Will Clark thrives on pressure," said his San Francisco Giants teammate Bob Brenly with rare prescience early in the National League Championship Series. "He likes to be out there when everyone is looking at him, counting on him."
In the eighth inning of Game 5, on Monday, Clark, the Giants' extraordinary first baseman, was exactly where he wanted to be. The bases were loaded, Chicago Cub starter Mike Bielecki having walked them full. There were two outs, and the score was tied 1-1. Clark had scored San Francisco's run on a Kevin Mitchell sacrifice fly in the seventh after tripling to the rightfield corner. The Giants were leading the series three games to one and trying desperately to finish it at home. On the mound for the Cubs was Mitch Williams, their premier closer. A San Francisco baseball record crowd of 62,084 was on its collective feet screaming. It was Wild Thing vs. Will the Thrill. Baseball doesn't get any better than this.
Williams quickly got two strikes on Clark and then wasted a pitch. Clark fouled off two more pitches before Williams fired a high fastball down the middle. "I couldn't afford to walk him," said Williams later. "I couldn't nibble."
Clark slammed the pitch into centerfield for a base hit that scored Candy Maldonado and Brett Butler. Chicago rallied for a run in the ninth, but to quote the late broadcaster Russ Hodges, "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" It was their first in 27 years.
It was fitting that Clark, who had the most astonishing series in National League playoff history, should have been at bat at the end, breaking up the only decent pitching duel of the playoff, between Bielecki and Rick Reuschel, who was coming off an atrocious performance in Game 2. In these five games, Clark set National League playoff records for batting average (.650), hits (13), extra-base hits (six), total bases (24) and slugging percentage (1.200). So now, largely because of him (and the Oakland A's Rickey Henderson), there really will be a Bay Bridge Series.
Ultimately, this was a series in which nothing came easy for either team, and nothing, not even the weather, went according to plan. Here were games played in the two windiest ballparks in creation, and in neither did a breeze materialize that would so much as agitate a Calder mobile, let alone alter the flight of a batted ball. Wrigley Field wasn't as cold as it was supposed to be, although it was a bit damp for Game 2, and Candlestick Park, the most notorious bad-weather arena in baseball, basked in a heat wave that had temperatures rising to 85° at the start of Game 4. It's an accepted fact locally that San Francisco is invariably balmier in October than it is in July, but the Giants appear so infrequently in postseason play that few fans outside the Bay Area are aware of this meteorological phenomenon.
Weather may have had little effect on the course of play, but atrocious pitching, the long ball and some misguided managerial strategy had a lot. Both San Francisco's Roger Craig and Chicago's Don Zimmer, bosom pals since their days together on the Brooklyn Dodgers, counted on solid work from their staffs. But except for Bielecki's and Reuschel's performances in Game 5 and a passable inning or two of relief, neither got it. Zimmer's ace, Greg Maddux (19-12 during the regular season), set a National League playoff record by giving up 11 earned runs in his two appearances as a starter. And Reuschel (17-8) set a standard of incompetence in the second game that should survive the test of time. He did get two batters out with the 18 pitches he threw in the first inning before being hauled to safety, but he also gave up five hits and five runs, which put the game out of reach for San Francisco. Reuschel started Game 5 with a 1989 playoff ERA of 67.50, which he lowered to 5.20 in the clincher.
In the final analysis, it was the long ball, for which San Francisco is justly renowned, that won the day for the Giants. Their first three wins all came as the result of homers, and in the five games, San Francisco had eight to Chicago's three. Clark hit two, including a grand slam, and Kevin Mitchell had a three-run shot in the Giants' 11-3 win in Game 1. Robby Thompson won Game 3 with a two-run homer in the seventh inning, and Matt Williams the pivotal fourth game with another two-run smash, in the fifth.
Clark, Mitchell and the Cubs' Mark Grace and Ryne Sandberg were all terrific. In fact, the dueling first basemen—Clark and Grace—played at a level almost beyond comprehension. While Clark was setting his records, Grace hit .647 with five extra-base hits and eight RBIs. In addition, Clark operated at first as if he were a middle infielder, working as the pivot man on three decidedly unroutine double plays. All told, he threw three runners out at home, two on DPs and the other after snaring shortstop Jose Uribe's high throw in the third inning of Game 4 and then wheeling to catch Dwight Smith at the plate. Clark played the series with a painfully bruised and swollen right knee, the result of a collision at home plate a week and a half before the end of the season, but he ran the bases aggressively, creating a run in the first inning of Game 4 by taking Sandberg out at second to prevent a cinch double play.
Yet Williams and Thompson may have been just as valuable. The 23-year-old Williams has never hit higher than .205 in three big league seasons interrupted by descents into the minors, but he belted 18 homers in 84 games this year, 16 of them after being recalled on July 23 from Triple A Phoenix. Craig said, "He will be something to watch in the next few years." He was certainly something to watch in Game 4. In the third inning, with two outs, the Giants trailing 2-1 and Butler, who had singled, on third and Clark, who had doubled (naturally) on second, Zimmer ordered Maddux to walk Mitchell and load the bases. Williams himself could not argue with this tactic. "You're not a very smart manager if you don't walk a guy who hit 47 home runs, batted around .290 and drove in more than 120 runs," he said later. But walking Mitchell didn't turn out to be such a smart move, after all, because Williams hit Maddux's first pitch, a jamming fastball, on a looping arc over second base to score Butler and Clark and give San Francisco a 3-2 lead.
