Will Clark was a true Giant when it came to great walk-offs

We talk about the Hall of Very Good sometimes as a place where those who come up a little short of Hall of Fame standards reside. Will Clark would be among the Hall of Very Good’s most worthy residents.

Clark played 16 seasons with the Giants, Rangers, Orioles and Cardinals. He hit a robust .303/.384/.497, made six All-Star teams, won two Silver Sluggers and a Gold Glove award at first base. He had the misfortune of playing a position with a lot of really good players. But Clark’s numbers are still impressive.

He finished in the top five in the MVP voting four times in a five-year span with the Giants and was terrific in the 1987, 1989 and 2000 NLCS’ but never won a World Series. He was an even better hitter in high-leverage situations than he was in other spots. He retired after a season in which he hit .319/.418/.546. It ranks alongside David Ortiz and Ted Williams among the best retirement seasons of all-time.

Clark’s signature walk-off game came on June 22, 1988 against the Padres. San Diego was on the verge of a sweep of the series and got off to a good start on a Tony Gwynn RBI hit in the first inning. Clark countered with an RBI hit of his own in the bottom of the inning, but the Padres struck for three in the second on an RBI hit by Benito Santiago and a two-run single from Shane Mack. They stretched their lead to 5-1 on Carmelo Martinez’s home run in the third.

Clark got the Giants three runs back in the fifth when he homered against Padres starter Ed Whitson. The AP story notes that Clark had told the Giants No. 1 draft pick, future MLB shortstop, Royce Clayton, that he’d homered to right field in the game. Clark came through.

The score held until the top of the ninth when the Padres scored twice to take a 7-4 edge into the bottom of the ninth.

Lance McCullers (the elder) was appointed to close the game out for San Diego, but after retiring Kevin Mitchell, he walked Bob Brenly and allowed a single to Jose Uribe. In came the Padres closer, Mark Davis, who struck out pinch-hitter Harry Spilman. The Padres were one out from a win.

That out never came. Brett Butler singled in a run and Chris Speier walked. The situation stood at the Padres up by two runs, with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning. Clark was up.

The game recap notes that Davis threw Clark six curveballs, and that he thought he had Clark struck out on a 1-2 pitch that was called a ball. The last of those six curveballs was hit into the right field corner. Uribe, Butler and Speier all scored and the Giants had themselves an amazing 8-7 win. Seven of the runs were driven in by Will the Thrill.

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Bobby Thomson had another notable walk-off

You know Bobby Thomson’s most famous home run as the ‘Shot Heard Round the World’ that gave the Giants the 1951 NL pennant against the Dodgers.

But let’s talk briefly about Thomson’s second-most notable home run.

This came the season after the famous one, on June 16, 1952 against the Cardinals. This was a Giants team without their young standout, Willie Mays, who missed most of that year after being drafted into the Army. Thomson was among those providing thump in Mays absence, though he entered the day in an 0-for-13 slump.

The Giants jumped on the Cardinals for a 3-0 lead, keyed by home runs from Davey Williams and Alvin Dark. But the Cardinals scored seven of the next eight runs. Food was a theme to their offensive output. Del Rice drove in two runs. Peanuts Lowrey had an RBI.

Jokes aside, the Cardinals took a 7-4 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Rice grounded into a double play with the bases loaded in the ninth, else it might have been worse. It was the fifth double play turned by the Giants.

The Giants then went to work in the bottom of the ninth assembling a miracle. Hank Thompson (my father’s favorite) led off with a walk. One out later, Williams singled and Whitey Lockman’s walk loaded the bases.

By this time, Thomson was 0-for-4 and in an 0-for-17 slump overall. This made for quite the predicament for Cardinals rookie pitcher Willard Schmidt, the third pitcher of the inning. His stint lasted one pitch.

Thomson crushed it over the left field fence for a walk-off grand slam. It wasn’t quite ‘The Giants win the Pennant’ but it’s good to know that Bobby Thomson is not a one-note walk-off wonder.

Dwight Evans: a man of walks, and one good walk-off

I had been meaning to do a walk-off blog on Dwight Evans as a bit of a hello to my former boss at ESPN, but had briefly forgotten until a current colleague mentioned Evans’ Hall of Fame candidacy recently, as it is one that sabermetrician Bill James strongly supports.

