1982 San Francisco Giants: A Surge That Falls Just Short

The centennial season of the Giants franchise was one to remember. It wasn’t a championship team or even a pennant winner, like they’d enjoyed in the New York days. It wasn’t a dynasty like they would later experience in San Francisco. But the 1982 San Francisco Giants nearly put on one a stretch drive to rival their 1951 New York counterparts before coming up just short. And even then, the Giants still made sure to jam a knife in their archrival.

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San Francisco had struggled since winning the NL West in 1971. The ensuing ten years had seen just three winning seasons. They brought on Frank Robinson as manager and he produced one of those plus-.500 years in 1981, going 56-55 in a strike-shortened year. In 1982, Robinson’s team continued to improve.

There were aging, but proud vets on the right side of the infield. Reggie Smith had been a star with both the Red Sox and Dodgers and the 37-year-old first baseman showed he could still produce, with a stat lie of .364 on-base percentage/.470 slugging percentage in 1982. Second baseman Joe Morgan, a two-time NL MVP with Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine was now 38-years-old. But he still batted .289 and with his patience at the plate, drew 85 walks on top of it to finish with an on-base percentage of .400.

A rising star was in right field, where 26-year-old Jack Clark hit 27 home runs, drove in 103 runs and finished with a.372 OBP. Third baseman Tom O’Malley finished with a .350 OBP at the age of 21. Two other young players were still in the developing process, but centerfielder Chili Davis and left fielder Jeffrey Leonard would be in the majors for years to come.

Overall, the offense was still less than the sum of its parts. In spite of finishing fourth in OBP and fifth in slugging percentage, they were only eighth in runs scored. The reason was mostly low batting averages—the patience at the plate produced runners, but the lack of hits meant they often died on the basepaths. That put the burden on the pitching staff, an area of the team that had been subject to a massive makeover in the offseason.

Vida Blue was a Bay Area legend, mostly with Oakland on their great teams of the early 1970s, but also with San Francisco. He was traded for young starters Atlee Hammer and Renie Martin in a deal that included six players total. An outfielder, Jerry Martin, was dealt for two more starters, Bill Laskey and Rich Gale.

These two trades were the highlights of an offseason that saw nine deals (along with adding Smith on the free agent market). The result was a rotation that was four-fifths now. And while they weren’t great, there was respectability.

Laskey had the best year, going 13-12 with a 3.14 ERA. Hammaker was steady, winning twelve games and posting an ERA of 4.11. Gale’s ERA was tolerable at 4.23, though the record was poor at 7-14. Martin was the most up-and-down, going 7-10 with a 4.65 ERA. But it was enough for a bullpen that was good and unusually deep in an era where teams relied more heavily on their starters.

Greg Minton saved 30 games—a big number in that era—and finished with a buck-83 ERA. Fred Breining did a mix of relief and starting and logged 143 innings with a 3.08 ERA. Al Holland, who would make a name for himself as a closer in Philadelphia, pitched 129 innings and posted a 3.33 ERA. Jim Barr was in the same ballpark at 128 innings and 3.29 ERA. And Gary Lavelle threw over 100 innings himself with a sparkling 2.67 ERA.

Much like their championship teams that were still three decades into the future, this San Francisco bullpen was tough to rally against and they could keep a game close if a starter failed.

The season started poorly, with 10 losses in 15 games against fellow NL West teams. To make matters worse, Atlanta (in the NL West, along with Cincinnati prior to the realignment of 1994) got off to a blazing start. On Memorial Day, the Giants were 21-28 and in fifth place. They played marginally better in the first part of summer, but were still 42-46 at the All-Star break and eleven games behind the Braves.

When San Francisco lost five of their first seven games out of the break and fell 13 ½ games back, there was zero reason to expect a surge. Although a historian might have noted that the legendary 1951 New York Giants had also been 13 ½ back in July before beginning the pennant drive that ended with Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round The World.”

These Giants got hot at this point in the year too. They reeled off ten wins in eleven games in the early part of August. This stretch was capped off by an 8-6 win in twelve innings over the Braves when Smith won it with a walkoff home run. San Francisco beat Atlanta five times in six tries and the lead was quickly cut to four games.

The gains were given back quickly though, with ten losses in fourteen games against NL East teams to close August. San Francisco finally stopped the bleeding with a big sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, who would ultimately win the World Series. In the first two games, the Giants rallied in the ninth inning, including one that ended when Clark hit a three-run walkoff bomb off the great Cardinal closer Bruce Sutter with two outs to get a 5-4 victory. Breining completed the sweep a 5-1 win in the finale.

On Labor Day though, even with San Francisco above .500 at 69-67, there were still seven games out and in fourth place. San Diego, Los Angeles and Atlanta, in ascending order, were all ahead of the Giants.

Two critical games with Atlanta began the stretch drive. San Francisco won the opener 8-2, scoring all their runs in the final three innings. Another 3-2 win, keyed by home runs from Smith and Davis, cut the margin to five games. San Francisco kept playing well, winning five of seven over Cincinnati and San Diego. The Giants moved past the Padres into third place, but were still stuck at 5 ½ games out with two weeks to go. It looked like the surge had crested.

But the following weekend, San Francisco delivered the blow they needed. They went to Los Angeles for a three-game set. They won the opener 3-2 on a key eighth-inning RBI from Darrell Evans, a 35-year-old reserve who was reliable all year and finished with a .360 OBP. On Saturday, Morgan had three hits, including the game-winning RBI in a 5-4 win. And the finale was another 3-2 win with Evans again getting the biggest hit, a two-run home run.

Atlanta was struggling and the result was that San Francisco entered the final week of play just one game out, tied with Los Angeles for second place. And the Giants would get to play both the Braves and Dodgers in the last week.

Monday and Tuesday saw Atlanta in the Bay Area for a two-game set. In a critical stumble, San Francisco’s starting pitching failed them. They lost 7-0 and 8-3 as Martin and Laskey were rocked. They were able to win two straight over Houston, including a stunning 7-6 win after trailing 5-zip going into the seventh inning.

The rally kept the season alive as neither the Braves nor Dodgers could take control. The last weekend still had San Francisco and Los Angeles tied for a second, one game back of Atlanta. And the Dodgers-Giants rivalry would get another chapter as the teams met in old Candlestick Park for the last three games. The Braves would be further downstate in San Diego.

There would be no reprise of 1951. Even though Breining pitched very well on Friday night and was in a scoreless duel in the eighth inning, the Dodgers got a grand slam while the Giants only mustered three hits in a 4-0 loss. The Braves won, putting San Francisco’s back to the wall. And when Martin was crushed early on Saturday in a 15-2 loss, the pennant drive was over.

It was a disappointment, but in this rivalry, playing spoiler has always meant at least a little something. And San Francisco did the job so well on Sunday that the first memories of this season are what happened on the final day. Atlanta was still up a game on Los Angeles, but had fallen behind 5-1 in San Diego. The door was open for the Dodgers as the game in Candlestick went to the seventh inning tied 2-2.

Morgan, who made an entire Hall of Fame career of great moments, authored another one right here. He ripped a three-run homer down the line in rightfield. The Giants had a 5-3 win that tasted even sweeter when the Braves loss held up—San Francisco had at least denied their archrivals a chance for a second straight World Series title.

That was the good news. The bad news is that the progress of the 1982 San Francisco Giants did not continue. They immediately regressed with three straight losing seasons and Robinson was gone. Finally, in 1987 they made it back to the NLCS and in 1989 they again reached the World Series.