After a strong six-year run of contention ended in 1983, the city of Milwaukee saw losing baseball for the next three years. The 1987 Milwaukee Brewers returned to contention under first-year manager Tim Trebelhorn and gave the fan base a roller-coaster ride of excitement, fraught with several notable streaks on both a team-wide and individual basis.
The second-most prolific offense in the American League was the key to Brewer success in 1987. Robin Yount had made the shift from being an MVP shortstop in 1982to playing centerfield due to shoulder problems. The future Hall of Famer and greatest player in franchise history put up another good year, with a stat line of .384 on-base percentage/.479 slugging percentage. Milwaukee’s other future Hall of Famer, Paul Molitor, posted a dazzling .453/.566 stat line, stole 45 bases and finished fifth in the MVP voting.
Yount and Molitor were joined by some up-and-comers who had not been around during the previous era of success. B.J. Surhoff, the 22-year-old catcher and highly touted prospect, finished with an OBP of .350. Shortstop Dale Sveum hit 25 home runs and drove in 95 runs. Rob Deer hit 28 homers and finished with 80 RBI. Greg Brock played first base and had a stat line of .371/.438.
So even though other holdovers from the earlier era—like Cecil Cooper and Jim Gantner—were fading and other up-and-comers, like Glenn Braggs weren’t quite there yet, the Brewers had no problem scoring runs.
Pitching was more problematic. Teddy Higuera was the staff ace, went to the post 35 times, won 18 games and finished with a 3.85 ERA. It was a good year, but not the same as 1986 when he finished second in the Cy Young voting. Bill Wegman and Juan Nieves were promising young arms. They combined to win 26 games and finished with ERAs in the 4s. But they weren’t ready to be #2 and #3 starters in a competitive division and the rotation was a mess at the back end.
The bullpen suffered from a similar lack of depth. There was no problem at closer, where Dan Plesac saved 23 games and posted a 2.61 ERA. Chuck Crim was adequate, saving 12 games of his own and finishing with an ERA of 3.76. But with young Chris Bosio getting hit to the tune of a 5.24 ERA in a year he toggled between the rotation and bullpen, there was no one else. And the Milwaukee staff’s collective ERA was ninth in the American League.
It wasn’t until 1998 that this franchise made the move to the National League. The other unique aspect of this era was that each league was split into just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place team qualified for the postseason. The AL East, where the Brewers resided, had been the stronger of the two divisions during the late 1970s and much of the 1980s. And this year would be no different.
Milwaukee wasted no time in coming out of the gate. The swept the Boston Red Sox, fresh off their 1986 pennant run but headed for a hangover year in 1987. The Brewers went to Baltimore and Nieves threw a no-hitter on a rainy night. Milwaukee couldn’t lose and the fan base—I was a high school junior in southeastern Wisconsin at the time—was on fire.
The most legendary game in what would end up a 13-0 start to the season came on Easter Sunday. The Brewers trailed 4-1 in the ninth inning at home against the Texas Rangers. With one out, Deer hit a three-run blast to tie the game. With two outs and a man aboard, Sveum won it with another home run.
Milwaukee’s record soared as high as 20-4 and their lead in the AL East got out to 4 ½ games. Then another streak came…they gave it all back with twelve losses in a row.
It was a bizarre turn of events and the Brewers continued to muddle through June. They went 10-15 in a stretch of games against the key AL East teams along with eventual AL West and World Series champ Minnesota. By the time the All-Star break arrived, Milwaukee was 42-43 and in fourth place. They were 11 games off the pace in a division race led by the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers.
The first game out of the break was against California. The Brewers won 6-4 thanks to a four-run second inning. Most notable though, was that Molitor doubled in that rally. It was time for another streak.
Molitor got at least one hit in 39 straight games. It was the longest hitting streak baseball had seen since Pete Rose got to 44 games in 1978, and fans were talking about Joe DiMaggio’s record 56-game streak back in 1941. It’s no exaggeration or overly romanticizing the past to say that each evening, anyone remotely interested in baseball in the state of Wisconsin wondered whether Molitor had gotten his hit.
The streak didn’t stop until August 26 when a hitless Molitor was on deck when the winning run scored—and he didn’t hesitate to celebrate the team win, even as the individual achievement came to an end. And, not coincidentally, the streak paralleled some improved play on the field. The Brewers might still be in fourth place on Labor Day, but the record was 74-62.
If they had had been in the AL West, where Minnesota would win the division with 87 wins, Milwaukee would have still had a shot. As it was, Detroit and Toronto would have the two best records in baseball and fight an epic race to the wire. But the Brewers kept playing well. They went 5-2 in a homestand with the Tigers and Blue Jays. Milwaukee won two series with New York and moved past the Yankees into third. And in the final week, the Brewers went to Toronto and won three straight, a pivotal point in the pennant race.
The final 91-71 record marked the start of a respectable five-year run for Trebelhorn. He never won the AL East, but he posted three winning seasons and another right at .500. He is still remembered well in Milwaukee and so is that streaky season that was 1987.
An upstart champion, a dramatic pennant race and the derailment of a potential dynasty were all a part of an exciting 1987 baseball season that included the following highlights…
*How the Minnesota Twins used a potent lineup and a top-heavy pitching staff, led by Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven, to navigate their way to a division title and ultimately to October glory.
*The sizzling AL East race put on by the Detroit Tigers and Toronto Blue Jays. Seven head-to-head games in the final week and a half. An epic collapse and one of the most consequential trade deadline deals in baseball history were all a part of this race.
*What happened to the New York Mets, who were supposed to be ready to build a dynastic run off their 1986 World Series title. No one accounted for the pesky St. Louis Cardinals rising up and beating out the Mets in another exciting division race, replete with a dramatic home run.
*How the San Francisco Giants won their first division title since 1971, thanks to some bold in-season trades and then catching fire after the All-Star break.
*How the ALCS, that was supposed to be a cakewalk for Detroit, got turned on its head with a Minnesota runaway.
*The outstanding seven-game NLCS battle between St. Louis and San Francisco, with Cardinal pitching finally taking over at the decisive moment.
*And a World Series that was all about location. The home team wins each game in the Minnesota-St. Louis matchup and sets off a celebration in the Twin Cities.
The articles below—one on each of the six teams noted above and then a game-by-game narrative of each postseason series, tell the story of the 1987 baseball season through the eyes of its best teams. Start reading today and wake up the echoes in all their glorious detail.
The Minnesota Twins and St. Louis Cardinals were teams built for their homefield. The Twins had power, well-suited to the hitter-friendly atmosphere at the Metrodome. The Cardinals, playing in what was then an artificial turf-covered Busch Stadium with deep dimensions, were constructed on speed. It’s appropriate that when these contrasting teams met in the 1987 World Series it was all about homefield, as home teams won all seven games.
That made the calendar as important as anything else. Prior to 2003, homefield in the World Series was determined on a rotation system and it was the American League’s turn. That left the 85-win Twins hosting the 95-win Cardinals to open and close the Series.
Another advantage Minnesota had was that their top two starters, Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven, were better than anyone St. Louis could answer with. Over the course of a long season, the Cardinals’ depth throughout the roster made them a better team. In a short series, it’s tough to beat a team who has the two best starters on either side.
You can read more about the paths the Twins and Cardinals took to their division titles, as well as a narrative of their LCS triumphs, at the links below. This article will focus exclusively on the games of the 1987 World Series.
One of those starters, Frank Viola took the mound for the Saturday night opener on October 17. Joe Magrane was pitching for St. Louis and was handed an early run. In the top of the second, Jim Lindeman led off with a double and scored on consecutive productive outs from Willie McGee and Tony Pena.
It was still 1-0 in the bottom of the fourth when the Twins’ offense unloaded on Magrane. Gary Gaetti, the third baseman fresh off an MVP performance in the ALCS started with a single. Don Baylor, Tom Brunansky and Kent Hrbek all singled and Steve Lombardozzi drew a walk. Minnesota had two runs in, the bases loaded and none out. St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog had seen enough of Magrane and called on Bob Forsch. Tim Laudner greeted Forsch with an RBI single and then Dan Gladden delivered the coup de grace with a grand slam. It was 7-1 and the Metrodome crowd was blowing the roof off.
Viola coasted home, allowing just five hits in eight innings. The Minnesota offense piled on, with Lombardozzi hitting a two-run shot in the fifth and Gladden driving in another run in the seventh. The final was 10-1.
The Twins had a future Hall of Famer in Bert Blyleven ready to go for Game 2. The Cardinals turned to Danny Cox, who had just pitched a Game 7 shutout in the NLCS. This night wouldn’t go quite as well for Cox.
Gaetti started the scoring with a solo shot in the second and the bottom of the fourth again proved to be the undoing for St. Louis. With one out, Kirby Puckett and Hrbek each singled and Gaetti walked. Randy Bush ripped a two-run double and it was 3-0 with runners on second and third. Brunansky was intentionally walked and it looked the move would pay off with Lombardozzi’s fly out to right was too short to bring in a run. But with two outs, Laudner and Gladden both singled and the lead stretched to 6-zip. Cox was pulled, Lee Tunnell come in and Greg Gagne promptly blooped a double to make it 7-0.
The rout was on again. The Cardinals got a run in fifth, but Laudner homered in the sixth. Blyleven pitched seven strong innings and even though St. Louis scored in the seventh and twice more in the eighth, they were never in the game. The final was 8-4, Minnesota had all the momentum and they were halfway home.
But while the Twins were halfway home, the Cardinals were going home and that was all the difference needed in this World Series. They also had John Tudor, a good veteran lefty who had pitched a win-or-go-home shutout in Game 6 of the NLCS, on the mound.
Minnesota’s rotation quality fell of sharply at this spot, but Lee Straker proved to be outstanding on this night The game was scoreless for five innings and it was the Twins who broke through in the sixth. With one out, Gagne and Puckett were walked and Brunansky picked up an RBI with a two-out single.
In the top of the seventh with the score still 1-0, Twins’ manager Tom Kelly opted to pinch hit for Straker with two outs and no one on base. Kelly turned to his setup man, Juan Berengeur, hoping he could get the ball to their fine closer, Jeff Reardon. It didn’t pan out for Kelly.
