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Walk-off Wednesdays: Jeff Conine’s only at-bat makes all the difference

Jim Leyland leaned heavily on backups during a Thursday matinee. They kept the game close enough for Mr. Marlin to deliver the heroics.

Photo by John Parra/Getty Images for Ride of Fame

There’s no better way to end a baseball game than with a walk-off winner, and no better way to start your day than by reliving one of those moments. To entertain you throughout the inactive stretches of the Marlins’ offseason, we’ll be featuring the most thrilling finishes in franchise history, with new installments on Wednesdays.

The Fish will move forward without Jeff Conine, who has decided to leave his advisory position after parts of 18 seasons with the organization in various roles. Here’s one of the many reasons to be grateful for his service.

Date: April 17, 1997

It was a getaway day for the Florida Marlins. They had a 1:37 p.m. first pitch at Pro Player Stadium before kicking off a west coast trip in San Francisco, with no off-day in between.

The team got off to an exciting 9-4 start to the 1997 season, but manager Jim Leyland was looking at the big picture. With ace Kevin Brown taking the mound, he thought it could be a competitive game regardless of the supporting cast, so he sat most of his valuable, veteran bats.

Gold Glove catcher Charles Johnson was on the bench. Leading run producer Moises Alou (11 RBI through 13 G) was on the bench. The oldest regular, 34-year-old Devon White? Also benched. Same story with Jeff Conine—Cliff Floyd took his place at first base.

Brown delivered just as his skipper expected: 7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 7 K on 111 pitches. That actual raised his earned run average to 0.96. After finishing runner-up in the previous year’s NL Cy Young voting, he had found an even higher gear.

During both of his Marlins seasons, Brown performed particularly well in home starts.
Photo by Getty Images

Problem was that Todd Stottlemyre of the St. Louis Cardinals had shut down Florida’s B Team with ease. He didn’t surrender a run—or even an extra-base hit—through the first seven innings. The Cards were clinging to a 1-0 lead.

Leyland started pressing buttons in the eighth, and each decision panned out perfectly. He double-switched White and reliever Mark Hutton into the game. The former reached base in the bottom of the inning, stealing second base with two outs to set up Edgar Renteria’s game-tying single. Hutton held St. Louis scoreless in both the eighth and ninth.

The Marlins had outlasted Stottlemyre. Future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley was available in the Cardinals bullpen, but the closer no longer had a lead to protect. Middle reliever Mark Petkovsek got the call instead. Pinch-hitting with one out in the ninth, Conine didn’t mind putting in a little work after all if it meant such a favorable matchup. He was so eager to crush this floating changeup that he nearly yanked it foul!

Win Expectancy added on walk-off play: 42.4 percent

Another reason why the Cardinals shied away from using Eckersley: they preferred to have impact players completely fresh for their upcoming doubleheader in Hawaii. With cross-country travel awaiting them, both teams were understandably rooting for a quick matinee game. Conine’s clutch home run wrapped things up in two hours and 22 minutes, the second-shortest length of any game the Marlins had played so far that season.

Nobody should’ve been surprised; Conine set career highs in 1996 with 26 home runs and 60 total extra-base hits, and he was dominating the opening weeks of 1997. He finished the day with a gaudy .386/.471/.614 batting line.

Source: FanGraphs