When Montreal Expos pitcher Dan Warthen wound and delivered the first pitch of the game to San Diego Padres rookie Gene Richards on the evening of May 21, 1977, it’s safe to assume few among the crowd of 16,892 expected to still be at Stade Olympique more than 5½ hours later.
The two teams shared several unfortunate traits. Both had been expansion teams in 1969, and neither had posted a winning season yet.1 Both teams were within two games of last place in their divisions,2 and the Expos were riding a 10-game losing streak, which surpassed the Padres’ earlier eight-game skid for second longest in the majors to that point.3
Both were also struggling to address pitching problems. The Padres had shaken up their pitching staff after a 23-6 loss to the Chicago Cubs four days earlier,4 and the Expos made trades before the weekend was over in an attempt to shore up a staff that first-year manager Dick Williams5 dubbed “Steve Rogers and a bunch of no-names.”6
Richards drew a leadoff walk and stole second with Bill Almon at the plate, then moved to third when Almon bounced a single into left field. That brought Merv Rettenmund to the plate, swinging a hot bat.
The previous night, Rettenmund, a 33-year-old veteran of four pennant winners and two World Series champions with the Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds, went 2-for-2 with a double and a home run, matching his career high with four runs driven in. The reserve outfielder was batting .333 with an on-base percentage over .500, but this was only his ninth start in 28 appearances.
In the offseason, Rettenmund had signed a contract renewal that cut his salary by 20 percent with the understanding that his primary role would be as the team’s top right-handed pinch-hitter. “I’ve been trying for six years to adjust to not playing every day,” he said.7
Rettenmund continued racking up RBIs with a sacrifice fly to left fielder Warren Cromartie that scored Richards. Dave Winfield then cleared the bases with a blast over the center-field fence, extending his team-record hitting streak to 16 games.8
The Padres sent Bob Owchinko to the mound for his season debut. The rookie hurler was considered one of San Diego’s brightest prospects, despite going 0-2 with a 16.62 ERA in two late-season starts the previous year.9 He and Dave Wehrmeister, the franchise’s other top pitching prospect, were both called up from the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders as part of a pitching shakeup.
Montreal got on the scoreboard in the second. With one out, Ellis Valentine ripped a history-making drive into right field, sending Winfield to chase it down as Valentine rounded all the bases for the first inside-the-park home run in the history of Olympic Stadium.
The score remained 3-1 as Warthen and Owchinko traded scoreless innings in the third and fourth. But in the fifth, Owchinko struck out to end a three-up-three-down top of the inning, then took the mound and surrendered a single, a walk, and a double to the first three batters he faced. Cromartie popped out to shortstop Almon, but with one out, the 22-year-old Dawson, who would be voted NL Rookie of the Year at season’s end, drove a ball into the right-center-field gap for a go-ahead triple that ended Owchinko’s night.
Wehrmeister came in from the bullpen and retired the next two hitters, though Tony Pérez’s fly out to Winfield was deep enough for Dawson to tag up and pad the Expos’ lead to 5-3.
San Diego wouldn’t stay behind for long. An error by first baseman Pérez put Richards aboard to lead off the top of the sixth. Then Warthen walked Almon. Both runners advanced on a bunt by Rettenmund, and Warthen intentionally walked Winfield to set up a double-play opportunity with Mike Ivie coming to bat.
The call may have seemed risky considering that Ivie had smashed a grand slam into Olympic Stadium’s left-field bleachers the previous night in a 12-4 Padres win. Warthen got Ivie looking at a called strike three, but then walked Doug Rader, scoring Richards.
Williams replaced Warthen with Joe Kerrigan. San Diego’s Mike Champion knocked a two-out single to right field, plating the tying run in Almon and the go-ahead run in Winfield. The lead lasted one more out, however, as Expo Pete Mackanin led off the bottom of the sixth with a triple, then came home on a single by Larry Parrish.
The teams remained tied through a scoreless seventh inning, but Rettenmund singled to lead off the eighth, and scored from first on a Winfield double. Clinging to a 7-6 lead, reliever Dave Tomlin plunked Parrish and walked Barry Foote with one out. Williams called on Gary Carter,10 who was batting .307, to pinch hit for Kerrigan, prompting Padres manager John McNamara to bring on his closer early.