The bottom of the seventh started with singles by Jose Oquendo and Pena. They were bunted up Terry Pendleton and driven in when Vince Coleman doubled. Coleman stole third and scored on a single from Ozzie Smith. Berengeur was out, but the damage was done. Herzog went to his own closer, Todd Worrell, to close the last two innings of a 3-1 win.
Viola was back out there for Minnesota on three days’ rest for Wednesday night’s Game 4. Greg Mathews, a steady lefthander for Herzog all year long, pitched for St. Louis.
The Twins missed a chance on the second when they put a man on third with one out before Mathews struck out Hrbek and escaped. The Twins still got a run one inning later with a home run from Gagne. The Cardinals quickly tied it in the bottom of the inning, when Ozzie Smith got a two-out walk, and came around on singles from Tom Herr and Lindeman.
Mathews had to leave the game when he aggravated a quad injury and Forsch came on. It didn’t matter though, because the fourth-inning nightmare was now about to afflict Viola and Minnesota.
Again, a big rally from St. Louis started with Pena and Oquendo, who walked and singled. Tom Lawless, a heretofore faceless utility infielder took Viola deep. After walking Coleman, Viola was pulled with just one out. Dan Schatzeder came on, to no positive effect. Coleman stole second. Kelly decided to intentionally walk Herr and face Lindeman.
This made sense—the intentional walk was used much more frequently than it is today and Lindeman was getting at-bats in this Series because of an injury to the excellent St. Louis power hitter Jack Clark. Lindemann blew up the strategy with a double, McGee followed with a single and the score was 7-1 by the time the inning came to an end.
Minnesota got a run in the fifth and loaded the bases with one out in the seventh. It was their last chance to get back in the game and Herzog brought in Ken Dayley from the pen. He struck out Gaetti, got Brunansky to pop out and then put it on cruise control, locking up the 7-2 win that evened the Series.
Blyleven and Cox met in a Game 2 rematch on Thursday night. After two scoreless innings, the Cards threatened in the third, again with Oquendo and Pena being the instigators. They both singled and Cox bunted them up to second and third. Kelly pulled the infield in, a risky move this early in the game. But the risk paid off. Coleman hit a ground ball to short and Oqunedo was cut down at the plate. Blyleven got out of the inning.
Oqunedo was again thrown out at home in the fifth. With runners on first and third and Cox at the plate, Herzog called for a suicide squeeze. Cox missed the bunt and Oqunedo, off with the pitch, was left in no man’s land. The game stayed scoreless into the sixth.
St. Louis again rallied in the sixth and this time they broke through, thanks to the speed they were built around. Coleman beat out an infield hit and Ozzie legged out a bunt. With one out, Herzog called for a double steal and both runners were safe. After an intentional walk, Curt Ford delivered a two-run single and a Gagne error brought in another run.
Blyleven gave way to Keith Atherton in the seventh, who walked Coleman and balked him to second. Coleman swiped third and then scored on an infield hit, as St. Louis speed now had them comfortably ahead 4-zip.
The Twins started to make it uncomfortable in the eighth. Gladden singled and Gagne bunted his way aboard. After Puckett flied out, Herzog removed Cox and brought in the lefthanded Dayley to face the lefthanded Hrbek. This move worked, with a flyout to center the result, but Gaetti ripped a triple that cut the lead to 4-2. Dayley got Brunansky to end the inning.
Worrell came on in the ninth and walked two batters, giving veteran power-hitter Don Baylor a chance. He popped out to Herr. The Cardinals had completed their sweep of the middle sequence of the Series and were going back to the Twin Cities with a 3-2 lead.
Saturday’s Game 6 started in the afternoon, the last time a World Series game has been played outside of prime-time. Being the Metrodome still meant no one saw the sunlight and the last time a Series game was played outdoors in the daytime was 1984. Tudor would get a chance to clinch a championship for St. Louis, while Minnesota had to rely on Straker.
Herr homered with two outs in the first to give the Cardinals a quick 1-0 lead. But Gladden answered with a triple to start the home half of the first, Puckett tied with a single, moved up on a groundout by Gaetti and scored on an opposite field single from Baylor.
St. Louis quickly tied it back up when Pendleton drew a one-out walk, moved up on a groundout and scored on an Oquendo single. Tudor pitched around a two-base error in the second inning when he picked off Hrbek and kept it tied 2-2 .
Straker continued to struggle in the fourth, giving up a leadoff double to Driessen. McGee singled to center and while Puckett’s strong throw home held Driessen at third, it allowed McGee to take second. The result was that an infield hit from Pendleton and a sac fly from Oquendo produced two runs and a 4-2 Cardinal lead. In the fifth, Ozzie walked, moved up on successive productive outs and scored on another base hit from McGee.
It was 5-2 and the Twins were in trouble. They got it turned around in the fifth. Tudor, who had come apart in epic fashion in Game 7 of the 1985 World Series, now began to struggle here. Puckett got it going with a one-out single and Gaetti doubled. Baylor got the Metrodome crowd roaring with a three-run blast to tie it 5-5. After a single from Brunansky, Tudor was out. Reliever Ricky Horton got a groundball out, but Brunansky moved up and then scored on a two-out hit from Lombardozzi.
One inning later, Gagne led off the bottom of the sixth with a single. Forsch came on for Horton face the righthanded power. He walked Puckett and after a passed ball, an intentional walk loaded the bases. Forsch then got Gaetti and Brunansky to pop out. Hrbek was up and Herzog continued to empty the bullpen, calling on Dayley to replicate the matchup that had worked for St. Louis in Game 5. It didn’t work this time—Hrbek unloaded with a grand slam to break the game wide open.
Minnesota added a run in the eighth and Berengeur was brilliant, throwing three innings of shutout relief. The 11-5 win set up a Sunday night Game 7—the third straight year the World Series was going the distance.
Viola got his third start of this Fall Classic, with Magrane on the mound for St. Louis. While Magrane was a respectable pitcher, this was clearly the situation the Twins would have taken had it been offered nine days earlier.
The Cardinals still took the early lead, getting singles from Lindeman, McGee and Pena to open the second inning to go up 1-0. With two outs, Steve Lake added another single for a 2-zip lead.
But Viola got settled in and Minnesota immediately started chipping back. Baylor was hit by a pitch in the bottom of the second, Brunansky singled and then Laudner singled. Coleman made a big play when he threw out Baylor at the plate, but Lombardozzi came up with a clutch two-out hit to make sure the Twins got a least one run.
Gagne beat out an infield hit with one out in the fifth and Herzog decided to go with Cox. Puckett responded with a double to right-center that tied the game 2-2. One inning later, Minnesota took the lead. Brunansky and Hrbek each worked walks to start the bottom of the sixth. Herzog correctly went to his closer at this key crunch point of the season. Worrell issued another walk, but struck out Gladden. He was set to get out of the inning until Gagne beat out an infield hit to bring in the go-ahead run.
With the tension building, Viola was locked in. He went eight innings and allowed just six hits. In the bottom of the eighth, after a one-out single from Laudner, Gladden ripped a two-out double. Reardon had a bit of breathing room at 4-2 when he came on for the ninth.
Reardon got the first two batters and McGee came to the plate. He hit a groundball to Gaetti who threw to first. Hrbek gloved the final out and the party could start in the Twin Cities.
Viola was named Series MVP for his two wins, both of which he was dominant in. His bad fourth inning in Game 4 meant the overall series ERA was a pedestrian 3.72, but Viola was still a worthy choice.
Other notable performances for the Twins came from Gladden, who went 9-for-31 and drove in seven runs. Puckett was steady, with ten hits in 28 at-bats. Lombardozzi was 7-for-17 and had the key two-out RBI hit in Game 7 that got his team on the board. Laudner had seven hits of his own in 22 at-bats, driving in four runs and scoring four more.
On the St. Louis side, McGee had gone 10-for-27 and was the best Cardinal hitter. Dayley had been clutch in relief until the fatal grand slam to Hrbek. For the third time in six years, St. Louis had played a Game 7 in the World Series and for the second time in three years, they lost it.
It was truly Minnesota’s year. They won the pennant in a year where homefield advantage fell their way and with the top of their pitching rotation, they were uniquely built to better in the short-term than over the long haul. Nor were they finished—four years later, when the homefield rotation had again come full circle for the Twins to have the home edge in both the ALCS and World Series, they won it all again.
In the 21st century, the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants are arguably baseball’s two pre-eminent franchises. They’ve combined for seven National League pennants and four World Series titles. On three occasions (2002, 2012 & 2014) they’ve gone head-to-head in the postseason. That wasn’t the case when they met in the 1987 NLCS and staged an exciting seven-game series.
St. Louis already had two recent pennants, in 1982and 1985and won the World Series in ‘82. San Francisco was making its first postseason appearance in sixteen years. The Cardinals had homefield, due to the rotation system that existed then, but they were also down a big bat—power-hitting first baseman Jack Clark was out.
The NLCS opened on a Tuesday night with Giant veteran Rick Reuschel facing Cardinal lefty Greg Mathews and it didn’t take long for San Francisco to get rolling and for the impact of Clark’s injury to show up. His replacement, Dan Driessen, a veteran of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, made a first-inning error. It was followed by a base hit from Kevin Mitchell, productive outs from Jeffrey Leonard and Candy Maldonado and a quick 1-0 Giants’ lead.
St. Louis tied it up in the bottom of the second with an RBI single from Vince Coleman, driving in Tony Pena, who had singled and been bunted up by Mathews. The seesaw continue in the fourth. Leonard homered for the Giants, but the Cards answered with a leadoff triple from Ozzie Smith and a two-out single from Willie McGee picking up the run after two failed attempts threatened to kill the inning.
It was still 2-2 in the sixth, when St. Louis broke through. Driessen doubled with one out. The speedy McGee beat out an infield hit. Terry Pendleton and Curt Ford each singled and it was now 3-2 with the bases loaded and one out. Reuschel got Pena to pop out and was poised to escape the inning. St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog even seemed to indicate as much in letting Mathews bat for himself .Instead, Mathews singled to center, drove in two runs and gave himself a comfortable 5-2 lead.
San Francisco made one last rally in the eighth. Robby Thompson drew a one-out walk and Herzog turned to his closer, Todd Worrell. With two outs, Leonard singled and Maldonado doubled, making it 5-3 with the tying runs on second and third. Herzog yanked Worrell with San Francisco’s great lefty hitter Will Clark coming to the plate. Lefthander Ken Dayley was summoned from the pen and got Clark to fly to right. The ninth ended without incident and the Cardinals had taken Game 1.