Evans was one of those players who teeters between the Hall of Fame and the Hall of Very Good, with more teetering done the way of the latter. He was a star, but not a superstar. He’s someone who would have thrived in this era of MLB, given his combination of getting on base and hitting for power. He hit .272/.370/.470 with 385 home runs. He led the AL in walks three times, more than he led it in any other prominent offensive category.

Over a nine-year period from 1981 to 1980 he averaged 26 home runs and 95 walks per season, along with an .886 OPS. In that time, he’s one of the best hitters in baseball. Earlier in his career, he was one of the game’s top defensive outfielders, as he ranked top-two in outfield assists in four different seasons.

As far as walk-offs go, Evans isn’t known most for a walk-off he hit, but more one that he helped happen. He made a great catch in the 11th inning on a fly ball hit by Joe Morgan that he turned into a double play in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. An inning later, Carlton Fisk homered to win the game for Boston, one of the most famous home runs in World Series history.

Evans’ best walk-off moment came on June 23, 1990 in his final season with the Red Sox. This should be known as the day that Dwight Evans would not let the Red Sox lose.

Boston fell behind 2-1 in the eighth inning when second baseman Jody Reed made an error that allowed a run to score against ace pitcher Roger Clemens. In the bottom of the eighth, Evans came up with two outs and belted a game-tying home run against Orioles pitcher Dave Johnson.

The game went into extra innings, at which point Clemens departed for Rob Murphy, who allowed a go-ahead home run to Mickey Tettleton in the top of the 10th. The Orioles could have done further damage, but Joe Orsulak was thrown out at third base on a double steal.

In the Red Sox 10th, the first two hitters went down against Orioles closer Gregg Olson. But Tom Brunansky singled and pinch-runner Randy Kutcher advanced to second on a wild pitch with Evans at the plate.

The count on Evans went to 2-2. It should be noted that Olson hadn’t allowed a home run in more than a year. He was tough to hit with a sinker and a devastating curveball. But he threw Evans a high fastball, and Evans hit it over the Green Monster for a game-winning home run.

Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan compared Evans to Roy Hobbs. The Red Sox would go on to win the AL East, though they got swept by the Athletics in the ALCS. But Evans who was going to turn 39 that November was unceremoniously released.

The Orioles, perhaps liking what they saw from that walk-off, brought Evans in for the 1991 season. That was the final year of his career. And Evans got a little measure of revenge against his former team that September, recording a walk-off to beat them. Perhaps appropriately, it was a walk-off walk.

One of the resources I used for this blog was a game story written by Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe. Nick died last week and though I didn’t know him, I did work with his son when I was at ESPN, and have read nothing but great things about him. My condolences to his family.

Bobby Bonds was a walk-off immortal

Before there was Barry Bonds, there was Bobby Bonds, and if you’re reading this you probably know that Bobby was a terrific player whose best years were almost entirely with the Giants. His potential to be an all-time great went unfulfilled, with alcoholism being one of the reasons why.

But we’re here to focus on more positive things and besides having a cool statline (332 home runs, 461 stolen bases), Bobby Bonds had a penchant for walk-offs in improbable Giants victories.

The first of those came on August 29, 1970 against the Pirates. The Pirates had one of their top pitchers pitching, Steve Blass. The Giants started a rookie, Skip Pitlock.

The early outcome was thus not too surprising. The Pirates led 5-0 after 3 ½ innings and 9-2 after Al Oliver’s RBI single in the eighth.

In the Giants eighth Blass started to falter. He allowed a two-run home run to Bonds’ mentor, baseball legend Willie Mays, then was hooked after a one-out double by Dick Dietz.

Pirates closer Dave Giusti saved 26 games that season, but couldn’t get the job done on this Saturday afternoon. He allowed a two-run home run to the first batter he faced, Jim Ray Hart. That cut the Pirates lead to 9-6. Giusti was then hooked after allowing a two-out double to Ron Hunt.

Pirates reliever Joe Gibbon looked like he was going to get out of the inning, inducing a ground ball from Willie McCovey. But an error by Pirates third baseman, ex-Giant Jose Pagan extended the inning and brought Bobby Bonds to the plate at the tying run.

