Any given ballgame: What are MLB’s most unbeatable single-game achievements?

·12 min read

Twenty-one years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals traveled west for a series opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was 1999. Mark McGwire was fresh off a record-breaking 70 homers, and was on his way to belting 65 more. But a 24-year-old third baseman hitting behind him in the lineup, on that night, pulled off an even more extraordinary feat — a singular one, never matched in Major League Baseball’s long, meticulously recorded history.

Fernando Tatís hit two grand slams in the same inning.

(Precocious present-day superstar Fernando Tatís Jr. had been born just three months prior, if you’d like to feel old.)

His unmatched achievement, and the good fortune it required, came in the third inning. He crushed a grand slam off Dodgers starter Chan Ho Park, then happily went back to the dugout having put St. Louis ahead, 4-2. J.D. Drew followed with a groundout, and then six straight batters reached base on a combination of walks and fielding mishaps, with a single and a homer tossed in. The bases were reloaded, still with only one out, when McGwire flew out to bring Tatís up again.

The chances of a hitter getting this opportunity, and seizing it with another grand slam as Tatís did, were calculated at 12 million to one by MLB.com.

It got the staff here at Yahoo Sports thinking about the wildest things players have done in the span of a single game. What are the most unbeatable “achievements” — even dubious ones — that we’ve ever seen? What feats do we find so absurd that we never expect to see them again? Here are our answers.

‘Achievement’: Chan Ho Park allows 2 grand slams in an inning

Maybe the only thing more unlikely than a hitter matching Tatís’ grand double dip in a single inning is a pitcher being allowed to serve up both of them.

Chan Ho Park was a solid rotation stalwart at the time — his 1999 would be the only season in a stretch of six where he had a worse-than-average ERA — so it’s not all that surprising he was given some leash to work around the initial grand slam, but after all the mayhem? Yes, he was still in there to face Mark McGwire with the bases loaded. And yes, he got him out. Which just allowed him to make this particular bit of history before finally, mercifully being pulled from what turned out to be an 11-run frame.

It’s hard to fathom a current manager allowing any starter to keep working through the heart of the order if he got stuck in these repetitive jams. Park had thrown more than 80 pitches when Tatís returned to the plate. Though it doesn’t appear terribly uncommon, even now, for pitchers to use up that many bullets in outings of three innings or fewer, the 23 instances in 2019 are a tiny number in the grand scheme of a season, and the cosmos still have to line up to bring the same hitter up with the bases loaded.

The most likely scenario for this in 2020 probably revolves around a terrible, no good, very bad first inning and some serious managerial nonchalance. I wouldn’t count on anyone joining Park in the record books. - Zach Crizer

Achievement: Bryce Harper reaches base 7 times without taking a swing

The Chicago Cubs had a plan on May 8, 2016. And it worked.

That's how Bryce Harper himself described the day he reached base a major-league record seven times without recording an official at-bat. For that matter, Harper, who saw 27 pitches total, never saw fit to swing the bat even once throughout the entire 13-inning game. Those were the extremes then-Cubs manager Joe Maddon was willing to go to just to guarantee that Harper didn't beat them. Though Harper scored one run, the bold strategy ultimately paid off with a 4-3 Cubs win.

Harper walked six times, which tied the MLB record for walks in a single game. Three of those were officially labeled as intentional, though there was clearly no intent to ever throw the reigning NL MVP a strike. He was also hit by a pitch, which we're guessing hurt significantly less than losing a game he was present for but not entirely a part of.

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 08: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals is intentionally walked in the12th inning as David Ross #3 of the Chicago Cubs waits the pitch at Wrigley Field on May 8, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The Cubs dramatically pitched around then-Nationals star Bryce Harper during a game in May 2016, even intentionally walking him in the 12th inning. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Harper's stat line that afternoon is one that's never been duplicated in MLB. The chances it will ever happen again? I would put those at zero. Consider everything that had to align just perfectly for it to happen once. From an opposing manager who’s willing to think outside the box, to the game lasting 13 innings, to every Harper at-bat coming with first base open.

Also consider that intentional walks are starting to trend down across the league. In 2019, the Houston Astros didn't intentionally walk a single batter in the regular season. That had never happened before. If more teams completely move away from intentional walks or become more selective about issuing them, Harper will stand alone forever.

And if you’re thinking Mike Trout might be the one current batter who can challenge him, you’re forgetting one important factor: The mastermind, Joe Maddon, is now his manager. - Mark Townsend

Achievement: Barry Bonds draws 4 intentional walks

Barry Bonds put up ungodly numbers in 2004. As a 39-year-old, Bonds led baseball in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. He also walked an incredible 232 times. Of those 232 walks, 120 were intentional.

While no team wanted to face Bonds that season, two went above and beyond when it came to avoiding the slugger. That would be the Florida Marlins and the Houston Astros. On May 1 of that season, the Marlins intentionally walked Bonds four times. On Sept. 22, the Astros followed suit. This achievement, therefore, has technically already been done more than once, but it was by the same player during an unreal season, so I think it still fits.

Will Bonds’ feat ever be repeated or broken? I can’t see it happening for two reasons. First, no one is going to reach Bonds’ level any time soon. In 2004, Bonds’ OPS+ was 263. In other words, his OPS was 163 percent better than league average. He broke baseball, basically. And it wasn’t the first time. From 2001 to 2004, Bonds OPS+ was never lower than 231.

Compare that to Mike Trout — the consensus best player in the game right now — and it isn’t really close. Trout’s career-best OPS+ is 198. It’s a ridiculous number that still doesn’t approach Bonds. Bryce Harper posted the exact same 198 OPS+ during his phenomenal 2015 season. And that’s the closest anyone has come since Bonds left baseball. Despite their success in those seasons, Harper and Trout weren’t intentionally walked much.