A battle of lefthanders, San Francisco’s Dave Dravecky and John Tudor for St. Louis was on tap for the following afternoon. Clark quickly made amends for coming up short in Game 1, hitting a two-run blast in the second. Leonard homered in the fourth and Dravecky had a 3-0 lead.
Each team missed opportunities in the middle innings. In the bottom of the fourth, Ozzie Smith walked and Tom Herr singled to start the inning. Dravecky got flyouts from Pendleton and McGee to keep the shutout. In the top of the fifth, Jose Uribe doubled for the Giants and when Dravecky laid down his bunt, he beat out…but Uribe got hung up between third and home was foolishly picked off. In the top of the sixth, San Francisco put runners on first and second with one out, but Tudor was able to get Clark.
So the game stayed 3-0 into the eighth and both starting pitchers remained in the game. San Francisco got a rally going with singles from Leonard and Maldonado and a successful sac bunt from Eddie Milner. Clark was intentionally walked and Tudor struck out catcher Bob Melvin (the current Oakland A’s manager). Tudor was ready to escape again when the unthinkable happened—Ozzie, a future Hall of Fame shortstop because of his defensive prowess, booted a groundball. Two runs came in. San Francisco’s base-running foibles continued and it was Clark’s turn to get hung up between third and home. But the damage was done and the score was 5-0. Dravecky closed a two-hit shutout to even the series.
After a travel day, Game 3 was on Friday at old Candlestick Park and the Giants came out fast against Cardinal starter Joe Magrane. In the bottom of the second, Chili Davis doubled, Clark singled, Bob Brenly doubled and it was quickly 2-0 with no one out. Uribe’s sac fly moved Brenly to third where he scored in a wild pitch. One inning later, Leonard blasted a solo shot and it was 4-zip.
San Francisco was ready to add to the lead in the fifth when they loaded the bases with one out. Davis popped out to short and the rally ended. Even though Giant starter Atlee Hammaker was rolling, it would prove to be a costly missed opportunity.
St. Louis started making it hurt in the sixth. With one out, Ozzie Smith singled to right. Jim Lindeman, a right-handed bat in at first base with the lefthanded Hammaker on the mound, homered. It was 4-2 and we had a ballgame.
The Cardinals kept coming in the seventh. Jose Oquendo singled and chased Hammaker. Don Robinson, a key member of the staff for the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates championship team came on, but couldn’t hold the lead. Ford singled. Driessen batted in the pitcher’s spot and singled. Lance Johnson came on to pinch-run and stole second. Coleman singled and St. Louis now led 5-4.
Nor was the inning over. Craig Lefferts came out of the Giant bullpen, but Ozzie beat him with a bunt base hit. After a successful sacrifice from Herr, Lindemann came through again with a sac fly. The Cardinals had a 6-4 lead. That extra run—along with the one the Giants missed in the fifth proved to be the difference. San Francisco got a pinch-hit home run from Harry Spilman, but it ended 6-5 with Worrell pitching the last three innings.
St. Louis kept their momentum rolling into the early innings of Saturday night’s Game 4. They peppered starter Mike Krukow with consecutive one-out singles from Ford, Pena, Cox and Coleman. It was 2-0 before Krukow got a break—a line drive off Ozzie’s bat went right at Thompson at second base and resulted in a quick double play.
Cox pitched out of a third inning jam, striking out Leonard and Clark with two men aboard. It was the middle innings when the Giants got to the Cardinal starter. Thompson hit a solo home run in the fourth. In the fifth, after a two-out double from Mitchell, Leonard went deep yet again. It was enough for Krukow—he and Cox both went the distance and San Francisco got a little insurance. Brenly, the future manager of the champion 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks and later TV analyst—hit an eighth-inning home run. The 4-2 final again tied up this NLCS.
Game 5 was a 1:30 PM local start and a Reuschel-Mathews rematch from the opener. Coleman opened the game with a double and came in to score after a bunt from Ozzie and a sac fly from Herr. San Francisco had an immediate answer, with Thompson working a walk, stealing second and scoring on a base hit from Mitchell.
The seesaw continued in the third. St. Louis got consecutive singles from Pena and Mathews, who continued to do damage with his bat. Coleman put down a bunt, but as one of the fastest men in the game, he legged it out. Ozzie produced a run with a sac fly, but the inning died when Herr grounded into a double play. After grinding out that run, the Cardinals watched Mitchell tie it up on one swing in the bottom of the inning.
St. Louis reclaimed the lead in the fourth when Pendleton hit a two-out triple and then scored on an error by Reuschel. Herzog, hoping to get a shutdown inning, went to his bullpen early and summoned veteran Bob Forsch, a former starter who had been in the rotation for the 1982 championship season.
The move didn’t work. Chili Davis and Clark singled, Brenly drew a walk and Uribe’s single scored two and gave the Giants a 4-3 lead. Uribe took second on a throw home and there were still runners on second and third with none out. Mike Aldrete came on to bat for Reuschel and picked up another run with a sac fly. Uribe stole third, but it proved unnecessary when Thompson tripled. It was 6-3 and might have been worse, had Mitchell not popped out and Leonard struck out.
This time not adding on didn’t hurt San Francisco. Joe Price came on in relief and was nothing short of brilliant. He pitched five innings of one-hit ball, nailed down the 6-3 win and put his team on the verge of a pennant as the series went back to St. Louis.
But the Giant bats went cold at the wrong time—or the Cardinal pitchers were locked in at the right time, whichever way you want to look at it. Dravecky and Tudor faced off again in Game 6 and it was a brilliant pitcher’s duel. The Giants missed a chance with two on and one out in the second when Uribe lined out to center, but the big missed opportunity came in the fifth.
The Cards had taken a 1-0 lead thanks to a second-inning triple from Pendleton and a sac fly from Oquendo. In the fifth, Melvin and Uribe singled. Dravecky was called on to bunt, but he failed to sacrifice and the inning died. It was the only thing Dravecky did wrong in his two starts. If he gets the bunt down and San Francisco wins, the lefty is probably named series MVP. As it was, Tudor went 7 1/3 innings, Worrell and Dayley got the last five outs and the game ended 1-0.
It had only been three years since MLB made the League Championship Series a best-of-seven rather than best-of-five. 1987 was the first time the National League went to a Game 7. It proved to another night to watch Cardinal pitching dominate, this time with Cox.
Cox was staked to a quick lead. In the second inning, Pendleton, Pena and McGee hit consecutive one-out singles off Hammaker to make it 1-0. Oquendo then ripped a three-run blast and it was 4-0. The Giants threatened in each of the next three innings, but all three times grounded into double plays. In the bottom of the sixth, St. Louis put it away. Scott Garrelts, on in relief, walked three straight batters after two were out. Herr singled to bring in two more runs.
The game ended 6-0. Cox went the distance, scattering eight singles. St. Louis had delivered two successive shutouts to win their third National League pennant in six years.
San Francisco’s offensive collapse is what makes the selection of Leonard as the NLCS MVP a little tough to swallow. The numbers were there—Leonard was 10-for-24 with four home runs, five RBI and five runs scored. But he wasn’t the only Giant bat who contributed—Clark went 9-for-25 and Dravecky pitched two fantastic games. While I’m all for honoring a player from the losing team if he’s truly the best, Leonard didn’t carry the Giants and he disappeared with everyone else in the final two games.
One of thing helping Leonard is that there were no obvious candidates on the St. Louis side. Tony Pena had the best overall offensive performance, going 8-for-21. Cox had a 2.12 ERA in his two starts, while Tudor’s was spiffy 1.76…but they had each lost one of those starts. Even allowing for the weakness of these resumes, I’d have still picked Tudor on the ground that his shutout was absolutely needed on a night when the offense got only one run and the team was facing elimination.
St. Louis went on to play its third seven-game World Series in the last six years, each one against an American League opponent from the Midwest. This time it was the Twins and Minnesota would win it.
In spite of an anticlimactic ending, the Cardinals-Giants battle at the 1987 NLCS was still excellent baseball and it was the prelude to some big battles that would start fifteen years later.
The Minnesota Twins were an 85-win team, one of the worst to ever reach the League Championship Series round in 1987. The Detroit Tigers had the best record in baseball and were fresh off winning an epic divisional race against the second-best team, the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s natural that the Minnesota-Detroit matchup in the 1987 ALCS was seen as one-sided and destined for a quick ending. That’s what happened, but not in a way anyone anticipated.
Doyle Alexander’s acquisition by Detroit was essential to their survival in the AL East. Alexander had been dominant down the stretch and he would start Game 1. Minnesota, in spite of their flaws, had the advantage of a terrific top-of-the-rotation arm in lefty Frank Viola. As a further aid to the Twins, homefield advantage was set on a rotation basis rather than merit and it was the year for the AL West (where the Twins resided from 1969-93) to host.
Minnesota third baseman Gary Gaetti launched the first blow of the series with a dead-center home run off Alexander in the bottom of the second. Detroit catcher Mike Heath did exactly the same thing in the third inning and the game went to the bottom of the fifth still tied 1-1.
Gaetti led off the inning and did it again, homering to right center. Randy Bush and Tom Brunansky followed with extra base hits and the Twins were up 3-1. After a sac bunt from second baseman Steve Lombardozzi moved Brunansky to third, Alexander struck out catcher Tim Laudner. The Tiger pitcher was poised to escape without further damage before left fielder Dan Gladden lined a two-out single to right.
Viola again let the Tigers answer right back, when Kirk Gibson hit a two-out solo blast and Detroit kept grinding away in the top of the seventh. Larry Herndon, Chet Lemon and Darrell Evans hit consecutive singles to start the inning and the bases were loaded with none out. After a strikeout, Heath lined a single to center. The lead was cut to 4-3 and the bases were still loaded.
Minnesota manager Tom Kelly stuck with Viola, who pulled an escape act. He got Lou Whitaker to hit a grounder to Kent Hrbek at first base, who got the forceout at home. Viola got Bill Madlock to end the inning with the lead intact.
It didn’t stay intact for long though. Viola came back out for the eighth and this proved to be a bridge to far. He walked Gibson and allowed a double to shortstop Alan Trammell. With runners on second and third, Kelly summoned closer Jeff Reardon. He didn’t allow a hit, but consecutive sac flies from Dave Bergman and Lemon put Detroit up 5-4.
