Proving he was recovered from major surgery and still possessed the ability to alter the outcome of a game, Ray Lankford dazzled the Dodgers in an epic ninth-inning performance that delivered a victory for the Cardinals against one of their former standouts.
In his first game since undergoing an off-season rotator cuff operation on his left shoulder, Lankford sparked a Cardinals comeback against the Dodgers and their closer, Todd Worrell, 20 years ago on April 22, 1997.
The Cardinals trailed by a run with two outs and none on in the ninth when Lankford performed his magic.
The Cardinals went to Los Angeles to complete a road trip that began with three games in Miami against the Marlins and continued with three versus the Padres in Honolulu.
Lankford, working his way back to form on an injury rehabilitation assignment with the Class A minor-league affiliate at Prince William, Va., initially wasn’t expected to rejoin the Cardinals until May 1.
However, when the Cardinals struggled to score five total runs over four games _ a pair of 2-1 losses to the Marlins and wins of 1-0 and 2-1 over the Padres _ general manager Walt Jocketty sent Jerry Walker, vice president for player personnel, to watch Lankford at Prince William.
When Jocketty received a glowing report _ “Jerry said he was swinging the bat well and throwing well,” Jocketty told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch _ the Cardinals brought Lankford to Los Angeles for the series opener against the Dodgers.
Call the closer
La Russa put Lankford in center field and batted him third in the order, behind Ron Gant and ahead of Brian Jordan, against Dodgers starter Pedro Astacio. Lankford drew a walk in the first inning, grounded out in the third, doubled in the fifth and flied out in the seventh.
In the ninth, Dodgers manager Bill Russell brought in Worrell to protect a 4-3 lead.
Worrell, 37, had pitched six seasons (1985-89 and 1992) for the Cardinals, amassing 129 saves and a 2.56 ERA. He was a key member of their 1985 and 1987 pennant-winning clubs.
The former Cardinal had gotten off to a good start for the 1997 Dodgers, with five saves and a 1.12 ERA.
Worrell appeared on his way to a routine save against the Cardinals. He retired Delino DeShields on a groundout and struck out Gant.
Lankford came up next and reached first safely on an infield single.
With Jordan at the plate, Lankford swiped second. Then he stole third.
“When we let catchers know that we’re running, that can kind of mess them up a little,” Lankford said.
A rattled Worrell walked Jordan.
“The prevailing theory is that when Lankford got to third with the tying run Worrell was reluctant to throw his slider for fear he would bounce it in the dirt,” wrote Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch.
The next batter, Gary Gaetti, was 2-for-19 on the season with runners in scoring position. With Jordan running on the pitch, Worrell grooved a fastball that Gaetti pulled into the left-field corner, scoring Lankford and Jordan and giving the Cardinals a 5-4 lead.
John Mabry followed with a double to right-center, scoring Gaetti.
“You don’t see that happen very often when Todd can’t hold the lead,” Russell told the Los Angeles Times.
Said Worrell: “Some nights you have it, some nights you don’t. I can’t get the third out. It makes it hard to swallow.”
Cardinals closer Dennis Eckersley set down the Dodgers in order in the bottom of the ninth, sealing the 6-4 St. Louis victory. Boxscore
“I figured (Lankford) would provide a spark,” said Jocketty. “I think he put some life into the team.”
Said La Russa: “Could it be any better than that? It was just the way he did it. He got base hits, he walked, he stole bases, he played good defense. Wow.”
The next night, April 23, the Dodgers led the Cardinals, 2-1, with one out and the bases empty in the ninth when Russell brought in Worrell. Gaetti greeted him with an infield single and was lifted for a pinch-runner, Steve Scarsone.
Mabry struck out and Scarsone swiped second.
Up next was Gant. He hit a towering fly into a 25-mph wind to left that was caught for the final out. “If the wind hadn’t been blowing in,” said Worrell, “that ball might have gone out.” Boxscore
Worrell, in the last year of an 11-season major-league career, posted 35 saves for the 1997 Dodgers, but had a 2-6 record and 5.28 ERA.
Lankford had one of his best Cardinals seasons in 1997. He batted .295 with 36 doubles, 31 home runs, 98 RBI and 21 stolen bases in 133 games. His on-base percentage of .411 was his single-season career high.