SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants sat at their lockers, stunned and silent. This was not the way they wanted their season to end, but for six months, it was the way everyone thought it might end.
Manager Bruce Bochy spent 162 games trying to find a cleaner path through the ninth. He stuck with Santiago Casilla through eight blown saves, and when a change was finally made in September, the committee didn’t fare any better. Casilla came back one more time and suffered a ninth blown save. Sergio Romo took over, but it was clear the trust wasn’t fully there. Bochy typically had Will Smith or Javier Lopez warming up during Romo’s late-season saves, and when Romo gave up a two-run shot to send Game 3 into extra innings, the plan once again changed.
The Giants had tried to acquire Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller at the trade deadline, but Yankees general manager Brian Cashman would hardly even take Bobby Evans’ calls. The farm system did not hold enough to get a deal done. The front office felt a competitive offer was made for Mark Melancon, but the Nationals won that bidding war by a hair, leading Evans to later question whether there was something else that could have been added to the package.
That’s life in a Major League Baseball front office. For eight innings Tuesday, it looked like the big deadline acquisition, Matt Moore, would make it a moot point. In the ninth, five relievers teamed up to make sure the ninth-inning struggles are what we will remember most from an even year that didn’t end with a parade.
The Giants gave up four runs in the ninth. They became the first team in 30 years to give back a three-run lead in the final frame of a postseason game.
“For us, we’re just more in shock that it happened, how it happened, the way it happened,” Romo said as he packed up at AT&T Park, possibly for the final time. “We went in with a pretty decent lead going into the ninth and it looked pretty good in our favor. It didn’t go our way. It was definitely a tough way to end a very trying season.
“A lot of ups, and a lot of downs, too. A tough way to go out.”
Here’s a batter-by-batter look at how it happened …
Kris Bryant: Derek Law’s 0-1 pitch had Buster Posey leaping and the 1-1 pitch spiked in the dirt. It would be interesting to know if he was truly affected at all by three innings of warming up. A night earlier, George Kontos admitted he was gassed by his fourth “dry hump” on the bullpen mound. Either way, Law got a hard grounder up the middle that was maybe 18 inches from a diving Brandon Crawford’s glove.
“It's frustrating when you actually get the ground ball,” Bochy said. “Bryant beat the shift, he hit the ball right where the shortstop normally is.”
Given the two innings Law threw a day before, going to Lopez next was an easy move. But going forward, it’s worth seeing what Law can do in a bigger sample against lefties, who hit just .188 off him as a rookie.
Anthony Rizzo: The coldest bat in the Cubs’ lineup, and he entered 2-for-8 against Lopez. As a key member of three title clubs, Lopez had given up just four hits in 33 postseason matchups against left-handed hitters, but he was a touch off all season. Lopez faced 90 lefties during the regular season, and while he allowed just 16 hits, he did walk 10 and hit two. The pitch that Posey could pull into the bottom third of the zone just wasn't consistently there.
Rizzo tried to smack a 3-1 pitch into the Cove and whiffed badly. The next sinker never flirted with the strike zone and Lopez angrily swiped at Posey’s throw back to the mound. When Rizzo scored, he snapped a streak of 19 straight scoreless postseason appearances for Lopez, dating back to Game 4 of the 2010 NLCS. During that remarkable run, Lopez faced 35 batters and walked just three.
“We had Lopez ready for Rizzo and if he gets him out he stays in the game,” Bochy said. “But at that point, I thought, let’s go with the guy that’s been closing games.”
Ben Zobrist: Romo entered to turn around the switch-hitting Zobrist, who had an OPS that was 34 points higher against lefties than righties. Romo will go down as one of the most dominant relievers in franchise history, but the concern has always been an inability to pound that slider against left-handed hitters. He has tried to mix it up, throwing more sinkers and changeups, but Zobrist was ready. Romo missed outside with his first sinker, hit the inner corner on the next one, and then nearly hit the dirt with a third.