There was every reason to think Minnesota was essentially done. They had blown a lead at home with their best pitcher on the mound in a series where they already needed every break. Instead, they came fighting back against Alexander. Gladden singled to left and centerfielder Kirby Puckett quickly doubled him home. It was 5-all and Alexander was pulled for Mike Henneman.
The Twins kept coming. Two walks, one of them intentional, loaded up the bases. Detroit manager Sparky Anderson called for his closer, Willie Hernandez. Like Kelly, Anderson waited too long. Minnesota had acquired Don Baylor for the stretch drive precisely for at-bats like this. He was a veteran that could handle pressure and he was right-handed bat that could handle a lefty like Hernandez. Baylor singled and put the Twins up 6-5.
Brunansky immediately followed with a big insurance double that gave Minnesota an 8-5 lead. It proved important when Detroit put two on with one out in the ninth. Reardon struck out Madlock and Gibson and the Twins had taken Game 1.
There weren’t many pitchers more reliable in a big game in this era than Jack Morris. Minnesota fans found that out firsthand four years later when Morris pitched them to a World Series title. But in 1987, Morris was a Tiger and entrusted with the ball for Game 2.
If Morris did the job, Detroit would have calmed the waters, gotten a split and have three straight home games ahead of them. Minnesota had a tough veteran of their own to counter with in Bert Blyleven. With an ERA a bit over 4, Blyleven wasn’t great, but he was still a future Hall of Famer.
The Tigers got Blyleven in the second. Matt Nokes started the inning with a single and Lemon homered. Pat Sheridan singled, stole second and was bunted to third. There was still only one out and Heath came to the plate. He couldn’t duplicate his success of the previous night and failed to pick up the run and the game stayed 2-0.
Gaetti got the Twins started in the second with a one-out double. Brunansky doubled with two outs to cut the lead in half. Shortstop Greg Gagne drew a walk and the third double of the inning—this one from Laudner down the left field line—scored both runs and the Metrodome crowd was rocking again with their team up 3-2.
Minnesota kept coming in the fourth, again doing the most damage with two outs. After Laudner struck out in a bases-loaded/one-out situation, Morris was in position to escape. Instead, Gladden again delivered a clutch hit, a two-run single to left that extended the lead to 5-2. One inning later, Hrbek homered to make it 6-2. Blyleven stayed in command until allowing a solo homer to Whitaker in the eighth, but there was no real late drama in a 6-3 final.
After a travel day, play resumed on Saturday afternoon in Detroit with the Tigers unexpectedly having their back to the wall. The good news for Detroit was that Minnesota’s key weakness was a lack of depth in the rotation. And the Tiger bats were able to get after Game 3 starter Lee Straker.
Straker flirted with danger in the first when he walked Whitaker and Evans, but nothing came of it. The Twins’ starter wasn’t as fortunate in the bottom of the third. Detroit loaded the bases with a Sheridan double, a Whitaker single and a Gibson walk. With nobody out a groundball force play at second brought in the game’s first run. After a stolen base, Straker balked in a run and Trammell singled in another.
It was 3-0 and after another walk, Straker was gone. Dan Schatzeder came in, but Herndon got him for a two-run double and Detroit was rolling with a 5-0 lead.
Minnesota signaled they wouldn’t go quietly when the light-hitting Gagne homered to begin the top of the fourth. Hrbek worked a one-out walk and eventually scored on base hits by Gaetti and Bush. With the lead cut to 5-2 and runners on the corners with one out, Tiger starter Walt Terrell got Brunansky on a pop up and escape without further damage.
Brunanasky redeemed himself in the top of the sixth with a two-out, two-run blast that made it 5-4. The Twins kept coming in the top of the seventh. Sal Butera and Dan Gladden opened the inning with singles, putting runners on first and third and ending Terrell’s day. Mike Henneman came on in relief. Gagne hit a ground ball to third and pinch-runner Mark Davidson tried to score the tying run. He was cut down at the plate and Detroit hung on to its lead. Puckett fouled out to first, but it was a deep enough pop-out that the runners were able to tag and get to second and third.
Hrbek was intentionally walked to set up Henneman-vs-Gaetti. From the classic righty-lefty standpoint, this was the textbook move, with Henneman a right-handed pitcher while Hrbek batted lefty and Gaetti from the right side. But given how hot Gaetti was in this series, it was a questionable situational move from a future Hall of Fame manager in Anderson. And it didn’t work, with Gaetti singling to right.
The Twins had come all the way back to lead 6-5 and got to within six outs of putting a stranglehold on the series. But in the bottom of the eighth, Herndon led off with a single. Detroit’s desperation was underlined by the fact that Morris, a fast runner, came in to run. It turned out not to matter—after a failed sac bunt attempt, Pat Sheridan homered. The Tigers were back up 7-6 and this time Henneman held the lead.
It was a series again, but even in victory nothing was coming easy for Detroit. They sent veteran lefty Frank Tanana to the mound on Sunday night for Game 4, while Minnesota brought back Viola on three days’ rest.
The Tigers got a soft run out of the gate. Whitaker led off the bottom of the first with a walk and came around on an infield hit from Trammell and an error by Gagne. The Twins got something going in the top of the second when Baylor led off with a single and Brunansky walked, but nothing came of it.
Minnesota muscled up in the next two innings, with Puckett homering to tie it in the third and Gagne’s solo blast in the fourth giving them a 2-1 lead. Puckett then got the top of the fifth started with a single that turned into a three bases after being misplayed by Herndon in the outfield. Gaetti picked up Puckett with a sac fly.
Whitaker got another Detroit rally started with a two-out walk in the bottom of the fifth and then scored on consecutive singles from Jim Morrison and Gibson. Herndon, looking to redeem himself, hit the ball hard…but right at Gaetti and the Twins’ 3-2 lead was preserved heading into the sixth.
Gagne and Gene Larkin chased Tanana with doubles to get the run back and make it 4-2. In the bottom of the inning, singles by Lemon and Darrell Evans ended Viola’s night. Another single, this one from Dave Bergmann cut the lead to 4-3 and left runners on first and second, still with nobody out. Heath bunted the runners up.
Evans, a 40-year-old vet, then made a a huge baserunning mistake. He drifted too far off third and an alert Laudner picked him off. Minnesota clung to its lead and got some insurance in the eighth when an error and wild pitch set up a two-out RBI single from Lombardozzi. Reardon came in on the ninth and after a leadoff single, got Whitaker, then struck out Nokes and Gibson to seal the game.
Minnesota not only held a 3-1 series lead, but they had grabbed a road win and had two more home games in the bank. They also had Blyleven on the mound for Game 5. Detroit went back to Alexander for their final home game on Monday afternoon.
Alexander’s magic from the stretch drive was gone. In the top of the second, Gaetti singled, Bush walked and Brunansky doubled both runs in. He was thrown out trying for third, but the Twins weren’t done. Lombardozzi singled, moved to second on a productive out and scored on a base hit from Gladden. Alexander hit a batter, then gave up another RBI single to Puckett. It was 4-0 and Anderson was forced into his bullpen, bringing in young Eric King with the season on the line.
King did an admirable job in stopping the bleeding and the Tigers got back in the game in the fourth. After a Gibson double and Trammell single, Nokes homered to cut the lead to 4-3.
It stayed that way until the top of the seventh. A one-out single, hit batsman and wild pitch set up a sacrifice fly from Hrbek and Minnesota had some modest breathing room at 5-3. They expanded that in the eighth, now facing Hennenman. Gladden doubled with one out and Gagne drew a walk. Puckett hit a bouncer back to Henneman. He got the force at second, but Gladden went to third where he scored on a fielder’s choice.
The Twins could surely taste the champagne when Berenguer got the first two outs in the eighth. Lemon homered to cut it to 6-4, bringing on Reardon, who ended the inning.
Minnesota delivered the final blow in the top of the ninth. Brunansky homered to make it 7-4. Lombardozzi singled and with two outs, Gladden and Gagne hit back-to-back doubles. It was 9-4 and all but over. Detroit got a run in the ninth, but when Nokes bounced back to Reardon for a 1-3 putout, it was over. The Twins had completed an upset stunning not only in that they won, but had done so in a swift five-game series and won twice in Tiger Stadium.
Gaetti was an easy choice for 1987 ALCS MVP. He went 6-for-20, a solid .300 batting average, but that doesn’t tell the impact of those hits. He homered twice, drove in five runs, scored five more and always seemed to be in the middle of Minnesota’s crucial rallies.
Another notable performances came from Gagne and Brunansky, who each homered twice. On the Detroit side, Lemon was the best in defeat. He went 5-for-18 and hit a pair of home runs. Evans had productive numbers, 5-for-17 and he drew five walks, but getting picked off third in Game 4 was one of the big turning points of the series. And perhaps nothing was more important to Minnesota’s ultimate victory than their pitching holding Whitaker and Trammell, the fine 1-2 punch at the top of the order, to a combined 7-for-37.
For Minnesota, the magic was just starting. They went on to face the St. Louis Cardinalsin the 1987 World Series and rode dome-field advantage all the way to a title, taking a seven-game Series where each game was won by the home team. It was the first two World Series championships in a five-year span.
The Twins’ championship runs are well-remembered, especially for their dominance at home. Less remembered, but just as worthy as a place in the history books, is their improbable upset in the 1987 ALCS.
It been nearly twenty years since the good people of the Twin Cities had experienced postseason baseball. It had been a little longer—22 years—since they had reached the World Series. And they had never seen their franchise win it all. The 1987 Minnesota Twins changed all of that with an improbable run to a World Series title.
There was no evidence coming in that 1987 would be a special season. A .500 finish in 1984 was the only time in the decade the Twins hadn’t finished with a losing record. That included a 71-91 season in 1986. Tom Kelly took over the managerial reins in the final 23 games of that lost year and would become a franchise legend.
Minnesota moved decisively in the offseason. They acquired closer Jeff Reardon in a six-player deal with the Montreal Expos. They picked up outfielder Dan Gladden from San Francisco. By themselves, these trades weren’t game-changers. Reardon saved 31 games—high for the era—but still finished with a 4.48 ERA. Gladden stole 25 bases, but his overall offensive production was modest. But the deals did indicate that the Twins were serious about winning.
