April 13, 1993: Lee Smith becomes baseball’s career saves leader

On April 13, 1993, Cardinals closer Lee Smith claimed his place as baseball’s career leader with his 358th save in a 9-7 win over the Dodgers.

“It feels good to get it out of the way, but I’m not in the game to set records,” Smith said. “I want to pitch in the World Series, and I’d be happy with 20 saves if it helped us get there.”[1]

Acquired three years earlier in a trade with the Red Sox, Smith rapidly piled up saves while wearing the birds on the bat. Though Smith no longer had the same zip on his fastball that he had early in his career, his slider and forkball kept hitters off balance.

After arriving in St. Louis in May 1990, he saved 27 games the remainder of the year, posting three wins and a 2.10 ERA in 53 games.

The following two years, he enjoyed arguably the two greatest seasons in his Hall of Fame career, leading the National League with a career-high 47 saves in 1991. With a 2.34 ERA, Smith placed second to Atlanta’s Tom Glavine in the Cy Young Award voting. In the MVP vote (won by former Cardinal Terry Pendleton), he placed eighth, three spots ahead of Glavine.

In 1992, Smith again led the league in saves, this time posting 43 along with a 3.12 ERA. He placed fourth in the Cy Young voting and earned his second consecutive all-star appearance.

Smith credited Cardinals manager Joe Torre for his success in St. Louis.

“I really owe a lot to Joe,” he said. “I only have to pitch an inning at a time here, and that’s been the key. I often worked two innings at a time with the Cubs and Red Sox, and that took a lot out of me. I still have confidence that I can get hitters out with my fastball, but I’m not that much into the macho thing that I have to blow guys away. I’m more of a pitcher than I was in Chicago.”[2]

Smith entered the 1993 season with 355 career saves, two behind Cincinnati’s Jeff Reardon. The 37-year-old Reardon, whose acquisition by the Red Sox in 1990 suddenly made Smith expendable in Boston, had made two scoreless appearances for the Reds that season but had yet to earn his first save.

Smith, who had suffered a blown save against Reardon’s Reds just three days earlier, wasn’t about to let his next opportunity pass him by.

The Cardinals opened the game by building a 5-0 lead against Dodgers starter Kevin Gross. With two outs in the first, Mark Whiten and Tom Pagnozzi each hit RBI singles and Bernard Gilkey drove in a pair of runs with a single to right field. An inning later, Gregg Jefferies added an RBI single to right.

The Dodgers, however, took the lead by scoring seven unanswered runs, including five off of Cardinals starter Rheal Cormier. Tim Wallach hit a two-run double and Mike Piazza, Eric Karros, Brett Butler, and Eric Davis each added RBI singles as the Dodgers chipped away at the St. Louis lead to take a 7-5 lead heading into the seventh inning.

In the top of the seventh, Zeile singled and Gilkey drew a walk before pinch-hitter Gerald Perry proved to be better late than never – literally. Perry had thought that the game, the Dodgers’ home opener, was a night game. He was enjoying room service and a TV movie when Cardinals equipment manager Buddy Bates called to ask where he was. Perry made it to the stadium about 45 minutes before the game.[3]

Facing Dodgers reliever Pedro Martinez, however, he was right on time. On the fourth pitch of the at-bat, the left-handed-swinging Perry pulled the ball just inside the right-field foul pole for a three-run home run that gave the Cardinals an 8-7 lead.

“I told the guys that when you show up late and you get a chance to play, you’d better do something,” Perry said. “I was very embarrassed walking in here. I’ve never looked at guys real great when they came into the clubhouse late.”[4]

Darryl Strawberry nearly robbed Perry of the home run, but a fan with a glove made the catch instead. An inning later, the fan was escorted away by stadium personnel.[5]

“I would have had it,” Strawberry said. “I had it all the way. He just took it away.”[6]

In the top of the ninth, Pagnozzi added a solo home run to right field off Ricky Trlicek to give Smith a 9-7 lead to hold. Despite the two-run advantage, the final three outs weren’t uneventful. After Smith retired Jody Reed to lead off the inning, Davis reached on Zeile’s second error of the day at third base.

Smith got Darryl Strawberry to fly out to left field for the second out, but Karros drew a walk and both runners advanced on stolen bases. With the tying run in scoring position, Wallach flied out to shallow right field, ending the game and placing Smith atop the career saves leaderboard.

“Three hundred and 58 saves,” Pagnozzi marveled. “I don’t think I have 358 hits.”[7]

The save also gave Smith 300 career saves in the National League, tying the record set by former Cardinals closer Bruce Sutter.

“He may have been lost in the shuffle over the years,” Cardinals manager Joe Torre said, noting that other closers such as Sutter, Dennis Eckersley, and Reardon had attracted national attention while Smith simply piled up saves. “Really, nobody paid attention to Big Lee. They wrote him off a long time ago. Last year, people got on him because he lost a couple of saves early, but he never made an excuse. This year, he’s thrown the ball better than he has the last two years.”[8]

Smith earned the save in each of his next seven appearances, placing him ahead of Reardon for good. He ranked among the National League leaders with 43 saves when the Cardinals traded him to the Yankees for Rich Batchelor on August 31.

Smith signed a free-agent deal with the Orioles that offseason. In his lone season in Baltimore, he led baseball in saves and placed fifth in the Cy Young voting.

After pitching for the Angels, Reds, and Expos over the final three years of his career, Smith retired with 478 saves, a record that was not broken until Trevor Hoffman passed him in 2006. Smith was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019.


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[1] Ross Newhan, “With Help From Dodgers, Smith Is Baseball’s Save Leader,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1993.

[2] Ross Newhan, “With Help From Dodgers, Smith Is Baseball’s Save Leader,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1993.

[3] Rick Hummel, “After Perry HR, Cards Save It For Lee Smith,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 14, 1993.

[4] Rick Hummel, “After Perry HR, Cards Save It For Lee Smith,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 14, 1993.

[5] Rick Hummel, “After Perry HR, Cards Save It For Lee Smith,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 14, 1993.

[6] Rick Hummel, “After Perry HR, Cards Save It For Lee Smith,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 14, 1993.

[7] Rick Hummel, “L. Smith Survives Shaky 9th,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 14, 1993.

[8] Rick Hummel, “L. Smith Survives Shaky 9th,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 14, 1993.

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  1. Pingback: August 25, 1991: Lee Smith earns his 300th career save | STLRedbirds.com

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