Morris vs. Smoltz: A pitchers' duel that set the standard

  • Article by: Joe Christensen
  • Star Tribune
  • June 14, 2007 - 1:07 AM

Jack Morris went looking for John Smoltz on Wednesday and found his nemesis from Game 7 of the 1991 World Series walking outside the Atlanta Braves clubhouse.

Until that moment -- shortly after 5 p.m. -- they never had spoken about the events at the Metrodome that night in 1991, when Smoltz pitched 71/3 innings and Morris pitched all 10 in the Twins' 1-0 triumph.

Morris said he told Smoltz, "If he wouldn't have gotten taken out, we'd have both been out there in the 14th [inning]."

Two of the best pitchers in postseason history stood there for about 15 minutes -- Smoltz in full uniform, Morris in a blue Tommy Bahama shirt -- reminiscing.

At one point, Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur walked up and introduced himself to Morris.

Francoeur, an Atlanta native, was a 7-year-old watching Morris shatter his favorite team's dreams that night. He pointed at Morris and told Smoltz, "I always hated that guy."

Sixteen years later, Smoltz said the memory that sticks with him the most is the eighth inning. After pitching a 1-2-3 seventh, Smoltz retreated to the clubhouse, hoping he could change the team's luck by watching on TV.

Smoltz, then 24, saw Lonnie Smith single, leading off the eighth. Then, the Twins caught a huge break. Terry Pendleton doubled to deep left-center field, but Smith fell for a phantom play by middle infielders Greg Gagne and Chuck Knoblauch. Smith looked confused at second base and barely made it to third.

Still, the Braves had runners at second and third. Nobody out. Smoltz decided he'd better get back to the dugout.

"I wanted to see us score the run," he said. "I knew the game was going to be over. And I guess the worst possible scenario happened. You watched the air go out of the balloon. That might have been the toughest inning I've seen in my professional career."

Early lesson

Smoltz knew all about Morris. Growing up in Michigan, he was 17 when Morris pitched a no-hitter and led the Detroit Tigers to the 1984 World Series title.

Smoltz signed with the Tigers the next year and was rising through their farm system when they traded him to Atlanta for Doyle Alexander in 1987.

Now, Smoltz sat in disbelief as Morris pitched out of that eighth-inning jam. A harmless groundout from Ron Gant. An intentional walk to David Justice. And then Sid Bream hit a grounder right at Kent Hrbek, who started a 3-2-3, inning-ending double play.

"It's everything I admired about [Morris] growing up," Smoltz said. "And it was everything that became our undoing as it unfolded."

The Twins finally chased Smoltz in the eighth, when Randy Bush and Knoblauch singled, putting runners at first and third with one out. That prompted Braves manager Bobby Cox to summon reliever Mike Stanton, and he escaped the jam when Hrbek lined into an inning-ending double play.

But as Morris kept going, all Smoltz could do was watch.

"Both guys were dominant," former Twins manager Tom Kelly said. "If you had to pick a guy who pitched better, I don't know if you could separate those two guys."

'Let's get it on'

Morris carved his legend that night. After Kirby Puckett's home run off Charlie Leibrandt had ended Game 6, officials gathered Morris and Smoltz for a news conference.

It was about 1 a.m. when Morris said, "In the words of the late, great Marvin Gaye, 'Let's get it on.' "

Morris set down the Braves 1-2-3 in the ninth. At that point, Kelly told Morris this was all the Twins could ask: nine scoreless innings. Thanks. Rick Aguilera was ready in the bullpen.

But when Kelly walked away, Morris told pitching coach Dick Such he wasn't leaving the game.

"I know [Kelly] wanted to hear me say I was fine -- which I was," Morris said. "I was getting stronger. I had no reason to leave the game at that point. I think I had several innings left in the tank. What the heck? We were all going home the next day. You've got all winter to rest."

Morris retired the side again in the 10th. It was one of his easiest innings of the game.

"The first five innings, you're kind of running on emotion, and all of a sudden, you just dial it in," Morris said. "And then my adrenaline took over. I felt every inning after the fifth I was getting stronger. I didn't lose any velocity. My location was getting better."

Finally, in the Twins' 10th, a breakthrough.

Dan Gladden hit a leadoff double against Braves reliever Alejandro Pena. Knoblauch bunted Gladden to third. Cox ordered Kirby Puckett and Hrbek intentionally walked.

"The thing I remember most," Kelly said, "is sitting there in the dugout going, 'How on earth are we going to find a way to score one run?' "

With the bases loaded, Kelly sent up Gene Larkin as a pinch hitter, and Larkin lifted a fly ball over left fielder Brian Hunter's head.

Gladden scored, the Twins dogpiled as champions, and Smoltz retreated with his teammates to a silent clubhouse.

Morris, now 52, went on to win another World Series over the Braves the next year for Toronto. He retired in 1994 with a 6-1 career postseason record.

The 1991 postseason was the first for Smoltz, and now he is the all-time leader in postseason victories (15) and strikeouts (194).

That Game 7 often replays on ESPN Classic. Smoltz, now 40, said he's never been able to watch the whole thing.

"I will," he said. "I know when I'm sitting in my chair bored someday, 50 years old, I'll definitely pop that game in -- and have the same feelings as if I was right there."

Joe Christensen •

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