The 1991 World Series looked like it was shaping up to be a thriller. Two teams that finished last the year before faced off. The Twins took the first two games but the Braves avoided any talk of a third straight 4 game sweep by taking a marathon 12 inning third game, the first World Series game ever played in Georgia.
Light hitting second baseman Mark Lemke continued his unlikely October heroics by driving in David Justice with 2 outs in the 12th for a 5-4 walk off win. Both the Twins and the Braves emptied their respective benches. Minnesota had to use reliever Rick Aguilera as a pinch hitter at one point.
If there was a Maytag Repairman for the game, it was Jerry Willard, the lone position player on either team who did not make it into the game.
The 31 year old catcher had bounced around between the Indians, A’s and White Sox along with many many minor league teams before landing with Atlanta in 1991 as their 5th string catcher. But an injury to Mike Heath and Damon Berryhill’s ineligibility for the post season roster opened up a spot for Willard. But save for one pinch hit appearance in the NLCS, he rode the pine.
In Game 4, Jack Morris and John Smoltz dueled but the bullpens were in control by the time the game was tied 2-2 in the bottom of the 9th.
Once again Lemke shone. With one out he tripled off of Twins reliever Mark Guthrie. After an intentional walk to Jeff Blauser, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox sent up Francisco Cabrera to pinch hit.
When Twins manager Tom Kelly countered with a double switch, bringing in the right handed Steve Bedrosian, Cox sent in Willard to bat for Cabrera (who would hit himself into post season lore with the 1992 Braves.)
Cox told Willard that he would probably be walked to set up a force at every base. But instead Bedrosian, a former Cy Young winning reliever, pitched to him. With the count 1-2, Willard lifted a flyball to shallow right field where it was caught by Shane Mack.
Lemke tagged and came home while Willard, out with the catch, watched from first base. The play was super close and there was contact between Lemke and Minnesota catcher Brian Harper. Lemke was called safe. Willard raised his hands in triumph as the Braves won.
Harper and Bedrosian argued with the umpires, claiming Lemke was out and the game should be going to the 10th. But replays showed that the contact was by Harper’s elbow and not the glove as Lemke slid around the tag.
Over and over they showed the replay with CBS announced Jack Buck and Tim McCarver breaking it down and praising the call by home plate umpire Terry Tata.
It was Lemke who was praised for the second straight night. He drove home the winning run of Game 3 and his slide won Game 4. The shot of Willard raising his arms in triumph was not shown live nor in the first few post games minutes. Willard was barely mentioned.
The Braves would lose Game 7 of the World Series in a heart breaking 1-0 fashion. Willard never appeared in the World Series again. Over the next three years he combined for 27 appearances with Montreal and Seattle before hanging up his spikes with Tacoma in 1995.
Today he works for a high school in southern California where he has fond memories of his playing days but can’t bring himself to watching the tapes of the World Series. His team lost.
But he did his part for Atlanta glory, earning him the title of Unsung Postseason hero of October 23.
I could not find a quality video of his heroics. Here is a shaky cam YouTube clip of his sacrifice fly.