That’s because, as Mark Townsend pointed out above, the intentional walk is down. Our understanding of advanced stats has led to managers realizing putting guys on base, no matter how much damage they can do at the plate, is usually a bad idea. Sure, we’ll see timid managers issue intentional walks to elite players during dominant seasons, but expecting a guy to be intentionally walked four times — or even five times — during a nine-inning game feels like a thing of the past. - Chris Cwik

Achievement: Joe Oeschger and Leon Cadore throw 26 innings — in the same game

Earlier this week I wrote about an 18-inning game between the Mets and Phillies at the end of 1965 in which both starters pitched 15 scoreless innings. That feat is incredible and — now that we live in an age of specialized relief and a slightly more advanced understanding of arm frailty — indelible. (Although not, actually, the record. Three pitchers between 1909 and 1933 went 18 innings without allowing a run.)

What made it all the more tragicomic and ironic is that neither performance mattered — the game was suspended after 18 innings in a tie and replayed from the start the following day. Their Herculean feats essentially undone by the coincidence of them occurring at the same time and place. What a peculiar and, surely, unique event! I thought.

Not so.

The longest game in Major League Baseball history, by innings, was also the site of the most innings thrown by a single pitcher in one start. Sorry, make that two pitchers in one start. On May 1, 1920, the Boston Braves’ Joe Oeschger and the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Leon Cadore both went the full 26 innings that the game lasted. Almost three complete games worth. And, for Oeschger, one no-hitter’s worth: He didn’t allow a hit for the last nine innings of the day.

Unfortunately, they matched each other not just in stamina but ability, each giving up exactly one run. Without lights for the field, the game was called at 6:50 PM. It was a tie. Neither starter received a win for his one-run, 26-inning effort.

I don’t think I need to make a particularly impassioned case to convince you that this dual record will stand indefinitely. Starter usage and the understanding of pitch counts is one of the most prominent evolutions in modern baseball. Just how different was the game in 1920? Well, 26 innings took three hours and 50 minutes. - Hannah Keyser

‘Achievement’: Robby Thompson caught stealing four times

If there’s one thing we can be absolutely certain about in modern baseball, it’s that teams are getting more risk-averse by the season. It’s why starting pitchers often get pulled before going through a lineup for the third time — numbers say it’s too risky. It’s why platoons are more popular — numbers say there’s less risk.

And it’s why today we’d never see something like what happened to Robby Thompson in his rookie season with the San Francisco Giants in 1986. It would make a contemporary front office analyst go jump in McCovey Cove.

It was June 27, the Giants were playing in Cincinnati and Thompson had the occasion to be thrown out stealing on four occasions. FOUR! Those Humm-baby Giants didn’t think about throwing up the stop sign?

Thompson’s four caught stealings are a record, but they happened in 12 innings (the Giants won somehow). The record for a nine-inning game is three times caught stealing. It’s held by six players, five of whom played in the 1920s, the other in the 1940s and 1950s. Which is to say even teams in the 1990s and 2000s — still more risk-embracing than today — were having no part of letting a guy get caught stealing that many times.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - CIRCA 1992: Robby Thompson #6 of the San Francisco Giants runs the bases during an Major League Baseball game circa 1992 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. Thompson played for the Giants from 1986-96.  (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Robby Thompson, seen here a few years later, was thrown out stealing four times in a single game in 1986. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

The 1980s were a different time, so we’ll cut Thompson and the Giants some slack. Vince Coleman stole 107 bases that year to lead MLB — which is more than the leaders of the last two seasons combined. Twenty-five entire MLB *teams* had fewer than 107 stolen bases last year.

In modern baseball, the risk just isn’t worth it. Teams would rather get a couple of guys on and hope for a three-run homer than see Robby Thompson getting thrown out four times in a single game trying to steal. - Mike Oz

‘Achievement’: Lou Piniella completes a cycle of being thrown out

From 1964 to 2010, Lou Piniella played or managed in 6,345 major league baseball games.

Now, the more you do a thing of any consequence the more likely something at least a little weird will happen. Those are just the odds. And maybe how karma works. It’s hard to say.

Also, baseball has this sneaky sense of humor, which Lou got on some days and, if you remember Lou at all, not on others.

The game is also boundless except where it isn’t, the four bases — or three and home plate — being among those deviations, there to prevent total chaos, and in this case to ensure Lou Piniella a record that will not be broken.

It was April 16, 1970. A day game between Piniella’s Kansas City Royals and the Milwaukee Brewers at County Stadium, where a few more than 7,000 folks gathered to see Amos Otis and Tommy Harper and, perhaps, the reigning American League Rookie of the Year, 26-year-old Piniella.

Piniella batted five times that afternoon. He had three hits, including a home run.

He also, in his other four at-bats or shortly thereafter, was tagged out at the plate, was forced out at second base, was picked off third base and was thrown out at first base.

In that order.

He’d been out for the cycle.

What inspires about being out at every base over the course of nine innings is just how much has to go right in order for it to all go wrong. Piniella reached base four times. He hit a ball into the boundlessness beyond the center-field fence. He twice singled. That’s a great day.

The rest is the game coming for the rent.

Piniella, on first because of an error, trying to score on a double, out on a relay from Danny Walton to Ted Kubiak to Jerry McNertney, in the first inning. Piniella on first in the fifth inning after a single, out at second when Luis Alcaraz grounded back to the pitcher. In the seventh, Piniella at third base with one out, back-picked by catcher McNertney and third baseman Max Alvis. Then, two innings later, on a ground ball to second base, Piniella out again, Tommy Harper to Mike Hegan.

Home, second, third, first.

And sometimes the game laughs with you. - Tim Brown

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