More than a half decade of miracles on the shores of Mission Rock washed up bad on Tuesday night. Now it can be said, the Giants were a great ride but it’s someone else’s turn.
Whether it was because of marketing, ignorance or sheer strength of will, there was a part of me that believed the San Francisco Giants would continue their dynastic march in the face of a much smarter, better, more talented, younger and hungrier Chicago Cubs squad.
And for awhile, 21 innings of bonus fall baseball at AT&T Park, it looked like that may happen—again.
Then came the 9th inning Tuesday.
Manager Bruce Bochy did the right thing (sort of) by pulling Matt Moore in the midst of a two-hit 10-strikeout playoff gem. Common baseball wisdom says stick with the hot hand in the 9th till a base runner emerges.
But both Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti had been closely monitoring Moore for the previous two innings. The Giants starter, SEAL Team Six’d in July from Tampa in exchange for homegrown third baseman Matt Duffy, threw six balls in a row to start the seventh before taking a deep breath and leaving all Chicago bats bobbing in his wake. A one-two-three eighth covered Moore’s 120-pitch fatigue and had the 41k-plus faithful hoping for a complete game.
Instead, up by three, Bochy went to his bullpen. The same bullpen that led the majors with blown saves this season and, in the end, notched its 32nd and final missed opportunity this year in the most dramatic of fashions.
When asked would he go back and leave Moore in, Bochy was emphatic.
“No,” he said. “That’s a lot of work he did. At that point, where he’s at, he did his job.”
With a 5-2 cushion to start the ninth, neither Derek Law, nor Javier Lopez, nor Sergio Romo, nor Will Smith nor Hunter Strickland could finish. By the time the Cubs had put up a quartet of runs in under 20 minutes and Strickland received a merciful gift of a double play to end the inning, the six magical years of the Giants dominance was over in a dust cloud and a statistical anomaly the likes of which is rarely seen outside the baseball diamond.
Giants win expectancy by batter this inning:
— August Fagerstrom (@AugustFG_) October 12, 2016
Everyone there knew whatever It was, is now over.
Doing things in historic fashion has been the hallmark of the Giants this decade; be it number of World Championships (3), number of elimination games won in a row (10), number of consecutive sell-outs in their park (491) averaging in the top five for highest attendance in baseball for the entirety of this century—the club now has another significant statistic to add: No National League team had given up three-plus runs in the ninth in a postseason game…until Tuesday night.
The Giants’ fragmented bullpen was stuff of legend this season. Santiago Casilla, the closer for most of the year with 31 saves, lost his job and his spot in the rotation. Even as the roof collapsed, Bochy and Righetti didn’t even so much as glance in Casilla’s direction Tuesday. Instead, each of the guys they went with went out and put at least one previously somnolent Cubby on base.
Bochy’s confidence in his dry rotted bullpen deserves to be second-guessed as he had a mound of recent evidence to suggest the foundation had already buckled. At the All-Star Break the Giants led the majors with a 57-33 record. By September 20, they had gone 22-37 since then, posting the Majors’ worst record and that, for the most part, was due to the irrefutable fact that bullpen that could not hold leads (at that point it was 29 blown saves). The Giants also suffered from bats that wilted when down at the end—the team this year finished 0-59 when they were losing in the ninth inning.
Like garlic fries and a chocolate malt, bad relief pitching and quiet bats in the clutch is not a great combo at AT&T.
Reliever Lopez, like Romo, is now a free agent. They are the last remnants of the dominant bullpen that was the hallmark of the team’s three-championship-in-five-year run. The dearly already departed also include long reliever Yusmeiro Petit, Brian “The Beard” Wilson, and WS Game 7 winner/clubhouse glue guy Jeremy Affeldt. Both Lopez, this year’s Willie Mac Award (most inspirational teammate) co-winner and Romo are known as quirky, funny and experienced.
They take that, and a bag of hardware to show for it, with them.
Apologists and eternal optimists will look at the top end of the rotation (Bumgarner, Cueto and Samardzija) along with the promising play of part-time infielder Conor Gillaspie, who may have earned himself a permanent spot among the farm-raised core infield of Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik, Brandon Belt and one Gerald Dempsey “Buster” Posey III, and say things might not be so bad down in China Basin looking ahead to 2017.
…But the reality is every civilization has its apex, and those who are still climbing to it, like the Cubs, don’t have time to reflect.
“The main thing I told them was to remember the good times,” Posey said post game when asked about whether Lopez and Romo played their last games in Giants uniforms. “Whether they’re back here or not, I told them to remember all the good stuff we accomplished together. If they go in different directions, that’s the stuff to hold on to.”