Giants Fans: Enter At Your Own Risk
Driving home from a workout Wednesday night, I had San Francisco Giants play-by-play man Jon Miller on in the car (did you know that my retro black and gold license plate is WMAYS24?), and was immediately hit with the news that after holding to a 0-0 standoff with the Dodgers midway through the sixth inning, the Giants were now down 3-0 as they headed into the eighth inning.
I reflexively lowered my expectations, as I’ve done all year. “Here we go again,” I thought to myself. The Giants win a couple big ones (as they had in two late-game thrillers earlier this week over the Dodgers) and you start believing the light beaming through that crack in the door is an actual ray of hope. The two SF victories over LA – a 5-2 decision built on a four-run 9th inning in the series opener, and a 2-1 win on a 9th-inning tie-breaker – had drawn the Giants to within two games of LA, and more importantly kept them within reach of the NL-West-leading Arizona Diamondbacks.
That’s just five games out with 41 to go.
But, no sooner are we pulled into believing the Giants are about to make a move with a series sweep of the Dodgers, then we crash hard on the ground of reality a la Charlie Brown, Lucy Van Pelt and her danged football.
It’s been this way all season. Win a couple, lose a few. Win a few, lose a couple. The Giants’ longest winning streak this year has been five. The longest losing streak has been six. They’ve stayed within three games of .500 – that indelible mark of mediocrity – above or below for all but eight games of the 121 they’ve played this year. The most they’ve been above .500 is five games (45-40); the most they’ve been below .500 is five games (25-30). The best stretch of the season was when they won 11 of 14 (to build their record to that high-water mark of 45-40), but then they lost four in a row to squander that momentum.
So, sue me if I dismissed the Giants season-long trend of standing still. I couldn’t help but think that about what a series sweep would do for the Giants. They could pick up three games on LA, while moving a half game closer to the idle Arizona, and start to take ownership of a pennant race.
But, SF was now down 3-0, so I was back to running through the calculations of a loss. The Giants would have to settle for winning the series, which is great if you didn’t have to make up so much for earlier transgressions, barely better than treading water when you need big clumps of success. The Giants would wind up gaining just one game overall on LA, and falling further behind the D-Backs, if this 3-0 deficit held.
But there was Miller breaking through the cacophony of my interior worries, announcing that Hunter Pence had a leadoff single in the 8th, on a line drive that rocketed into left field at 99 m.p.h.
Miller, a true maestro of his profession with his mellifluous voice and nonpareil story-telling talent, is absolutely obsessed with the Statcast services that provide the speed of line drives, pitches, fly balls and even throws from the outfield (Gorky’s Hernandez’s throw nailing Brian Dozier at the plate in the 5th inning was a 95 mph bullet, for instance).
Then, Chase d’Arnaud works a walk, bringing up Nick Hundley, Game 1 hero (pinch hit 2-run single in the 9th to give Giants the 3-2 lead) and Game 2 brawl provocateur (I do wonder what he said to get under Yasiel Puig’s skin). Sometimes I allow myself the luxury of fantasizing about best outcomes, but my view is you can’t depend on a single player to keep coming up with magical moments. So, I was fully equipped for disappointment when Hundley indeed went down swinging.
I’ve watched Andrew McCutchen this year with the appreciation of bearing witness to the last stages of an ex-MVP’s career, knowing that we missed out on the true greatness he brought for so many years to Pittsburgh. So, we have endured his long stretches of unproductivity out of respect for his long, storied career. To be fair, his numbers this year are skewed unfairly – he has been the unluckiest Giant of 2018, hitting into more line-drive, hard-luck outs than anyone else. Still, the O-fers add up, and there comes a time when you just don’t expect anything more than a hard hit ground ball to a third baseman slotted at the traditional shortstop position.
McCutcheon’s recent 2-for-30 skid weighed heavily into my skepticism at this moment. In fact, I was counting him out and counting out the Giants, already looking ahead to the rest of the Giants’ road trip: three games in Cincinnati, four at Citi Field against the Mets. There’s reason for optimism: these two broken-down teams can be had for the taking. But there’s also reason for pessimism if they start running into pitches and the Giants start running into outs. They’re completely out of their races, so they can play freely. The Giants are not quite in that category. They’re still good enough to have to worry about blowing it.
Before I went much further down this rabbit hole of possible paths and detours this season can take, Miller’s voice broke through again: it was a 1-1 pitch, and suddenly Miller was bellowing operatic, proclaiming that a high and majestic fly ball was soaring deeper and deeper – wait, Taylor is leaping! He’ll probably rob him. Of course he will. But, Miller, who himself seemed to be holding back his own confidence lest it crash back on him, suddenly erupted: “Adios, Pelota!” A home run! A three-run home run to “remarkably” tie the game!
All that darkness lifted. Horizons blazed with a fiery red. Cymbals crashed. Thunderbolts exploded. Maybe in fact the Giants were playing with a special magic dust borrowed from earlier glory days. For a third straight game, the Giants had struck late, and the Dodgers, mired in a five-game losing streak that tracked directly with the loss of their closer Kenley Jansen, hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat, had again coughed up a late lead. More significantly, the Giants’ run of dramatic finishes appeared not yet over.
And there I was, now calculating the outcome of a win: a three-game sweep would mean the Giants would be within one game of the Dodgers, two of the Colorado Rockies, who’d lost earlier that day, and 4 ½ of the idle Diamondbacks. When was the last time they’d been this close to first place? Months? Years?
I got home and rewound my DVR’d recording of the game back to the 8th inning as the live game marched forward. McCutchen was a bundle of unspooling tensions – first that swing, like a giant spring action lever, launching the ball high into that heavy Los Angeles basin air. How can you not get into the unbridled joy he showed rounding the bases, so powerful and pure? This moment confirmed anew why I have loved having this longtime star in a Giants uniform and why I dreaded the idea of losing him to a house cleaning. His moments of triumph come far less frequently than in his Pittsburgh days, but he still holds out the promise of writing just a few more stanzas onto his music sheet.
The McCutchen question is central to the Giants’ 2018 dilemma: are they sellers or buyers? Should they keep their roster intact for a final run even when they continue to hover around .500? Do they hold out for just a little longer to see if the three teams ahead of them collapse simultaneously to open up a path for them? San Francisco has been in a holding pattern for several weeks, rumors lingering/looming over McCutchen that he would be the one to be dealt to a true contender.
But the Giants have yet to pull the trigger, a testament to hope that still beats in the heart of team management. And why not? How many times were the 2010, 2012 and 2014 Giants counted out, given up for dead during what appeared to be fatal stretches that foretold doom? I know I can recall expertly writing off the Giants in each of those years – I have those words, still findable on the internet, to prove how sure I was they were toast and how wrong I turned out to be.
Oh, hope! So fleeting. With each succeeding at bat after McCutcheon’s homer, all hope seeped out like air in a deflating tire. Fourteen of the next 16 Giants hitters went down (an infield dribbler for a Pence single and a McCutchen intentional walk were the only offense the Giants could muster against what had been a faltering LA bullpen from the end of the 8th through the 12th).
And then, the Dodgers put together a winning rally in the bottom of the 12th, and I was right back to where I was when I’d tuned into Miller earlier in the evening: despairing over the Giants’ prospects, skeptical that they will ever get off that oh-so-familiar .500 mark, wondering when the Giants will start to turn their attention to 2019.
But, I’m thinking: if the Giants can win 25 of their last 40 games and the rest of the NL West plays like the 1964 Phillies the rest of the way, who knows?
Now, who’s on the mound for the Reds this weekend?