The old Metrodome was a haven for the long ball and the offense was built on hitting home runs. First baseman Kent Hrbek went deep 34 times, drove in 90 runs and posted an on-base percentage of .385. On the infield’s opposite corner, Gary Gaetti hit 31 homers and had 109 RBI. Rightfielder Tom Brunansky hit 32 more bombs, drove in 85 runs and his OBP was .352.
And no one was more productive than one of the most beloved players in Minnesota Twins history. Kirby Puckett’s OBP was .367. He hit 28 homers, drove in 99 runs and scored 96 more. He played a sterling centerfield to top it off.
Minnesota’s middle infield wasn’t productive on offense though second baseman Steve Lombardozzi and shortstop Greg Gagne were fundamentally sound on defense. They fit their roles well in an offense that had enough firepower to rank fifth in the American League in runs scored.
The pitching staff had a legitimate ace in 17-game winner Frank Viola, who also finished with an ERA of 2.90. Bert Blyleven, a future Hall of Famer, was 36-years-old and his ERA was 4.01, but he still won 15 games. Above all though, Viola and Blyleven were workhorses. They combined to start 71 games and pitch 518 innings. On a staff woefully short of depth, it was invaluable.
Lee Straker, Mike Smithson and 42-year-old knuckleballer Joe Niekro filled out the rotation, but not particularly well. Straker was respectable, with a 4.37 ERA in his 26 starts, but Smithson and Niekro’s ERAs were in the 6 neighborhood. In the bullpen, Juan Berengeur was respectable, with a 3.94 ERA and he logged 112 innings. But he wasn’t a shutdown guy and along with Reardon was the best the Twins had in relief.
Minnesota opened the season 7-2, including taking five of six games from the Oakland A’s. For the rest of the spring, it was a slow walk backward. They were still 13-9 at the end of April, but when they began play against the stronger AL East in May the result was thirteen losses in 21 games and a 21-22 record on Memorial Day. The Twins were five games back of the Kansas City Royals and in third place.
The schedule still had Minnesota against the AL East coming out of the holiday weekend and they got it going with a sweep of Milwaukee (an American League team prior to 1998) and took two of three from eventual AL East champ Detroit (the AL Central did not exist until MLB went to a three-division alignment in 1994).
In June, the Twins ripped off a 14-4 stretch that included sweeping the Royals in the Metrodome. In Monday’s opener, Gene Larkin ripped a bases-loaded triple in the seventh to break a 2-2 tie. On Tuesday, Gladden had three hits, Puckett two more and Niekro pitched well into the seventh inning. Minnesota won 5-2. In the series finale on Wednesday, after falling behind 3-zip, Blyleven recovered to pitch eight strong innings. In the bottom of the eighth, Minnesota accepted a gift—after two walks loaded the bases, a three-base error by the Royals cleared them and tied the score. Larkin won it in the 10th with an RBI single.
The Twins moved into first place and took a 4 ½ game lead by June 25. They gave some of the lead back by losing seven of eight out of the KC series, part of an 18-game stretch leading into the All-Star break where they went 7-11. But Minnesota still led the AL West by two games, with a 49-40 record at the midway point. Oakland, Kansas City, the California Angels and Seattle Mariners were all in close pursuit, each within 3 ½ games.
Minnesota hosted Oakland in a key four-game series in early August and the Twins offense absolutely unloaded. Hrbek and catcher Tim Laudner each homered in the Thursday night opener, Puckett drove in three runs and Viola pitched seven solid innings in a 9-4. They dropped nine more runs the next night, starting with four in the first. Hrbek homered again, Gagne had three hits and again the final was 9-4 as Niekro went eight innings.
The hit brigade continued on Saturday with another four-run first inning and another nine-run performance overall. Puckett and Gaetti had extra base hits in the big first inning. Puckett went on to a four-hit game that included a home run. Brunansky had three hits. The final of this one was 9-2.
Sunday’s game was finally competitive, but Minnesota still kept hitting. Hrbek blasted a three-run homer early and Brunansky also went deep. The Twins built a 7-3 lead. The A’s cut it to 7-5 and brought Jose Canseco to the plate as the tying run, but Reardon induced a ground ball out to short. The sweep was complete.
Minnesota built a five-game lead, but were subsequently swept by the Tigers and Red Sox. The lead was quickly wiped out and pitching was still a concern. The Twins made a desperate attempt at veteran help when they picked up 42-year-old lefty Steve Carlton. A future Hall of Famer and probably the best pitcher of the 1970s and early 1980s, Carlton had nothing left in the tank. He had won the Saturday game in the Oakland sweep, but otherwise was a disaster. He made seven starts for the Twins and finished with a 6.70 ERA. Viola and Blyleven would have to drive this team to the finish line.
The four days leading up to Labor Day were dramatic, as the Twins won three games in walkoff fashion. When the holiday arrived, they again had breathing room—the record was a modest 73-65, but in the AL West that was good enough to be plus-three on Oakland, with Kansas City and California each 5 ½ games off the pace.
Minnesota played steady baseball in September. The only real scare point was when they lost three straight to the Chicago White Sox, but quickly turned around to sweep the Cleveland Indians. When the final week of play began on Monday, September 28, the Twins had a six-game lead and were poised to clinch when they visited Texas.
Niekro was on the mound and fell behind 3-0 in the first inning. Minnesota tied the game in the fourth with an unlikely three-run blast from Lombardozzi. The second baseman came through again in the eighth with an RBI single. The 5-3 game appropriately ended on a line drive double play—hit at Lombardozzi. Minnesota was AL West champs.
With a record of 85-77, one exceeded by four AL East teams, Minnesota was a heavy underdog against Detroit when the American League Championship Seriesbegan. But a lot of factors worked in favor of the Twins.
For one, the Tigers were drained after an incredible September battle with the Blue Jays for the division title. For another, the primacy of a team’s top two starting pitchers—an area where the Twins could match up with anyone—increases significantly in a short series. And finally, with homefield advantage determined on a rotation basis, Minnesota had the good fortune to win their division in a year where the AL West champ had homefield all the way through the postseason.
Regardless of where the games were played, Minnesota stunned the baseball world with a complete dismantling of Detroit. The Twins took the first two at home, then took two of three in Tiger Stadium to lock up their first pennant since 1965. Gaetti was voted ALCS MVP.
The World Series was a Midwestern affair, as Minnesota met the St. Louis Cardinals. This time, homefield was a big deal. Home teams won all seven World Series games. Viola won two games, including Game 7 and was named Series MVP.
Good times were back for Minnesota Twins baseball and they weren’t done. Even though Oakland took over the AL West for the next three years, the Twins still had a strong season in 1988. And in 1991—when the AL West was again due for homefield advantage all the way through—Minnesota did it again, winning another World Series.
The 1987 St. Louis Cardinals were a team with some amends to make. They were coming off a horrid run of a year plus ten innings. It went back to the 1985 World Serieswhen, on the verge of a championship in Game 6, a bad umpire’s call triggered a ninth-inning collapse and they melted down completely in Game 7. The lingering hangover led to a sub-.500 year in 1986. The ‘87 Cards made those amends, getting back to the postseason and almost winning a World Series.
St. Louis was a running team in an era where stolen bases were still a valued commodity. Leftfielder Vince Coleman swiped 109 bases and finished with an OBP of .369. Shortstop Ozzie Smith, in addition to being a Hall of Fame defender, stole 43 bases, had a stellar OBP of .392 and finished second in the MVP voting.
The Cardinals were the best in the National League in on-base percentage. Third baseman Terry Pendleton’s OBP was .360 and he drove in 96 runs. Tom Herr, the steady second baseman had an OBP of .346. Jose Oquendo was a utility man whose OBP was .408 in his 300-plus plate appearances.
And no one was better at getting on base than the one man who also provided some power—first baseman Jack Clark finished with a dazzling OBP of .459, while also hitting 35 home runs and 106 RBI. Centerfielder Willie McGee wasn’t a home run hitter, but he drove in 105 runs. St. Louis was second in the NL in runs scored.
The pitching wasn’t quite that good, but they were more than acceptable. Danny Cox, Greg Mathews and John Tudor all finished with ERAs in the high 3s and each won double-digit games. Bob Forsch was an 11-game winner with a 4.32 ERA and 22-year-old Joe Magrane gave the team 170 innings and a decent 3.54 ERA.
Todd Worrell anchored the bullpen and saved 32 games. Manager Whitey Herzog had two reliable lefties to turn to in Ricky Horton and Ken Dayley. The Cardinals were fifth in the National League in ERA.
In the MLB alignment that existed prior to 1994, with just two divisions per league and no wild-cards, St. Louis was in the NL East. The New York Mets were coming off a 108-win season and a World Series title. The Mets were young and had a lot of pitching. They were seen as unbeatable and this division race was seen as a foregone conclusion.
The Cardinals had other ideas and quickly made that plain when the Mets came to Busch Stadium for a three-game weekend series in mid-April. Tudor and Horton combined to scatter twelve hits and win the opener 4-3. Saturday’s game was a wild affair. Cox pitched poorly and gave up five runs in the fourth. St. Louis answered with five of their own in the bottom of the same inning. They led 6-5 in the ninth and had two outs when a two-run RBI put them in a 7-6 hole. In the bottom of the ninth, Ozzie Smith worked a walk, was bunted up, stole third and came home when the throw went wild.
In the 10th inning, the Cardinals looked done again when a wild pitch put the Mets in front. In the bottom of the frame, the got three singles and a walk to tie it 8-8. Herr came to the plate and hit a grand slam that ended the amazing 12-8 game. On Sunday afternoon, McGee and catcher Tom Pagnozzi each homered early and a 4-2 victory completed the sweep.
St. Louis made a return trip to New York and won two of three. They went on a 12-4 run through the teams of the NL West in May and by Memorial Day they were 26-14 and in first place. The lead was only a game, but more significant than their edge on the Chicago Cubs (who ended the season in last place) was the 7 ½ game margin the Cardinals had on the Mets.
The fade of the Cubs began when St. Louis went to Wrigley Field in early June to win three of four. They swept three straight when Chicago made a return visit to Busch. Even though the Cards lost a series to the Mets in Shea at the end of June, they won 10 of the last 11 games before the All-Star break. At the midway point, St. Louis was soaring at 56-39, up nine games on the Montreal Expos and 9 ½ on New York.
