Mitch Williams threw baseballs very hard. Some of the time, he even knew where they were going. But in 1989, he put together a fine season even with a high walk rate (5.7 per nine innings), and closed out quite a few wins.
One of those was September 18, a key game in the pennant race — but not until after some unintended hilarity.
Let’s set the stage. The Cubs were in control of the N.L. East by now, but still needed a few more wins to clinch. Entering the game at Wrigley on this date, they led the division by five games over the Cardinals and had a magic number of nine. But they had lost two in a row in Pittsburgh and badly wanted to beat the third-place Mets (just 5½ games back) to put some more distance between them and their pursuers.
The game didn’t start well. The Mets took a 3-0 lead off starter Paul Kilgus. But the Cubs came back with a four-run fifth and two-run sixth, highlighted by a two-run homer by Luis Salazar. It was 6-3 Cubs heading to the eighth.
Williams, at this point, had pitched only one inning in the last week, so Don Zimmer decided to give his closer some work after Les Lancaster had allowed a run to make it 6-4. Williams finished off the eighth with no further damage.
The Cubs had scored a run in the last of the eighth to make it 7-4 and with two out and two runners on, Williams’ spot in the batting order came up. Williams had thrown only eight pitches to get out of the eighth, so Zimmer figured he’d let him bat so he could get some more work in the ninth. It was just his fourth big-league at-bat. In the three previous plate appearances, all in 1989 with the Cubs, he had bunted into a force play, struck out and hit into a double play.
Mets reliever Don Aase ran the count to 1-2 on Williams, and then...
Apologies for the poor video quality, but that... Williams hadn’t batted before 1989 since 1984 when he was in Advanced-A ball... and he hits an opposite-field home run? “Holy cow!”, as Harry Caray would have said, and in fact did say in that clip. I wasn’t at this game; I worked evenings in those days and didn’t get to many night games. Mike Bojanowski, who was there, told me: “That was about as close as I’ve ever come to literally laughing hard enough to fall off the bench.”
With that, the Cubs had a six-run lead and Williams stayed in to throw the ninth. You know what’s going to happen, right? He got the first two outs, then allowed a double and a walk. A pair of singles scored two runs to make it 10-6, then Williams hit a batter to load the bases.
The next scheduled hitter was Darryl Strawberry, representing the tying run. Strawberry’s numbers were down from his great 1988 season in which he finished second in MVP voting, but he was still a dangerous hitter.
Except... he wasn’t heading to the batter’s box. He wasn’t in the on-deck circle. He was... nowhere to be seen.
Finally, someone in the Mets dugout found him in the clubhouse. He had begun to undress — he thought the game was over. Hastily putting his uniform back on, Strawberry stepped in against Williams, who struck him out to end the game in a 10-6 Cubs win.
The win reduced the Cubs’ magic number to eight, and the Mets’ elimination number to seven.
And everyone had a great time at the ballpark that night... well, except maybe for Darryl Strawberry.
This article is part of a series commemorating important events in the 1989 Cubs N.L. East championship season, 30 years ago.