This time, it was different. At the end of play on Aug. 21, 1971, the San Francisco Giants led the Los Angeles Dodgers by eight games. This time, it would be the Dodgers who would try to come from behind.
An eight game lead in early September is not insurmountable, but if the team that is being chased is a solid team, eight games are usually, but not always, enough. The Giants were barely good enough.
The Giants hosted the Houston Astros on Sept. 3 for a crucial four game series.
San Francisco won the first game easily by a score of 16-6, and won the next day with difficulty, 1-0, behind Don Carrithers, to extend their winning streak to five games.
The next day, Houston swept a twin bill.
The Giants headed for Los Angeles with a chance to put the final nails into the Dodgers’ coffin. The Dodgers had the chance to have the Giants to understand what it felt like to be pursued by a relentless pursuer.
The Dodgers won the first two games of the three game set. San Francisco needed the third game, which meant a two game swing in the standings.
The Giants’ great Marichal faced Bill Singer, known as the “Singer throwing machine.”
Going to the ninth inning, Marichal had given up three runs, while Singer had held the Giants to a pair of harmless singles.
Chris Arnold flied out to center field to open the Giants’ ninth, but then Ken Henderson drew a walk. Pinch-hitter Jim Ray Hart also walked, bringing the potential tying run to the plate.
The batter was Willie Mays. Lefty Jim Brewer replaced the tiring Singer.
The move might appear to be going against the “percentages” of having a right-handed pitcher face a right-handed hitter, but Brewer had a nasty screwball which was more effective against right-handed batters than against left-handed batters.
Brewer was careful with Willie. He walked him, bringing up Barry Bonds’ daddy, Bobby.
Bobby was a great player, but he wasn’t great on this day. He ended the game by hitting into a double play.
The Dodgers now trailed the Giants by five games.
Off to Atlanta to meet the Braves, The Giants dropped the first two games to extend their losing streak to seven games. They were creating an interest in a division race that they would rather have not created.
Every contending team needs a stopper. For the Giants, it turned out to be John Cumberland, who limited the Braves to a single run over nine innings after being staked to a four-run first inning lead.
In San Diego, the Dodgers beat the Padres. The lead was three games.
The Giants flew home from Atlanta to face the Dodgers at Candlestick Park. Once again, Singer beat the great Marichal. The lead was down to a precious pair.
The next day, Gaylord Perry faced former New York Yankees’ left-hander Al Downing, who had become the Dodgers’ most effective pitcher. Going to the ninth inning, San Francisco led 5-3.
The Dodgers won 6-5.
One game separated the teams who, when they were in New York, were the greatest rivals in sports history.
The defending National League champion Cincinnati Reds were next. The Reds swept a two game series. The lead was still one game.
The Giants took two out of three from the Padres to end the home stand at 2-5, but the 1971 Dodgers were a far cry from the 1951 New York Giants. They dropped two of four games to the Braves, and the Giants led by one and one-half games.
Going into the next to last day of the season, the lead was still one game.
The Giants were in San Diego, where they lost to the Padres, giving the Dodgers the chance to catch them, but the Dodgers were not up to the task. Ken Forsch of the Houston Astros shut them out at home.
It came down to the last game for each team.
Marichal started. He held the Padres to one run, five hits, and no walks. The Giants won the division. The Giants won the division.
Although it turned out that it didn’t matter, the Dodgers and Don Sutton beat the Astros, 2-1.
Neither the Giants nor the Dodgers was a solid team. Given the opportunity to catch a reeling team, the Dodgers fell short.
The division race was exciting because there was no safety net that is referred to today as the wild card. A major drawback to the wild card in that it often dilutes division races, but in 1971, with two six-team divisions, it would have provided almost unimaginable excitement.
The Dodgers finished at 89-73, one game behind the Giants. The St. Louis Cardinals finished seven games behind the Pirates, but the Cards were 90-72. What a wild card race it would have been.
San Francisco Giants’ 1971 Game Log at Retrosheet