The 1990 San Francisco Giants came into the season as the cream of the NL West crop. The Giants had won the division title in 1987 and the National League pennant in 1989. The tenure of manager Roger Craig (who ironically shared the name of a great 49ers running back of this same era), which began in 1986, had been an undeniable success. The ’90 Giants had a good team, but they took a step back and their decline foreshadowed the ultimate end of the Craig era.
San Francisco could hit, and their lineup was built around muscle in the middle. Leftfielder Kevin Mitchell, coming off his ’89 MVP season, posted a stat line of .360 on-base percentage/.544 slugging percentage, 35 home runs and 93 RBIs. Matt Williams was at third base and he homered 33 times with 122 RBIs. Will Clark was on the other side of the infield at first base and his stat line was .357/.448.
Brett Butler was one of the game’s most consistent leadoff hitters and he kept the table set for Clark, Williams and Mitchell. Butler posted a sterling .397 OBP and stole 51 bases. Even though this was a top-heavy lineup without much production from anyone else, the quartet of Mitchell, Williams, Clark and Butler were enough to make the Giants the fourth-best offense in the National League.
Craig’s reputation had been built as a pitching coach in Detroit, but it was pitching that proved the undoing of San Francisco in 1990. John Burkett had a nice year, going 14-7 with a 3.79 ERA in his 32 starts. But when that’s the best you get from any starter, it’s a problem. Scott Garrelts and Don Robinson were mediocre, as was Trevor Wilson. The biggest problem was that Rick Reuschel, who had won 17 games in 1989, finally ran out of gas at the age of 41. His decline left the rotation without an anchor.
Jeff Brantley had an excellent year sharing closer’s duties, saving 19 games with a 1.56 ERA. But Steve Bedrosian, the more established closer, with a Cy Young Award on his resume, struggled. Bedrosian saved 17 games, but at the cost of a 4.20 ERA. The bullpen wasn’t going to cover for what the starters weren’t providing. And San Francisco finished 10th in what was then only a 12-team National League for staff ERA.
The Giants got off to a terrible start. They were swept at home by a bad team in San Diego and a team that everyone thought was bad in Pittsburgh (although that early perception proved quite mistaken). By Memorial Day, San Francisco was 17-27. To make matters worse, the Cincinnati Reds were red-hot. The Giants were not only in last place in the NL West, but staring at a 14-game deficit to the Reds.
Here’s a good place to step back and remind younger readers that the alignment of the time had each league split into just two divisions, an East and a West. The Giants, Dodgers and Padres were joined in the West by the Houston Astros (a National League franchise prior to 2013). The Reds and the Atlanta Braves, in a tortured display of geography, were also slotted in the West.
So it was the Reds that everyone was chasing and the Giants got their first head-to-head crack at the frontrunners in early June. Cincinnati came into windy old Candlestick Park. And San Francisco was ready. They unloaded for five runs in the first inning of Monday night’s opener and Burkett cruised to a 10-1 win. On Tuesday, a scoreless game in the sixth inning was broken open and the Giants won 6-1 behind two-hit nights from Clark and second baseman Robby Thompson.
On the getaway afternoon finale, the Giants trailed 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth. They had the series win in the bag and it was only June. But when you’ve dug this deep a hole, urgency is the order of the day. Clark homered to tie the game. Mitchell homered in the 11th to win it. The sweep of the Reds was the highlight of a 15-2 romp through divisional rivals. Even though San Francisco lost two of three on their return trip to Cincy, they moved their record to 44-39 by the All-Star break. That was good for second place and the deficit to the Reds was a manageable eight games.
But the Giants were sluggish out of the break, losing 7 of 13 before again hosting Cincinnati on July 26. Again, San Francisco made the most of an opportunity. On Thursday, they fell behind Cincy ace Jose Rijo 3-0 in the first inning. But with four hits from Butler they clawed their way back in it, reserve outfielder Rick Leach hit a two-run homer and the Giants won 4-3.
Friday night’s game was tied 3-3 in the ninth when some more unlikely heroes came through. Gary Carter was a Hall of Fame catcher whose best years were well behind him as he split duty in San Francisco. Carter singled to lead off the ninth. Garrelts came into pinch-run, got to second base on an error and scored on a base hit from reserve Bill Bathe.
On Saturday, the Giants trailed 2-1 in the ninth. The no-names again stepped up. This time it was Dave Anderson homering to tie up the ballgame. In the 11th, after consecutive two-out hits from the usual suspects in Clark and Mitchell, reserve infielder Earnest Riles legged out an infield hit that scored the winning run.
Garrelts won a game in his more traditional pitching role on Sunday. He took a no-hitter into the ninth inning and got the first two outs. A base hit from Paul O’Neill finally broke up the bid, but Garrelts completed the 4-0 shutout, which in turn completed the 4-0 series sweep.
The Giants were within 5 ½ games and the Reds had every reason to be nervous. San Francisco went on to win a series against Los Angeles and the margin got as tight as 3 ½ games in the first part of August. It was time for the stretch drive.
Instead, it was the time everything suddenly fell apart. The Giants lost four straight series and went 3-10 in the process. They lost three of four in Cincinnati. With the Reds playing sluggishly through the summer, the Giants were still within 7 ½ on August 19. But they stumbled into Labor Day, losing 9 of 16. When the holiday weekend arrived, San Francisco was 10 ½ back. It was Los Angeles who had moved into second place and would press the Reds through September.
The Giants still made a nice recovery. They went 18-11 the rest of the way. They beat the Dodgers four times out of six, including the game that knocked their archrival out in the final week. San Francisco’s final record of 85-77 was still tied for fifth-best in the National League and 10th-best overall. In today’s game, they might have gotten a wild-card spot.
But in 1990’s game, they were going home. What’s more, it was the last winning season of Craig’s tenure. San Francisco slipped under .500 the next two years before rebounding dramatically in 1993 when Barry Bonds came to town.