Rollie Fingers, one of baseball’s biggest free-agent signings of the previous offseason, came in for a five-out save. After appearing in 70 or more games in each of the previous three seasons, Fingers signed with San Diego expecting to be moved to the starting rotation. After all, the Padres had Butch Metzger, who’d finished a league-leading 62 games the previous season, saving 16 of them on his way to winning 1976’s NL Rookie of the Year Award.
Instead, Metzger was tabbed for middle relief and Fingers became the closer.11 He took the mound for his 22nd appearance in the team’s 41 games. Fingers had been credited with a win or save in 10 of the Padres’ 16 wins,12 and he was already voicing concern about his arm being overused. “If I’ve been in 60 to 65 games by September, there’ll be no fastball left,” he warned.13 He exceeded his worst expectations, pitching in 67 games before the end of August on his way to a career-high 78 appearances.14
With the Padres swapping the southpaw for a right-hander, Williams sat the right-handed Carter for lefty Mike Jorgensen, who flied out to right in what proved to be his final Montreal at-bat.15 But Fingers couldn’t close out the inning before Cash, Montreal’s own big offseason acquisition,16 scorched a grounder through the infield for a game-tying double. Fingers intentionally walked Cromartie to load the bases, which paid off when Del Unser, who replaced Dawson in the lineup, grounded to Almon for a force out at second base.
The Padres managed to load the bases in the ninth with one out, but Rettenmund grounded into a double play. The Expos also loaded them up the 10th and failed to capitalize. San Diego filled the bases again in the 11th only to have Winfield crack a line drive at center fielder Unser to end the inning. After starting the game with three hits in his first three at-bats, Winfield finished 3-for-8, joking about the long night, “I started the game on a hitting streak and finished it in a slump.”17
The standoff nearly ended in the 12th inning. Rader sent a one-out home run over the left-field fence to give San Diego an 8-7 lead. But pinch-hitter Wayne Garrett led off the bottom of the inning with a solo shot of his own to tie things up again.
From there, the teams engaged in a pitching duel. Montreal’s Jackie Brown took the ball in the 13th and tossed six perfect innings, while Rick Sawyer replaced Fingers in the 14th and threw eight shutout innings.
In the 19th, as Saturday night turned to Sunday morning, the Padres got two aboard. But with two out, Jeff Terpko issued an intentional pass to Winfield—a major-league record ninth of the game—to face Sawyer. With his bench exhausted, McNamara had no choice but to let the pitcher bat and fly out to left.
Finally, in the top of the 21st inning, with the clock inching toward one in the morning, the Padres broke the game open. Gene Tenace, San Diego’s other big offseason acquisition, singled to left and advanced to second on a slow grounder by Richards. Bobby Valentine drew a walk,18 bringing Rettenmund to the plate for the 10th time. He launched a Terpko offering into the seats behind Cromartie, giving the Padres the lead and Rettenmund consecutive four-RBI games.19
The Expos threated to extend the game in the bottom of the inning. After pinch-hitter Sam Mejias grounded out to second in the pitcher’s spot, Cash stepped in looking for his fifth hit of the long night. Instead, he knocked a grounder to third and couldn’t beat five-time Gold Glove winner Rader’s throw to first.20 The out was notable because it counted as his 11th at-bat, tying him with nine other players for most in a game.21 Cromartie grounded a two-out single to center field, and Unser followed with the same,22 bringing Pérez to the plate, representing the tying run.
But at 1:08 in the morning, a weak grounder back at Sawyer brought the 5-hour and 33-minute-long game to a long-anticipated ending.
The teams met back on the field 13 hours later for the final game of their series, a 3-1 Montreal win. Each team’s following games also went to extra innings. The Expos beat the Cubs 5-4 in 13 innings, and the Padres lost 6-5 to the Atlanta Braves in 11.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author accessed Baseball-Reference.com, Stathead.com/baseball, Retrosheet.org, and The Sporting News via Paper of Record.
1 Neither would get over .500 in 1977 either. The Expos had come close twice, going 79-83 in 1973 and 79-82 in 1974. Through their first eight seasons, the Padres had averaged almost 99 losses per year with their best showing being a 73-89 record in 1976. San Diego finally recorded its first winning season the following year, going 84-78 in 1978; Montreal broke the .500 mark in 1979 with a 95-65 record.
2 At 13-20, Montreal was a half-game ahead of the New York Mets in the National League East. The 16-24 Padres were two games ahead of the last-place Atlanta Braves in the NL West.
