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Sunday, August 24, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Major League Baseball

We won't see another race like '93 Giants-Braves

Seattle Times baseball reporter

It's been called the last pure pennant race, but when the Giants look back at their epic battle with the Braves in the pre-wild-card wilderness of 1993, they don't see much purity.

Only anguish, heartache and the burden they will always carry of what might have been.

The Giants won 103 games that year, the most ever by a team that went home. That was because the Braves won 104, escaping with the National League West title on the final day of the season when they beat Colorado 5-3 and watched the Giants get thumped at Dodger Stadium, 12-1.

In future years, it would have been no sweat. The Giants would have wrapped up the NL's wild-card berth days or weeks earlier. But that, in turn, would have detracted from a race that became historic for its grandeur, and for the way both teams kept churning out victories, night after night.

"We didn't have any other place to go but to win the division," said Jeff Brantley, a Giants reliever that season. "That's still a real sore spot in my baseball memories. You get down to the last day of the season, you know every card is in your favor. All you have to do is win the game."

Had the Giants won that last game — and manager Dusty Baker's decision to start rookie Salomon Torres over veterans Jim Deshaies and Scott Sanderson remains a Bay Area bone of contention — it would have set up what surely would have been the most raucous sports event in San Francisco history:

A one-game, winner-take-all playoff game the next day at Candlestick Park, 15-game winner John Smoltz against 21-game winner Billy Swift.

"It would have been lightning," said Brantley. "Atlanta had to come to our place, and they had to fly from Atlanta. We had to fly from L.A. Flying was in our favor."

The season is still viewed by some as a Giants' choke because they had a nine-game lead on Aug. 11. That's simply an unfair analysis. Sure, the Giants went 6-15 for a stretch, including eight straight losses, to fall four games behind the Braves.

But they recovered, behind eventual Most Valuable Player Barry Bonds in his first San Francisco season, to win 14 of 16 games before the finale in Los Angeles.

"We didn't choke," said Brantley. "If we folded up like a tent and didn't regain the lead, you could probably say that. When you're tied on the last day, there ain't no choking. It's the only team I know of that's given the Braves any competition in a loooong time."

If anyone choked that season, it was the first-year expansion Rockies, who lost all 13 games they played against Atlanta, including a three-game sweep the final weekend when the Giants were begging them from afar for just one lousy win.

They couldn't do it, and the Giants fell apart on the last day, knowing early in their game the Braves had already won. Torres gave up three runs in 3-1/3 innings, and the bullpen fell apart as the Dodgers romped behind two homers by rookie catcher Mike Piazza.

"We only scored one run," pointed out Burkett. "People tend to blame Salomon Torres, but in all fairness, we didn't play a good game that day, that's all. He put us in a hole, but he was a young kid. That's a lot of pressure to have on a young kid."

Burkett will never forget the gutty performance of Giants closer Rod Beck, who worked in eight out of nine games down the stretch and saved all of them, usage that may have had a profound effect on his career.

"He lost his fastball," Burkett said. "It was never the same after that."

For the Braves, the turning point was the acquisition of Fred McGriff from San Diego on July 18. With McGriff hitting .310 with 19 homers and 55 runs batted in for Atlanta, the Braves went 55-17 after he arrived.

But many believe the intensity of the race did in the Braves, who were beaten in the League Championship Series by the Phillies after winning the previous two NL pennants.

"That was a hard charge, and when we got to that goal and reached it, it's probably human nature to say, 'Wow, we did that. That's unbelievable,' " Braves general manager John Schuerholz said.

Schuerholz, whose team has gone to the playoffs every non-strike year since '91, views that race as a classic, but not for its historical ramifications.

"The excitement for me was not that this was the last great race before the wild card, but that it was a great race because we had to come back from such a great distance," he said. "That was the great year of Fred McGriff, the year the stadium burned (a press-box fire before McGriff's first game in Atlanta). It was a dramatic, meaningful year."

One that will likely never be duplicated.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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