The skies, as they usually are this time of year, were clear and sunny except, of course, for patchy fog along the coast. The wind, predictably, was blowing briskly from the northwest. The bridges still spanned the Bay. North Beach smelled, as always, of coffee and pasta. But there was something profoundly different about San Francisco on Sunday, and you could feel it in the cool morning air: Good Lord, the Giants were no longer in first place!
Yes, after 123 days of leading the National League West, the Giants had been overtaken by the onrushing Atlanta Braves. A San Francisco lead that had been nine games as recently as Aug. 11 had finally evaporated. "It seems strange," says Giant backup first baseman Todd Benzinger. "We've been chased relentlessly, and now we're the chasers."
Until three weeks ago, San Francisco hadn't even played that badly. Entering Sunday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Giants were 30-22 (.577) since the All-Star break. At the same time, the Braves had played at an astonishing .759 (41-13) clip that included 26 wins in their last 31 games. The Giants themselves, professing all the while not to be watching the scoreboard, looked on in amazement as the gap steadily closed. "You wonder," said Benzinger, "how long they can keep up this torrid pace. We know things can turn around real fast."
They did for San Francisco. Last Saturday, with a 3-1 loss to the Cardinals, the Giants dropped their fourth game in row, and sixth of 10 in September, to fall a game behind Atlanta. Giant starter Bill Swift failed for the sixth time to win his 18th game. Then on Sunday, John Burkett came up empty in his fifth bid to win his 19th game when St. Louis swept the series with a 4-2 victory. Those two pitchers had carried the maimed San Francisco staff through the first five months of the season. Now, though there were denials all around, the pair seemed a bit tattered themselves. And suddenly San Francisco was counting heavily on two recent pickups, retreads Jim Deshaies and Scott Sanderson, and a promising rookie, Salomon Tones, to stabilize a rocky rotation.
Even though Swift pitched well enough over his seven innings last Saturday, he hit what has become a customary bad patch in the middle innings, walking three and giving up two runs in the fourth and then allowing three of the Cards' six hits in the fifth. The final run-scoring hit was—typically—a blooper off the bat of Gregg Jefferies over a drawn-in infield. The Giants, for their part, scored only one run on 12 hits, leaving nine base runners stranded.
"That's the way it's been for us these past few weeks," said still confident San Francisco manager Dusty Baker. "The hops, the catches and the calls have all gone the other way. The ball hasn't been falling for us. Every one of our mistakes costs us. We hit line drives for nothing. This is like life, though—when the bad times hit, you just have to fight your way through them. There is no lack of confidence or effort on this team. I know I ain't gonna crumble."
More than bad hops have hurt the Giants this season. Their two prime left-handed starters, Trevor Wilson and Bud Black, have spent much of the season on the disabled list, and every regular except left fielder Barry Bonds, shortstop Royce Clayton and catcher Kirt Manwaring has made a visit to the DL.
The latest victim, first baseman Will Clark, was just emerging from a long slump when he hurt his right knee on Aug. 25. In his absence Baker tried four players, including Bonds, in Clark's number-3 spot in the batting order, and collectively they hit .157. Clark returned to the lineup on Sunday, and Baker felt he can provide the spark the Giants need. "If he can take us to the playoffs and the World Series, it would be a perfect ending," he said. "They say it's always darkest before the dawn, don't they?"