Few games in SF Giants history are known by a player’s full name, but ask any fan about the Brian Johnson game, and they know exactly what moment you are talking about.
The Brian Johnson game took place 23 years ago to the day, and though it did not win the NL West that day, the momentum shifted overwhelmingly in the SF Giants favor.
After trading away fan favorite Matt Williams to the Cleveland Indians before the 1997 season, the Giants were not expected to be contenders. In fact, general manager Brian Sabean had to defend himself by saying “I am not an idiot” following the move.
History will side with Sabean on this one as he made several shrewd moves that set San Francisco up for an unforgettable season, including acquiring second baseman Jeff Kent as part of the Williams package.
The Giants had a lot of magic heading into a mid-September, two-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Brian Johnson game perfectly captured that magic all in one swing of the bat.
On September 17, 1997, the Giants squeaked by with a 2-1 victory led by seven-inning, one-run performance by crafty lefty Kirk Rueter and a two-run home run by Barry Bonds. That swing of the bat was all that the Giants needed to nab the first game of the series.
Following the victory, the SF Giants were one game behind the rival Dodgers with an 83-69 overall record. With two weeks left in the season, the Giants were in a position to strike.
The Brian Johnson game was a day game and took place on September 18, 1997. As was typical that year, the Giants and Dodgers took turns trading blows and trying to create distance from the other.
However, neither team could shake the other off and the game went into extra innings with a 5-5 tie.
Rod Beck began the tenth inning by yielding three consecutive singles to Mike Piazza, Eric Karros, and Raul Mondesi. As a kid growing up, I don’t think any group of Dodgers bugged me more than these three.
Beck loaded the bases with no outs, and it did not look good for the Giants.
However, anyone who remembers Beck, knows that this was where he was most comfortable and at his best. He then proceeded to strike out Todd Zeile, then got future Hall of Famer, Eddie Murray, to ground into a double play to get out of the inning.
Beck posted a 3.47 ERA and converted 37 saves in 45 opportunities while earning an All-Star nod in 1997. I remember every single save making my blood boil, but he knew how to get out of a jam.
The game lagged on into the bottom of the 11th inning. Candlestick Park was not only known for its spacious dimensions but its cold air and brutal wind as well. Willie Mays finished his career with 660 home runs, but it has been posited frequently that he could have eclipsed 700 home runs had he not spent half of his games at Candlestick Park.
On this day, the wind was especially brutal and any fly ball got beat down well before the warning track.
Kent led off the inning by striking a ball to deep left field, but the wind shot it down. That was the closest the Giants would come to scoring until the bottom of the 12th inning.
Brian Johnson led off the bottom of 12th inning, and the first offering he saw from Mark Guthrie, he launched into the left-field bleachers and raised his arms in celebration:
As a much younger Duane Kuiper said, Johnson’s blast tied the Dodgers with an 84-69 overall record while sitting atop the NL West.
Beck recorded the win after finishing three scoreless innings. That was a normal thing for relievers back then, kids.
Two weeks were remaining in the season, and Johnson’s epic home run gave the Giants the momentum and confidence that they needed to finish the season in first place with a 90-72 record.
They did not win the NL West that afternoon on September 18, 1997. However, the Brian Johnson’s swing of the bat was the shot-in-the-arm that they needed. It has been 23 years since this game, but it is one of those moments that will last forever in Giants history.