Bonds would get his chance against the fourth pitcher of the inning, rookie John Lamb, who was in quite the predicament for his ninth career appearance. Bonds came up clutch, hitting a three-run home run against Lamb to tie the game.

The game remained tied until the bottom of the 10th. Hart’s single got the rally started and a bunt pushed him to second. With men on first and second and two outs, Bonds came up again. This time he singled, bringing in Hart with the winning run.

Flash forward three years later to May 1 1973. The Giants were 18-6 and looking impressive, though you wouldn’t know it by the 7,972 in attendance at Candlestick Park. This was a little more favorable pitching matchup for the Giants, with Ron Bryant facing Bob Moose of the Pirates.

But again, the early results favored the Pirates. Willie Stargell’s first- inning double brought home the first run. Subsequent Stargell hits extended the lead to 4-0 and 5-1, and by the bottom of the ninth, the Pirates had a seemingly insurmountable 7-1 lead. Their win probability was less than one percent.

Bonds led off the ninth with a walk, but two forceouts later, the Giants had only one out remaining. The last out never came.

Two walks loaded the bases for pinch-hitter Chris Arnold, who whacked his first career grand slam against Ramon Hernandez. A double by Gary Matthews and two walks loaded the bases for Bonds, with the Giants trailing 7-5 and Giusti trying to get the final out. Bonds was battling a virus and was eager for the game to end.

He ended it. Bonds smashed a double, scoring all three runs, making the Giants 8-7 winners.

Amazingly, on September 3 of that season, the Giants and rival Dodgers squared off in San Francisco. The Dodgers led that game 8-1 after 6 ½ innings. Guess what happened!

The Giants scored six runs in the bottom of the seventh, with Bonds driving in one with a ground rule double. That cut the Dodgers lead to 8-7.

Then, in the bottom of the ninth, a walk and two bunts that the Dodgers botched loaded the bases for Bonds with nobody out. Bonds’ grand slam was his fifth walk-off hit and third walk-off home run of the season. It knocked the Dodgers out of sole possession of first place in the NL West. The Reds would beat them out for the division.

To close our story, let’s fast forward to September 9, 1979, near the end of Bonds’ career. Now with the Indians, his team trailed the Blue Jays by five runs entering the bottom of the fourth inning.

The Indians scored five in the fourth, took the lead, then fell behind 10-9 in the eighth inning.

In the bottom of the ninth, Mike Hargrove’s RBI single tied the game. With runners on second and third and one out, Rick Manning was intentionally walked. Guess who was coming up next!

Bonds obliged with a walk-off grand slam, giving the Indians a 14-10 victory. This was a good day for Bonds to get on track. He’d met with management earlier in the day about issues with which he was dealing, along with his baseball struggles.

I feel like the current generation of baseball fans views David Ortiz as the standard setter for walk-off moments. And that’s a perfectly fair sentiment.

But before Ortiz, there were others, and one of them was Bobby Bonds.

Bonds may not be a baseball immortal, but he’s definitely a walk-off immortal in my book.

Notable Walk-Offs for Bobby Bonds
Team Situation Bonds did what
1970 Giants Trailed 9-2 in 8th Single in 10th
1973 Giants Trailed 7-1 in 9th 3-run double in 9th
1973 Giants Trailed 8-1 in 7th Grand slam in 9th
1979 Indians Trailed 6-1 in 4th Grand slam in 9th

1974 Pirates, Orioles oft-forgotten, but had memorable walk-off finishes

The 1974 NL East and AL East division races go overlooked in history, probably because neither of the winners went to the World Series. So they’re remembered locally by people a little older than I am, but they’re footnotes to other notable seasons by these franchises.

But these were two amazing races and walk-offs had a LOT to do with who came out on top.

American League

The Orioles trailed the Yankees by 2 1/2 games for the AL East lead with 14 left to play (15 for the Yankees). But they put on a heck of a final kick to overtake the Bronx Bombers. First, they won three straight games in Yankee Stadium, to move in front. Then they took two of three from the Red Sox, after which they were one game up on the Yankees (though it should be noted, the loss was one in which the Red Sox walked-off after tying the game with four runs in the ninth).

Baltimore returned home for five games and won all five, four of which were by one run and three of which were by walk-off.

