When the San Diego Padres won the National League pennant in 1984 there were high hopes for an enduring run of success. Those hopes had not panned out. The team slipped to a distance third place in 1985 and parted ways with manager Dick Williams. Two other managers didn’t work out either. Early in 1988, Jack McKeon took over and went 67-48 for the balance of the season, getting the franchise back over .500. The 1989 San Diego Padres took one step further, moving into contention and playing exciting baseball into the final week of the season.
Tony Gwynn is the face of this franchise and the Hall of Fame outfielder was in his prime at 29-years-old. Gwynn had another vintage year in ’89, batting .336 and winning his third straight batting title. The power in the lineup came from 33-year-old Jack Clark, who hit 26 homers and drove in 94 runs. Clark also posted an on-base percentage of .459.
This was the core of the offense, but San Diego also had some up-and-coming talent. A 21-year-old second baseman named Roberto Alomar, headed for the Hall of Fame, hit .295. Another rising star, Benito Santiago, was behind the plate, although his ’89 numbers were not particularly good. Bip Roberts was a valuable utility man who played everywhere, got nearly full-time at-bats and finished with an OBP of .391.
There were holes in the San Diego lineup. Repeated efforts were made to find a third baseman who could produce. None worked. Leftfielder Carmelo Martinez did not have a good year, nor did shortstop Garry Templeton. But the Gywnn/Clark combo was good enough, along with the supporting cast, for the Padres to rank fifth in the 12-team National League for runs scored.
Pitching was where San Diego made a big offseason investment, luring lefthanded starter Bruce Hurst away from Boston. Hurst delivered, winning 15 games with a 2.69 ERA. Ed Whitson was another reliable vet and even better, posting 16 victories with an ERA of 2.66. Dennis Rasmussen was up and down, with a 4.26 ERA. But he was reliable in taking the ball, making 33 starts and providing some stability to the rotation.
McKeon did a good job moving pieces in and out of the back end of the rotation. Veteran Walt Terrell pitched reasonably well, with a 4.01 ERA. The Padres dealt Terrell in late July to New York for third baseman Mike Pagliarulo, one of their ill-fated attempts to fix the hot corner.
Andy Benes, a promising 21-year-old with a nice career ahead of him, made 10 starts with an ERA of 3.51. Eric Show, a holdover from the ’84 team, took the mound 16 times and his ERA was 4.23. The Padres were getting at least respectable starting pitching each night.
The real strength of this staff was in the bullpen. Greg Harris and Mark Grant were reliable middle relievers. And the crème da la crème was closer Mark Davis. With 44 saves, and a dazzling 1.85 ERA, Davis won the NL Cy Young Award by a comfortable margin. The Padre staff ERA was also fifth in the National League.
The alignment of major league baseball prior to 1994 had each league split into just two divisions with only the first-place teams advancing to the postseason. So the NL West was a little more crowded than it is today. Along with current members in the Dodgers and Giants, the West included the Houston Astros (an NL team until 2013), the Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves. If you’re wondering why the Reds and Braves went west, while the Cubs and Cardinals went east, join a generation of people who never did make sense of it. The Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks were not yet in existence in 1993.
Anyway, the Dodgers were the defending World Series champs and the NL West’s flagship team throughout the decade. The Giants were just two years removed from winning the division. The Astros were a contender, as were the Reds.
Everyone muddled out of the gate in the early going. San Diego had a nice 8-5 stretch at the end of April and briefly shared first place for a couple days. By Memorial Day, the Padres were 26-25. Everyone in the division except Atlanta was within three games of the lead.
San Diego came out of the holiday weekend with a sweep of lowly Philadelphia. But June saw the season take a turn for their worse. In a month devoted exclusively to NL West competition, the Padres only went 10-15. Then they lost six of nine in a stretch of games against the Cubs, Pirates and Cardinals going into the All-Star break. San Diego was 42-46, in fourth place and 9 ½ games out. It was the same old Padres.
Only it wasn’t. San Diego came out of the break with the Chicago-Pittsburgh-St. Louis trio coming west for a return trip. The Padres took three of four from a Cubs team that would ultimately win the NL East. They took two of three from the Pirates…then they gave it all back by losing four straight to the contending Cardinals. It was the same old Padres.
But again, it wasn’t. They won consecutive series over Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Atlanta. And this time, San Diego kept grinding. They got back to .500 by late August. In the final week and a half going into Labor Day, the Padres ripped off an 8-1 stretch that included beating up NL East contenders in the Mets and Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals).
San Diego’s record was up to 71-65 and they were in third place, seven games back of San Francisco. Houston was in second, six off the pace. Los Angeles was going through a bad year and Cincinnati’s season had turned positively nightmarish—Pete Rose went from being the manager to being banned from baseball for gambling. The NL West was a three-horse race in the stretch drive.
The Padres nudged into a tie with the Astros for second and to within six games of the Giants. It set up a big week of September 11-17. San Diego would start the week with two games at home against Houston. The Padres would end with a three-game road set against the Giants. It was make-or-break time.
Templeton hit a grand slam on Monday night, keying a six-run sixth inning and a 7-3 win. On Tuesday night, Hurst dazzled with a complete-game two-hitter. Alomar drove in four runs. San Diego won 9-0. They had emerged as the clear challenger to San Francisco. The margin was down to five games. There were fifteen games left. Six of them, including the final weekend of the season were against the Giants.
Rasmussen took the ball on Friday night at old Candlestick Park and the game was tied 2-2 in the sixth. Templeton ripped an RBI double, Santiago hit a two-run blast and the Padres won 5-3. They were charging hard.
Saturday’s game was rained out and rescheduled as part of a Sunday doubleheader. It was a tough break for San Diego. It stalled momentum and sweeping a twinbill is tough against anyone, particularly a good team on the road. The Padres lost the opener, but won the second game behind a five-hitter from Hurst. They were still alive, at five games out, but not getting the sweep kept San Francisco in command.
There was still that three-game set back home at Jack Murphy Stadium to close the season to point to and San Diego kept the pressure on. They won five of six. But so did San Francisco. The margin was still five games when the final week began.
San Diego was hosting Cincinnati, while San Francisco was in Los Angeles. The Padres needed to get the lead down to three by the end of these series to have a chance on the weekend.
The Giants did what they could to help, losing on Monday. The Padres were tied 3-3 in the eighth, but the reliable Harris gave up a couple runs late and lost 5-3. Opportunity missed and any room for error was all gone.
San Francisco lost again on Tuesday. This time San Diego responded with a win, taking a 3-1 decision where Davis retired the last seven batters in succession to close out.
The Giants lost one more time on Wednesday. A Padre win could set up a dramatic final weekend. Hurst was on the mound and was brilliant in the clutch one more time. But there was no offense. San Diego trailed 1-0 in the ninth and were facing Cincy’s great closer John Franco.
Roberts and Alomar didn’t let San Diego’s season die there, with a couple singles that keyed a rally tying the game. It stretched to 13 innings. Finally, the Reds got a run and won 2-1. San Diego’s bid for the NL West crown was over.
It was a tough ending, not to at least get one last desperate shot at San Francisco on the final weekend, but there was no disappointment over the quality of this season. San Diego finished 89-73. That was third-best in the National League and tied for sixth-best in all of baseball. Easily a playoff season by the more lenient standards of today.
The bad news for San Diego fans is that this ’89 run didn’t start anything. By midway through 1990, McKeon was fired and a managerial merry-go-round was underway again. Not until 1996, when the Padres landed Bruce Bochy as the manager, did they win the NL West.