The Last Great Pennant Race

The NL West race has been non-existent to start. The Braves sputtered from the gate, thanks to some difficulty that no all-world pitching team can cure: Poor hitting. Meanwhile, the Giants blasted miles ahead into first location. Bonds was dividing the league as expected, but there were openings over the supporting cast. Infielders Matt Williams and Robby Thompson were enjoying odd .300 campaigns; beginning pitchers John Burkett and Bill Swift were steamrolling on a pace to win 20 games apiece; and burly, scruffy-haired closer Rod Beck had grown into an intimidating presence on the mound. From the All-Star break, the Braves had crawled into second position, but still trailed the rampaging Giants by over ten games.
Then a fire has been sparked –almost literallyupon the Braves’ bats.
On July 20, the Braves scored a coup in acquiring first baseman Fred McGriff in the San Diego Padres, a franchise in the middle of a budget-saving fire saleSan Diego, on its way to 101 losses, also dealt away Gary Sheffield–prompting a class action litigation by Padres fans who felt they had been misled by a management guarantee not to trade away the group’s stars. Connie Mack could have amazed. However, hours before McGriff’s first game as a Brave, the media box at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium inadvertently caught fire, and until it had been put out, a few 1,000 seats and several radio stalls had been rendered useless. The fire, however, given a symbolic gesture for the Braves’ offense, which suddenly lit up. McGriff’s home run that evening sparked a 8-5 comeback win over St. Louis, and Atlanta began to rocket upward.
As the Braves fired up, the Giants cooled–then iced over at the worst possible moment. Atlanta came to Candlestick Park at the end of August and sailed four matches in the Giants, abruptly securing first location. The Giants continued to slump, but pulled themselves back into a first-place tie together with the Braves going into the regular season’s final weekend.
The Braves took the first two matches of the final series–a three-game house stand against the expansion Colorado Rockies–while San Francisco kept pace with three road wins at Los Angeles against its hated rivals, the Dodgers. That left both teams with identical records of 103-58 entering the season’s final moment.
The Giants rested their year’s hopes on Salomon Torres, a highly commended, 21-year-old call-up whose sooner few looks upheld his promise. However, Torres bombedTorres would go on to have a long significant league career–chiefly as a reliever–but following his pressure-packed reduction to the Dodgers, his lofty possibility was not fulfilled. As the Dodgers dismantled the Giants, who had been made to fold their cards using a 12-1 loss. Meanwhile, the Braves collected, finishing a Colorado team for whom Atlanta would not lose one match annually –a NL first for its century–and clinched the NL West.
The Braves’ second-half spike was eye opening. Pre-McGriff, they had been 53-41. His addition was sufficient to take the pressure off other Braves hitters, who were badly slumping. David Justice, Ron Gant and Terry Pendleton came alive with McGriff’s arrival. On the mound, Greg Maddux, after a middling 7-7 beginning (despite a 2.88 ERA), finished at 20-10 with a 2.36 ERA–and collected his second straight Cy Young Award.
For the Giants, 103-59 would not cut it to the postseason; somebody else was simply better. Fair is fair. The intensive, mythical battle for first place at the West packed such a wallop that it was, in itself, a valid kind of playoff–and baseball lovers everywhere glued to its regular status. However, while this titanic combat played itself out, the owners jointly began re-writing the principles.
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