After chasing the NL West title to the final weekend in 1982, the San Francisco Giants slid off the map for the next three years and bottomed out with a 100-loss campaign in 1985. The organization reached out to Roger Craig, one of the game’s highly regarded pitching coaches and one who had been part of the 1984 Detroit Tigers staff that won it all. Craig showed immediate improvement in the Bay Area and the 1986 San Francisco Giants got on trajectory that would eventually produce some October baseball.
Craig got the most of a veteran staff that had appeared to be washed up. Mike Krukow, at the age of 34, came up with a 20-win season. Mike LaCoss, 30-years-old, logged over 200 innings and posted a 3.57 ERA. And Vida Blue, a mainstay of the great Oakland A’s teams from 1971-75, but now 36-years-old, got at least a sip of the Fountain of Youth, with 10 wins and a 3.27 ERA.
The vets were augmented by 25-year-old Kelly Downs, who made 14 starts and finished with a 2.75 ERA. Scott Garrelts was as versatile as they come, with 18 starts, 35 relief appearances and finished with thirteen wins, ten saves and a 3.11 ERA. Jeff Robinson worked over 100 innings out of the bullpen with a 3.36 ERA. Greg Minton finished with an ERA of 3.93
Mark Davis, who would one day win a Cy Young Award in San Diego, and Juan Berenguer, filled out the bullpen with sub-3.00 ERAs. All this depth and consistency produced the third-best staff ERA in the National League.
San Francisco could also hit and the fourth-best offense in the NL was keyed by an ability to get on base. Bob Brenly, the catcher, future manager of the World Series champion 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks and Fox-TV analyst, was the prototype. Even though Brenly hit just .246, he drew 74 walks and finished with a solid on-base percentage of .350.
Third baseman Chris Brown had a .376 OBP, though he did it the old-fashioned way, with hits rather than walks. Dan Gladden posted a .357 OBP in centerfield. Chili Davis was at .375 in right. A 22-year-old phenom at first base by the name of Will Clark broke in with a .343 on-base percentage. Utility man Mike Aldrete was the best of a bench that was as deep as the pitching staff, at .353.
The power wasn’t there—Candy Maldonado was the only player with real pop, as he slugged .477 and hit 18 home runs. Clark, and left fielder Jeffrey Leonard did not have the muscle that would later display. But it was enough for the Giants to score runs.
San Francisco took four of six from their archrival and defending NL West champ, Los Angeles in the early going and the Giants won ten of their first fifteen games. By Memorial Day, they were 24-19 and part of an NL West logjam where five of the six teams were packed within 2 ½ games.
Craig’s pitching staff made their first big statement in a four-game series with Houston, an NL West rival prior to the realignment of 1994. San Francisco allowed just six runs in the four games, highlighted by Krukow’s complete-game 4-2 win. The Giants concluded the home sweep with a game and a half lead in the division. By the All-Star break they were 48-40, up a game on the Astros and three on the Padres. The Dodgers had slipped to 40-48 and would suffer a bad year in 1986.
A 13-game road trip started the second half and nine losses, capped by losing three straight in Dodger Stadium spelled the end of the first-place run. The Giants went 12-16 in the month of August and by the time Labor Day arrived, they were at .500, eight games back and watching the Reds move past them into second place and the Astros pulling away from everyone.
But San Francisco didn’t give back the progress they were making by mailing it in down the stretch. On September 11, Downs beat the Reds 2-1 and got the Giants to 71-70. They were over .500 for good. San Francisco had to live through the embarrassment of watching Houston’s Mike Scott throw a no-hitter at them on September 25 that clinched the NL West for the Astros. But San Francisco kept competing and on October 3, the final Friday of the season, Downs had another strong game, this one against Los Angeles. The lineup peppered 16 hits in an 8-2 win.
The “8-2” final was appropriate because it was win #82 and clinched a winning season for a team that had been awful just a year earlier. It was the mark of progress and by 1987 there would be an even bigger mark—the Giants would win the NL West and in 1989, they would go one step further and claim the National League pennant.