Craig Helped Giants Take Positive Step to Top of National League West

October 04, 1987|WILLIAM D. MURRAY | United Press International

SAN FRANCISCO — The ghosts that haunted the San Francisco Giants locker room were finally chased away in 1987 by a combination of youth, confidence and veteran pitching.

Entering the season, the Giants were most often referred to in the past tense by their loyal followers. They would talk of the days of Willie McCovey, Willie Mays and Juan Marichal.

The years in between had just been too painful. The 100-loss season in 1985, the years mired in the National League West basement and the constant threat of the team moving out of San Francisco. All that ended with a victory in San Diego, ironically the site of the Giants clincher in 1971, and a National League West title.

The story of the 1987 season started early, on a March afternoon under the hot Arizona sun.

Manager Roger Craig, who had led the Giants to a 83-79 record in 1986, was trying his best to chase the dark clouds of past disappointments away from his team. He chose to emphasize the positive and pointed to the Giants 20-9 record in the Cactus League.

"If we stay healthy, we're going to be in the middle of it until the end," said Craig.

But the Giants manager needed help in the early going just to stay close to the NL West lead. Second baseman Robby Thompson, shortstop Jose Uribe, then third baseman Chris Brown and outfielder Candy Maldonaldo all went down with injuries.

Other heroes stepped forward. Mike Aldrete came on for Maldonado and was hitting .327 with nine homers and 50 RBI as of Sept. 24. Chris Speier, a journeyman infielder who played on the Giants 1971 team, came on and stroked two grand slams while playing a variety of infield positions.

"Last year, guys got hurt and others picked up the slack," said Craig prophetically at the time of Maldonado's injury. "We are going to have to do that to be successful this year."

Craig would prove to be a wizard at juggling rosters. As of Sept. 23, he would have been forced to use 46 different players (20 of which were pitchers), 117 different lineup combinations, 10 different lead off men and make 84 roster moves.

The Giants needed all the help they could get from the bench early on as the they played hop scotch with the Cincinnati Reds for the division lead.

On June 10 and June 11, San Francisco defeated the then-division leading Reds. The clutch victories pulled the Giants back to within a game of the lead and gave the club new life.

San Francisco followed with a victory over the Padres to pull even with Cincinnati before the party came to an end. Jeffrey Leonard, the leader at the plate during the first two months, dropped into a deep slump and was 3 for 23 in June.

On June 20, Will Clark ended the club's six-game losing streak with a two-run double in the eighth to defeat San Diego, 7-6. Four days later, the Reds topped San Francisco, 4-1, to move 3 1/2 games ahead. From June 12 to July 4, the Giants would lose 13 of 19 games and their future suddenly was now.

Al Rosen, team president and general manager, made the first of his fateful trades sending Brown, Mark Davis, Mark Grant and Keith Comstock to San Diego for starter Dave Dravecky, reliever Craig Lefferts and third baseman Kevin Mitchell.

Dravecky, 3-7 at the time of the trade, responded to his new team by going 7-4 with a 3.07 ERA. Lefferts went 3-3 and picked up 4 saves and Mitchell hit 14 homers, picked up 41 RBI and three game winners.

At the All-Star break, the Giants were 44-44, three games out of first. They also owned a dismal 16-22 home record.

Rosen made another deal as the Giants continued to stumble. Looking for a stopper in the bullpen, he traded minor league catcher Mackey Sasser and pitcher Jim Gott to Pittsburgh for reliever Don Robinson. The veteran responded with a 5-1 record and seven saves. He also ripped a homer that proved to be the game winner in the clinching game.

"Pitching is the key," Rosen said. "Whoever's got it down the stretch will win it -- and we've got the best pitching. It just gets better and better."

The Giants still managed to go on their worst slide of the season -- a 2-9 road trip through Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Houston. The club's future looked grim. But they rallied and on Aug. 10 took a double header from Cincinnati. The victories took the wind out of the Reds and moved the Giants to within a game of the lead.

The topper of the year came when Rosen traded on Aug. 20 with Pittsburgh for starter Rick Reuschel. The veteran went 5-2 the rest of the way.

San Francisco completed a 10-game flip flop with the Reds by early September. The five-game lead proved to be cushion enough to bring the club its first league title in 16 years.

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