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October 7, 1998

1998 Season Recap
By GVL Regular... John K

ON AUGUST 11, 1951, the New York Giants trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers by 13.5 games in the National League standings. Only a crazy miracle could catapult the Giants to the pennant, but sometimes miracles do happen. New York won 37 of its final 44 games to catch Brooklyn, and then went on to beat them in a best-of-three playoff on Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World." Years later, Monte Irvin, the left fielder for the '51 Giants, talked about the team's mindset down the stretch.

"I ASK MYSELF how we did it," Irvin recalled. "And the reason was because we believed in one another. (Manager) Leo Durocher never said, 'Let's win this thing.' It was always, 'Let's see how close we can get.'"

THE 1998 SAN FRANCISCO Giants can definitely relate to what happened 47 years earlier because they faced a similar situation. On the morning of Sept. 18, the Giants were five games out in the wild card race, trailing both the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets. Coming off a disappointing stretch in which they had lost four of six to the sub-.500 Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks, the Giants had not given any reason to believe that they had the ability to put together the kind of run it would take to land a playoff berth. But as things turned out, the Giants indeed had one more run left in them. Beginning with the Sept. 18 game, they won two of three against the Dodgers, swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in four straight, and took the first game in Colorado. With that win over the Rockies, the Giants suddenly found themselves in a three-way tie for the wild card spot after Atlanta beat the Mets and the Cubs fell to Houston. The Giants then beat the Rockies the next day. Chicago edged the Astros, but the Mets again lost to the Braves, which knocked them one game behind the Giants and Cubs with only one game left. If the Giants could complete their astonishing run with yet another win in Colorado, they would guarantee themselves at least a tie for the wild card.

THE GIANTS QUICKLY jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the fifth inning, thanks in part to a Joe Carter home run. Kirk Rueter looked sharp through the first four innings and appeared to be well on the way to his 17th win. But Rueter, who went 3-0 in September despite pitching with a sore left elbow, suddenly ran out of gas. After giving up four consecutive hits, Dusty Baker removed Rueter for John Johnstone, who had been San Francisco's most reliable reliever in September. Inheriting two baserunners and a 7-3 lead, Johnstone struck out the dangerous Vinny Castilla for the second out of the inning. But Todd Helton blasted a three-run homer, cutting the Giants' lead to 7-6. They took that narrow lead into the bottom of the seventh when Castilla returned the favor by hitting a two-run homer off Julian Tavarez to give the Rockies an 8-7 lead. However, in the top half of the eighth, Jeff Kent hit his 31st homer to even the score.

MEANWHILE, THE METS had lost again in Atlanta, which eliminated them from the race. In Houston, the Astros had rallied for two runs in the eighth to tie the Cubs at three. In the Giants' clubhouse, huge sheets of plastic covered the lockers in the event of a postgame celebration. Several of the Giants' reserves gathered to watch the Cubs-Astros game on the clubhouse television. While Robb Nen warmed up to pitch the bottom of the ninth inning, the Astros scored the winning run. If the Giants could pull this game out of the fire, they would be on their way to Atlanta as the wild card team. Yet another improbable late-season run by the Giants could be rewarded with a playoff berth. That is how close they were. The spot was there for the taking. All the Giants had to do was win this game. Incredibly, only 10 days earlier, even SIX days earlier, very few people realistically envisioned the Giants in this position. Before the final game in Arizona, Giants announcer Ted Robinson spoke of why "it just wasn't going to happen" for the Giants this year.

NEIFI PEREZ LED off the bottom of the ninth inning and took a called strike from Nen. The next pitch was a low fastball, and the Rockies' young shortstop drove it over the right field wall, giving the Rockies a 9-8 win by overcoming a 7-0 deficit. The Giants players who had seen the Cubs lose just seconds earlier had not even returned to the dugout to relay the good news. The plastic in the locker room was quickly torn down so as not to remind the players of their lost opportunity. Word rapidly spread that the Cubs had also lost, meaning the Giants would fly to Chicago for a one-game playoff at Wrigley Field.

EVERYONE KNOWS WHAT happened on the corner of Clark and Addison that Monday night. The Cubs eventually opened up a 5-0 lead, Steve Trachsel did not allow a hit until the seventh inning, and the 3-4-5 trio of Barry Bonds, Kent, and Carter combined to go 0 for 12. Bonds twice batted with the bases loaded and could only produce a sacrifice fly. The Giants valiantly scratched for three runs in the ninth, but it was too little and too late. Ex-Giant Rod Beck got Carter to foul out as the tying run to end the game and the Giants' season.

THAT 11-GAME STRETCH was a whirlwind of emotions that started with, "I just hope they can finish ahead of the Dodgers at this point," to "It'll take a major miracle to even have a shot at this," to "Well, just maybe ...," to "This can REALLY happen," to "This WILL happen," to "Just one more win, guys," to "Close, but yet again, no cigar for the Giants."

I HAVE MIXED feelings about the 1998 Giants. On one hand, I am happy with their 89-win season. I had the Giants earmarked as the symbol of mediocrity, yet they exceeded my expectations for the second year in a row. In fact, it completed the best two-year stretch they have had since I became a fan in 1978. In March, if I had known the Giants would rack up 89 wins, I would have gladly taken it with ZERO complaints. But on the other hand, the image of plastic sheets being torn off the lockers in record time is one that is hard to shake and will serve as a permanent reminder of what could have been. For as long as I live, I will NEVER forget that image. Sometimes I wonder if the small taste of honey is worth the eventual heartbreak.

