The Giants' actual starter, Don Robinson, didn't pitch the game of his life, but he came close, giving up just three hits and one walk in nine innings. It was indeed a game worthy of the postseason atmosphere. The Giants scored a run in the first off Mark Portugal on a double by Will Clark and a single by, yes, Mitchell. Clark and Mitchell have carried the club all year, and on Friday, Mitchell was playing with the benefit of his contact lenses, which he had forgotten to take on the just-completed road trip—a trip on which he hit just .250 with only two home runs. Don't ask why he didn't think to get new lenses during the 14-game swing; just remember this is a man who got a crucial hit for the New York Mets in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series with nothing on under his uniform pants (he was unexpectedly called from the locker room to pinch-hit after he'd already gone inside and undressed).
The Giants added another run in the fourth and would have had two more but for a sensational diving stab and throw to first by Caminiti. The score stood 2-0 until the sixth, when, with a runner on via an error, Astros shortstop Rafael Ramirez tied it by knocking a Robinson fastball, the only mistake he would make, over the fence in left. With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Giants second baseman Robby Thompson singled to left. (Thompson didn't have to be there for this game because his wife had given birth to twin boys the day before; Craig had given him the day off on the proviso that he name them Hum and Baby, but Thompson opted to play and to name the boys more traditionally—Logan and Tyler.)
That brought Clark to the plate. In general, Clark tattoos the Astros, with a .329 career average, 20 homers and 50 RBIs in 207 at bats against them, and this year he has been even more troublesome, with five homers, 12 RBIs and a .395 average in 38 at bats. Recently the Astros have employed a radical shift against the lefthanded hitter, with everyone eased over toward the right field foul line. "When they do that, I expect the ball on the inside part of the plate," said Clark. Which is what he got from reliever Danny Darwin, and Clark lofted it into the upper deck in right. "I just didn't have anybody playing high enough," said Howe.
After the homer Robinson breezed through the eighth and ninth to finish off the 4-2 victory. "I seemed to get stronger after Will put us ahead," said Robinson, who was actually upset with himself for his 0-for-3 night at the plate. A few years ago, when shoulder problems threatened his career as a pitcher, Robinson, then with the Pirates, toyed with the idea of becoming an outfielder. Fortunately, his arm came around, and fortunately for the Giants, general manager Al Rosen traded catcher Mackey Sasser to the Pirates to get Robinson in the middle of the '87 season. Since then, he has been used as both a reliever and a starter. "Rating his guts on a scale of 1 to 10," says Craig, "I give him a 15."
As for the victory Friday night, Craig might have given it 115. "Every win from now on is going to be the biggest win of the year. But this one—especially coming after the road trip we had—this one I'm going to look back at over the winter and say, 'This was the biggest.' " The Giants also got a double dose of good news that night: Dave Dravecky, coming back from cancer surgery on his left, pitching, arm, threw nine innings of seven-hit ball for Triple A Phoenix and would be rejoining the club, and Bob Knepper, released on July 28 by the Astros, had been signed and would immediately step into the rotation.
The Astros had much the better of the pitching matchup on Saturday, or so it seemed—Mike Scott, 17-5, 2.45 ERA, versus Mike LaCoss, 5-7, 3.22 ERA. But Scott was pitching with a sore left hamstring and, according to the Giants, without his trade secret. Craig, who had taught Scott the split-fingered fastball that has helped make him so successful, has publicly accused his former pupil of cheating, and Friday the manager was even more emphatic than usual. "As the game goes on, he seems to get better and better," said Craig. "I don't know if he's switching sandpaper or what." Craig said Scott would have a hard time on Saturday because the cameras of NBC's Game of the Week would be trained on him, looking for transgressions.
Whatever the reason—hamstring or hamstrung—Scott was clearly not himself against the Giants. Brett Butler, mired in a 10-for-64 slump, homered off him in the third for the only run the Giants would need. Scott was then cuffed around in the fourth by the likes of Pat Sheridan (.192) and Terry Kennedy (.225), and in the fifth he gave up doubles to Butler and Clark. When the dust cleared after the fifth, the Astros found themselves on the wrong end of yet another football score, 7-0, which also turned out to be the final score. LaCoss—or Buffy to the teammates who see a resemblance between him and the character on the old TV series Family Affair—allowed only four hits and two walks in his seven innings of work. The only noise the Astros made was in the seventh, when Howe broke his maiden, getting his first ejection as a manager after arguing a call with home plate umpire Charlie Williams.
The curiosity factor for the third game was very high, because of Knepper. He was now facing the team that had released him the week before, and he was doing it in a town he had once described as being "as oppressive as a coal mine." But he was clearly thrilled to be a Giant again—"the answer to a prayer," he said—and he showed it on the mound. Nursing a 2-1 lead into the fifth, he had a runner on third with one out. But he struck out Biggio and Davis, and after the called third strike against the Astro first baseman, Knepper pumped his arm and literally skipped off the mound. "I wish we'd seen more of that when he was with us," said Howe.
When Knepper was removed for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the sixth, the score was tied 2-2. The Astros went ahead 3-2 in the eighth on a walk to Young, a single by pinch hitter Alex Trevino and a single by second baseman Eric (Cool Breeze) Yelding. It was nail-biting time for the Astros when Houston relief ace Dave Smith came on in the ninth for his first appearance of the year against the Giants. With two out, Butler doubled into the leftfield corner. Next up was Thompson and if Smith didn't get him out, he would have to face Clark, who had earlier homered off starter Rick Rhoden.
Asked after the game about the prospect of pitching to Clark, Smith said, "No problem. What's he got against us this year, five homers? Hey, if I had faced him, he'd probably have six or seven." And then, more seriously, Smith admitted, "It was make it or break it. We could not afford to be swept." Smith froze Thompson with a 2-2 curveball for a called strike three, 52,296 Giants fans groaned, Clark headed back to the dugout, and the race in the NL West was still very much on.