Mark Lemke had no idea what to expect as Game 3 approached the 1991 World Championships. But it wasn’t due to the drama, lack of preparation, or even the apparent randomness of the MLB postseason.
It was much simpler: Lemke didn’t know if he was going to play or not.
Although he played second base for the Braves for most of the stretch from their worst season to first, he found himself out of the line-up in Game 1. It was a little weird, he thought, but it didn’t matter—it’s ‘Get ready for Game 2.’ And yes , he played in Game 2, but it was like he didn’t.
“I was a 0-fer in Game 2,” he told Sporting News. “So now we have two games in the series, I haven’t had any success. I don’t think I was at the base.”
So when he arrived at Atlanta-Fulton County for game 3, there was definitely a mystery as to whether he would be in Bobby Cox’s ninth start as the Braves, who dropped 0-2 in the series to the Twins, were looking for any spark to rejuvenate their team.
And this is where the story gets a bit interesting and funny. Not only did Lemke know what to expect in Game 3, but he also had no idea what was going to happen. Those sentiments may sound like the same sentiment, but they turn out to be very different — and what was revealed made Lemke perhaps the greatest example of the idea that baseball in October is predictable, yet delightfully, unpredictable.
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From Game 3 through the end of the series, Lemke hit 0.417 with 10 hits, three hits, and four RBIs. His success in the twelfth round of Game 3 gave the Braves their first World Championship win, and the win was scored by Atlanta’s victory in the fourth round.
By the time the series ended, he led both teams on average, based on percentage (.462) and OPS (1.170), and he would certainly have been the best player in the series if the Braves had won. Compare that with the 1991 regular season slash line of .234/.305/.312.
We forget that Lemke didn’t see him coming – no one saw him coming.
Throughout the entire season, and then pretty much the rest of his career, Lemke’s 5-10 was the definition of the second baseman to hit the light. But not at the 1991 World Championships. There was no rhyme or reason other than this: anything could happen in October.
Lemke didn’t do anything differently as he entered the third game. He did not make any adjustments or take a different approach. He played his normal game and everything clicked, which sometimes happens to unknown players in October and it’s not easy to explain or predict.
That hit in Game 3 was Lemke’s second in the game, but it was what really drove him to find rare post-season champion gear.
“Maybe that was the moment when I said, ‘Wow, you not only had success, but you won the world championship game,'” Lemke said. And not just in the world championships, the first world championship win for the Atlanta Braves.” . “Then everything sank.”
A native of Utica, New York, Lemke remembers seeing light-hit Brian Doyle, a Lemke pilot, blasting off in the 1978 World Championships and hitting .438 for the Yankees champion. Lemke said one of the reasons he, Doyle and others are able to come from anywhere to integrate into the World Championships is that they tend to fly under the radar as opposing teams make plans to deal with squad stars.
“For me,” he said, “it was nothing more than, ‘They’ll probably go after you, and you have nothing to lose.’” You just have to take advantage of it. You might get some good pitches to hit.”
Lemke took advantage in 1991, much to the chagrin of twins manager Tom Kelly.
“It was a real pain,” Kelly told SN, still looking frustrated 30 years later. “And I don’t mean that disdain. I mean it, and God played goodness.”
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While Lemke didn’t expect to come out on the biggest stage in baseball, and while Kelly and the Twins didn’t plan on it being a thorn in their team side, a Braves player remembers telling Lemke that the World Series presents a tremendous opportunity.
“Before it started, he had an offensive year that wasn’t one of my favourites. Talk about how bad he was and (how) he didn’t do anything here in the playoffs against Pittsburgh,” Terry Pendleton, who joined the Braves for the 1991 season after playing on winners Two in St. Louis, he told SN.
So, Pendleton, who was brought to Atlanta in part to be a mentor to the Braves, provided some post-season wise counsel.
I said, ‘Dawg, listen: you have a chance to prove to the world how great you are. No one even cares what you did in the last streak of playoffs, and no one cares what you did during the season. The only thing that matters is these seven games.” So I said, “Just go out and relax and do whatever you can do, man. Those seven games, people will remember.” And it goes on to have that kind of series.”
Success often generates more success, but it can also generate a certain outlook that can fuel motivation – especially in the world championships.
“Once you start to gain some confidence and get some hits, now you say to yourself, ‘I don’t just want to play in these games, I want to make sure I stay in the game,’” Lemke said. “And you have to produce for that.”
Lemke’s performance in October 1991 secured him a place in the baseball tradition as one of those How did that even happen? Postseason stories that are retold nearly every fall.
With much of the post-season still to be played in 2021, and with Match 3 between the Astros and Braves scheduled for Friday in the same city where Lemke took his moment, it makes one wonder who his name could be added next.