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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

May 23, 2011 at 10:37 AM

Remembering the 1988 Giants, last team to have a pitching stretch like Mariners

reuschel.jpg

This amazing stretch of starting pitching by the Mariners — nine straight games allowing two or fewer runs — is sending everyone scrambling to the record books. As Geoff blogged today, it’s the first time that’s happened since the 1988 San Francisco Giants (and he explains why the 1999 Braves and 1991 Mets don’t count).

Those 1988 Giants happen to be near and dear to my heart. I covered them as a young pup with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, and have strong memories of the starting five that achieved the feat: Rick Reuschel, Kelly Downs, Mike LaCoss, Terry Mulholland and Don Robinson. (For some reason, Atlee Hammaker’s name keeps getting mentioned as being a participant, but he didn’t start any of the nine. He did, however, blow two games in the 10th and ninth inning as a reliever and suffered both losses incurred by the Giants during that stretch).

I’ve got to say that I consider this Mariners staff to be a better one than the Giants of 1988 (for whom a future Mariners’ manager, Bob Melvin, did the bulk of the catching during their hot streak. He started six of the nine games behind the plate. Future Mariner Kevin Mitchell was one of the Giants’ key players. Though he was a butcher at third base; MItchell found a comfort zone in left field the following year and was National League Most Valuable Player. Current Mariners’ bench coach Robby Thompson was a vital cog at second base, and former Mariner Donnell Nixon, whose highly promising career had been stymied by a gruesome leg injury during spring training, got a lot of time in the outfield.

But as Geoff pointed out in his story, that Giants’ staff was filled with older guys on their last legs. Reuschel was a master craftsman and would go on to win 19 games that year, but was 39 years old and would have just one more prominent season, in 1989, when the Giants won the National League pennant. LaCoss was 32 and not much more than a journeyman. Robinson was 31, but a very old 31. He was getting by purely on guts and guile in those days. He used to boast about how many cortisone shots he had taken in his career — and it was well into double digits. Downs was 27, which should have been his prime, and everyone was predicting he was a future ace. But he never developed and had a very disappointing career. Mulholland, 25, was just at the forefront of a long and successful career (including two stints with the Mariners), but the two games he won during this stretch were the only two games he’d win all year.

I very distinctly remember one game in the nine-game stretch from July 1 to July 10 — a 21-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. What I remember is that Chris Speier, at age 38, got the start at second base in place of Thompson and hit for the cycle. If I recall correctly, he was the oldest player to hit for the cycle, and had the biggest gap between cycles, having done so also in 1978. The fact that Chris Speier turns 61 next month is very depressing to me, for some reason.

In doing some research on those nine games, a couple of interesting things popped out. One, Greg Maddux, then with the Cubs, out-dueled Robinson to win one of the games, 3-2. And two days later, Reuschel out-dueled a young Jamie Moyer (yes, he was young once) to win 2-0.

One thing those Giants pitchers had was great nicknames. Reuschel was Big Daddy. Robinson was Caveman. And LaCoss was Buffy, so named because he resembled one of the kids from the sit-com “Family Affair.” What no one ever properly explained is that he looked like the boy in the show, but Buffy was the name of the little girl. LaCoss also happened to be one of the grumpiest players I ever covered, and Reuschel one of the most laconic. Getting two words out of him was a triumph. Every Giants beat writer from that era remembers the time we chased Big Daddy up an enbankment in Chandler, Ariz., where the Brewers trained, trying to get a comment after a spring training game. I always felt he thoroughly enjoyed his evasiveness.

Here are the nine games of that Giants streak:

July 1 (lost 5-2 to Pirates, 10 innings)

Rick Reuschel: 8 innings, 7 hits, 2 runs, 2 earned runs, 2 walks, 1 strikeout

July 2 (beat Pirates, 2-1)

Mike LaCoss: 8 innings, 8 hits, 1 run, 1 earned run, 3 walks, 8 strikeouts

July 3 (beat Pirates, 4-0)

Kelly Downs: 9 innings, 3 hits, 0 runs, 2 walks, 4 strikeouts

July 4 (lost to Cubs, 3-2)

Don Robinson: 7 innings, 4 hits, 2 runs, 2 earned runs, 1 walk, seven strikeouts)

July 5 (beat Cubs 9-0)

Terry Mulholland: 9 innings, 6 hits, 0 runs, 1 walk, 2 strikeouts)

July 6 (beat Cubs 2-0)

Rick Reuschel: 8 innings, 6 hits, 0 runs, 0 walks, 4 strikeouts)

July 8 (beat Cardinals 1-0)

Mike LaCoss: 9 innings, 4 hits, 0 runs, 2 walks, 5 strikeouts

July 9 (beat Cardinals 21-2)

Kelly Downs: 7 innings, 7 hits, 2 runs, 2 earned, 1 walk, 3 strikeouts.

July 10 (beat Cardinals 2-1)

Terry Mulholland: 9 hits, 5 hits, 1 run, 1 earned run, 1 walks, 5 strikeouts.

The total are 74 innings, 50 hits, eight runs, eight earned runs, 13 walks and 39 strikeouts, with a 0.97 ERA.

Impressive, but not quite as impressive as the Mariners’ current nine-game stretch: a 0.77 ERA (six earned runs in 70 innings), a .160 opponent batting average, 38 hits allowed, and 68 strikeouts.

I think this Mariner staff has more of an upside than those Giants did. Felix Hernandez already has a Cy Young and is established as one of the top pitchers in the game, and he’s just 25. Michael Pineda is at the forefront of what could be a brilliant career. He’s 22. Not sure yet what kind of careers Jason Vargas (28) and Doug Fister (27) will have, but they look like they’ll be solid middle-of-the-rotation guys. And Erik Bedard, at age 32, has the potential to be better than that if his shoulder holds up.

Couple of postscripts on those 1988 Giants: One, they were coming off the NL West title and had added Brett Butler in the offseason, making them a favorite to repeat. But they finished a disappointing 83-79, fourth place in the division, 11 1/2 games behind the Dodgers. They would go on, as I mentioned, to win the pennant the next year, with Reuschel, Robinson, Downs, LaCoss and Scott Garrelts as their prime starters. Mulholland was traded in a package for Steve Bedrosian on June 18, 1989, with the Giants in desperate need of shoring up their bullpen. They won that year on the strength of sensational seasons from Mitchell and Will Clark. By the time the World Series rolled around, their pitching was absolutely spent. Earthquake or no earthquake, they were going to get manhandled by the Oakland A’s.

Also, the GIants followed their nine-game stretch of sterling pitching in 1988 with five straight losses in which Reuschel, Downs, LaCoss, Mulholland and Robinson combined to give up 36 hits and 24 earned runs in 21 2/3 innings for a 14.95 ERA.

The Mariners are hoping that’s history that doesn’t repeat.

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