Back in the spring, if you had said the only two teams left in contention by August in the National League West would be the Giants and the Astros, somebody might have answered you, "Yeah, right. And Kevin Mitchell will drive in 150 runs, a catcher will be batting leadoff, and Roger Craig and Art Howe will have pompadours."
Well, Mitchell is only slightly off a 150-RBI pace, Astros catcher Craig Biggio is in the leadoff spot, and as for the bald pates of the two teams' respective managers, the sudden presence of hair atop their heads would be only slightly more surprising than the presence of their teams atop the standings. Who would have guessed in April that their three-game series in San Francisco beginning last Friday would be labeled a "crucial" one?
The Astros came into Candlestick one game behind the Giants in the standings, although both teams were smarting. The Giants were coming off a 5-9 road trip on which they lost two more starting pitchers to the disabled list, bringing the season total to six. The Astros arrived fresh from an 18-2 drubbing at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds the day before. Actually, the score of that game was 14-0 after one inning, so the Astros had ample opportunity to laugh it off. "We had to go to our passing game much earlier than we expected," said pitcher Jim Deshaies. "Of course, a couple of turnovers and we would have been right back in the game."
Houston coach Yogi Berra, who's sort of the patron saint of pennant races, having been in so many of them, gave his unique perspective on the series at hand. "This time of year, five games back is nothin'," said Yogi. "So, one game back is even better." Not a Yogi classic, perhaps, but still not bad on the Berra-meter.
One might think Yogi would be blasè about just another pennant race, but he's excited because he has something special at stake. His 21 World Series appearances in uniform are two short of the record held by former Yankee in-fielder and longtime coach Frankie Crosetti. "I see him every once in a while," said Yogi. "He lives in Stockston [sic]. He told me last year I was never going to catch him. And now I just might."
How is it that the Astros, a team that finished fifth in the division last year, are giving Yogi such a prime opportunity? In part, the answer is first-year manager Howe. The team has responded well to his patient, respectful approach. Former manager Hal Lanier cracked the whip several times too often last year and put too much pressure on some of the younger players. At one point late last season, after losing a game to the lowly Atlanta Braves, Lanier came into the clubhouse and announced, "I ought to shoot you——." To which center-fielder Gerald Young replied, out of earshot of Lanier, "I'd like to read that in the 'Transactions' tomorrow."
The other major difference between the '88 club and this one is the blossoming of Biggio and third baseman Ken Caminiti, who are collectively 27 years younger than last year's catcher and third baseman, Alan Ashby and Buddy Bell. Says Deshaies, "I think last year if a psychologist played a word association game with you and gave you 'Astros,' your answer would probably be 'old.' Now it might be 'young.' " Two weeks ago, Biggio became the first catcher since who knows when to bat leadoff on a regular basis—because he was getting on base (.349) and then stealing them (16 of 17 as of Sunday). Since Biggio is so willing to grovel behind the plate and on the base paths, his uniform is often a mess and just as often an inspiration.
Yogi, too, has been an inspiration, even to the older players. "He's more than just a good-luck charm," says veteran relief pitcher Larry Andersen. "He works hard, and he's a genius when it comes to baseball. You may not understand his words, but you always understand his meaning. The other day, I had a bad outing, and Yogi came up to me, tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Mmmm mmmm mmmm.' And you know, I really appreciated him saying that."
The Astros and the Giants took slightly different approaches to the big series. First baseman Glenn Davis, the big man in the Houston lineup with 24 homers, passed out blue T-shirts that had WHO'S GONNA BE THE BIG MAN? On the front and a big question mark on the back, but for the most part, the Astros tried to low-key it. Howe gave a perfunctory address before Friday's game. "The gist of it was, 'Go get 'em, guys,' " said Howe.
Craig, on the other hand, pulled out all the stops. Over a doorway in the clubhouse, he hung a banner—a gift from a couple in Los Gatos, Calif.—that read, NEVER LOOK PAST TODAY'S GAME. THE TEAM YOU FACE TODAY IS YOUR WORLD SERIES OPPONENT. Before the game, he gave the Giants a hellfire-and-brimstone speech. "My A material," said Craig afterward. Said pitcher Mike Krukow, "He would have done Knute Rockne proud." At the end of the speech, Craig threw it over to Krukow, one of the Giants' hurting starters, and asked him. "If this was the last game you were ever going to pitch, what would you do?" And Krukow answered, "I would do it for my teammates. I would pitch it so well that when my teammates walked off the field, they would say it was the greatest game they had ever seen me pitch."
The Giants' actual starter, Don Robinson, didn't pitch the game of his life, but he came close, giving up just three hits and one walk in nine innings. It was indeed a game worthy of the postseason atmosphere. The Giants scored a run in the first off Mark Portugal on a double by Will Clark and a single by, yes, Mitchell. Clark and Mitchell have carried the club all year, and on Friday, Mitchell was playing with the benefit of his contact lenses, which he had forgotten to take on the just-completed road trip—a trip on which he hit just .250 with only two home runs. Don't ask why he didn't think to get new lenses during the 14-game swing; just remember this is a man who got a crucial hit for the New York Mets in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series with nothing on under his uniform pants (he was unexpectedly called from the locker room to pinch-hit after he'd already gone inside and undressed).
