Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The San Francisco Giants lost their National League division series to the Chicago Cubs, three games to one.  With a sad, but mercilessly appropriate, ninth-inning bullpen meltdown, the Giants blew Game Four, a game they had in hand, surrendering four runs in the ninth inning of an eventual 6-5 loss.

And so the San Francisco Giants' quest for a fourth world championship in seven years comes to an untimely end. The Cubs, baseball's best team during the regular season, move on to play either the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Washington Nationals, depending on which team wins tonight's fifth game of their series, in the National League Championsip Series starting this Friday at Wrigley Field.

Yes, they're the best team, but for eight innings the Giants had them soundly beaten and back on their heels, anticipating a Game Five that few thought possible just two days ago. Matt Moore earned his Giant stripes last night with a dominant, eight-inning performance worthy of Madison Bumgarner at his best. Moore allowed two hits and two runs (one unearned) while striking out ten and walking only two. He got stronger as he went along; he ended the eighth with a flourish, fanning both David Ross and Dexter Fowler, freezing the latter almost comically at the plate with a called strike three as Moore and Buster Posey nonchalantly turned and started toward the dugout. He had thrown 120 pitches to get there, and it was Matt Moore's moment, a moment of victory-- and victory indeed was his, and the Giants'. 

But the dark clouds that shrouded this team over the summer returned in force, one last time, reminding us just how thin margins of victory, an defeat, can be in this game-- and also, just how catastrophic the wrong management decisions can be.  

"(Whitey) Herzog used five pitchers in the inning... I remember one other time when he used five pitchers in an inning, in the sixth inning of the third game of the A.L. playoffs in 1976. In 1977 he used six pitchers in the last two innings of the fifth and deciding game, trying unsuccessfully to protect a lead.

"Most managers won't use five pitchers in an inning because they believe that the more pitchers you use, the more chances you have to find one who doesn't have his stuff on that particular day. Herzog will because he doesn't put much stock in what you have on a given day; he believes that it's the manager's job to get the best possible matchup of pitcher's abilities against hitter's abilities. I admire him for that, because I agree with him and because he is willing to take criticism and do what he thinks is right.

"But I thought this day what I thought the other two times. Whitey, it sure looks bad when it doesn't work." 
-- Bill James, on the 1985 World Series, in the 1986 Baseball Abstract 

The Giants have, as has been stated many times, blown 30 late-inning leads this year, more than any other team in baseball.  Much of that was due to Santiago Casilla losing his ability to close out games in the ninth inning. Not all of it was, though.

As anyone who spends any time on this site will quickly realize, we yield to no one in our respect for Bill James, for his writing and his observations as well as his pioneering work in the field of baseball research and analysis. But we believe he was wrong here, and that Whitey Herzog was wrong there, and that last night, in the ninth inning, Bruce Bochy was wrong. Way wrong.

Could Moore have started the ninth, after 120 pitches? Of course he could have; he was smokin' 'em in the eighth. On a "normal" team, though, this would not be an issue. A three-run lead in the ninth inning would belong to the closer, to Aroldis Chapman for the Cubs, Kanley Jensen for the Dodgers, Jeurys Familia for the Mets, and so on. But the Giants are not a "normal" team, as even Bochy would readily admit. Madison Bumgarner pitched the ninth against the Mets last week, as he had in critical elimination-type games in the past. He did this because he is Madison Bumgarner, and also because there is no reliever on the Giants staff with his pedigree and his proven ability. Matt Moore may not be Madison Bumgarner, but last night Matt Moore was the best pitcher on Earth. He absolutely could have started the ninth, and most likely would have dispatched it in a few minutes.

But it was closer time, and the Giants not having a proven closer did not perturb Bochy. Had he really believed in Sergio Romo as that closer, we would have seen Romo start the ninth, as he did in Game Three. Yes, Romo's home-run-hitting nemesis, Kris Bryant, was leading off-- but so what? A solo homer makes it 5-3, and Romo still has a run to give in pursuit of three outs. In Game Three, Romo was left in after giving up that game-tying homer to get his three outs, which he did, and then he was sent out to complete the tenth, which he also did. That was an elimination game, too. There was confidence, then.

There was no confidence in the ninth inning last night. None! Derek Law started the inning, a mild surprise, perhaps, to most people, and Bryant squeezed a single past Brandon Crawford at short. And the carousel began to whirl. A ground-ball double play from Anthony Rizzo would have snuffed out any thought of a Cubs rally, but Law never got his chance. Out he came. In came Javier Lopez, the once-dominating lefty specialist who this year walked 15 men in 26 innings. He was plenty good for one more, a six-pitch walk to Rizzo that put the tying run at the plate and marshaled the forces of doom hovering over the ballpark. Out went Lopez. In came Romo, too late as it turned out. 

