It was a singularly thrilling race, but for the San Francisco Giants—the 103-59 Giants—it ended with a thud. In losing to the hated Los Angeles Dodgers 12-1 on Sunday in L.A., in the final year of the current postseason format, San Francisco likely became the last great club to have to sit at home and watch the playoffs. But one ugly loss can't diminish the courageous accomplishments of a team that nearly snatched the National League West crown from the Atlanta Braves, a team that back in April was deemed an unbeatable foe.
"We went as far as we could go," said the Giants' Dusty Baker, the winningest rookie manager in National League history. "With our talent, we went further than anyone said we could."
In the end the Giants went as far as war-horse closer Rod Beck and their Bambino, Barry Bonds, could carry them.
A paradigm of the Giants' grit and determination, Beck trudged to the mound in nine of the final 12 games with aching legs, a sore left hip and a weary arm. In pitching a total of 10‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings, he didn't blow one lead while collecting a win and seven saves. And he was never braver than in the first three games of the Dodger series.
Last Thursday night, when the Giants had a chance to regain a share of first place, Beck worked 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings to save a 3-1 victory. The following night, when his hip was so sore he couldn't throw from a windup, he survived 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings to preserve an 8-7 win. After that game, in which he gave up a two-run homer to Eric Karros, he admitted to "having nothing." But he also said, "This isn't the time for a day off—it's time to see what you're made of."
Beck is all guts and heart rolled into a junkyard body topped with long scraggly hair and a Fu Manchu mustache. "He looks like a Hell's Angel," says teammate Todd Benzinger. "He looks like he was at Altamont on a motorcycle."
Last Saturday, Beck got the call again, and he retired all four hitters he faced in a 5-3 win for his 48th save of the season. "He's doing it with mirrors," said bullpen mate Jeff Brantley. "I know what it's like to pitch a few days in a row and your arm's falling off. He's wondering where his arm is."
Beck said that his arm was line, "and even if it hurt, I'd pitch." After each game he received extensive treatment for his aching legs. "I've gotten ice. I've been in the ice tray, I've sat in I he beer tub," he said. "I'll be fine."
While Beck was giving the Giants heart, Bonds was providing the backbone with brilliant play in the field and at bat. Down the stretch Bonds went from being the leading candidate for NL Most Valuable Player honors to being a lock for the award.
Last Friday night, knowing the Braves had already won earlier in the evening, San Francisco fell behind 4-0 to L.A. after two innings. But Bonds hit a three-run homer to tie the game in the third, and in the fifth, when Dodger manager Tom Lasorda chose not to walk Bonds intentionally with runners at second and third and no one out, Bonds hit another three-run homer. He added a run-scoring double in the seventh, capping perhaps the most significant single-game performance since George Brett of the Kansas City Royals went 4 for 4, with two homers, and drove in three runs to almost single-handedly beat the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 3 of the 1985 American League Championship Series.
"You watch Barry and you see greatness," said Dodger pitcher Tom Candiotti.
On Sunday, Baker had little choice but to pitch rookie Salomon Torres, 21, who was 1-4 with a 4.44 ERA in his previous five starts. The Braves, playing 2,500 miles away against the Colorado Rockies, started Tom Glavine, a 21-game winner. It was Too Young against Cy Young. Cy won. Torres (3‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings, three runs, five walks) and six relievers gave up 14 hits, including two homers by L.A. catcher Mike Piazza.
The Giants were so far out of the game that Beck never got a chance to be the savior once more. And Bonds went 0 for 4 and struck out twice. He wound up leading the league in home runs (46) and RBIs (123) and having the fourth-best average (.336). But after Sunday's game he shook his head and kept repeating, "Just one time, just one time," bemoaning the fact that he'd been stopped short of the World Series a fourth straight year.
It was sweet revenge for the Dodgers, who were bounced out of pennant races by the Giants on the final day in 1951, '62 and '82 as well as on the next-to-last day of the '91 season. "They beat us in '91 and laughed at us," said Dodger infielder Lenny Harris. "Let them sit home during the Fall Classic and see how we felt."
It will be painful viewing, but given where the Giants came from, it was miraculous that they got as close as they did. They lost 90 games in 1992, and despite signing free-agent Bonds to baseball's richest contract ever last December, the Giants weren't expected to finish higher than fourth this year.
Then, after building a 65-32 record and a 10-game lead, San Francisco stumbled in the face of the Braves' tremendous run, losing eight straight games in mid-September to fall four games in arrears. But in a remarkable turnaround, the Giants won 11 of their next 12 games to tie for the West lead with five to play.
The Giants hadn't swept a four-game road series from the Dodgers since 1923. And they would have to do it with a battered lineup. Slugging first baseman Will Clark was playing with a huge brace on his tender right knee; spirited second baseman Robby Thompson was sidelined after being beaned by San Diego Padre reliever Trevor Hoffman on Sept. 24. And like Beck, the other members of the Giant bullpen were exhausted.
But Clark went 10 for 18 in the series, including two four-hit games. Thompson's swollen, blood-filled left eye looked like something out of The Terminator, but he wore a protective mask to shield his face and played on Sunday. The Giants' 20-game winners, Bill Swift and John Burkett, won the first two games of the series; on Saturday, after starter Bryan Hickerson aggravated a rib injury, four relievers combined to hold off the Dodgers. It was all falling into place—until Sunday.
"When people remember this season, they won't say, "Atlanta won 104 games,' " said Giant owner Peter Magowan. "They'll say, 'The Braves and Giants had 103 going to the last day, and the Braves won.' "
No one should ever say that the Giants lost.
Bonds had seven RBIs on Friday, but he and the Giants came up a game short.
Time and again Beck was called on to save the day for the Giants.