The Giants added another run in the fourth and would have had two more but for a sensational diving stab and throw to first by Caminiti. The score stood 2-0 until the sixth, when, with a runner on via an error, Astros shortstop Rafael Ramirez tied it by knocking a Robinson fastball, the only mistake he would make, over the fence in left. With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Giants second baseman Robby Thompson singled to left. (Thompson didn't have to be there for this game because his wife had given birth to twin boys the day before; Craig had given him the day off on the proviso that he name them Hum and Baby, but Thompson opted to play and to name the boys more traditionally—Logan and Tyler.)
That brought Clark to the plate. In general, Clark tattoos the Astros, with a .329 career average, 20 homers and 50 RBIs in 207 at bats against them, and this year he has been even more troublesome, with five homers, 12 RBIs and a .395 average in 38 at bats. Recently the Astros have employed a radical shift against the lefthanded hitter, with everyone eased over toward the right field foul line. "When they do that, I expect the ball on the inside part of the plate," said Clark. Which is what he got from reliever Danny Darwin, and Clark lofted it into the upper deck in right. "I just didn't have anybody playing high enough," said Howe.
After the homer Robinson breezed through the eighth and ninth to finish off the 4-2 victory. "I seemed to get stronger after Will put us ahead," said Robinson, who was actually upset with himself for his 0-for-3 night at the plate. A few years ago, when shoulder problems threatened his career as a pitcher, Robinson, then with the Pirates, toyed with the idea of becoming an outfielder. Fortunately, his arm came around, and fortunately for the Giants, general manager Al Rosen traded catcher Mackey Sasser to the Pirates to get Robinson in the middle of the '87 season. Since then, he has been used as both a reliever and a starter. "Rating his guts on a scale of 1 to 10," says Craig, "I give him a 15."
As for the victory Friday night, Craig might have given it 115. "Every win from now on is going to be the biggest win of the year. But this one—especially coming after the road trip we had—this one I'm going to look back at over the winter and say, 'This was the biggest.' " The Giants also got a double dose of good news that night: Dave Dravecky, coming back from cancer surgery on his left, pitching, arm, threw nine innings of seven-hit ball for Triple A Phoenix and would be rejoining the club, and Bob Knepper, released on July 28 by the Astros, had been signed and would immediately step into the rotation.
The Astros had much the better of the pitching matchup on Saturday, or so it seemed—Mike Scott, 17-5, 2.45 ERA, versus Mike LaCoss, 5-7, 3.22 ERA. But Scott was pitching with a sore left hamstring and, according to the Giants, without his trade secret. Craig, who had taught Scott the split-fingered fastball that has helped make him so successful, has publicly accused his former pupil of cheating, and Friday the manager was even more emphatic than usual. "As the game goes on, he seems to get better and better," said Craig. "I don't know if he's switching sandpaper or what." Craig said Scott would have a hard time on Saturday because the cameras of NBC's Game of the Week would be trained on him, looking for transgressions.
Whatever the reason—hamstring or hamstrung—Scott was clearly not himself against the Giants. Brett Butler, mired in a 10-for-64 slump, homered off him in the third for the only run the Giants would need. Scott was then cuffed around in the fourth by the likes of Pat Sheridan (.192) and Terry Kennedy (.225), and in the fifth he gave up doubles to Butler and Clark. When the dust cleared after the fifth, the Astros found themselves on the wrong end of yet another football score, 7-0, which also turned out to be the final score. LaCoss—or Buffy to the teammates who see a resemblance between him and the character on the old TV series Family Affair—allowed only four hits and two walks in his seven innings of work. The only noise the Astros made was in the seventh, when Howe broke his maiden, getting his first ejection as a manager after arguing a call with home plate umpire Charlie Williams.
The curiosity factor for the third game was very high, because of Knepper. He was now facing the team that had released him the week before, and he was doing it in a town he had once described as being "as oppressive as a coal mine." But he was clearly thrilled to be a Giant again—"the answer to a prayer," he said—and he showed it on the mound. Nursing a 2-1 lead into the fifth, he had a runner on third with one out. But he struck out Biggio and Davis, and after the called third strike against the Astro first baseman, Knepper pumped his arm and literally skipped off the mound. "I wish we'd seen more of that when he was with us," said Howe.
When Knepper was removed for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the sixth, the score was tied 2-2. The Astros went ahead 3-2 in the eighth on a walk to Young, a single by pinch hitter Alex Trevino and a single by second baseman Eric (Cool Breeze) Yelding. It was nail-biting time for the Astros when Houston relief ace Dave Smith came on in the ninth for his first appearance of the year against the Giants. With two out, Butler doubled into the leftfield corner. Next up was Thompson and if Smith didn't get him out, he would have to face Clark, who had earlier homered off starter Rick Rhoden.
Asked after the game about the prospect of pitching to Clark, Smith said, "No problem. What's he got against us this year, five homers? Hey, if I had faced him, he'd probably have six or seven." And then, more seriously, Smith admitted, "It was make it or break it. We could not afford to be swept." Smith froze Thompson with a 2-2 curveball for a called strike three, 52,296 Giants fans groaned, Clark headed back to the dugout, and the race in the NL West was still very much on.
In September, the Giants and Astros play six more times. "We're pretty evenly matched," says Davis. "A lot depends on whether Clark and Mitchell can keep hitting. If they can, then they deserve to win." The Giants' pitching appears to be in much better shape than it did a week ago—Knepper will contribute, and Dravecky, Reuschel and Kelly Downs may be back in the rotation fairly soon. The Giants also have the schedule in their favor: 29 of their 51 remaining games are at home, and they have the best home record in baseball, 36-16.
As for the Astros, they missed a neat opportunity to gain on the Giants, but they did survive. Or, as Yogi would put it, "Mmmm mmmm mmmm."