Mark Lemke had no idea what to expect as Game 3 of the 1991 World Series approached. But it wasn’t because of the drama or a lack of preparation or even the seeming randomness of the MLB postseason.
It was much simpler: Lemke didn’t know whether he’d even play.
Despite having played second base for the Braves for most of the stretch run of their worst-to-first season, he found himself out of the lineup in Game 1. It was a little odd, he thought, but no big deal — he’d be ready for Game 2. And, yes, he played in Game 2, but it was almost like he didn’t.
“I was 0-fer in Game 2,” he told Sporting News. “So now we’ve got two games in the series, I haven’t even gotten a hit. I don’t think I’ve been on base.”
So when he arrived at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for Game 3, there was definitely a mystery around whether he’d be in Bobby Cox’s starting nine as the Braves, down 0-2 in the series to the Twins, looked to find any spark to rejuvenate their team.
And this is where the story becomes both interesting and a little humorous. Not only did Lemke not know what to expect in Game 3, but he also had no idea what was about to happen. Those might sound like the same feelings, but they turned out to be quite different — and what unfolded made Lemke perhaps the greatest example of the notion that October baseball is predictably, but joyously, unpredictable.
From Game 3 through the end of the series, Lemke hit .417 with 10 hits, three triples and four RBIs. His walk-off hit in the 12th inning of Game 3 gave the Braves their first World Series win, and he scored the winning run in Atlanta’s walk-off win in Game 4.
By the time the series was over, he led both teams in average, on-base percentage (.462) and OPS (1.170), and he certainly would’ve been series MVP had the Braves won. Contrast that with his regular-season 1991 slash line of .234/.305/.312.
Forget that Lemke didn’t see it coming — nobody saw it coming.
For the entire season, and then pretty much for the rest of his career, the 5-10 Lemke was the definition of a light-hitting second baseman. But not in the 1991 World Series. There was no rhyme or reason, other than this: Anything can happen in October.
Lemke didn’t do anything differently entering Game 3. He didn’t make any adjustments or take a different approach. He played his normal game and everything clicked, which sometimes happens to unheralded players in October and is never easy to explain or predict.
That walk-off hit in Game 3 was Lemke’s second of the game, but it was the one that really caused him to find that rare postseason-hero gear.
“That was probably the moment where I said, ‘Wow, not only did you get a hit, you won a World Series game. And not only a World Series game, a first World Series win for the Atlanta Braves,'” Lemke said. “Then it all sunk in.”
Lemke, a Utica, N.Y., native, remembers seeing the light-hitting Brian Doyle, a Lemke forerunner of sorts, go off in the 1978 World Series and hit .438 for the champion Yankees. Lemke said one reason why he, Doyle and others are able to come from nowhere to mash in the World Series is because they tend to hover below radar as opposing teams make plans to handle the stars of the lineup.
“For me, it wasn’t anything more other than, ‘They’re probably going to come after you, and you don’t have anything to lose,'” he said. “‘You’ve got to just 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.
“He was a real pain,” Kelly told SN, still sounding frustrated 30 years later. “And I don’t mean that derogatory. I mean that, God, he played good.”
While Lemke didn’t expect to break out on baseball’s biggest stage, and while Kelly and Twins didn’t plan on him being a thorn in their collective side, one Braves player remembers telling Lemke that the World Series presents a tremendous opportunity.
“Before the thing got going, he had an offensive year that wasn’t one of his favorites. He talked 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 two pennant winners in St. Louis, told SN.
So Pendleton, who was brought to Atlanta in part to be a mentor to the Braves’ young core, offered Lemke some sage postseason wisdom.
“I said, ‘Dawg, listen: You’ve got a chance to prove to the world how good you can be. Nobody even cares what you did the last playoff series, nobody even cares what you did during the season. The only thing that matters is these seven games,'” he said. “So I said, ‘Just go out and relax and do what you can do, man. These seven games, people will remember.’ And he goes on to have that type of series.”
Success often breeds more success, but it can also breed a certain outlook that can fuel motivation — especially in the World Series.
“Once you start getting some confidence and get some hits, now you say to yourself, ‘Not only do I want to play in these games, I want to make sure I’m staying in the game,'” Lemke said. “And you’ve got to produce for that.”
Lemke’s performance in October 1991 guaranteed him a place in baseball lore as one of those How did that even happen? postseason stories that get retold nearly every autumn.
With plenty of postseason left to be played in 2021, and with Game 3 between the Astros and Braves set for Friday in the same town where Lemke seized his moment, it makes one wonder whose name could be added next.