Struggling to score, the Cardinals opened the 1997 season by losing a franchise-record six in a row.
From April 1-6, the 1997 Cardinals scored a total of 12 runs in losing three to the Expos at Montreal and three to the Astros at Houston. All the games were played indoors.
It was the first time the Cardinals started a season 0-6.
The ugly start 20 years ago put the Cardinals in a hole from which they couldn’t recover. Never getting their record above .500, the 1997 Cardinals finished 73-89.
Expectations had been for a much different outcome.
In 1996, Tony La Russa’s first season as St. Louis manager, the Cardinals (88-74) won the National League Central Division title and swept the Padres in the NL Division Series. After getting within a win of clinching the 1996 pennant before losing to the Braves in the NL Championship Series, the Cardinals were supposed to be contenders in 1997.
At a banquet in February 1997, La Russa raised the stakes, predicting the Cardinals would repeat as division champions.
The Cardinals had a successful spring training in Florida, posting a 19-11 record in exhibition games.
“So far, the signs are outstanding _ the way they’ve gone through the drills, the way they’ve competed in the games and the way they’ve related to each other and the coaches,” La Russa said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The signs are all go.”
After departing Florida, the Cardinals went to Arlington, Texas, and then to Baltimore to play exhibition games against the Rangers and Orioles _ St. Louis won both _ before opening the season on April 1 at Montreal.
In his column for the Post-Dispatch, Bernie Miklasz wrote, “La Russa has had the game face on since, oh, about Dec. 26. It should be a good year. The Cardinals should repeat as Central Division champions.”
Loss #1, April 1, at Montreal
In the bottom of the ninth inning, with the score tied at 1-1, Cardinals reliever Tony Fossas walked pinch-hitter Sherman Obando with the bases loaded, forcing in the winning run and giving the Expos a 2-1 victory. Boxscore
Obando never took a swing in the six-pitch at-bat. “I didn’t see the ball up, so I didn’t swing,” Obando said.
The Cardinals scored their lone run in the sixth when Delino DeShields scampered home from third on a wild pitch from Jim Bullinger.
Loss #2, April 2, at Montreal
The Expos, behind the pitching of Jeff Juden, Omar Daal and 39-year-old Lee Smith, held the Cardinals to two singles and won, 4-1.
For the second consecutive game, the lone Cardinals run was scored by DeShields advancing from third to home on a wild pitch.
Said La Russa: “I have confidence that good hitters are going to hit.” Boxscore
Loss #3, April 3, at Montreal
The Cardinals blew leads of 2-0 and 4-2, losing 9-4. The Expos raked starter Alan Benes for 10 hits and seven runs in 4.2 innings.
“You can draw any conclusions you want to,” said La Russa. “They just flat outplayed us all three games.” Boxscore
The next day, in Houston, Miklasz met with La Russa before the game and described the manager as looking “as cheerful as your basic werewolf.”
“Those three insipid losses (at Montreal) made baseball’s most famous vegetarian more nauseated than he would by a plate stacked high with pepperoni, sausage and bacon,” Miklasz wrote.
Said La Russa: “We should have been more competitive in each of those three games. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have done better in how we played _ and the manager should have done a better job.”
Loss #4, April 4, at Houston
Jeff Bagwell’s bases-loaded single off Eric Ludwick in the 11th inning snapped a 2-2 tie and lifted the Astros to a 3-2 victory.
The Cardinals started a season 0-4 for the first time since 1985.
St. Louis stranded 13 base runners. John Mabry drove in both Cardinals runs. Boxscore
In four games, the Cardinals were batting .167 with runners in scoring position.
“I feel terrific about our club,” La Russa said. “There isn’t anything we didn’t try to do tonight. The effort was there, the intensity, everything.”
Loss #5, April 5, at Houston
The Astros beat the Cardinals, 6-2. With their 0-5 record, the 1997 Cardinals matched the teams of 1902, 1919, 1960 and 1973 for worst start in franchise history.
Wrote Miklasz: “The lineup is as lethal as a Pez dispenser.”
Sid Fernandez started and earned the win in his final appearance of a 15-year major-league career. Ramon Garcia pitched four scoreless innings in relief for the save. Boxscore
“It’s a six-month test … I still like our club a lot,” said La Russa.
Loss #6, April 6, at Houston
Bagwell, hitting for infielder Tim Bogar in the eighth, delivered a two-run, two-out double off John Frascatore, erasing a 2-1 Cardinals lead and carrying the Astros to a 3-2 victory. Boxscore
The three-game sweep gave the Astros more wins against the Cardinals in 1997 than they had in 1996, when they lost 11 of 13 to St. Louis.
Having set the franchise record for most losses to begin a season, the Cardinals limped back to St. Louis for their home opener.
“I think I see guys trying to force things,” La Russa said. “It’s human nature. I hope they do. Otherwise, it means they don’t care.”
Said Cardinals third baseman Gary Gaetti: “It’s hard not to press when you’re really trying to get that first one.”
That’s a winner
After an off-day in St. Louis on April 7, the Cardinals played their home opener on April 8.
Willie McGee, 38, hitting for pitcher Mark Petkovsek, rescued the Cardinals by slashing a home run off Ugueth Urbina with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, giving St. Louis a 2-1 triumph over the Expos. Boxscore
“You couldn’t write a better script,” Mabry said of McGee’s streak-busting blast.
Said La Russa: “This was more dramatic than anything I’ve seen in a movie.”