3 Both, however, paled in comparison to the Braves’ 17 consecutive losses from April 23 to May 11. Later in the season, the Oakland A’s lost 14 straight over July and August, and the Toronto Blue Jays tied Montreal’s 11-game mark in August and September.
5 Another commonality was that both were managed by former A’s skippers. Williams had succeeded McNamara in 1971. Williams was then replaced in 1974 by Alvin Dark, who would also replace McNamara helming the Padres a week after this game.
6 Ian MacDonald, “Alcala, Bahnsen Bolster Expo Hurling,” The Sporting News, June 11, 1977: 28. Montreal acquired veteran Oakland reliever-spot starter Stan Bahnsen and Santo Alcala, a highly-touted Cincinnati Reds hurler whom Expos general manager Charlie Fox compared to J.R. Richard and predicted “could be a Bob Gibson.” Bob Dunn, “A Long, Hot Weekend for Expos,” Montreal Star, May 24, 1977: D1. Alcala wouldn’t play in the majors beyond the 1977 season. The Expos finally got some pitching help in the offseason, signing free agent Ross Grimsley and trading for Rudy May. They also selected Bill Gullickson and Scott Sanderson in the June 1977 draft.
7 Phil Collier, “Rettenmund Earns Praise as Padre in a Pinch,” The Sporting News, June 11, 1977: 11.
8 Nate Colbert’s 20-game hitting streak was the longest in Padres history to that point, but it was split over two seasons (September 9, 1972-April 10, 1973; https://stathead.com/tiny/nHHhH). Winfield’s was the longest in a single season. Both marks were broken by Bobby Brown’s 21-game streak in 1983, which itself was broken two weeks later by Tony Gwynn. (Gwynn’s streak ended at 25 games.)
9 Owchinko had been selected fifth overall in the 1976 January draft and made his major-league debut the same year after just 13 minor-league starts with the Amarillo Gold Sox of the Double-A Texas League. He made two September starts, going 0-2 with a 16.62 ERA in a combined 4⅓ innings.
10 The 23-year-old Carter had won the starting catcher role out of spring training, but Williams had turned to rotating between Carter and Foote behind the plate for the past week. “[Carter] was not doing the job mechanically as far as I was concerned and I’m the one who’s got to judge that,” Williams said. “I’m not ripping Carter, I’m just judging him for what I see.” Dunn, “Long, Hot Weekend.” Carter claimed Williams told him Foote was being “showcased,” and though Williams and the Expos front office denied it, Foote was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies less than four weeks later.
11 As mentioned in Note 5, Metzger had since been traded to St. Louis.
12 He was 3-1 with seven saves.
13 Phil Collier, “Jones Goes to Bat for Padre Brass,” The Sporting News, June 4, 1977: 18.
14 He also maintained his pace of saving more than half the team’s victories, notching a career-best to that point 35 saves in San Diego’s 69 wins. Fingers topped it the following year with 37, which remained the high-water mark of his career.
15 The former Gold Glove outfielder was traded to Oakland the next afternoon for Stan Bahnsen.
16 He was also the franchise’s first-ever free-agent signing.
17 Bill Weurding, “Will the Real Padres Stand Up?” San Diego Evening Tribune, May 23, 1977: C1; Dunn, “Long, Hot Weekend.” Winfield went hitless the following day, ending his hitting streak at 16.
18 Valentine was yet another player who wouldn’t stay in San Diego through the end of the year. He and left-handed reliever Paul Siebert were traded to the Mets for Dave Kingman the following month. The Padres waived Kingman in September.
20 A little over two weeks later, Rader was sold to the Toronto Blue Jays to make room on the roster for another top Padres prospect, Tucker Ashford, the second overall pick in the 1974 January draft.
21 Two other players in the game, Cromartie and Perez, also had 11 plate appearances, but Cromartie’s three walks and Perez’s sacrifice fly reduced their ABs. Through the 2022 season, four more players have recorded 11-at-bat games, all of which occurred in a 25-inning Chicago White Sox-Milwaukee Brewers game in May 1984.
22 Unser’s single was the Expos’ 25th hit of the game. The previous team record had been 21 hits. The 25-hit record fell just over a year later in a 28-hit, 19-0 drubbing of the Braves in Atlanta. Montreal also set a franchise record with 23 runners left on base, including four innings that ended with the bases loaded. Through the 2022 season, the closest any Expos/Nationals team has come to the mark was 16 left on base in an April 20, 2007, game against the Florida Marlins and a June 24, 2011, game against the Chicago White Sox.