COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Nineteen years ago this week, the Atlanta Braves’ John Smoltz and the Minnesota Twins’ Jack Morris took the mound at the Metrodome in Minneapolis for Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.
The match-up would prove to be one of the greatest pitcher’s duels in World Series history.
The home team had won each of the first six games, but if not for future Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett’s Game 6 heroics the Twins might not have made it to the seventh game. Puckett hit an RBI triple, made a spectacular catch to rob the Braves of a sure extra-base hit and belted a walk-off home run in the 11th inning to get the Minnesota to the deciding game.
In Game 7, Morris and Smoltz rolled through the first four innings before Morris ran into trouble in the fifth. Mark Lemke singled to lead off and Rafael Belliard bunted to put a runner at third base with one out.
But Terry Pendleton popped out to shallow left field and Ron Gant struck out looking on 3-2 pitch to end the inning.
Both teams had prime scoring chances in the eighth.
In the top of the inning, Morris allowed a leadoff single to Lonnie Smith and Pendleton followed with a double. After Ron Gant grounded out, Twins’ manager Tom Kelly visited the mound and decided to intentionally walk David Justice to pitch to Sid Bream.
With one out and the bases loaded, Bream worked the count to 1-2 before he hit a ground ball to Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek, who started a rare 3-2-3 double play to end the Braves’ threat.
In the home half of the inning, pinch-hitter Randy Bush led off with a single and was pinch-run for by Al Newman. Dan Gladden flew out, but Chuck Knoblauch singled to put runners on the corners with one away.
That spelled the end of the day for Smoltz, who lasted seven and one third innings, allowing six hits and one walk while striking out four. Braves manager Bobby Cox brought on Mike Stanton to intentionally walk Kirby Puckett and load the bases.
Stanton would then face Hrbek, who to lined Lemke at second base, starting a double play as Knoblauch was doubled off to retire the side.
Neither team posed much of a threat in the ninth, although Minnesota had two on with no outs before Atlanta turned a double play. After nine full innings, Kelly told Morris he was going to take him out, but after a dugout conference the decision was made to leave the 18-game winner on the mound.
“I want to know one thing: Who was going to take (Morris) out of this game? Who would have had the courage to say ‘Jack, you’re done’,” Twins outfielder Randy Bush asked Sports Illustrated. “I don’t think anyone would have done it. If it was (Tom Kelly), Jack would have punched him, kicked him – he might have killed him.”
Morris retired the Braves in order in the top of tenth and in the bottom of the inning Atlanta hurler Alejandro Pena allowed a leadoff double to Gladden. Knoblauch bunted Gladden to third and the Braves chose to walk Puckett and Hrbek intentionally to load the bases with one out.
Gene Larkin would step in as a pinch-hitter and hit the first pitch he saw to left field for a World Series-winning single, as the Twins won their second championship in four years. The ball Larkin hit to win the game is in the Hall of Fame’s “Autumn Glory: Postseason Celebration” exhibit.
During the post-game celebration, the Twins circled the field together. Morris’ sons were standing on the right field foul line and he ran to them and gave them a hug during the Twins’ victory lap.
The last time a seventh game went into extra innings prior to 1991 was in 1924, when the Washington Senators beat the New York Giants 4-3 in 12 innings.
Despite Larkin’s game-winning hit, Morris was the hero. After making his third start of the Fall Classic and allowing just three runs in 23 innings pitched, he earned World Series MVP honors.
His pitching line for Game 7: 10 innings, seven hits, no runs, two walks, eight strikeouts and 122 pitches. It was the longest pitching performance in a seventh game of the World Series.
“My arm was alive. I felt real strong, I don’t know how or why,” Morris said after the game. “Pitching two games on three days’ rest, this isn’t supposed to happen. The baseball gods in the sky must have blessed me tonight.”
The 36-year-old right-hander won 18 games in his only season with the Twins. Even though his stay in the Twin Cities was short, many baseball fans will always associate Jack Morris with Minnesota because of his 10-inning masterpiece in Game 7.
For the two starting pitchers, Cooperstown is a hot topic. Morris placed fourth in this year’s Baseball Writers’ Association of America voting with 52.3 percent and is eligible for the BBWAA vote through 2015. If Smoltz remains retired, he will become eligible for the BBWAA vote in 2015.
Chris Blake was the 2010 publications intern in the Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum