As he observed the flight of a fly ball hit by Los Angeles' Lee Lacy last Thursday evening, Manager Joe Altobelli of the San Francisco Giants had occasion to reflect once more on the irrefutable truth of the baseball axiom which holds that the game is never over until the last out. It was the ninth inning, the bases were empty, the Giants were winning 4-3, and Lacy's fly gave promise of being that axiomatic last out. Then Altobelli, watching helplessly from the Candlestick Park dugout, noticed something terribly amiss: the ball, his centerfielder, Larry Herndon, and his rightfielder, Jack Clark, were converging on precisely the same point in right centerfield. Pow! The would-be last out rolled out of a prostrate Herndon's glove and Lacy hurried around the bases with the tying run. As he rushed to the scene of the accident, Altobelli thought of yet another axiom—something about counting chickens.
But Clark and Herndon survived their head-on collision, as did the Giants their run-in with the Dodgers in a tumultuous four-game series last week that added exciting new episodes to the storied rivalry. The Giants won the Thursday game in their own half of the ninth and they won another one-run thriller the next night. But after losing on Saturday and Sunday, San Francisco, which had been in first place in the National League West since June 8 and for all but one day since May 12, dropped into second, two percentage points behind Cincinnati. The four games attracted 193,954, raising the Giants' home attendance for the season to 1,289,199, already higher than any complete season since 1966. And though last week's bruising encounter left both the Dodgers and the Giants physically and emotionally drained, they must collide again this week in Los Angeles in yet another four-game series. Meanwhile, Cincinnati, which took over first place after stopping San Diego's 10-game winning streak, is waiting to feast on the remains. If last week is a criterion, August will be a harrowing month for the Giants and the Dodgers.
The series began promisingly for the Giants, a young team clamoring for recognition as a bona-fide contender. With two outs in the first inning of the opening game, Willie McCovey, the last link to the championship team of 1962, hit a sky-high two-run shot into the football bleachers in rightfield, the 504th homer of a notable career. Another run scored from third on an infield hit, and a Clark single in the second brought home a fourth run. The Dodgers scored three of their own in the fourth off Jim Barr, a fine pitcher with atrocious luck. Barr protected his one-run lead into the ninth when, with the game seemingly won, Herndon and Clark knocked heads pursuing Lacy's fly, which consequently became an inside-the-park home run. The collision knocked out Clark and left Herndon punchy.
Herndon actually held on to the ball after the impact, but it subsequently trickled out of his glove. The Giants argued that it was a legitimate catch, but Second-Base Umpire Jim Quick held that, because he did not see the ball until it rolled free, it was not. To be sure, Herndon was in no shape to show the ball to an umpire because he was only vaguely aware that he had it.
The crowd of 42,084 demonstrated wildly after the Quick decision, and Altobelli, alternately raging at the umpire and inquiring into the health of his stricken outfielders, was ejected. Darrell Evans restored the hordes to good humor in the last of the ninth with a clean single to right that scored Terry Whitfield from second with the winning run. The Giants, even the dazed Herndon and Clark, were ecstatic about the dramatic triumph over adversity.
"Just about everything happens in a Giants-Dodgers series," said elder statesman McCovey, "so this was typical. But we never let down. We've been coming back all year. Because it's happened so much, we just feel it's our year."
With Vida Blue throwing a bewildering assortment of sailing and rising fastballs and leading the 47,944 fans in cheers Friday night, there was little adversity to overcome. Blue was superb. He retired the first 12 hitters, gave up a homer to Ron Cey in the fifth, then retired the next eight before walking Cey in the seventh. He had a one-hitter with two out in the ninth when Reggie Smith doubled. With Cey the next batter, Altobelli summoned durable Randy Moffitt from the bullpen, and Moffitt induced the Penguin to fly out and end the game. The Giants scored in the second when Herndon, fully recovered save for a cracked tooth, tripled to right center and continued home when Smith juggled the ball at the fence. Bill Madlock broke the tie in the fifth with his ninth homer of the year.
The win was Blue's 16th against only four losses, and with it he became the top winner in the major leagues. He is enjoying perhaps his finest season and he is also enjoying himself again after nine years of mostly involuntary servitude across the Bay in Oakland. Blue's goodwill is contagious. Whether pitching or not, he stands before the dugout and leads the new host of Giant fans in cheers. He does joyful little skip steps off the mound and embraces his teammates on the field after every victory. When Altobelli reluctantly removed him one out away from a complete game Friday, he greeted Moffitt with a welcoming hand slap and a pat on the rear. In the clubhouse afterward he joshingly urged reporters to discontinue their interviews with other players and gather round to hear the pearls he was prepared to impart.
Blue the Giant is a far different person from the sometimes sullen, often sardonic put-on artist he had become under Charles O. Finley. "I am mentally prepared," he says. "I am eating, sleeping, drinking baseball. I'm a happy man." If McCovey is the heart of the new Giants, Blue is the spirit.
Both teams entered the Saturday game somewhat undermanned. The already battered Clark was unable to start because of a knee strain incurred breaking up a double play the night before. The Dodgers played without Centerfielder Billy North, who strained a hamstring running down a burglar outside his Oakland home after the Friday game. "It was worth it," said North of the injury. "I caught the guy."
The nationally televised game, played before 49,203, served notice that in 21-year-old Bob Welch the Dodgers have a rookie pitcher who, in the opinion of Manager Tom Lasorda, "can be another Don Drysdale." Throwing a wicked fastball, Welch shut out the Giants on nine hits and squelched a ninth-inning rally by striking out Clark, who was pinch-hitting, on three straight high hard ones. The win snapped a six-game Dodger losing streak—their longest since 1973—five of the losses being by one run.
It was Welch's third win since being called up from Albuquerque in June, and the shutout reduced his earned run average to 1.71. "There's no reason for me to act like a rookie, even though I am a rookie, said Welch after the win. I mean, I can't go out there and say, 'Oh gosh, the big leagues.' The worst thing a pitcher can have is no confidence."
Dodger Vice-President Al Campanis says what Welch has is "inner conceit," and he considers it invaluable. The Giants may have some of that, too. With each critical game in a rapidly expiring season they seem to grow more confident. They have established that their pitching, with a staff ERA of 3.14, is the best in their league and probably the best in baseball. And Clark, Madlock, Whitfield and the off-the-bench flash, Mike Ivie, are all hitting better than .300. Obviously they also subscribe to the message crudely inscribed on a wall of the passageway between the Giant clubhouse and dugout: "Nevah Give Up!" And as a team with more than the ordinary complement of born-again Christians—playing in a notoriously sinful city, at that—they appear convinced that the so-called Big Dodger in the Sky who watched so benignly over their opponents a year ago has come over to their side now. Only divine intervention, in the opinion of the devout Ivie, can account for the Giants' penchant for turning adversity to advantage. "Too many things are happening our way," he says, "too many good things. You just have to believe we're being watched." As the Dodgers must now ruefully concede, San Francisco has a team that indeed bears watching.