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20 years ago: Team of Dustiny defeats Dodgers in epic NL West championship run



When the Giants arrived to Spring Training in 1997, the team was coming off a horrendous season. Finishing 68-94, theit worst season since losing 100 games in 1985.

When the ’97 regular season ended, the Giants were NL West champs after taking the pennant out of the rival Dodgers’ hands in one of the greatest zero-to-hero stories in franchise history.

Sunday marks 20 years since the Giants began that crucial two-game series against the Dodgers, which allowed them to tie the division and eventually clinch the division.

In one of the key moves to turning things around after that disastrous 1996 season ended, the Giants hired Brian Sabean to replace former general manager Bob Quinn Sr. A month went by and everyone appeared to be happy with the team’s’ new management, until Sabean’s first major trade. On the coattails of back-to-back last place seasons, Sabean traded away the beloved and still talented Matt Williams.

Sabean knew he couldn’t trade Barry Bonds, undoubtedly the best player in baseball at the time, but he needed to trim the team’s payroll. As the second-highest paid player on their roster, Sabean traded Williams, along with Trent Hubbard, to the Indians in exchange for Jeff Kent, Julian Tavarez, Jose Vizcaino and Joe Roa.

From today’s perspective, that trade was one of the smartest moves Sabean made during his tenure as general manager. In 1996, it left fans outraged and confused. Although Kent went on to become a three-time All-Star with the Giants and made a phenomenal double-play combination with Vizcaino in 1997, Sabean went from a beacon of hope to clueless general manager in the eyes of the fans overnight for his decision.

Their tunes began to change, however when the Giants started winning. Bound to become the 1997 Manager of the Year, Dusty Baker instilled his team with a winning mindset, challenging them to be confident in their victories and angry at their defeats. Add on their embarrassing 1996 campaign, which left many on the team with a chip on their shoulders and the “Team of Dustiny” shot to a 51-36 first place standing by the All-Star Game.

Sabean continued to make moves that propelled the Giants through the second half. Shortly after the All-Star break, he brought Wilson Alvarez, Danny Darwin and closer Roberto Hernandez to San Francisco in a nine-man trade with the White Sox in late July. This bolstered the pitching staff and helped keep the Giants close behind the Dodgers, who gradually caught up to retake the division.

With only two games separating the Giants from the division-leading Dodgers, both teams knew the stakes were high when they began their series on September 17. Chants of “Beat LA”, which began well before the start of Game 1, erupted when Bonds started the series with a two-run homer in the first inning of Game 1. That’s all the Giants needed as Kirk “Woody” Reuter pitched one of his best games of the season. Showing rare emotion, Woody gave up one run through seven innings before handing the ball to Hernandez, who earned his 30th save of the season.

Yet, the life the Dodgers lacked in their 2-1 loss the day before came erupted in Game 2 to make for a back-and-forth battle that stretched into extra innings. With the game tied 5-5, the Dodgers started the tenth by loading the bases with three singles against Rod “Shooter” Beck.

Amidst angry and nervous boos from the stands, Shooter struck out Todd Zeile and doubled up hall of famer Eddie Murray to keep the Dodgers scoreless. Two innings later, Brian Johnson, one of Sabean’s most underrated trade acquisitions, sent the first pitch he saw over the left field wall to win the game and even the NL West.

From there, the Dodgers finished the season 4-5 while the Giants went 6-3 and clinched the division on September 27. Although the Florida Marlins swept the Giants in the LDS on their way to becoming World Series champions, the 1997 turnaround season laid the groundwork for the future success that led to four World Series appearances in 13 seasons and a trio of unbelievable championship runs.

For more on the 1997 Giants, check out this podcast with Jeff Kent on Murph and Mac below.