SAN FRANCISCO -- As the Giants go through the postseason, a national audience is going to spend a lot of time wondering how this team pulled off one of the greatest upsets in MLB's regular season history and edged the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West race. Three plays in three different Giants-Padres games, spread out over more than a week, tell a big part of the story.
On Sept. 21 at Petco Park, LaMonte Wade Jr.'s spot came up against lefty Tim Hill in the seventh inning of a tie game. Manager Gabe Kapler, who used more pinch-hitters than anyone in MLB history, decided to stick with Wade, who flied out to left. In the ninth, he came up against righty Mark Melancon in basically the exact same spot and poked the go-ahead single to left.
Two days later, it was once again Wade against Hill in the sixth. This time, with the Giants trailing by two and two on, Kapler sent Austin Slater up to the plate. He lined a homer to left to briefly give the Giants the lead.
On Saturday, Jayce Tingler once again tempted fate. He sent lefty Ross Detwiler out for the sixth in a 1-1 game, with everyone knowing Slater likely would replace Wade. He did, and he crushed the first pitch out to left-center to give the Giants an MLB-record 18 pinch-hit homers.
The Giants went 31-17 in one-run games, a big reason why they won 107 games. A lot of that success late in games was because Kapler almost always seemed to push the right buttons, and his players were all-in on the plan to pinch-hit to levels the sport hadn't seen before. That led to the 18 homers, and on Sunday, Kapler said that record is one of the things he's most proud of from the 107-win season.
"I think it's really cool that our team was as unselfish as they were all year, that the players were as prepared, that they took the responsibility of coming into games -- sometimes early in games, sometimes in the middle of games, sometimes late in games -- so seriously," he said. "It's not like that always. I've seen it be different. I'm just really proud of the players for preparing themselves like they did for those moments."
This was not something that formed gradually over the course of 162 games. The Giants made it clear from the start that they would aggressively pursue platoon advantages late in games, and Kapler surprised even some in the front office with how often he sent pinch-hitters up in the fifth, sixth or seventh innings.
The end result was 406 plate appearances from pinch-hitters, shattering the previous high of 357 set by the 2019 Giants. Overall, the pinch-hitters had a .718 OPS, which is surely better than the team would have seen in left-on-left or right-on-right matchups, but doesn't jump off the page. Where the Giants really excelled was seeing those pinch-hitters crush game-swinging homers.
Slater led the way with four pinch-hit homers, and they were all huge. In addition to the two against the Padres that gave the Giants a lead, he had a three-run shot (in place of Steven Duggar) against the Marlins that turned a one-run deficit into a two-run advantage, and a two-run homer (in place of Alex Dickerson) against the Diamondbacks that tied a game in the eighth.
The flip side of it is that Slater often gave way to a left-handed bat when he started. That's just how the Giants did it late in games, particularly with their outfielders. Dickerson had three pinch-hit homers and Wade had one, which came against the A's when he replaced powerful right-handed hitter Darin Ruf.
Kapler's constant use of pinch-hitters could have led to a lot of tough moments in the dugout, but he said the conversations were "pretty simple and direct." That's why he was so proud of the pinch-hit homer record. It was the end result of a whole team buying in and putting egos aside late in games.
"To a player, they all are on board. It's not bulls--t," he said. "It's very genuine and authentic. There's a rooting that happens immediately, and in particular -- I don't want to single anyone out -- but LaMonte is just so special in that regard. It's an immediate, 'OK,' head nod, and then he's off to pat Austin Slater or Donovan Solano or whoever on the butt, to kind of encourage success in those moments, which I just find to be really endearing.
"I just don't think it's all that normal. Oftentimes (getting hit for) is an opportunity to sulk and this group is just different. It's not who they are. They don't sulk in those moments, and it's obviously made it much easier to do my job. I'm really grateful for that."