At the end of July the race began to tighten and it happened when the Mets again came to town for a three-game set. The Cards took a 4-2 lead in the opener, but Worrell was unable to hold the lead for Magrane in the eighth inning and they lost 6-4. St. Louis looked ready to return the favor the next night when they trailed 4-3 in the ninth. Coleman singled, stole second and scored on a base hit by Herr. But the Cards fell in extra innings. In Thursday’s finale, Mathews was chased early, giving up three runs in the first and losing 5-3.
The sweep was part of a seven-game losing streak that included four losses in San Francisco against the eventual NL West champion Giants. In August, St. Louis lost 11 of 17 and their lead shrunk to 2 ½ games. An 11-4 run against the NL West stopped the bleeding, but when Labor Day arrived St. Louis still clung to a 3 ½ game lead over the Mets and the Expos lurked at five back. The race to the finish line was on.
A trip to Montreal was nothing short of a disaster, as the Cardinals lost three straight by a combined score of 21-6. They were battered and bleeding as they went to New York for a highly anticipated three-game weekend series. The margin was down to a game and a half. Tudor gave up three runs in the first inning of the opener and they trailed 4-1 in the ninth. St. Louis might be in first place, but they had taken on the appearance of the team doing the chasing.
The momentum took a sudden turn back the other way. The Cardinals scraped out one run, had another man aboard and brought Pendleton to the plate. He stunned the Shea Stadium crowd with a game-tying home run. In the 10th, Coleman, Ozzie and Herr all singled to produce two more runs and an amazing 6-4 win.
St. Louis carried it over to the next day, scoring five runs in the top of the first. Mathews pitched a complete-game 8-1 win. Even though Cox lost the finale 4-2, the Cardinals had survived and nudged their lead back to 2 ½ games, with the Expos sitting three games back.
Over the next two weeks, St. Louis played non-contenders in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago. The race stayed exactly the same and set the stage for a big final week. The Cardinals might have the edge and might be playing at home, but Montreal was coming in for four games to start the week and New York would be here for the final weekend.
Instead of a thrilling finish, the Cards took the drama out of it. They won two of the first three games over the Expos, while the Mets lost two of three in Philadelphia. St. Louis had the chance to clinch on Thursday against Montreal.
Cox got the ball and met the moment, with a complete game, allowing just five hits. Ozzie, Herr and Dan Driessen combined for six hits and a walk. Leading 3-2 in the seventh, the Cardinals broke it open with five runs. When Cox induced Tim Foley to hit a comebacker to the mound for the final out, the NL East race was finally over. The Cardinals had dethroned the mighty Mets.
St. Louis wasn’t done and nor was Cox. They won an exciting seven-game National League Championship Series over San Francisco. Cardinal pitching dominated the conclusion, with shutout wins at home in Games 6 & 7, the latter pitched by Cox. For the third time in six years, the Cardinals were going to the World Series.
For the second time in three years, St. Louis won three games in a World Series and took a 3-2 series advantage. And for the second time in three years they dropped the final two on the road, this time in Minnesota. In a Series where the home team won every game, perhaps St. Louis just had the misfortune to win a pennant in the “wrong” year (homefield was alternated each year between the AL & NL).
What should be most remembered about the 1987 St. Louis Cardinals though, is that they were a team that began the year with no one giving them any chance to still compete in their own division. They ended it with two champagne celebrations and nearly got the last one.
The 1987 New York Mets came into the season feeling like a dynasty might be at hand. They had won an epic World Series title in 1986, the culmination of a three-year building program under manager Davey Johnson that included strong seasons in 1984 and 1985. They were both young and established and were widely expected to repeat as champions. That didn’t happen, as they couldn’t quite overcome a slow start.
None of the problems were due to complacency. The Mets did not stand pat in the offseason They let World Series MVP Ray Knight walk in free agency and put Howard Johnson at third base. It proved to be the right call—Knight only had two unproductive years left in the majors, while Johnson—or “HoJo”, as he was nicknamed–finished 1987 with an on-base percentage of .364, a slugging percentage of .504, hit 36 home runs and stole 32 bases.
And that wasn’t even close to the most significant offseason move. New York pulled the trigger on an eight-player deal with the San Diego Padres, with the focal point being giving up utility man Kevin Mitchell in exchange for outfielder Kevin McReynolds. That one didn’t pan out quite as well. It was no fault of McReynolds, who hit 29 home runs and drove in 95 runs. But Mitchell turned into an outstanding power hitter and eventually won an MVP award.
The core of the championship team was still back in the fold though. The Mets had the most prolific offense in the National League and it was led by Darryl Strawberry The incredibly gifted rightfielder posted an OBP of .398 while hitting 39 home runs, stealing 36 bases, driving in 104 runs and scoring 108.
Strawberry and HoJo were the most complete offensive players, but there was a lot of help. Veteran first baseman Keith Hernandez put up on OBP of .377. Sparkplug centerfielder Lenny Dykstra’s OBP was .352 and though he didn’t have home run power, Dykstra ripped 37 doubles and slugged .455. Gary Carter was in decline, but the future Hall of Fame catcher still hit 20 home runs.
What really separated the Mets’ offense though, was the quality Davey Johnson had on his bench. Mookie Wilson had a stat line of .359 OBP/.455 slugging. Tim Teufel’s numbers were .398/.545. Dave Magadan, a future MLB hitting coach was at at .386/.443 and Lee Mazzilli was at .399/.460. No team in the majors got this kind of production from as many bench players as the Mets.
The pitching, after being the best in baseball in 1986, took a step back. They were still very good, ranking third in the National League in ERA, but their modest regression mirrored that of the team’s.
No one really stood up and had an “ace” caliber year. Dwight Gooden went 15-7 in his 25 starts with a 3.21 ERA and was the best, but it marked a decline from his Cy Young status two years earlier. Sid Fernandez, Rick Aguilera and David Cone all were solid, but unspectacular, with ERAs in the high 3s. Ron Darling struggled to a 4.29 ERA, and 21-year-old John Mitchell finished with an ERA at 4.11.
Perhaps more important than different ERA numbers though was the lack of continuity. New York’s pitching just couldn’t keep healthy. The loss of reliable lefty Bob Ojeda was the biggest problem, and Darling was the only one to exceed 30 starts. The story of Terry Leach was one of the better ones in 1987, as he made 12 starts, 32 relief appearances and went 11-1. But had Davey Johnson known this journeyman was going to be his star, it would have been an indicator that 1987 wasn’t going to be the cakewalk the championship year had been.
After a 6-2 start, a mid-April series in St. Louis was the big warning sign. In the series opener, New York got eight hits and two walks from the top four hitters in the lineup, but were shut down below that, missed opportunities and lost 4-3.
On Saturday, they came out blazing and scored five runs in the top of the fourth. Darling gave them all back in the bottom of the inning. Trailing 6-5 in the ninth, the Mets got consecutive two-out RBI singles from McReynolds and HoJo. They gave it back in the ninth when Carter committed a throwing error on an attempted steal of third. New York took the lead again in the 10th on a walk, bunt, productive out and wild pitch. They did more than give it back in the bottom of the inning—after three singles tied it 8-8, a walk was followed by a grand slam and a 12-8 loss.
The Mets lost the finale 4-2 when Fernandez couldn’t get through five innings. It was the low point of an opening movement to the season that included a series loss to the Cardinals at home, a 6-10 stretch in May and saw New York limp into Memorial Day with a record 19-22 and trailing St. Louis by 7 ½ games.
The holiday marked a modest turn back upward. The Mets began a sweep of eventual NL West champion San Francisco and played pretty well in June, going 16-12. By the All-Star break they were still 9 ½ games back of the Cardinals, but the record had improved to 47-49 and New York moved from fifth to third place in the old NL East they shared with the Montreal Expos, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and the Cubs.
In late July the Mets began a serious push and it started in St. Louis. In the Tuesday night opener they overcame a 4-2 deficit when Teufel delivered a two-run single in the eighth that led to a 6-4 win. On Wednesday some of the April appeared to resurface when they let a 4-3 lead in the ninth slip and the Cards tied the game. Enter HoJo, who ripped a two-run blast in the 10th for the 6-4 win. And on Thursday, McReynolds’ two-RBI triple keyed a 3-0 first inning lead and Gooden went eight strong innings for the 5-3 win.
New York followed that up by taking two of three in Montreal. In August they took four of six games from San Francisco and then returned home to win another series with a good Expo team that would win 91 games. The Mets were looking like the team everyone expected and even though they still trailed by 3 ½ games on Labor Day, all the momentum was on their side as the stretch drive beckoned.
The lead was narrowed to a game and a half when St. Louis came to old Shea Stadium for a highly anticipated series on the second weekend of September. Strawberry ripped a two-run blast in the first inning of the Friday night opener and the Mets were leading 4-1 in the ninth inning. Then, the NL East race made another stunning pivot.
Roger McDowell, on in relief, allowed one run and there was a man aboard when he faced Cardinal third baseman Terry Pendleton. McDowell gave up a two-run shot and the game was tied. The meltdown continued in the 10th when the Cards got two more runs and won it 6-4. And that avalanche continued into Saturday as Gooden was shelled, giving up five runs in the first inning of an 8-1 loss.
New York salvaged the finale with a 4-2 win behind a good start from Cone. They were still within 2 ½ games. But it was the blow they couldn’t recover from. The series held stable over the next couple weeks and the Mets were still pinning their hopes on a final three-game series in St. Louis. It never came to that—in the first part of the final week, while the Cards were taking three of four in Montreal, the Mets were losing two of three to the mediocre Phils. The race was clinched on Thursday before the final showdown could begin.
It was a bitter ending and in fairness to the Mets, the injuries in the pitching staff were the paramount reason and they still won more games than postseason participants in San Francisco and eventual champion Minnesota. They would recover and win the NL East in 1988. But this team of so much talent never returned to the World Series and never became a dynasty.
From 1985-92, the Toronto Blue Jays were defined by close-but-no-cigar and questions about whether they could take the final step and win a championship. There was a crushing ALCS loss in 1985and subsequent playoff losses in 1989 and 1991. The 1987 Toronto Blue Jays fit squarely in that tradition, as one of the best teams in baseball, but losing a crushing AL East race in the end.