I DO KNOW that I did not feel as badly about this loss as I did on the final day of 1993. I felt cheated that my favorite team won 103 games and had nothing to show for its efforts in '93. It just did not seem fair. But the Giants had two final chances in 1998 and failed to take advantage of either one of them. They have only themselves to blame.

THE QUESTION FOR the Giants now is, "What will it take to get back to the top of the National League West?" For what it is worth, here are my answers to that question:

-- First and foremost, the Giants need to acquire a legitimate ace to anchor their starting rotation. Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown are the only free agents who fit that description, but the Giants have publicly stated that they will not pursue them. Al Leiter and Todd Stottlemyre are free agents who are on the next notch down. While neither is a classic ace, they both work well over 200 innings a year, consistently pitching deep into games, which takes a lot of pressure off the bullpen, a serious problem for the '98 Giants. Both Stottlemyre and Leiter can dominate on any given night. If San Francisco does not sign one of those four pitchers, rumor has it that the Braves may shop Denny Neagle. Neagle is not as good as Johnson or Brown, but he is better than both Leiter and Stottlemyre. He is a virtual lock to win 15 games and would easily be the best pitcher in the Giants' rotation. He is due to make $5 million in 1999, which is a relatively good bargain.

-- Re-sign Ellis Burks or acquire a right fielder of comparable ability. Burks hit .306 in his two months with the Giants and expressed a desire to return to San Francisco. But while still a fine player, Burks turned 34 years old in September and saw his numbers drop for a second consecutive year. He has also been extremely injury-prone throughout his career. Burks made $4.9 million in 1998 and will be seeking a raise. Brian Jordan is the only viable option in right field among the free agents. Brian Sabean has said that the Giants will need a "big bat" in right field. Signing Burks or Jordan is imperative.

-- They must shore up the bullpen. Nen is rightfully entrenched as the closer, while Johnstone, Tavarez, and Rich Rodriguez will likely all be back next year. Jose Mesa is a free agent and could not have possibly instilled much confidence in the Giants' brain trust. He was used as a set-up man, which is an area the Giants will need to upgrade. Acquiring another lefthanded reliever is also a must. Because Rodriguez is their only quality southpaw in the bullpen, Baker had to go to him more than he would have liked. In the first half of the season, Jim Poole could not be trusted, and Alvin Morman was largely unimpressive in his stint with the Giants in the second half.

-- Hope that J.T. Snow can regain his 1997 form, when he hit 28 homers and drove in 104 runs. Snow struggled offensively in 1998, but his mother's illness and eventual death likely factored into that, as well as nagging shoulder and wrist injuries. Snow had another miserable season from the right side of the plate, managing just a .159 average. He batted strictly lefthanded the last week of the season and will probably scrap switch hitting. If he can put up numbers even close to what he did in '97, coupled with a right fielder, the Giants should have a very strong middle of their lineup.

-- Pray that Shawn Estes can find what made him a 19-game winner in 1997. Estes battled through inconsistency and a shoulder injury in '98 and was never able to get untracked. He often failed to throw his curveball for strikes, which is the key to his success. Maybe the Giants made a mistake by designating Estes as their ace in 1998. He was only 25 years old and only had one full season in the big leagues under his belt. Perhaps the acquisition of a legitimate staff leader would take some pressure off Estes. There is no reason in the world why a pitcher with Estes' talent should not be a big winner.

-- Hope that Russ Ortiz can apply what he learned in '98 to his approach in 1999. The Giants are impressed with both Ortiz's arm and composure, which are the two main ingredients in a quality pitcher. In nearly every one of his starts, Ortiz breezed through the first four innings, only to hit a roadblock in the middle innings when the opponent's lineup saw him for a third time. That is just a matter of making adjustments based on experience. If Ortiz can be a consistent six-inning pitcher and win 10 to 12 games in 1999, the Giants will be thrilled.

THE GIANTS HAVE said that their payroll will not see a dramatic jump next year. They have said that there is a strong possibility that veteran depth could be sacrificed for inexpensive youngsters. This could mean we will say goodbye to players like Stan Javier, Charlie Hayes, Rey Sanchez, Brian Johnson, and Brent Mayne. Sabean says that the Giants may audition young players in 1999 so they don't have to do so in 2000 at Pacific Bell Park. I realize that ownership has lost big money for five straight years due mostly to poor attendance at Candlestick Park. In 2000, Pacific Bell Park will open and the Giants will then break out their wallet. But it looks like the National League West could be up for grabs in '99, and I would hate to see them neglect an opportunity to win a wide open division. Obviously, I think the aforementioned six suggestions would make the Giants a strong favorite to take the division, or the wild card spot at the very least.

ALL INDICATIONS SHOW the Giants waiting until 2000 to make a dramatic splash like they did when they signed Bonds after the 1992 season. Rumor has it they will bide their time next year and then christen Pacific Bell Park with a talent-laden team. If the Giants use 1999 as tryouts for youngsters, I will be seriously disappointed, but that is nothing new. I have grown tired of "waiting 'till next year." But I have waited 21 years. I guess one more year won't kill me.