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1997: 'Team of Dustiny' captures a title

Brian Johnson's homer capped off a remarkable two days of baseball in San Francisco.

A second straight last-place finish in '96, this time with a devastating 94 losses, meant something had to change. On Nov. 13, new general manager Brian Sabean did what many Giants fans considered unthinkable -- he traded fan favorite Matt Williams to the Indians for Jeff Kent, Jose Vizcaino, Julian Tavarez and a player to be named (Joe Roa).

Sporting the slogan "It's Giants baseball; anything can happen," the team charged out to a 16-5 record at the start of the '97 season, en route to a six-game advantage over Los Angeles at the All-Star break. In the span of just three weeks, their lead evaporated (thanks to an 8-13 post-break performance) and they were tied with the Dodgers.

For the next six weeks, the teams battled back and forth, with neither club able to lead by more than 2 1/2 games. In one of the most memorable series in Giants history, capped by Brian Johnson's 12th-inning, game-winning homer, they swept Los Angeles to again pull into a tie.

In the history of the Giants, few home runs rival the drama of catcher Johnson's shot on Sept. 18. His blow not only pulled San Francisco into a first-place tie with Los Angeles, it entered Johnson's name into the annals of legendary Giants shots, ranking up there with Bobby Thomson's 1951 "Shot Heard 'Round The World," also hit against the Dodgers.

When the Dodgers came to town on Sept. 17 for a two-game set, they were leading the division by two games. The Giants cut the deficit to a single game by taking a taut night opener, 2-1. Barry Bonds' upper-deck home run in the first inning off Chan Ho Park gave the Giants both of their runs, and Kirk Rueter allowed only four hits and a single run (a homer by Raul Mondesi) in his seven-plus innings of work. Roberto Hernandez, acquired at the trade deadline, finished off the game with his sizzling fastball.

With baseball fever seizing much of the Bay Area, manager Dusty Baker turned to Terry Mulholland (another late-season pickup) for the series finale. He gave up a home run to the second batter he faced (Otis Nixon), but his club battled back.

With two out in the bottom of the first, Bonds hit a triple and then scored on Glenallen Hill's single. J.T. Snow snapped the tie with a leadoff homer in the fourth, and the Giants broke it open when Bonds smacked a three-run round-tripper off Dodgers starter Tom Candiotti in the fifth.

In the sixth, the normally sure-handed Snow dropped a ball while trying to tag out Nixon as he ran up the first-base line, and the error later allowed two unearned runs to score. Still, Mulholland left with a 5-3 lead. But Julian Tavarez allowed runners to reach second and third with one out in the seventh, and Baker had no choice but to bring in Hernandez, despite his two innings of work the previous night and a sore shoulder.

The gamble failed, however, as Mike Piazza tied the game with a two-run single. Neither squad could unknot the score in nine innings, and after two scoreless innings of relief from Doug Creek, Baker turned to his beleagured closer, Rod Beck, for the 10th.

Beck, who had blown a save and taken the loss two games earlier, entered to a smattering of boos from the crowd, and things turned downright ugly when Piazza, Eric Karros and Mondesi all singled to load the bases with none out. With the huge crowd voicing their disapproval of Beck's continued presence in the game, Baker went to the mound and told his pitcher to dig down deep for something special.

The man nicknamed "Shooter" delivered, striking out Todd Zeile. Facing pinch-hitter Eddie Murray, Beck got the member of the 500-homer club to hit a slow grounder to second, where Jeff Kent picked it up and fired home for one out. Johnson's throw to first beat the aging Murray to end the inning.

With the fans now screaming their support of the mustachioed pitcher, Beck left the field with a roar and then pitched two hitless innings.

After more than four hours of baseball, the teams were still stuck at five runs each when Johnson came to the plate to lead off the bottom of the 12th. Reliever Mark Guthrie threw one pitch, and Johnson clobbered it. It rode toward the wall in left, but having already seen an earlier Dodgers blow to nearly the same spot look like a sure home run, only to be knocked down by the Candlestick Park wind, the 52,140 in attendance held their breath.

When the ball cleared the fence and landed in the left-field bleachers, the ballpark erupted. It's possible cars on nearby Highway 101 thought an earthquake was happening as the frenzied crowd celebrated wildly while Johnson circled the bases. The catcher later said he didn't even feel his feet hitting the ground as he ran, and when he crossed the plate, his teammates mobbed him. The scoreboard itself almost seemed alive as it displayed the current NL West standings, with the Giants and Dodgers in a flat-footed tie.

Leading the charge from the dugout was the almost-forgotten earlier hero of the game, Bonds, who burst from the dugout and bear-hugged Baker. He celebrated so enthusiastically, he momentarily popped his shoulder out of its socket. Luckily, the injury didn't keep him out of the lineup, as Giants fans and their team all knew much more work lay ahead in the final 10 days of the season.

The Giants took the division lead the next day with a win against San Diego, and although they lost the next day, the Dodgers were in the midst of losing three straight to the Rockies. With two more wins over the Padres and a split of two games against the Rockies, the Giants enjoyed a 2 1/2-game lead as they headed home for their final three-game set of the season.

With a win over the Padres on Friday night and a Dodgers loss to the Rockies, the Giants would clinch the division. Bonds hit his 40th home run of the season to put him over the 100 RBIs mark, giving San Francisco its first 100 RBIs trio in Bonds, Kent and Snow, and Shawn Estes notched his 19th win of the season in a 17-4 drubbing of San Diego. But the Dodgers refused to die, and their victory meant San Francisco was only guaranteed a tie for first place.

"Dustiny" (a term coined by Beck) could not be denied; one win by the Giants would seal the title. On Saturday, Sept. 27, midseason acquisition Wilson Alvarez took the mound for San Francisco and allowed only two hits in the first seven scoreless innings. Mark Lewis and Glenallen Hill manufactured a run in the fourth, and a Johnson bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the sixth tacked on another run. Pitcher Alvarez singled home another.

Thoughts of a clinch gripped the minds of the more than 48,000 fans in attendance when the Giants added another three runs in the seventh, thanks in part of Snow's two-run double. Although Hernandez gave up a run in the eighth, the Giants entered the ninth with a 6-1 lead.

Despite his recent struggles and the emergence of Hernandez as an alternate closer, Baker gave the ball to Beck for the final inning. He set down the first two batters and faced Greg Vaughn as the potential title-clinching out.

With a 2-2 count and the crowd in a frenzy, Beck blazed a pitch by Vaughn, who swung and missed, setting off the celebration. Beck threw his arms in the air, and the Giants dogpiled in the center of the field. Bonds knelt in prayer in left field before joining the frenzy, and he later leaped atop the dugout to embrace fans.

The renewed Giants made their first postseason appearance in eight years when they faced National League Wild Card entry Florida Marlins in the Division Series. Despite losing all three games of series, San Francisco gave Florida its toughest test en route to its first world championship.

Both Games 1 and 2 came down to the last at-bat, with Florida taking advantage of being the home club and posting 2-1 and 7-6 victories, respectively.

Despite two solo home runs by Kent in Game 3, the Marlins finished off the sweep on strength of Devon White's sixth-inning grand slam off Alvarez.

But the sweetness of securing a title showed the team had clearly established a new winning tradition.

"That day was again needed because of how close we came in '93," said Baker. "In '94, '95 and '96, most of the team was gone and we finished last. It saved my career again because they were talking about getting a new manager. That was another big turning point that propelled this organization to success and into being one of the finer organizations around."

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