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The Last Great Pennant Race

by Jerry Keys

Twenty years ago baseball continued to amaze us with Carlton Fisk, Nolan Ryan, George Brett, and Robin Yount. The Toronto Blue Jays had perfected the art of "renting superstars in the last year of their contract" and won back-to-back World Series. Some kid from Michigan was the New York Yankees' top draft pick (Derek Jeter). And baseball expanded for the first time since 1977, adding the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins.

1993 was the last year for only two teams reaching the post-season in the National League. The National League was to expand from two divisions to three and added a wild card entry to the post-season. Most purists did not wish this to occur, but they also were not fond of the two-team playoff format initiated in 1969. The Pittsburgh Pirates were the three-time defending champions of the NL East and the Atlanta Braves were two-time defending champs of the NL West.

Jerry Keys

The Pirates were not expected to contend in 1993, after losing free agents Doug Drabek and Barry Bonds to free agency. The East was thought to be won by either the St. Louis Cardinals or Montreal Expos. The West favorite was Atlanta. The San Diego Padres were the only team who could pose a serious threat. Atlanta already boasted the best young pitching staff in baseball. Before the 1993 season, they added Cy Young winner Greg Maddux. Not to mention young phenoms Ryan Klesko, Chipper Jones, and Javy Lopez looking to crack the major league roster. Rightfully so, Atlanta already started making plans for post-season action in 1993.

A slow start did not worry Atlanta, it had happened in 1991. The San Francisco Giants took an early lead in the West. The Giants were coming off a 72-90 mark, but did sign free agent Bonds from Pittsburgh. The Giants had power and speed at the plate and could rival Atlanta's, but they were light-years away on pitching. Bill Swift produced a solid 1992 campaign, but the Giants staff were question marks afterwards. John Burkett was a marginal pitcher, Bud Black was a veteran, but ineffective, and Trevor Wilson was 8-14 the previous year. The Braves had no reason to fret over the Giants.

Atlanta finished April with a 12-13 mark, but recovered in May to post an impressive 17-10 record. However, San Francisco matched Atlanta with monthly records of 15-9 and 18-9. Atlanta still was not concerned, they claimed a 29-23 record and were getting hot. The Giants were at 33-18 and destined to fall back to the pack after a torrid start. Swift was not a big surprise after his 1992 record, but Burkett came out of nowhere to pitch like a staff ace, too. With divisional games reduced after expansion, Atlanta and San Francisco no longer went head-to-head 18 times, it was reduced to 13 to mirror the American League format. The teams had squared off seven times, with the Giants taking two of three at the Bay and three of four at Atlanta in April.

As the temperatures heated up in June, as did the Giants. They posted a 19-9 mark, totaling a 52-27 record. Atlanta had a winning record in June, but at 15-11, they fell further behind. By the All-Star break, the Giants were 59-30 and the Braves, 50-39. Last year Atlanta was 49-37 at the All-Star break and finished the second half at 49-27. They ran away with the West in '92. But Atlanta was nine games behind the Giants at the Break. A repeat of their second half of '92 would not be enough to erase nine games. The Giants had won the West in 1989 and retained team leaders Will Clark and Matt Williams.

If the Giants prodded along at a .500 pace the remainder of the year, they would still claim a 96-66 mark. To simply tie the Giants at that mark, they would have to go 46-27. But they were 49-27 in the second half last year, couldn't they do it again? Atlanta finished July at 63-43, while the Giants were at 70-35, a .667 clip. The Giants did not make any trading deadline deals in July, but Atlanta rolled the dice and gave up three prospects to San Diego for the 'Crime Dog' Fred McGriff. As late as August 11, Atlanta was nine games back of San Francisco, at 68-47. The Giants were at 77-38. At this point no one considered Atlanta a poor team, but how do you catch a team winning at a .667 clip? Win twenty games straight?

Atlanta did start to slowly chip away at the nine games and by August 23, were out by seven and a half games. A three game series between the two could push Atlanta back to ten-plus games out (and all but cede the West to the Giants) or pull them to within four and a half games. Atlanta swept the three games at the Bay, and were now considered a serious threat to the Giants for the first time. They squared-off in Atlanta at the end of August and early September for the final time, and the Braves took two of three to stand at 83-51....three and a half behind the Giants at 86-47. Since the conclusion of July, the Giants had went 16-12....the Braves...20-8. Similar to 1991, Atlanta was the clear under dog and everyone was aboard.