"Like the exposed Wizard  of Oz frantically pulling his levers, manager Felipe Alou used no less than four relief pitchers in one inning-- and couldn't get one man out."
-- Review of the penultimate game of the Giants' 2004 season

Facing Ben Zobrist, Romo missed with three sliders, landed a 3-0 strike, then saw Zobrist rip a line drive inside the chalk in right as Bryant scored and Rizzo took third. Joe Maddon tapped Chris Coughlan to hit for the slumping Addison Russell, and Bochy obligingly brought in pitcher number four, Will Smith, for a lefty-lefty matchup. Maddon switched to right-handed Willson Contreras, who singled up the middle on a 1-1 pitch for a tie ballgame. Smith stayed in to face Justin Heyward, who grounded into a double play-- almost. Brandon Crawford, who'd uncorked an wild throw in the fifth that led to an unearned run, fired another errant one past Brandon Belt, and Heyward wound up at second with one out. Smith's reward for getting the DP ball and the inning's first out was to be yanked in favor of Hunter Strickland. Javier Baez, the Cubs' Mr Everything in this series, drilled a clean single up the middle to score Heyward with the winning run. The wheels having come off and the wagon overturned in the ditch, Aroldis Chapman came in and blew through the frozen Giants in the bottom of the ninth like a cold wind through an open boxcar. It was done.

We'll hear again and again how the 87-win Giants really didn't measure up to the 103-win Cubs, but the cognscenti had to be singin' a different tune during the first eight innings last night. The Giants greeted veteran campaigner John Lackey with abrupt rudeness from the start. Denard Span opened with a double down the right-field line, Brandon Belt sailed one of his endless supply of warning-track fly balls to center, Span taking third, and Buster Posey's long drive to deep right, caught by Heyward, brought in the run. Ross belted a solo homer off Moore in the third to tie it, but the man for whom Matt Duffy was traded shook it off and didn't allow another earned run. 

Meanwhile, the Giants hammered away at Lackey in earnest in the fourth. Conor Gillaspie, who burnished his postseason legend (and likely his career) with a 4-for-4 night, singled with one out and Joe Panik followed with a drive to right, Gillaspie taking third. Lackey pitched around Gregor Blanco, loading the bases with a walk and bringing up Moore and his .097 career average.  Two quick strikes, and Moore then grounded one neatly past the diving Rizzo at first for an RBI single as Barry Zito, watching somewhere we hope, grinned from ear to ear. Span brought a second run in when he beat the relay to first on an 3-6-1 infield grounder, Lackey hustling over to take the throw and sprawling in the dirt trying to make the play. Clearly disgusted with pitching, baseball, and life at this point, Lackey got Belt to smack one right at Fowler in center to end it. 

Albert Almora pinch-hit for Lackey with two out in the fifth. Baez had taken third on a spectacularly bad throw from Crawford past Belt, the ball ricocheting all the way up to the visitors' bullpen along the right-field line. Ross then got his second RBI bringing him home on a sacrifice fly, but Almora flailed wildly at strike three and it stayed a one-run game.  

Colorful baserunning and Hunter Pence provided much of the entertainment over the next two frames. After singling to center with one out in the Giants' fifth, Pence held up rounding second as Crawford launched a mighty blast off Cubs reliever Jason Grimm. It hit the very top of the wall, and though it bounced back into play, it sure looked like a home run. Pence ambled back to make sure he touched second, then suddenly had to sprint for third as the umpires ruled it a live ball and Crawford came steaming into second at the same moment. Bochy demanded a review, but the call on the field stood, and TV replays proved it correct. Not to worry. The Glimmer Twins, Gillaspie and Panik, ignored the lefty-lefty protocol after Travis Wood replaced Grimm, and brought in both runners, with a hit from Gillaspie and a sac fly from Panik. 

It was 5-2, Giants, and Moore was rolling. He had, however, sat for 22 minutes as six men batted and the replay videos were reviewed, and he opened the Cubs sixth by walking Fowler on four pitches. "Ball five, ball six, ball seven" greeted Bryant before he took a strike, and swinging on 3-1 he dumped a blooper in front of the hard-charging Pence, who'd been playing deep. Pence gloved the ball on the run and fired a strike to second, forcing the stunned Fowler, who'd held up briefly to see if the ball would be caught. It was instant deflation of the Chicago offense, instant inflation of Moore's confidence, and he dispatched the next eight batters quickly, quietly, and efficiently through the seventh and the eighth.   

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been'.”
― John Greenleaf Whittier

Giants fans of a certain age are all too familiar with this morning's emotions and regrets. Those who came aboard during the late championship run may be wondering how this could possibly happen. We can only say, welcome to the other side of winning. This is, after all, where all teams, and all fans, eventually land. The balm of three-- three!-- World Series championships, when we'd resigned ourselves to a lifetime without even one, will provide surcease as autumn gives way to winter and hope springs eternal come February. For now, though, it's a pool of tears and a hollow feeling of regret. We'll have more to say a few days from now.   

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