The Giants Heartbreak in the 1987 NLCS

Since the Giants have finally ended their San Francisco drought, their fans can now look back at the series of near-miss opportunities for the team that stretched from 1958 through the 2000s, and be thankful that they can put those opportunities in the back of their minds. The most painful near-miss between 1970 and 1993 (the ’89 World Series was a sweep, and anyway the Bay Area had bigger things to worry about) was the 1987 NLCS, which started with Jeffrey Leonard hammering the Cardinals, then turned into a nightmare.

Jim Van Vliet of the Sacramento Bee wrote a post-NLCS hand-wringing that went like this:

It will be a long time before Giants fans forget 1987. A very long time, as in never.

If they’re still talking about Willie Mac’s Game 7, ninth-inning liner from a World Series 25 years ago, there’s no reason to believe they’ll ever forget what happened on two ugly Midwestern October nights in St. Louis in 1987.

They’ll remember the Giants going the final 22 innings without scoring a run to give away the National League playoffs that they had all but wrapped up. They will remember that on two crisp Missouri nights, needing to win either game, the Giants only got one runner as far as third base in two games.

But more than anything, Giants fans will long remember what could have been. Or, more appropriately, what should have been.

What were the Cardinals’ chances of winning this series? How many people thought the Cardinals had a chance with Jack Clark, their only long-ball threat, getting just one at-bat in the series? Or with Vince Coleman kept from stealing a base until the sixth inning of Game 7? . . .

When looking back on any series, it’s often difficult for historians to determine the turning point. Some will insist it came when Candy Maldonado misplayed Tony Pena’s fly ball into a triple in Game 6. Some will say it was The Ridiculous Jose Oquendo’s three-run homer in Game 7. Still others will insist it was the close calls on the bases that went against the Giants in Game 6.

But it was none of those. This series was lost in San Francisco on a lovely Indian Summer night last Friday, when the Giants frittered away a four-run lead and lost 6-5.

This series never should have gone to Game 7 — or Game 6, for that matter. It should have ended last Sunday afternoon at Candlestick Park. When the Giants evened the series 1-1 behind Dave Dravecky’s two-hitter last Wednesday, the Cardinals genuinely fretted.

“When we went to San Francisco, I was worried about getting back (to St. Louis),” Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog confided.

Maldonado will live with the memory of those blinding lights in his eyes, but this series was lost in Game 3.

The Giants jumped on rookie left-hander Joe Magrane and led 4-0 after three innings of Game 3. But Atlee Hammaker couldn’t hold it. The Cardinals eventually came back by pushing four runs home in the seventh off Don Robinson and Craig Lefferts.

It would go back on the carpet before 55,331 red-clad, towel-waving maniacs who had been whipped into a froth by Jeffrey Leonard and Chili Davis. Leonard bad-mouthed the Cardinals after Game 1, and Davis referred to their beloved St. Louis as a “cow town.”

No matter what Leonard said — and whether his snide comments were serious or merely taunting fun for the national media — a 55,331-strong angry mob makes a difference.

Game 3 was a game they should have won. And with the venom and commotion the Giants had caused, they needed to win. With subsequent victories in Games 4 and 5, the Giants would have wrapped up their first pennant since 1962.

But it was back to Busch. And, unfortunately, the Giants left their bats in San Francisco.

Van Vliet went on to second-guess Roger Craig for starting Atlee Hammaker in game 7 in St. Louis, failing to pull Hammaker soon enough when he faltered, and failing to get baserunners in motion in a 6-0 shutout of a team that had set a Giants record with 205 homers in the regular season. Despite their stacked lineup, with Will Clark hitting 35 homers to lead the pack of 10 hitters with at least 10, and a league-leading team ERA of 3.68, the season was over.

After game 5, when Joe Price, a guy I’d never heard of (Price matched the 2010 Giants relievers by pitching 26 innings the last two months of the ’87 season and allowing just 13 hits and four runs), had pitched five shutout innings in relief of Rick Reuschel to lead the way to a 6-3 win at Candlestick and 3-2 series lead, the S.F. Chronicle’s Ray Ratto remarked, “momentum is nothing, deeds everything.” Both faltered in St. Louis.

In game 6, Dave Dravecky took the loss despite a one-run, six-inning outing when Candy Maldonado lost Pena’s fly ball in the Busch Stadium lights, and game 7 got worse for the Giants. They’d wait until 1989 for their next World Series, and 2002 for their next good shot at winning one again.

Published in: on August 26, 2011 at 6:22 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Chris Carpenter’s amazing 1-0 performance last night made me revisit this series, the one that made me a baseball fan for life. Statistics are deceiving rascals sometimes, whether we’re talking about San Francisco’s 205 home runs in 1987, or Philadelphia’s 102 wins in 2011. Everything resets to zero when a post-season series starts. Anything can happen…

  2. As we saw (once again) last year in the World Series, the Cardinals are a team you should never bet against. The Reds better take them seriously, or the Cards will find themselves in another World Series this year.

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