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Saturday, July 14, 2018

Spiritual twin of 13-pitch Mookie Betts home run dates from a magical season

Thirteen-and-OUT! Maddy Meyer (Getty Images)

There has been much talk of lengthy at-bats concluding in home runs since Mookie Betts ended an epic 13-pitch duel with Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ by crushing a grand slam on Thursday night. Fans and media pundits seeking a comparable regular-season moment have come up with a few, including Dustin Pedroia's 12th-pitch blast for the 2007 Red Sox.

That season ended with a World Series championship -- just the sort of karma connection one is looking for in imagining Mookie's Green Monster-clearing shot as the catapult to a 2018 title. But 12 is not quite 13, and in fact no 13th-pitch homer by any Red Sox player can yet be found dating back to at least 1988 (when pitch-count data was first tracked).

There is, however, just such an at-bat that did result in a home run for a player whose team went on to a memorable postseason. It wasn't struck for Boston, which is probably why nobody in Red Sox Nation has come up with it yet.

When you're seeking good vibes, one can overlook such details. Credit for finding the spiritual twin to Mookie's shot goes to a friend with a zip code in Massachusetts but rooting interests that lay outside Boston.

Rob came of age as a baseball fan in 1968, when the Tigers rode Denny McLain's 31-win arm to a World Series title. He's been a Detroit diehard ever since, through many lean years and the occasional high points.

In 1984, as the first Yaz-less Red Sox club since the Eisenhower administration was slogging along at a sub-.500 clip, Sparky Anderson's Tigers gave their fans a thrill ride with a 35-5 start. Led by Hall of Famers Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, Detroit's deep roster featured a power-loaded lineup, excellent starting pitching and defense, and a reliever in Willie Hernandez who would capture both the Cy Young and MVP awards that year.

The '84 Tigers were a formidable crew.

It was a role player, however, who was responsible for what Rob and others claim as the most memorable hit of the regular season.

On June 4, in a nationally-televised AL East match-up at old Tiger Stadium, first-place Detroit and Toronto were tied 3-3 into extra innings. The Blue Jays were off to a great start at 34-16, nearly a .700 clip, but were still 4 1/2 games behind the white-hot Tigers. Toronto desperately wanted a victory to stay close. 

After the Jays failed to score in the top of the 10th, Detroit put two on with two out in the bottom of the inning. Up stepped Dave Bergman, who including that night had not homered in 99 plate appearances on the season.

Dave Bergman -- where it all happened.

All he needed to give his team the win, of course, was a single -- or even a walk -- but from the start he was swinging for the fences against Toronto pitcher Roy Lee Jackson.

"He was coming at me with fastballs and sliders, and I was taking my best rips," Bergman said later. "I was locked in; he was locked in. I really felt like I was going to hit the ball hard somewhere, and I'm sure he felt he was going to get me out."

Jackson reared back and threw, and Bergman swung. Again and again and again.

Jackson readies to pitch... and pitch... and pitch

The first five pitches were all hit foul, including one smash down the right-field line that briefly looked like a game-winner.

The sixth delivery was high, and Bergman laid off it for a ball. He didn't swing at the seventh either, which was just a bit outside -- prompting a groan of relief from the crowd.

After another foul, Bergman took Jackson's eighth pitch low, making the count 3-and-2.

Then came another foul ball. And another. And another.

Finally, on the 13th pitch, Bergman swung like a golfer in the rough at a low Jackson pitch and launched it into the second-deck porch in right field. It was Bergman's first home run in 100 plate appearances in 1984, and gave the Tigers a 6-3 win.

Bergman going all-out vs. Jackson.

Toronto never got so close to first place again, and Detroit ended the year with a 104-58 record and the AL East title. The Tigers then swept Kansas City in the ALCS and easily dispatched San Diego in a five-game World Series.

Bergman contributed just seven at-bats (and one hit) in the postseason, but all these years later his big moment of '84 is still credited as a launching point in Detroit's last world championship. He died in 2015, but is not forgotten.

Will Mookie's homer on Thursday work similar magic for this Red Sox team? Or will it be just a fond memory in a season that ends short of a title?

Time will tell, but for the next several months Boston fans can hope for the former.

Will Boston end the year like Detroit did in 1984? 




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