San Francisco hit a cold spell in mid-September and lost eight in a row to stand at 89-56. During the losing streak, Atlanta had tied and passed the Giants and after their swoon, were at 93-53. Atlanta had went red-hot and crushed the Giants. The West was a wrap....not quite so. San Francisco had a fiery manager, and former Brave player, Dusty Baker. There were seventeen games left for San Francisco and if every game needed to be won, they were going to do it. Over the next twelve games, the Giants posted eleven wins. As of September 28, the Giants were 100-57, Atlanta, who were up by four games on September 17, were 100-57, as well. San Francisco had one remaining home game against Colorado and a four game road finale with much-hated Los Angeles. Atlanta was at home for the conclusion of the regular season, two with Houston and three with Colorado.

The Giants lost their home finale and won the first road game with the Dodgers. Atlanta split the two games with Houston. Each team was at 101-58 with three to go. Friday and Saturday's games were victorious by the Braves and Giants. Each team was 103-58. Atlanta was throwing out a four-man rotation near the end, Tom Glavine was scheduled for the final game. The Giants were starting Salomon Torres, the losing pitcher in San Francisco's last three losses, dating back to September 14th.

Atlanta manager Bobby Cox pulled Maddux from game #161 early, thinking he may need to be used the next day in relief or to pitch a game #163 play-off with the Giants. John Smoltz was the next pitcher in the rotation to pitch if there were a game #163. Steve Avery pitched deep into game #160 but, like Smoltz, could be used for a few innings if needed in game #162 or 163. San Francisco, on the other hand, had virtually gassed Swift and Burkett. Their #3 starter was Bryan Hickerson, but he was used in game #161 and was unproven. In hindsight, everything seems right, but the Giants would have been better served by going into the final game using middle and relief pitching.

Glavine pitched a masterpiece and Atlanta won 5-3. The Giants game began roughly when Atlanta's ended. Torres was chased early and the Dodgers were up 6-1 after five innings. The Giants would lose 12-1 and fall one game behind Atlanta. But there were no more games to be played. San Francisco was 103-59 and shut out of the playoffs.

The last time I could recall a team not making the post-season with at least 100 wins was the 1980 Baltimore Orioles. They finished at 100-62 but the New York Yankees were 103-59. Had the Giants posted a 103-59 any year after 1993, they would have seen October baseball.

Burkett finished the year 22-7, a 3.65 ERA, and threw 231 innings. Swift threw 232 innings, posted a 2.82 ERA, and a 21-8 mark. Although both pitchers posted career years, Burkett finished fourth in Cy Young voting, and Swift second. Maddux won the Cy with a 2.36 ERA, a 20-10 mark, and threw 267 innings. Glavine finished third in voting with 239 innings pitched, a 3.20 ERA, and a 22=6 record. Bonds won the National League MVP, teammate Williams finished sixth; while Atlanta's Dave Justice, McGriff, and Ron Gant finished third, fourth, and fifth. Baker won the NL Manager of the Year, and Bobby Cox came in tied for third. Unknown before 1992 closer Rod Beck compiled 48 saves and a 2.16 ERA.

The '93 Giants were bookended by losing records in 1991-92 and 1994-96. The '93 Braves were one of fifteen straight winning seasons and fourteen straight playoff teams. The only other teams during their run who could be considered as good as the '93 squad, was the '95 and '98 Braves. A close friend who is a lifelong Giants fan stated, "The 2003 Giants would match-up perfectly with the '93 squad, great hitting but weak pitching after the #1 and 2 starters. But the 1962 Giants were far superior."

1993 was a fantastic time for baseball. Attendance records were being set, performance enhancing drugs were not in the baseball vocabulary, and honest to goodness pennant races took place. Today PED users are in the headlines, attendance has yet to fully recover from the 1994 strike, and teams with 83 wins still have a chance at post-season action.