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Remembering the night the 1988 Phillies faced Expos rookie Randy Johnson

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It was late in 1988. The Phils and Expos met in an empty Montreal stadium. And a baby legend took his first steps toward the Hall of Fame.

For all fans of baseball, there is a golden age, that time when you first became a fan and fell in love with the sport.

For me, the late 1980s was that time, and I cut my teeth on some pretty unremarkable Philadelphia-based baseball squads. Those Phillies from 1985-1992 were especially heinous at times, but that’s part of what made them so lovable. I loved watching those underachieving teams play in a horrible stadium to the sultry voice of Harry Kalas. It was my spirit animal.

Sometimes, in times of great wistfulness, I meander over to YouTube to search of some classic, 1980s Phillies content. Recently, I made perhaps my greatest find yet.

1988.

October 1.

Phillies vs. Expos in Montreal.

Marvin Freeman pitching for the Phillies.

RANDY JOHNSON pitching for the EXPOS.

Get your popcorn.

In the final days of a 1988 season in which the Phillies would finish 65-96, 35.5 games out of first place, a collection of rag-tag, never-would-be stars (and Juan Samuel) took on future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson in just his fourth career start ever.

I mean, just look at this guy, a 24-year-old baby.

In his previous three starts to that point, he had been dominant, with a 2.25 ERA, 20 strikeouts and seven walks in 20 innings, including a complete game one-hitter against the Chicago Cubs in which he struck out 11 and walked one.

Opposing Johnson on this night was the Phils’ own super-tall right-hander, Marvin Freeman.

In ‘88, his second season, he made 11 starts for the Phils and put up a 6.10 ERA, with 37 strikeouts and a ghastly 43 walks in 51.2 innings for Philadelphia. On this night, the 6’7” Freeman would battle the 6’10” Johnson in what has to still be a game featuring two of the tallest starting pitchers in baseball history.

Johnson was one of Montreal’s top prospects, as you can see from his AAA stat line above, but he was not automatically destined for Cooperstown. As Harry Kalas said during his introduction, “This may not be a pitching match-up of the greatest pitchers in baseball, but it’s certainly a match-up of the tallest pitchers in baseball!”

Little did Harry the K know he was about to call one of the first games ever pitched by one of baseball’s greatest left-handers ever.

Here is the lineup the Phillies ran out there against Johnson.

So many names here. Samuel (who led the Phillies in RBIs in ‘88 with just 67!!!), Ricky Jordan, Bob Dernier and the tragic ballad of Ron Jones.

And here was the lineup the Expos countered with against Freeman.

Your broadcasters for this one featured the aforementioned Kalas and two of the great color analysts the team has ever seen.

This game was an absolute treat to re-watch.

Phil Bradley led things off for the Phillies. He was pretty terrible the entire time he was in Philadelphia and is best known for hitting the first home run in Wrigley Field’s first night game. Of course, that dinger was ultimately wiped out because the game was cancelled due to rain.

Anyway, Johnson struck him out on a slider.

We’ve seen that before, haven’t we? Dernier came up next and also struck out, swinging at high cheese.

Samuel followed with a single to center to end Johnson’s no-hit bid at 23 of an inning, only to be thrown out at second trying to steal. But from the opening inning, it was clear this walking redwood in cleats was one nasty dude.

In the second inning, Johnson retired the Phils in order, getting Jordan, Chris James and Jones 1-2-3, with James adding to The Big Unit’s K total.

James, by the way, LED the Phillies in home runs, with 19. Now you’re understanding why this team was in last place in 1988.

Freeman had little trouble through the first two innings but couldn’t make it out of the 3rd, giving up three runs in this appearance on four hits with four walks. He allowed eight baserunners in all, something hard to do in less than three innings. However, before he left the game, he did accomplish something very few humans can say they ever did.

He got a hit off Randy Johnson.

The Phillies finally got something going off Unit in the 5th.

I remain convinced that, had he not suffered catastrophic injuries to both of his knees in his first couple seasons, Ron Jones would have been a star offensive player for Philadelphia.

In ‘88, the 24-year-old hit .290/.295/.548 as a rookie with eight home runs, six doubles and a triple in 33 games (129 PAs), and was hitting .290/.450/.484 in his first 12 games in ‘89 when he suffered his first brutal knee injury running into the outfield fence at Shea Stadium. He returned in 1990 and, in 24 games was hitting .276/.373/.466 in 67 PAs when he tore up his knee at Veterans Stadium, essentially ending his career. He played another 28 games with the Phillies in 1991 but had an OPS of .445 and never played another game in the big leagues after that.

Jones eventually worked as a hitting instructor for high schoolers and formed the Big League Batting Academy in Houston with former Charlie Hayes. But sadly, Jones died in 2006, with no details available surrounding his death other than it was assumed to be of natural causes. Here was our write-up about his death, back in ‘06.

Leading off the 5th, Jones hit what should have been weak dribbler to first, but the rookie Johnson forgot to cover the bag and Jones’ speed (pre-knee injury) allowed him to get a fortunate single.

Catcher John Russell followed with a single, putting Jones on 3rd, and shortstop Jackie Gutierrez drove Jones in with a grounder to put the Phils on the board.

In the 6th, the Phillies rallied trailing 3-1. James came to the plate and, befitting his status as the team’s de facto “slugger” (we’re using that term loosely here), took a hanging sliders out to lunch.

Jones then reached safely on an error, followed by a double to the gap by catcher John Russell that tied things up at three.

Johnson then got Gutierrez to ground out, ending his day.

In all, the huge lefty went six innings and gave up eight hits, three runs (two earned) with five strikeouts and no walks. And while he still had to grow into his future Hall of Fame self, there were glimpses of what was to come.

The rest of the game was decided by the bullpens and, on this night, the Phils got the better of it. Samuel led off the 8th inning with a triple. Just watch that beautiful man run.

Jordan followed with an RBI double to give the Phils a 4-3 lead, and after a James grounder put Jordan on 3rd with one out, a sacrifice fly by Jones gave the Phillies a 5-3 cushion. Mike Maddux and Steve Bedrosian took care of the final three innings, with Bedrock getting out of a bases loaded jam to preserve the Phils’ 5-4 victory.

Montreal would win the final game of the season 3-1 the following day, ending an unremarkable season for both clubs. But on this night, unbeknownst to us all, we watched greatness in action, seeing a young Randy Johnson at the embryonic stage of his Cooperstown-bound MLB career.

It proved once again that, in baseball, you never know when you’re going to see something special.