Flashback: Will Clark provides Giant thrill in historic 1989 playoff game
As the 2017 post-season kicks off this week, it’s a good time to think back on some of the legendary performances in playoff history. One of those was provided by New Orleans native Will Clark who posted one of the best games ever in League Championship Series play.
Clark was coming off an MVP-type season in 1989 for the San Francisco Giants, who won 92 games to win the National League West Division. The Giants faced off with the Chicago Cubs on October 4 in Clark’s second post-season appearance. He had already acquired the nickname, “The Thrill,” starting with a home run against future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan in his first major-league at-bat in 1986. Clark wasted no time in providing more thrills for the 1989 playoff highlight reels, when he personally destroyed another future Hall of Famer, Greg Maddux , and the Cubs in Game 1 of the NLCS.
In only his fourth major-league season, Clark had put up good enough numbers to finish second in the National League MVP voting in 1989. He batted a career-high .333, while hitting 23 homers and 111 RBI. He tied for the league lead in runs scored with 104. His WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 8.6 was second-best in the league behind Atlanta’s Lonnie Smith. However, Clark was beat out for National League MVP Award honors by his teammate, Kevin Mitchell, who posted league-leading 47 home runs and 125 RBI.
Due in part to Clark’s presence, the Giants appeared to be a team on the rise, having also made the playoffs in 1987. They were favored over the Cubs, who had last made a post-season appearance in 1984. Greg Maddux got the starting nod for the Cubs in Game 1, having won 19 games during the regular season. Scott Garrelts, who led the league in ERA, drew the starting assignment for the Giants.
Before an overflow crowd of 39,195 at Wrigley Field, Clark got things started for the Giants in the top of the first inning, when he doubled in Brett Butler who had led off the inning with a single. Clark and Mitchell then scored when Matt Williams doubled, as the Giants took an early 3-0 lead.
The Cubs immediately countered with two runs in the bottom of the frame when Mark Grace hit a home run with Ryne Sandberg on base.
Clark got to Maddux again in the top of the third as he clubbed a bases-empty home run to deep right-center field. But Sandberg kept the game close as he also hit a solo homer in the bottom of the inning, making the score 4-3.
Maddux got into deeper trouble with Clark in the top of the fourth inning. After singles by Pat Sheridan and Jose Uribe and an intentional walk to Brett Butler to try to set up a double play, Clark foiled the Cubs’ plan by slamming a grand slam home run onto Sheffield Avenue to push the Giants’ lead to 8-3.
Clark then delivered a single against Cubs reliever Paul Kilgus in the sixth inning in which the Giants did not score. He walked in the eighth inning off Steve Wilson and scored on Mitchell’s three-run homer, which ended the scoring 11-3.
Clark had a perfect day at the plate, garnering four hits in four official at-bats and drawing a walk. He scored four times and drove in six runs, practically single-handedly defeating the Cubs.
After the game, Clark downplayed his performance in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, “Anything can happen in a seven-game series. I just got locked in a groove, but it doesn’t mean I have this park or the Cub staff in my pocket.”
But Clark would indeed have Cubs pitchers in his pocket during the rest of the Series. The Giants would go on to win the Series, 4-1, as Clark continued his torrid hitting. He wound up with astonishing 13 hits and 2 walks in 22 plate appearances in the five games. He compiled a whopping 1.882 OPS (On Base Plus Slugging Percentage). Clark’s 11 total bases were a record at the time. He was the clear choice for MVP of the Championship Series.
San Francisco was subsequently swept by the Oakland A’s in the 1989 World Series, which is often remembered as the Series interrupted by an earthquake in the Bay Area. Clark cooled off in the World Series, garnering only 4 hits in 16 at-bats.
Clark, a Jesuit High School alumnus, played a total of 15 seasons in the majors. During his career, he compiled a .303 batting average, 282 HR and 1,205 RBI. His OBP (On-Base Percentage) was .384, while his OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage) was .880. He was selected to play in six MLB All-Star Games.
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Richard Cuicchi, Founder of the Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database and a New Orleans area baseball historian, maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives. He has contributed to numerous SABR-sponsored Bio Project and Games Project books.