Suppan goes deep -- at the plate and on the mound

Originally Published: October 14, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- From the same production company that brought you Friday's award-winning feature, "So Taguchi -- The Home Run Trotter," the St. Louis Cardinals Inc. broke out yet another of their never-ending supply of mystery sluggers Saturday.

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting a man who is just about guaranteed to hit a home run ...

(Uh, whenever Steve Trachsel is 60 feet away, at least) ...

Jeff Suppan
Dilip Vishwanat, Pool/AP PhotoJeff Suppan gave up three hits and walked one while pitching eight shutout innings in Game 3.
Yes, it's your favorite home run hero and ours, Mr. Jeff Suppan.

It isn't every night, you know, that you can turn on an October baseball game and see a pitcher hit a home run.

It really isn't every night that you can turn on an October baseball game and see a pitcher hit a home run and throw eight shutout innings against the best lineup in the league.

But if you turned on the only October baseball game airing on a TV set near you Saturday night, that's what you saw.

You not only saw the Cardinals thrust the New York metropolitan area into the throes of its second nervous baseball breakdown in the last week and a half, with a 5-0 NLCS Game 3 wipeout of the Mets.

You saw Jeff Suppan put on a postseason show that was last duplicated as recently as, oh, 66 years ago.

Want the complete, unexpurgated list of pitchers who have spun at least eight shutout innings and hit a home run in the same postseason game? Here goes. It won't take long.

There was Bucky Walters, for the 1940 Reds. There was Jesse Haines, for the 1926 Cardinals. And now there's a third member of their distinguished group:

Jeff Suppan.

He had himself a night.

We could spend this column waxing on endlessly about Jeff Suppan's exploits in this game even if he'd never made it into the batter's box, you understand. He was that good in his usual line of work -- the part where he throws baseballs 60 feet for about three hours a night.

He totally dismantled a Mets lineup that went 79 straight games in one stretch this year without getting shut out. He faced 27 Mets hitters, allowed just four of them to reach base, never put two men on in any inning and didn't let a Met make it into scoring position after the third inning.

"That guy," said his catcher, Yadier Molina, "is one of the best pitchers in the National League."

Well, he was in the second half, at any rate. Suppan's 2.39 ERA after the All-Star break was the third-best in the major leagues among starting pitchers. And that ERA looked especially scenic when you consider that the only other Cardinals starter with an ERA under 5.00 after the break was Cy Young himself, Chris Carpenter.

But Suppan's pitching exploits in the second half got lots of baseball people's attention. What got just about no one's attention was this:

He also had a higher batting average after the break (.269) than David Eckstein, Scott Rolen or Scott Spiezio.

"You know," said injured closer Jason Isringhausen, "he's gotten a lot better ... since the year he almost went the whole year without a hit."

That year wasn't so long ago, either, by the way. It was 2004, when it took Suppan all the way to Aug. 27 to wipe out what was getting to be an 0-for almost as big as The Arch. He was zilch for 43 when he finally singled off Pittsburgh's Ryan Vogelsong -- a feat his fellow pitchers saluted, as Isringhausen recalls, with a long standing ovation.

But that was just the warmup act for a much longer, much louder standing ovation Saturday night -- by 47,053 really happy people. People who began to think -- after the second home run of Suppan's career helped the Cardinals whoosh out to a 5-0 lead by the time they'd made an out in the second inning -- that these Mets weren't so unbeatable after all.

As Suppan stepped in to lead off the second inning, it was 13 months and four days since his first career homer -- off a pitcher named Steve Trachsel. Now here it was, a year later, in a very different setting, and there was Trachsel, back on the mound again. It was the first time they'd faced each other since.

Couldn't be. Could it? No way. Right?

Um, wrong. Waddayaknow, Suppan thumped an 0-2 fastball from Trachsel to deep left, steered it just beyond the glove of left fielder Endy Chavez and -- for his coolest trick of the night -- skipped it off the top of the wall for a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it home run.

"I think he did it that way because it's more suspenseful if you bounce it off the top of the fence," said backup catcher Gary Bennett. "This way, you get the crowd going: 'Ooh, is it gone?' Then, when they find out it is gone, you get a better explosion out of them. When you hit those no-doubters, man, they're boring. This way, you do more to fire up the team, because it gets the crowd into the game."