It started with pitching for the ‘87 Blue Jays and the rotation was built around three workhorse starters. Jimmy Key, a 26-year-old lefty with pinpoint control, made 36 starts and delivered a 17-8 record with a 2.76 ERA. Veteran Jim Clancy went to the mound 37 times, finishing 15-11 with a 3.54 ERA. Dave Stieb, the usual ace of the staff, had a down year, but still went 13-9 with a 4.09 ERA I his 31 starts.
Manager Jimy Williams had to piece together the rest of the rotation, but had a solid bullpen to fall back on. Closer Tom Henke nailed down 34 saves—very good in a period where there were still a lot of complete games by starters—and did it with a 2.49 ERA. Mark Eichorn worked 127 innings and put up a 3.17 ERA.
It all added up to the best staff ERA in the American League and the offense wasn’t far behind, ranking third in the AL in runs scored. The attack was led by left fielder George Bell, who hit 47 home runs, drove in 134 runs, had a stat line of .352 on-base percentage/.605 slugging percentage and was voted the American League MVP.
Bell was part of a young and talented outfield. Centerfielder Lloyd Moseby’s stat line was .358/.473, he drove in 96 runs and scored 106 more. Rightfielder Jesse Barfield had one of the best arms in the game and also hit 28 home runs. All three outfielders were 27-years-old.
Veteran catcher Ernie Whitt had a good year at age 35, slugging .455 and a young hitter in Fred McGriff came up and hit 20 home runs with a .376 OBP. Tony Fernandez, the talented 25-year-old shortstop posted a .379 OBP.
There were weak spots in the lineup to be sure—Willie Upshaw and Garth Iorg on the right side of the infield didn’t hit well, and third baseman Kelly Gruber was going through growing pains in his second year. But Williams got valuable contributions off the bench.
Utility man Rance Mulliniks had a stat line of .371/.500 in nearly 400 plate appearances. The Jays gave almost 200 at-bats to a young power hitter named Cecil Fielder and he popped 14 home runs. Rick Leach, a former college quarterback at Michigan, gave the Jays a .371 OBP in 224 plate appearances.
Toronto started the season off steady and on Memorial Day they were 24-17, three games back of the New York Yankees. From May 29 to June 14 they got hot, going 14-2 and sweeping the Yankees three straight in the Bronx, outscoring them 22-3. But the Jays turned around and lost home series to Milwaukee (then an American League team) and Detroitand got a return sweep handed to them by the Yanks. Toronto was back to three games out at the All-Star break.
The late summer period was one of great consistency. Over a stretch of 15 series, Toronto won nine, split four and only lost two. They never won more than four in a row, but by Labor Day they were sitting on an 82-54 record. New York was fading and five games back. Detroit emerged as the rival in this division race, just a half-game out.
The Blue Jays made a key acquisition for the pitching staff on August 31. Mike Flanagan had a Cy Young Award on his resume and plenty of big-game experience with Baltimore in the years from 1979-83 when the Orioles won two pennants, a World Series title and were regularly in the division race. Flanagan made seven starts for Toronto and gave them a 2.37 ERA.
The Blue Jays and Tigers would end the season with the two best records in all of baseball and they waged a great September battle. Toronto was still a half-game up on September 27 when the second-to-last weekend of the season arrived. Detroit was in town for a four-game set and on the final weekend the Blue Jays were making a return trip to Tiger Stadium. The AL East would be settled head-to-head.
Toronto jumped Detroit workhorse Jack Morris for a four runs in the third inning of the opener, the key hit being a two-run single from Ernie Whitt. Those runs stood up for a 4-3 win, but they came at a cost—Fernandez was injured and lost for the rest of the season.
The Jays trailed Friday’s game 2-0 in the ninth inning, but Manny Lee’s two-run triple tied it and he scored the winning run on an error. On Saturday, the Blue Jays rallied three different times, from deficits of 3-0, 7-3 and 9-7, ultimately winning the game on a bases-loaded walk.
Toronto was 3 ½ games up and even playing mediocre baseball for the last eight days would be enough. What followed was a combination of three factors—a difficult schedule, the loss of key players—Fernandez already out and Whitt would go down by Tuesday of the final week—and a plain-old collapse.
It didn’t look that way in the Sunday finale against Detroit. Bell’s RBI single in the first inning gave the Jays a quick 1-0 lead and Clancy made it stand up until the ninth inning. The Tigers, fighting for their lives, scored a run to tie it and took the lead on a home run in the 11th inning. Barfield answered with a two-out RBI that further extended the game, but Toronto ultimately lost 3-2 in 13 innings.
They had still done everything that could be reasonably expected, taking three of four on their homefield and holding a 2 ½ game lead with a week to go. The Brewers came to town next and though they weren’t in contention, this was a hot baseball team. Milwaukee ended up with the best record in the majors after the All-Star break and their ultimate 91-71 record would be fourth-best in the game. Paul Molitor’s 39-game hitting streak had captured everyone’s attention during the summer and they got everyone’s attention again by sweeping the Blue Jays.
Detroit didn’t distinguish themselves, splitting four at home with Baltimore. But it was enough to reduce Toronto’s lead to a single game as they arrived in Tiger Stadium on Friday night.
Lee got the Jays off to a good start, with a three-run blast in the second inning of the opener. But they didn’t score again, the game was tied after three and Toronto lost 4-3.
Flanagan was everything Toronto would have asked him to be on Saturday afternoon. He went toe-to-toe with Jack Morris and in a 2-2 game, Flanagan went eleven innings. As soon as he came out, Toronto coughed up a run and lost 3-2.
Unbelievably, the team who a week earlier had been three outs from going up 4 ½ games, now needed to win the finale on the road just to force a one-game playoff. Key took the mound and was brilliant, going the distance and allowing only a solo home run. It wasn’t enough. The Blue Jays wasted three good scoring opportunities in the first four innings, then went silent for the rest of the game in a 1-0 loss. It was over.
Coming just two years after blowing a 3-1 series lead in the ALCS, this collapse tagged Toronto with the “can’t-win-the-big-one” label. Decisive playoff losses to Oakland in 1989 and Minnesota in 1991 didn’t help that. But this franchise would eventually get over the top, with back-to-back World Series titles in both 1992and 1993.
The 1987 Detroit Tigers were the last postseason team in the Hall of Fame career of manager Sparky Anderson. They produced the best record in baseball, won the AL East for the second time in four years and did with a dramatic final week push when they appeared all but dead.
After winning the World Series in 1984, the Tigers slipped to being an above-average team, finishing third in 1985-86, in a division that then had seven teams. Muscle on offense was the key to revival in Detroit.
The Tigers led the league in both slugging percentage and home runs. They were also patient, drawing more walks than any team in the American League. No one was better than shortstop Alan Trammell, who finished with an on-base percentage of .402, a slugging percentage of .551, hit 28 home runs, drove in 105 runs, scored 109 runs and finished second in the MVP voting. Did I miss anything? Only that he deserved to win the MVP rather than settle for runner-up status.
Kirk Gibson posted numbers of .372 OBP/.489 slugging percentage and hit 24 home runs. Centerfielder Chet Lemon joined Gibson in the outfield and finished at .376/.481 with 20 home runs. Second baseman Lou Whitaker didn’t have a vintage year, but was still solid at .341/.427.
Two players at opposite ends of the career spectrum were pleasant surprises. Rookie catcher Matt Nokes was a revelation, hitting 32 home runs with an OBP of .345. And 40-year-old first baseman Darrell Evans turned back the clock with 34 home runs, 99 RBI and an OBP of .379.
All this made Detroit a potent offensive attack, but they did more to augment the attack. The bench was strong, as Larry Herndon finished at .378/.520 in part-time duty and Dave Bergman posted a stat line of .379/.453. And in the early summer, the front office went and got a veteran hitter in Bill Madlock to handle the DH duties. Madlock, a former batting champion put up a .351/.460 run in his time in a Tiger uniform.
It wasn’t all about the offense in Motown. The pitching staff had the third-best ERA in the American League and it all started with Jack Morris. The 32-year-old with a deserved reputation as a big-game pitcher, won 18 games with a 3.38 ERA and worked 266 innings. Walt Terrell and Frank Tanana were both respectable, combining for 32 wins, with ERAs between 3.90 and 4.10.
The bullpen was a problem, with Mike Henneman being the only consistent pitcher and Willie Hernandez a long way removed from his 1984 career high when he won both the MVP and Cy Young Award. The back end of the rotation was also weak, with Dan Petry and Jeff Robinson struggling to seasons with 5-plus ERAs. But before the year was over, Detroit would pull the trigger on another deal, one of the most consequential trade deadline moves in MLB history.
Nothing about the way the 1987 baseball season started suggested a special year in Detroit. They lost five of six to the New York Yankees in April and by Memorial Day were 20-21, in fifth place and seven back of AL East-leading New York.
A weekend in early June was a key threshold moment in the season. The Tigers made the deal for Madlock. They were also in Boston, where the defending AL East champion Red Sox were also looking to get untracked. It was Detroit who unleashed. They won three of four, scored 18 runs in the finale, and when the Red Sox made a return trip to Tiger Stadium, Detroit swept three straight. They took two of three in Toronto, part of a long road trip where the Tigers went 9-5.
By the time the All-Star break arrived, Detroit was 48-37 and back in the mix. They were in third place, five games back of the first-place Yankees, with the Blue Jays in second.
In early August, the Tigers won 10 of 13 against AL West opponents (the AL Central did not exist prior to 1994). Against their own division rivals, Detroit won three of four from New York, scoring double-digit runs in two of the games and starting an 11-3 run. But as good as that was, it wasn’t the biggest thing that happened in Detroit in the first part of August.
Needing starting pitching, the Tigers dealt a top prospect to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for veteran Doyle Alexander. How did it work out in the short-term? Alexander made 11 starts for the Tigers and went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA. In an era where a division title meant direct advancement to the League Championship Series, they would not have done it without Alexander.
How did the move work out in the long-term? The prospect was future Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz. Who won this trade, or whether Detroit would make it again if they had known just how great Smoltz would be, is a great debate. Or we could just take the political approach and say both teams got what they wanted. Which is probably the view that’s accurate.
By Labor Day, the Yankees were fading and had fallen to third place, five off the pace. The Tigers and Blue Jays were running neck and neck. The two teams would finish with the best regular season records in all of baseball and in the era before the wild-card, that meant a long fight to the finish.
