"Because of the way we had played against them all year, our confidence level was up," said Chris Speier, who began his splendid 19-year Major League career that season with the Giants as their everyday shortstop. "We beat them up pretty bad during the season."
Yet the Giants almost didn't reach the postseason. They built a 10 1/2-game lead over second-place Los Angeles in the NL West by the end of May. The Dodgers proceeded to erode San Francisco's edge to one game by mid-September. Still leading Los Angeles by a game entering their regular-season finale at San Diego, the Giants relied on Juan Marichal, their magnificent ace. Marichal delivered, pitching a five-hitter as the Giants clinched the division title with a 5-1 victory.
Willie Mays contributed a key RBI double, Dave Kingman added a two-run homer and Willie McCovey roped a pair of hits. "Dodgers can go to hell," Giants catcher Dick Dietz crowed on live radio during the postgame celebration.
The Giants sustained that momentum in the NLCS opener against the Pirates at Candlestick Park, where Tito Fuentes and McCovey each hit two-run homers and Gaylord Perry pitched a gutty complete game in a 5-4 triumph.
The next day, however, Bob Robertson slugged three homers in a 9-4 Pirates rout.
"That really was an anomaly," recalled Giants left fielder Ken Henderson, who pointed out that left-hander John Cumberland appeared to be a solid choice as San Francisco's Game 2 starter. "You figure with a left-handed pitcher against their best hitters -- Al Oliver, Willie Stargell and Richie Hebner -- that we matched up pretty well," Henderson said.
Moreover, righties hit just .218 off Cumberland in the regular season.
The series shifted to Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, where Marichal threw a complete-game four-hitter in Game 3. But two of those hits were homers by Robertson and Hebner, and a journeyman right-hander named Bob Johnson subdued the Giants for eight innings in a 2-1 decision.
"That was the pivotal game, in my mind," said Henderson, who scored San Francisco's lone run and collected one of five hits allowed by Johnson, who posted a 28-34 career record with five teams.
Facing a must-win situation in what was then a best-of-five series, the Giants jumped to a 5-2 lead in Game 4 before Pittsburgh roared back to win, 9-5. The Giants didn't return to the postseason until 1987.
"I think we really thought it was our series to win," Henderson said. Losing to Pittsburgh, he added, "was tough to take for a long, long time."
It's universally agreed that the Giants lost the series before it began by being forced to use Marichal against San Diego to seal the division title. This prevented them from starting their pair of future Hall of Fame right-handers, Marichal and Perry, in the series' first two games. Had both triumphed, the deficit might have been too much for Pittsburgh to overcome. Instead, Marichal couldn't pitch until Game 3.
"It would have been nice to go in with our pitching aligned, to be able to put your best guy out there in Game 1 and maybe have the ability to bring him back in Game 5," Speier said. "We were not going with our best guy. And it showed."
Then again, Speier added, games aren't played under theoretical circumstances: "Taking nothing away from Pittsburgh, because [in] this whole playoff scenario, you have all the analysts breaking down everything, saying, 'This team's better.' Well, you can throw that all out. Who would have thought Bob Robertson would hit three home runs in one game? It's the team that does what it has to do that day."
Speier, Cincinnati's bench coach when Pittsburgh defeated the Reds in last year's Wild Card Game, left no doubt who he'll be rooting for on Wednesday. "It would nice for the Giants to knock them out," Speier said. "It would be a little bit of 'get-back.'"