The first required scoring three runs in the bottom of the ninth to overcome a 4-2 deficit. Tommy Davis’ two-out, two-run single against Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich brought home the winning runs. That win was necessary to staying in first place, because the Yankees walked-off on the Red Sox that night.

The next day’s walk-off required patience. It didn’t happen until the bottom of the 17th inning. With the bases loaded and one out, Bob Oliver hit a slow grounder to third base on which Brewers third baseman Don Money could not make a play. The Orioles won, 1-0. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this game was the length of the pitcher’s duel. Hall-of-Famer Jim Palmer pitched 12 scoreless innings for the Orioles. Jim Colborn pitched 13 innings of zeroes for the Brewers.

The last of the walk-offs was less dramatic. Boog Powell walked with the bases loaded to snap a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the ninth.

The Orioles went back on the road, swept a three-game series from the Tigers and won the division by two games.

National League

The NL portion is more about one game than a stretch of games, though the 1974 Pirates also had an impressive end run, going 8-2 in their last 10 games (though one of the losses was an epic 13-12, 11-inning defeat vs the Cardinals that took them out of first place).

Entering their final game of the season, the Pirates led the NL East by a game. A win or a Cardinals loss would give the Pirates the division title. The Cardinals game with the Expos got rained out, so it was up to the Pirates to take care of business themselves.

That didn’t look like it would happen. The Cubs led the Pirates 4-0 before the Bucs even got up to bat. The Pirates would chip away, scoring once in the third and once in the fifth, but still trailed 4-2 going to the bottom of the ninth. This was a rowdy affair in this regard. Fans, unhappy with a call made on a play at the plate in the fourth inning, began aiming at Cubs players with bottles, fruit(!) and golf balls. The umpires threatened a forfeit, but the game played on.

If I told you the Pirates tied the game without recording a hit, would you believe me?

That’s what happened. Walks to Richie Zisk and Manny Sanguillen got things started. Ed Kirkpatrick bunted both runners over. Dave Parker then produced a run with a ground out, the second out of the inning.

The Pirates were down to their final out, then their final strike, then their final huff and puff and prevailed each time. With the tying run at third base, Bob Robertson struck out on a curveball from Cubs pitcher Rick Reuschel. But the ball broke in and got away from Cubs catcher Steve Swisher. Robertson raced for first base as Swisher retrieved the ball. A good throw and Robertson would have been out. This throw hit Robertson, allowing the tying run to score.

In the bottom of the 10th, the Pirates pulled it out. A triple by Al Oliver set everything up. After two intentional walks, he would score on Manny Sanguillen’s slow grounder to third on which Cubs third baseman Bill Madlock could not make a play. The Pirates were NL East champs.

Bruce Bochy is an all-time Padres walk-off legend

I have a few things in common with retiring San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy.

We both have large craniums, though Bochy’s is almost certainly bigger than mine.

We both like to walk. Bochy has even written a book about walking. I read it and enjoyed it.

And we both like walk-offs.

Regarding the latter, I have a statistic that will probably surprise you, though given that you’re reading this blog, it will make sense.

Bruce Bochy is tied for the all-time lead in walk-off home runs for the San Diego Padres.

Bochy’s 3 match the walk-off home run totals of Bip Roberts (also unlikely), Scott Hairston, and B.J. Upton. In other words, they all had more than Dave Winfield, Nate Colbert, Adrian Gonzalez, Ken Caminiti and made other notable Padres.

Bochy totaled 20 home runs in 448 at-bats from 1983 to 1987 with the Padres, a good at bat-to -home run ratio. The three walk-off home runs were clumped together in the 1985 and 1986 seasons, when Bochy saw his most playing time with the team. I think I like the story of his first walk-off home run best.

It came on July 1, 1985 in a game against the Astros. The visiting Houston squad was up 4-0 after an inning-and-a-half thanks in part to Denny Walling’s home run off LaMarr Hoyt. From there, both starting pitchers settled in. The Astros extended the lead to 5-3 in the seventh inning on a run –scoring double by Craig Reynolds.

But the Padres would rally. In the eighth inning, a double by Tim Flannery and ground outs by Gwynn and Steve Garvey scored a run to cut the deficit to 5-4. Then in the ninth, a walk to Graig Nettles got things going. Carmelo Martinez followed with a double and Garry Templeton was intentionally walked to load the bases.