Detroit and Toronto traded blows and tracked each other from afar until they reached the final week and a half of the regular season with the Tigers a half-game back. There would be four games in Toronto on the penultimate weekend of the season. After a series in the middle, they would reunite in Detroit for three games to end it. And it would take all of those games to settle the winner.
Morris got the ball on a Thursday night that started the final push. He went the distance, but one bad inning—a four-run third for the Jays—did him in, as Detroit lost 4-3. Tanana was brilliant on Friday night, pitching seven shutout innings and handing a 2-0 lead to the bullpen. Hernandez coughed it up in a 3-2 loss.
Saturday brought even more heartbreak. Detroit grabbed a quick 3-zip lead, but Terrell was shelled. Even so, the Tigers still led 7-3 and then 9-7 in the ninth. This time it was Henneman that blew the lead and Juan Berenguer finished it off by walking in the winning run. The Tigers were 3 ½ games out and even with the four head-to-head games still remaining, this race was looking over.
Enter Doyle Alexander. He pitched eleven innings in the Sunday afternoon finale. Trailing 1-0 in the ninth, Detroit got a run to tie it. Evans homered in the top of the eleventh. Anderson, perhaps spooked by his bullpen performance and managing in an era where it wasn’t unthinkable to leave a starter in (though admittedly it was still rare), sent Alexander back out and he gave up the tying run. Gibson finally won the game in the 13th with an RBI single. The Tigers were still in trouble, 2 ½ back with a week to go. But they had a pulse.
Detroit split four games at home with mediocre Baltimore and in a lot of circumstances that might have ended the AL East race. Instead, with Toronto getting swept by Milwaukee, it actually tightened it. The final weekend began with the Tigers back to within a game of first.
Alexander pitched on Friday night and it looked like his magic might finally end, when he gave up a three-run blast in the second inning. But he settled in, went seven innings and didn’t allow any more. Detroit began coming back. An error and a two-run homer by role player Scott Lusader cut it to 3-2. Trammell homered in the bottom of the third to tie it and Detroit quickly added another run. Hernandez was able to get the last six outs without incident.
The race was tied. It was a de facto best-of-three, allowing for the possibility of a one-game playoff on Monday afternoon.
Saturday afternoon was a taut baseball game that I can still vividly remember being glued to my TV set watching (I was rooting for Toronto and my dad was pulling for Detroit, though neither of us were invested in either team). Two great veterans battled on the mound, Morris for the Tigers and lefty Mike Flanagan for the Jays. It was 2-2 and went extra innings. Morris left after nine, Flanagan left after the 11th. And in the 12th, the Tigers broke through. Madlock singled, Gibson walked and Trammell’s RBI single to left won it.
How fast the race had changed in a week. Now it was Detroit playing with a little bit of cushion on Sunday afternoon. This was an era where baseball could both rival and exceed the NFL in popularity and this was also the first Sunday that the NFL would use replacement players due to a strike. It made Tigers-Jays must-see viewing.
Tanana and fellow lefty Jimmy Key for Toronto made it worth watching. Detroit got on the board in the second when Herndon homered. The game stayed 1-0 with both pitchers locked in. The Blue Jays put two on with two out in both the first and third innings, but couldn’t get the big hit. Tanana made them pay for missing, going the distance with a six-hitter and the 1-0 score stood up.
Detroit had completed an amazing final week to win a great race. There was every reason to feel a second World Series trophy in four years would come to the Motor City. With the 85-win Minnesota Twins as the ALCS opponent, at least another pennant seemed a foregone conclusion.
But the Tigers had finally run out of steam. There was a bit of bad luck—the Twins were much better at home and with homefield advantage determined by rotation rather than merit, Detroit had to begin on the road and quickly lost two games. But in fairness, they also lost two in Tiger Stadium and the series ended in five games.
It was a disappointing and surprise ending, but the 1987 Detroit Tigers won what is one of the more underrated division races in baseball history. That’s how they should be remembered.
Roger Craig was hired as the manager in San Francisco in 1986, inheriting a franchise that had just lost 100 games and had not won the NL West since 1971. Craig—who ironically had the same name as a great running back who also starred in San Francisco in this same time period—immediately turned the team into a winner, going 83-79 in his rookie year. The 1987 San Francisco Giants fulfilled the promise of that first season, taking the next step and capturing a division title.
Craig had buiilt his reputation as a pitching coach and it was the arms that carried the Giants in 1987. Without the benefit of a true ace, they still posted the best ERA in the National League. Kelly Downs, Mike LaCoss and Atlee Hammaker all had ERAs hovering between 3.55 and 3.70 and won double-diit games. A deep bullpen was led by Scott Garrelts and Jeff Robinson.
Perhaps the best live arm of them all belonged to reliever Mark Davis—he would eventually win a Cy Young Award, but in 1987 he hadn’t yet pitched at that level and the Giants would use him as the key piece of a critical trade later in the summer.
Will Clark was one of the best young players at baseball at first base and the 23-year-old finished with a .371 on-base percentage and .580 slugging percentage. The outfield had solid bats at every position, with Jeffrey Leonard slugging .467, Chili Davis hitting 24 home runs and Candy Maldonado finishing with a .346 OBP/.509 slugging percentage.
The middle infield was steady defensively and competent with the bat, as second baseman Robby Thompson finished with a .338 OBP, while shortstop Jose Uribe was at .343. Catcher Bob Brenly, the future manager of the 2001 World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks, hit 18 home runs. Depth was provided by Mike Aldrete, who got over 400 plate appearances off the bench and finished with an OBP of .396 and slugged .462.
Offensively, the Giants finished fourth in the National League in runs scored. But like the pitching staff, they needed some extra help that would be fulfilled in the summer trading season.
San Francisco came out of the gate strong, winning 14 of 20 games against NL West opponents. By Memorial Day, they held a three-game lead on the Cincinnati Reds, who were a trendy pick to win the division. Perennial contender Los Angeles and defending division champ Houston joined Atlanta at five games off the pace. In the two-divisional alignment that existed from 1969-93, the NL West consistent of these five teams, plus San Diego and the winner would advance directly to the National League Championship Series to play the Eastern champ.
The early summer months brought hard times. The Giants lost six of nine at home to the defending World Series champion Mets, the Expos and the Phillies. In June, a stretch of eleven games against the Braves and Padres promised some relief…San Francisco lost eight of those games. They dropped two of three at home to both Cincinnati and Houston.
The Giants went all-in to make their team better. In one fell swoop, they used Davis as the primary trading piece in a four-player package that brought them Kevin Mitchell, Dave Dravecky and Craig Lefferts from San Diego. Mitchell immediately upgraded the offense, with a .376 OBP/.580 slugging over the rest of the season and he became one of the game’s top power hitters. Dravecky made 18 starts in San Francisco and had a 3.20 ERA. Lefferts posted a 3.23 ERA the rest of the way and augmented the bullpen.
The effects of the changes weren’t immediate. By the time the All-Star break arrived, the Giants were a .500 team, in third place and three games back of the Reds, with the Astros having nudged back into second. The Giants briefly awoke on July 23 and swept NL East-leading St. Louis four straight. But San Francisco fell back asleep just as quickly, losing seven of nine on a road trip to Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Houston. The Giants were still five games out.
August 7 began a critical eight-game stretch that saw Cincinnati and Houston both come to old Candlestick Park. It was here that San Francisco turned their season around.
It began on a Friday night against the Reds. LaCoss threw a complete-game five-hitter. Clark and Mitchell each homered to provide the runs in a 3-1 win. Mitchell had two hits on Saturday as San Francisco jumped Cincy’s good lefty Tom Browning in a 5-2 win.
Sunday brought an old-fashioned doubleheader. Clark homered in the first inning of the opener and righthander Mike Krukow was outstanding for 8.1 IP, winning 3-2. And in the finale, the Giants staked Downs to four early runs and the pitcher delivered another eight solid frames. The 5-2 win completed the sweep and left the Reds reeling.
Houston was up next and San Francisco trailed Monday’s opener 4-1 in the seventh. Consecutive doubles from Maldonado and Brenly tied the game, but the Giants fell behind again 5-4. No problem—in the ninth, Maldonado and Clark hit back-to-back home runs to cap off the 6-5 walkoff.
The winning streak came to a brief end on Tuesday. LaCoss pitched well and the game was tied 2-2 in the seventh, but he gave up a leadoff homer and Lefferts coughed up three more runs. Wednesday night’s game was similarly tense into the seventh, with the Giants holding a 2-1 lead.
Houston had their ace, Mike Scott, on the mound. Scott had won the Cy Young Award in 1986 and was so dominant in the previous October’s NLCS that was named series MVP even though the Astros lost. Of greater concern in San Francisco—Scott had clinched the division by no-hitting the Giants. It was payback time.
Brenly’s grand slam highlighted a six-run seventh that sent San Francisco on their way to an 8-1 rout. The finale was Mitchell’s show. He hit a three-run homer and finished with four hits. The last one came in the 11th inning with the score tied 6-6. A two-out RBI single finished the 7-6 win.
The Giants were tied for first by the time this stretch of games was over and they kept the momentum going, winning 14 of the next 21. They had a 5 ½ game lead on Labor Day and gradually grew the lead. On September 28, they took the field with the chance to clinch.
Ironically, the opponent was their July trading partner in San Diego and it was Dravecky who got the ball. He didn’t pitch well, lasting only four innings and giving up seven hits. But the damage was limited to three runs. Don Robinson came out of the bullpen and settled things down, pitching five innings and only allowing a run. The Giants pulled even 4-4 by the eighth and Robinson was pitching well enough that Craig allowed him to bat for himself. Robinson homered. He finished his heroics by setting down the side in the ninth, getting a flyout to left from John Kruk that started the celebration.
San Francisco very nearly kept the party going longer. They won three of the first five games against St. Louis in the NLCS, a postseason rivalry that would heat up in the 21st century. In recent years, the Giants have gotten the best of this matchup. But in 1987, the bats went cold at the wrong time. They failed to score a run in the final two games at St. Louis and it was the Cardinals who went on to the World Series.
There might not have been October glory, but the 1987 San Francisco Giants brought the city their first division crown in sixteen years. Two years later, they would be back and go one step further and win the National League pennant.