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.