7 win.
According to research by Baseball-Reference.com, it was the first time a major-league game had ended on a double play with a center fielder throwing out a runner at the plate since Sept. 27, 1988, when Van Slyke accomplished the feat.
On April 1, 1987, the Cardinals traded Van Slyke, LaValliere and pitcher Mike Dunne to the Pirates for catcher Tony Pena. The deal helped the Cardinals win the 1987 National League pennant and it also helped the Pirates begin a transformation from also-ran to contender.
On Sept. 27, 1988, the Cardinals were finishing out the final week of the season on their way to a fifth-place finish in the NL East. The Pirates would secure second place, their highest finish since 1983.
Before a Tuesday night crowd of 8,994 at Three Rivers Stadium, the Pirates took a 3-2 lead into the ninth. Pittsburgh closer Jim Gott, seeking his 34th save, issued a leadoff walk to Jose Oquendo. After Curt Ford struck out, John Morris singled to right, advancing Oquendo to third.
Luis Alicea, a switch-hitting rookie second baseman who had entered the game in the sixth, stepped to the plate and smashed a rising liner to center field _ “a drive,” wrote Paul Meyer of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “that seemed more than deep enough to score Oquendo.”
It seemed everyone in the ballpark, except Van Slyke and LaValliere, thought Oquendo would advance on the sacrifice, tying the score.
“I didn’t think he (Van Slyke) had a chance,” Pirates right fielder Glenn Wilson told Meyer.
Said Pirates manager Jim Leyland: “I thought he (Van Slyke) had no chance, to be honest with you.”
Here’s what Van Slyke said to Meyer:
“I always think I have a chance _ except when I’m standing on the warning track. I threw it as hard as I could. What made it a difficult play was that it was a line drive, and I couldn’t set up (to throw).”
As Oquendo streaked down the third-base line, he saw LaValliere standing motionless at the plate, trying to make it appear a play wasn’t imminent.
“When Andy let the ball go, I caught the runner out of the corner of my eye,” LaValliere said to Meyer. “… I tried to deke the runner to get as much of an advantage as I could. You want the runner to see the plate, so he’ll slide.”
Just before receiving the throw, LaValliere blocked the plate with his left foot. As Oquendo slammed into a shin guard, LaValliere applied the tag and umpire Doug Harvey ruled an out, giving the Pirates a 3-2 victory. Boxscore
“Unbelievable, the way he (LaValliere) kept him off there,’ said Leyland. “That was the key.”
Said Van Slyke: “When I saw Doug Harvey ring him up, it surprised the heck out of me. Mike made just as good a play as I did.”
Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog told the Associated Press, “It was a heck of a play on both ends. Andy made a great throw and he doesn’t get him if Mike doesn’t block the plate.”
In his lead to his game story, Meyer wrote:
You know him as Andy Van Slyke. Tuesday night, though, the Pirates center fielder was Andy Van Strike _ because that’s what he threw to the plate in the ninth inning for the final out of a 3-2 victory over St. Louis that clinched second place for the Pirates.
Twenty-three years later, when the play happened again, the teams and the players were different, but one of the managers was the same. Jim Leyland, Tigers skipper, was the winning manager in both games.