Fan favorite Kurt Bevacqua then brought home the tying run with a sacrifice fly. The Padres didn’t score any more in the ninth. Future Hall-of-Famer Rich Gossage came on in relief and set the Astros down in the bottom of the 10th.

There must have been some stubbornness involved here, because the Astros starting pitcher stayed in the game, despite having allowed five runs and pitched nine innings. It looked like a good call when Garvey grounded out and Bobby Brown struck out.

That set the stage for Bruce Bochy to hit the only walk-off home run that baseball legend Nolan Ryan ever allowed.

For more, including comments from Bochy, read Andrew Baggarly’s piece from the 30th anniversary of Bochy’s home run here.

A Pirates win that the Pearsons would have loved

I’m a fan of the TV show This is Us, which is in its third season and airs on NBC on Tuesday night.

In last week’s episode, one of the subplots involved one of the Pearson boys, Kevin, going with his mother to get an autograph from the Pirates pitcher John Smiley, who was about to be traded to the Twins. Pittsburgh sports have been integrated into the show’s plots previously, with Franco Harris and “The Immaculate Reception” playing a role in the first date of the husband and wife, Jack and Rebecca.

So I went looking for a walk-off that Jack, Kevin, and the rest of the Pearson family would have liked. I found a good one from the 1991 season.

The Pirates won their second of three straight NL East titles that season. Games like this were the reason why. This was a ridiculous win.

It was a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon that April 10 when the Pirates and Cubs played at Three Rivers Stadium, a game that featured a paid crowd of barely 10,000.

The game was scoreless until the bottom of the fifth when the Pirates scored twice. Mike LaValliere had an RBI double and Jose Lind plated a run with a sacrifice fly.

The Cubs countered with three runs in the sixth, with future Hall of Famers Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson each recording RBI hits against Randy Tomlin. The Cubs then added four runs in the seventh inning, with the key play an error by shortstop Jay Bell that scored two. So after 7 ½ innings, the Cubs led 7-2.

But the Pirates weren’t done. Orlando Merced hit a two-run triple off Cubs reliever Paul Assenmacher in the eighth for his first MLB RBIs and Bobby Bonilla’s two-run home run later in the inning cut the Cubs lead to 7-6. I was glad that the This is Us writers picked Smiley rather than Bonilla to be the focal point of that part of the story. Bonilla may be a nice person, but I never saw it in his time with the Mets.

The Pirates trailed 7-6 going to the bottom of the ninth and would have to muster a comeback against former Astros closer Dave Smith. Jeff King got things started with a single and Don Slaught bunted him to second base. Jose Lind flied out, but pinch-hitter Gary Varsho found a hole and grounded a game-tying double to right field. The Pirates had rallied from five runs down to tie.

Here’s where things get crazy. The Pirates squandered a chance to win the game in the 10th, when Don Slaught grounded out with the winning run on third base.

The Cubs loaded the bases with two outs in the 11th and Doug Dascenzo brought home the go-ahead run with a single. Dawson followed that up with a grand slam. The Cubs led by five runs, 12-7, going to the bottom of the 11th inning.

This Is Us often invokes making the most out of the worst situations (though the situations they present are usually much more important and more dire than sports). The Pirates made the most of their worst situation here. Dan Fogelman and his writing staff could not have penned a better script (and they’ve written some great ones!)

A walk and two singles loaded the bases. Bell doubled in two runs against reliever Mike Bielecki. Andy Van Slyke’s sacrifice fly was the first out, but brought in a run that cut the Cubs lead to 12-10. Bonilla walked and Barry Bonds singled, making it 12-11. Bonds was in a 1-for-26 slump and had struck out four times prior to the hit. After a walk to Gary Redus, Slaught came up with the bases loaded.

Second chances are also often a This is Us theme. In this case, Slaught took advantage of his second chance to win the game. His double over the center fielder’s head brought home Bonilla and Bonds to win the game.

“You are lucky if you get one chance to win a game,” Slaught told reporters afterwards. “You don’t ever get a second chance.”

In all, the Pirates came back from five runs down twice to win. If the Pearson’s were there, I’d like to think they stuck it out until the end.

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