Oh, it did that, all right. And if it was drama Suppan was after, he added a little extra twist by forcing this crowd to stop breathing for a few seconds until it was sure Chavez hadn't caught the ball.

For a fleeting mini-moment, it looked like a replay of Scott Spiezio's triple at Shea on Friday  in which the right fielder, Shawn Green, swatted the baseball off the top of the fence and back into play. Except this time, Chavez crashed into the wall and swatted nothing but 100 percent, pure unadulterated oxygen.

Asked if there was anything about Suppan's offensive approach that he thought he should be emulating, Spiezio laughed: "Yeah, I wish I could have done that. His got out. Green brought mine back in yesterday. But that's OK. I'll take it."

And Suppan will take his mighty blow, too, even if he was doing his best afterward to sound like the least-impressed citizen of the entire city of St. Louis.

"I thought it was going to get caught on the track to be honest with you," Suppan said. "I've seen a lot of balls get caught on the track here. So when I hit the ball, I just put my head down and ran until I heard the crowd."

We can report that that crowd kept roaring until Suppan had completed his whole orbit of the bases and made it back into the dugout, to yet more bedlam. But Suppan said later that he couldn't remember hearing anything -- not from what teammates said, and not from all those red-shirted Jeff Suppan fans trying to cajole him into a curtain call.

"You know what?" he said. "I didn't really hear them. I wasn't aware of that. ... In those situations, I'm just trying to run around the bases as fast as I can and try to catch my breath when I get to the plate."

Turned out, though, that the pitcher in the park who never did catch his breath after that was Trachsel. In a game in which the Mets desperately needed a big, inning-eating starting-pitching performance to right their bullpen-weary ship, Trachsel put on a performance that will rank with the worst postseason starts of all time.

He faced 12 hitters in this game. He got two of them out  only stuffing a third out into his box-score line because of a first-inning pickoff of David Eckstein (one that looked suspiciously like a balk).

A whole lot of starting pitchers have gone to the mound in the 102 postseasons in baseball history. But only one other one, in all that time, ever made a postseason start in which he faced 12 hitters or more and got no more than three outs. That was Todd Stottlemyre, of the 1996 Cardinals, in an NLCS start against Atlanta (one inning, nine hits, seven runs).

So Trachsel's clunker was as ugly as it gets -- especially since it came on the eve of a Game 4 start for the Mets by Oliver Perez, a pitcher who last won a game nearly six weeks ago. And who previously won a big-league game before that on (gulp) May 17.

We can safely forecast that there's one thing Perez won't be able to do, though: Serve up any home runs to Jeff Suppan. That, clearly, is Trachsel's specialty.

With Trachsel's help, Suppan now has become the first pitcher ever to hit a home run off the same pitcher in the regular season and the postseason. And we ask you: Does that make any sense?

In 251 other career at-bats, Suppan has no home runs against any other pitchers. Yet he has bopped more homers off Trachsel than Albert Pujols (who has still hit zero).

But in case you're looking for a good theory on that, don't ask Suppan, because "I don't know why that is," either, he said.

Whatever it is, though, this was up there with the biggest October nights of his life, up there with his Game 7 win over Roger Clemens in the 2004 NLCS.

And remember this: Another Cardinals October legend, Bob Gibson, had a few postseason games where he forgot to allow a run. He also had two other postseason games where he hit a home run. But Gibson never had a game in which he did both on the same day.

So that's where Jeff Suppan's mighty evening stands in the Cardinals' storied October folklore. He had himself a game unlike any Bob Gibson ever had.

"I think that means it was pretty special," said Bennett. "Now I'd have to be guessing about that, because I never got a chance to watch Bob Gibson play. But from what I gather, he was pretty good. So that means this was pretty special."

Yeah. Good gathering. And the most special part for the Cardinals is that Suppan's night of special-essence propelled them into a 2-games-to-1 lead in this series. So as they contemplate what it might take to finish this deal, they should also contemplate this: What to do for an encore?

Friday, it was renowned slugger So Taguchi showing off his home run trot. Saturday, it was Suppan. So you have to wonder: Who will homer for them Sunday?

David Eckstein? Braden Looper? Jose Oquendo? Joe Buck?

"I don't know," Eckstein chuckled. "I just know you would have won a lot of bets if you'd predicted that So Taguchi and Jeff Suppan would homer on back-to-back nights."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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