SAN FRANCISCO – The 1954 Cleveland Indians were a 111-win juggernaut that featured American League home run leader Larry Doby and batting champion Bobby Avila, 23-game winners Early Wynn and Bob Lemon and ERA leader Mike Garcia.
In fact, the Indians, who won the pennant by eight games over the New York Yankees, had four starting pitchers who won 15 or more games. And the fifth member of their rotation? Some 35-year-old named Bob Feller.
“That’ll scare you right there,” Giants Hall of Famer Willie Mays said.
Only in the World Series, it was the New York Giants’ pitching staff that combined for a 1.46 ERA in a four-game sweep of the Indians that gave the Giants their first title since 1933 – and last until 2010.
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Before and during their 5-3 win over the Indians on Saturday at AT&T Park, the Giants marked the 60 years since that Series with video montages and the inclusion in pregame activities of Mays, for whom 1954 was a year of emergence.
Mays played in his first World Series in 1951 (the Giants lost in six games to the Yankees) and was named National League Rookie of the Year, but he missed much of the following season and did not play at all in 1953 while serving in the Army. Mays returned in 1954 to hit .345 with 41 homers and 110 RBIs, winning the N.L. batting title, earning the N.L. MVP award and helping lead the Giants back to the World Series.
“That was a special thing for me because I just came out of the service,” Mays said while seated in the Giants’ clubhouse before Saturday’s game. Wearing a Giants hat and jacket, Mays said his time in the Army may have extended the lifespan of one of baseball’s hallowed records.
“You were in the service for two years,” Mays said. “If I hadn’t been in the service two years, I would’ve got to the Babe without any problem.”
That’s Babe Ruth, of course, who hit 714 home runs. Mays was 21 when his 1952 season was cut short. In 1954 and ’55, he hit a combined 92 homers en route to 660 for his career. Still, he said, no regrets.
“You had to go serve your country,” Mays said.
Mays spoke highly of the 1954 Giants team, which won 97 regular-season games and captured the only World Series championship of his career. He said he “learned to play the outfield at the Polo Grounds” that year with the help of shortstop Alvin Dark, who helped position him before each pitch.
Still, Mays didn’t claim the Giants were a better team than the Indians, despite the results of the Series.
“You can’t say ‘better,’ because we only played four games and they won 111 games,” he said. “We just were better at the four games that we won.”
The Series opener included one of the best-known moments of Mays’ career and baseball history. His over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz’s drive with two on and no outs preserved a 2-2 tie in the eighth inning of a game the Giants won 5-2 in 10 innings.
Mays said he believes the momentum of that play provided “the key to the whole World Series” and grinned when asked if he had the ball all the way.
“I don’t know, man,” he said. “It wasn’t no lucky catch. I used to catch fly balls like that all the time. But you’re talking about a World Series; you’re talking about something that doesn’t happen all the time.
“Even if you make a catch like that, which I did during the regular season – but to catch it in a way that the world is looking at you, it’s remarkable, I think.”
The Giants and Indians did not meet again until 2005, when interleague play brought them back together. Saturday was their 11th interleague encounter – and the first started by Tim Lincecum, the Giants right-hander who has now faced every major-league team except the Chicago White Sox.
Lincecum did not stick around long enough to qualify for the win, allowing nine hits and throwing 98 pitches in 42/3 innings and leaving with the Giants trailing 3-0.
But the Giants scored four runs in the bottom of the inning on a bases-loaded single by pinch hitter Gregor Blanco, a sacrifice fly by Angel Pagan and a two-out, two-run single by Hunter Pence. They added a run in the sixth on Buster Posey’s solo homer.
Posey entered the game with three hits in his previous 38 at-bats and made outs in his first two at-bats Saturday. Manager Bruce Bochy said he believes it’s a matter of time before Posey’s numbers even out, and that “sometimes something like (the home run) or even a blooper can kind of get the confidence back and get you rolling.”
Starting with Juan Gutierrez, who replaced Lincecum with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth and struck out Yan Gomes, the Giants’ bullpen pitched 41/3 hitless innings. In 11 home games this season, Giants relievers have allowed two earned runs in 392/3 innings.
“They won the game for us,” Bochy said.