For Willie: Giants pay tribute, then come back for walk-off

June 25th, 2024

SAN FRANCISCO -- On a night when the Giants celebrated the life of the late, great Willie Mays, they managed to honor their franchise icon in the best way possible: with a win.

With every San Francisco player wearing No. 24 on his back -- a number that had not been worn by a Giant since Mays in 1972 -- the Giants walked off the Cubs, 5-4, in Monday's series opener. It was the team's first home game since Mays passed away last week at age 93.

"It's an honor," center fielder said of wearing Mays' number and securing a win in his memory. "I really love that we did that for him today."

delivered the decisive blow by working a two-out, bases-loaded walk against Cubs left-hander Drew Smyly. The Giants had entered the bottom of the ninth trailing by two runs and tied the game on sacrifice flies from pinch-hitter Michael Conforto and Austin Slater.

Solo homers from Matt Chapman in the fifth and Nick Ahmed in the sixth chipped away at the Cubs' lead before the three-run ninth inning.

San Francisco had gone 1-5 on its road trip through Chicago, Birmingham -- where Mays' professional career began with the Negro Leagues' Black Barons in 1948 -- and St. Louis. Monday's victory snapped a five-game losing streak, one shy of the team's season-worst six-game skid from May 29-June 4.

In addition to wearing the Say Hey Kid's retired number, the Giants held a special pregame ceremony and showed video tributes to him in between innings, imbuing Oracle Park with Mays' presence.

"We all got to wear No. 24, so that's pretty cool," manager Bob Melvin said. "And then all the stuff pregame certainly gets your attention. We've been thinking about this all week, and to finally win a game for him -- whether it was Rickwood or whatever, we had trouble winning games during his tributes. It was good to be able to do it at home here."

With Mays top of mind, Ramos did his best impression of the legendary Giant in center field in the top of the seventh.

With two outs and a runner on first, Cubs catcher Tomás Nido lifted a ball to deep center field. Ramos ran it down and, with Mays' number on his back, made an over-the-shoulder catch to end the inning.

Not long before, the Giants had shown footage of The Catch, Mays' over-the-shoulder catch from Game 1 of the 1954 World Series that is considered one of the greatest defensive plays of all time.

"That's exactly what I said to him when he came in the dugout. I said, 'Did that play in the inning before inspire you for that? Because it looked pretty similar,'" Melvin said. "He's been really inspired by Willie. Getting to play center field and do what he's doing and get to wear No. 24 tonight, I think it was kind of apropos he made a play like that."

Ramos downplayed the similarities to Mays' iconic highlight-reel play and instead sees it as something to aspire toward.

"Every time I watch his highlights and everything, I dream of making a catch like that," he said. "I don't think it was even close to what he did."

Ramos also went 3-for-4 and was walked intentionally to load the bases for Flores in the ninth, setting the table for the victory. The 24-year-old outfielder had weathered a 3-for-27 (.111) slump on the GIants' previous road trip -- though one of those hits was a three-run homer at Rickwood Field that evoked memories of Mays.

The win might not have been possible had right-hander not held the line in an impressive relief outing. After entering the game with the Giants down by four in the fifth, Howard pitched the final 4 2/3 innings and did not allow a run, striking out a career-high eight batters against just one walk to earn his first win this season.

Howard relished the opportunity to eat innings and spell the Giants' beleaguered pitching staff, so he saw the victory as a "cherry on top."

Even better was that the team got the job done in honor of Mays.

"I think everybody in the stadium could feel Willie's presence, too," Howard said. "Special night, special win."