That margin grew to 4-2 in the next inning, when Maddux almost personally escorted Uribe to home plate after Uribe had doubled down the rightfield line. Maddux threw wildly on a pickoff attempt, and Uribe went to third. He scored when Maddux bounced a wild pitch past catcher Joe Girardi. After Maddux walked Giants pitcher Scott Garrelts, Zimmer pulled him and called in lefthander Steve Wilson. The Cubs made the game Wilson's to win or lose in their half of the fifth on a Jerome Walton single, a Grace (who else?) triple and a double from the previously dormant Andre Dawson.
Then, in the San Francisco half of the inning, Clark (of course) led off with a double to left that Smith, hobbled by a hamstring strain, couldn't quite reach. Clark was still on second an out later when the righthanded-hitting Williams came to the plate. Zimmer had the option of walking Williams so Wilson might face the next two batters, left-handed-hitting Terry Kennedy and Pat Sheridan, but he rejected the notion, knowing that Craig would probably pinch-hit for Kennedy and Sheridan, anyway. His decision set up perhaps the most dramatic confrontation of the series. Wilson threw 11 pitches to Williams, seven of which he fouled off, four after the count had reached 3 and 2. Then Wilson, by his own admission, made his only mistake of this apparently interminable at bat. He intended to jam Williams with an inside fastball, Zimmer having ordered him to throw inside to this hitter, but, said Wilson afterward, "I left it out a little." And Williams belted the pitch on a line into the leftfield seats, winning the game and giving the Giants an insurmountable advantage in the series. As Williams jubilantly crossed the plate, Clark waited to congratulate him for what he called "the best at bat I've seen in a long time." In the Chicago clubhouse after the game, Wilson wept in front of his locker. He had battled Williams gamely, but one pitch had cost his team dearly. "It was my fault all the way," he said. But that's hardly true, since star-of-tomorrow Williams definitely had something to do with it.
The previous evening, Thompson had done his part to frustrate the Cubs' hope of making the World Series for the first time since 1944. Game 3, the first of this series played at Candlestick, was a ding-dong affair. The Cubs scored twice in their half of the first inning, and the Giants scored three times in theirs, the first run coming on a bases-loaded groundout by Williams following yet another intentional pass to Mitchell. Then Chicago tied it in the fourth when reliever Jeff Brantley wild-pitched Shawon Dunston home after nearly getting out of the inning on a Clark-engineered 3-2-3 double play. Both starting pitchers, Rick Sutcliffe of the Cubs and Mike LaCoss of the Giants, had departed with leg injuries by the bottom of the seventh inning. Chicago was leading 4-3, and lefty Paul Assenmacher, acquired in an August trade with the Atlanta Braves, was pitching for the Cubs in Sutcliffe's stead.
Assenmacher was already famous in this series, not for what he had done so much as for what he hadn't. In the opening game, he was warming up in the fourth inning at Wrigley when Clark strode to the plate with the bases loaded. Hindsight experts insist he should have been brought in then to pitch to the left-handed Clark, but Zimmer, expressing unshakable faith in the righthanded Maddux, refused to go to his bullpen. Assenmacher was an interested spectator as Clark hit Maddux's first pitch out onto Sheffield Avenue for his grand slam. The next night Zimmer apparently saw the error of his ways, calling on Assenmacher to replace Bielecki and confront Clark with two men on in the fifth. This time, Clark grounded out feebly to his counterpart, Grace. It was a day late in coming, but Assenmacher had made his mark.
Alas, he was no help in Game 3, lasting a mere seven pitches and leaving with the count 1 and 0 to Thompson. Butler, who had singled, was on base. This time, Zimmer called on Les Lancaster, winner of Game 2, to finish off Thompson. It was a curious choice, though, because Thompson had homered off Lancaster the last time he had faced him, in the ninth inning of Game 2, to score the Giants' final run in a 9-5 Cub win. But Zimmer had, he said later, a "gut feeling" that Lancaster would do the job this time. Lancaster's first pitch to Thompson was a ball. His second was a fastball down the heart of the plate, as fat a pitch as a hitter could savor. Thompson lined it over the left-field fence to win the game and send the Giants out front two games to one.
Lancaster was asked after the game why he threw such a hittable pitch at that critical moment. His answer had reporters' mouths agape. "I've gone in before in the middle of a count, and I've done the job, but this time I didn't do it," he said. "After I missed with the slider and it was 3 and oh, I didn't think he'd be swinging. I just threw the ball for a strike. Craig must have given him the hit sign. That sure fooled me."
That wasn't all that fooled him. When informed that the count had been 2 and 0, not 3 and 0, Lancaster looked a bit like the guest who sat on the hostess's cat. "Maybe I misread the scoreboard," he said. "If I did, this is the first I've heard about it." Lancaster did not feel the full impact of his blunder until the next day, when he said, "A hundred years down the line some people might not remember it, but I know I will." Well, at least he's contemplating a long life. And who knows, by 2089 or so maybe the Cubs will have won a pennant.