Rewind: Bullpen's 32nd and final implosion ends Giants' 2016 season


SAN FRANCISCO — Buster Posey trudged down a hallway and headed for a trio of teammates sitting in a somber clubhouse, stunned looks on their faces. This season would end the way every even year has, with Posey, the franchise catcher, reaching out for a hug.

There was no joy this time, however, no fist pumps or sprays of champagne. Posey, the man who has capped three title runs with hugs of three different pitchers, grabbed Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik. He said goodbye. 

For the first time for this even-year dynasty, October ended with a loss. The end came quickly, but not surprisingly. The Giants spent 162 games trying to find a better path through the ninth inning. They never did. They took a three-run lead into the ninth inning of Game 4 of the National League Division Series, a trip back to Chicago just three outs away, and they couldn’t hold it. 

The 32nd blown save of the season was the final dagger. A 6-5 loss to the Cubs snapped a 10-game winning streak in elimination games, and a three-title run in years divisible by two.

The magnitude of the moment had not hit the clubhouse when the doors opened. Players showed dazed faces and misty eyes. Heads shook side to side as reality set in. Matt Moore, with a brilliant effort, dragged the Giants 24 outs closer to history. The final three once again proved the undoing. 

“This is the type of thing that makes you love baseball,” Moore said. “Because you really have to love it to come back after something like this."

The Giants did not always show that love during a second-half slide that led to this early-round meeting with the Cubs. For weeks on end, they looked burdened by their inability to put teams away or build a lead big enough where it wouldn't matter. The joy that sprayed through the visiting clubhouse at AT&T Park never took hold, in large part because the Giants never found a way to grab momentum. Every big win was met with a flat performance by the lineup. Every potential winning streak was ended by a ninth inning collapse. 

“The season was very trying,” said Sergio Romo, who entered October as the closer. “Baseball is amazing because you never know what’s going to happen next. Tonight was a great example of that, last night was a good example of it also. Being a part of the bullpen, you just want to try to do your job, no matter the situation. The job never changes. You’ve got to get outs. We were just unable to do that tonight." 

After dropping the first two games of this series, the Giants had just one path forward. They had to win three straight over the best team in baseball, a streak they had matched just twice since the All-Star break. While Romo blew a save the first night back home, the Giants walked the Cubs off in the 13th. 

Moore’s first postseason appearance for the Giants was a must-win, and he was up to the task. He gave up two hits in eight innings, striking out 10. The Giants knocked John Lackey out early and continued to push, putting together a pair of two-run rallies that had Johnny Cueto, the Game 5 starter, roaring and waving from the top step of the dugout. 

As the teams headed for the ninth, the Giants leading 5-2, Theo Epstein was found by cameras. The man who built the 103-win Cubs slipped lower in his seat, a sour look on his face. He was confident his team could find a way back. He was not as confident about going back home and facing Cueto and Madison Bumgarner, a potential closer in a closeout game. 

“We were going to snap out of it,” Epstein said. “I just wanted them to hurry up and snap out of it before it was Cueto and MadBum in a Game 5."

The winning rally built steam quickly, but first came a decision Bochy will surely toss around throughout the long offseason. Moore’s 120th pitch of the night was a 92 mph fastball that froze Dexter Fowler. The ballpark rumbled as the left-hander walked slowly down the dugout steps. There was no talk of one more inning, even though Moore had thrown 133 in an August bid for a no-hitter. 

“No, that’s a lot of work he did,” Bochy said. “At that point, where he’s at, he did his job. We were lined up.”

Moore arrived to a new team on August 1 and found a bullpen in dire straights, attempts to acquire Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller and Mark Melancon having fallen short. Over the final two weeks of the season, he watched as the final innings seemed to set themselves. Santiago Casilla was demoted so far down the line that he did not even warm up Tuesday. Romo regained his old job, with a committee tasked with getting him the ball and providing backup. 

Moore was confident when he handed the ball over, but nobody but Bochy seemed to know exactly what was in store. Before the game, he was asked to name his ninth-inning solution de jour. 

"I'll let you know in the ninth,” Bochy said, smiling. 

Derek Law, potentially the future closer here, got the first shot. Kris Bryant singled through the shift. All season long, Bochy had operated with a quick hook, a situation relievers grumbled about behind closed doors. Law was immediately replaced by Javier Lopez, who walked Anthony Rizzo. Lopez, the elder statesman of the bullpen, gave way to Sergio Romo. He fell behind Ben Zobrist and came with a 3-1 fastball that was scorched to right for an RBI double. 

“I thought, let’s go with the guy that’s been closing games, and Zobrist got the big double there,” Bochy said. “And then when they put the left-handed hitter up, I had Smitty ready, who has been doing a great job for us. He got the ground ball. We just got a bad break there.”

Chris Coghlan was the lefty, but when Smith came in, Joe Maddon instead turned to rookie Willson Contreras. Smith had not given up a run in his previous 19 appearances, but Contreras bounced a curveball up the middle, a foot away from a diving Joe Panik. 

The game was tied. The first team to blow 30 saves and still reach the postseason had done it again.

When Javier Baez came up two batters later, Bochy called for a fifth reliever, Hunter Strickland. He threw a 100 mph fastball with two strikes and Baez lined up right back up the middle, allowing Jason Heyward to race home with the lead.

“You’re doing everything you can to try and figure out a way to get those guys out,” Posey said. “Bryant finds a hole, Rizzo works a walk, Zobrist gets into a hitter’s count and Contreras finds a hole up the middle. I’m definitely not taking anything away from them, but sometimes that’s just the way it goes. If a couple of those balls are hit in different spots, it might have been a different ending.”

The ugly cousin of the blown saves was the inability to come back against other closers. The Giants went 0-62 during the regular season when trailing heading into the ninth, and they went down quietly in the bottom of the inning against Chapman, a pitcher they sought, only to fall far short in the bidding. 

“It's a tough one, there’s no doubt about it,” Posey said. “Everyone was anxious to get back to Chicago and have the Cueto-Lester matchup. Hats off to the Cubs for not shutting it down. It would have been easy to say, ‘We’ll get them in Game 5.’”

The Giants felt that way for much of the night. As the lead built and Moore cruised, players started to dream of Cueto going back to Wrigley Field and this time getting the edge on Jon Lester. That could set the Giants up to throw Bumgarner in Game 1 of the NLDS. You didn’t have to squint to picture a dominant rotation leading this team to another unlikely title, backed by a lineup that was full of surprise contributors. None played a bigger role than Conor Gillaspie, the season-long backup who found stardom in the wild card game and carried it over to the NLDS. Gillaspie had four hits Tuesday, but he said he would give all the postseason success back for another day on the field. 

“It happened so fast,” he said, shaking his head. “I felt we had control of the game. In five minutes, everything changed.”

That was the story of their season. The Giants seemed headed for this kind of ending for six months. There was nothing the Even Year Magic could do about it. 

“It’s a little strange,” Lopez said. “We’re a victim of our own success here. You don't expect to go home when you’re wearing this Giants uniform.”

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