Romo threw sliders a career-high 61 percent of the time this season, but the only one to Zobrist came 2-1, and it was a tight spinner that just missed the outer edge. On 3-1, Posey held his glove low and away. Romo’s 85 mph fastball slid back over the heart of the plate and Zobrist pulled it into the corner, bringing a run across.
“It’s tough to go into a situation like that, but still, the job doesn’t change,” Romo said. “You’ve got to get outs. I wasn’t able to do that today.”
As Chapman jogged to the visiting bullpen, Dave Righetti visited Romo to try and and stall. Left-hander Chris Coghlan took the place of Addison Russell, who drove in 95 runs during the season, but it was just a ploy to get Romo out of the game. Bochy countered with Will Smith and Joe Maddon turned to Willson Contreras. Romo, as he had done a couple of times during the regular season, smiled and shook his head as he walked off the mound.
Willson Contreras: Looking back at the ninth, the biggest gripe might be that Smith was saved for just this spot. The deadline addition had thrown 19 consecutive scoreless appearances and the whole point of acquiring him was to avoid the kind of matchup plays that blew up on the Giants. Smith ended up being the fourth reliever to take the mound before an out was recorded, and two breaking balls evened the count against the rookie catcher. A third one stayed up, and Contreras bounced it up the middle.
Smith reached out with his left hand but the ball was already past him. Joe Panik’s dive came up about as short as Crawford’s, although Contreras, who runs well, would have reached first regardless. Rizzo walked home and Zobrist was right behind him, tying the game.
Jason Heyward: The $184-million man struggled so mightily at the plate this season that he turned to a bunt in his biggest at-bat. It was an awful one. Smith scooped it up and made a perfect strike to second for one out, but Crawford’s throw to first sailed wide left for his second key throwing error of the night. Heyward would have beaten the throw by a step, but he was given second when the ball skipped into the dugout. The Cubs got what they wanted, in a roundabout way.
This was another moment that the never-say-die Giants were used to watching from the other side. Crawford made only 11 errors in the regular season, a career-low, and Brandon Belt is as good as any first baseman at scooping the wayward throws. “It kind of sucks,” Crawford said an hour later. “It’s a punch to the gut.”
Javier Baez: Hunter Strickland had been waiting for this spot for two years. He came in on a double-switch with Gorkys Hernandez, setting up the kind of matchup that makes the postseason so incredible: The best fastball on the Giants vs. the quickest hands on the Cubs, with the season on the line. Strickland opened up with a slider and Baez nearly came out of his spikes. “I would hesitate to say he even has to throw Baez a fastball,” John Smoltz said on the broadcast. The next pitch was 98 and Baez fouled it back. Strickland went back to his best pitch, and Posey jumped to his right, preparing for a fastball off the plate. Strickland hit the spot but it didn’t matter. The 99 mph fastball took a sliver of wood off the bat, but Baez got enough of it, poking a single back up the middle at 72 mph. “I’m surprised at the pitch selection,” Smoltz said. “This is power against power, but it should have been slider, slider, slider." Baez, who was buzzed by Strickland in Game 2, rounded first and emphatically slapped his right arm against a closed first.
As Moore ducked his head against the dugout rail, Chapman accelerated his routine on the bullpen mound. The 32nd blown save of the season gave way to another stunning stat: The Giants trailed heading into the ninth 62 times in the regular season, and they never found a way to come back. The team that gave up so many ninth-inning leads ended up 0-65 when trailing. Chapman came on and the Cubs' Twitter account sent out, *Checks to see if Conor is due up.* He was not. Chapman, the man who was so lost in Game 3, threw 13 fastballs, topping out at 102 mph. He struck out Gorkys Hernandez, Denard Span and Belt.
The Giants quickly filed out of the dugout. A few minutes later, Bochy sat behind a podium and tried to figure out what had happened to that flight to Chicago.
“I would like to think you're going to get three outs there,” he said. “We couldn't do it.”