SAN FRANCISCO –- The last time the Dodgers walked out of AT&T Park in late July, they held aloft a shiny, three-game sweep in which they outscored the Giants 17-4 in front of three dazed and disconcerted sellout crowds.
The Giants had lost 16 of 21 home games at that point. They gave back the last morsel of a stack-of-shortcakes lead they had piled as high as 10 games. The offense was starving, the bullpen started a grease fire or two at the worst possible times and morale was at an all-time low. The seats remained full, yet it felt so empty at Third and King.
There was a Dan Uggla sighting.
So what happened Friday night was as stunning as a reverse takedown, even if you kinda sorta could see it coming. Madison Bumgarner grabbed the Dodgers by their singlet, Brandon Crawford combination-punched with two huge hits and the Giants thumped their archrivals 9-0 to move within one game of first place in the NL West.
The team that lost its way within its own house in June and July has now won 10 consecutive games at AT&T Park – their longest streak since 2003, when they won 100 regular-season games.
Did someone mention confidence?
“I feel it’s as good as it can be,” said Bumgarner, springing his answer as soon as he heard that word. “I feel it’s been that way for awhile now. We’ve turned it on at the right time. Things are starting to go out way and we’ve got a lot of guys who have been here before and done this, who know what it’s like to finish off September and hopefully the postseason.”
Bumgarner held the Dodgers to three hits in seven shutout innings and followed up the first zero-strikeout game of his career by racking up nine of them. He ended the night at 208, surpassing Ray Sadecki for the most by a left-handed pitcher in the Giants’ San Francisco era.
The only disappointment came when Bumgarner stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and twice cut the air with his bat. You can’t hit a grand slam every time, right?
“I don’t know what happened,” said Bumgarner, trying to swallow a smirk. “Don’t think I wasn’t trying.”
The Giants never stopped trying, even as they took all those wins they banked in April and May and started to make it rain in June. It’s funny how struggling teams often appear to try too hard.
Now it looks so effortless.
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So how did this happen?
“You have to point to the offense,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “When we had our struggles, we had some pretty good starts, I don’t know how many quality starts, and the bats just got quiet. We were banged up and missing guys. But now they’re finding ways to get runs on the board, and that’s the biggest reason we’re having success.”
The batter who started the four-run first inning rally was Joe Panik, the rookie who was rushed up from the minors when the Giants decided there was nothing better in the salvage yard. He hasn't stopped hitting since Mike Murphy handed him a uniform. He doubled.
Buster Posey, who had an on-base percentage under .300 at home just a few weeks ago, followed with another double to put the Giants on the board.
Then came Hunter Pence –- it’s always handy to have a fellow lead the NL in hits and rank second in runs scored – with a chopper up the middle that Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez, and we use the positional term loosely, somehow failed to keep on the infield. Posey scored, Yasiel Puig unwisely threw home, Pence moved up to second base, and that mistake positioned him to score on Joaquin Arias’ single.
The Giants had three runs in. They stayed relentless, and although Crawford’s RBI double down the first base line wasn’t a finishing blow, his two-run homer a few innings later did the job.
“We all know the magnitude. We know the stakes,” said Crawford, who led a charge from the bottom third of the order. “That’s a big reason why we’re winning games. We’ve been consistent throughout the lineup and even guys off the bench have done a great job.”
Here’s a little secret: the Giants are still banged up and missing guys. Arias is probably their fourth-string first baseman with Brandon Belt (concussion) and Michael Morse (oblique) out and Posey behind the plate. But he started against Ryu and had two more hits, raising his average to .436 over his last 21 games. He was hitting .185 prior to that.
Travis Ishikawa even came off the bench to hit his first splash homer, joking it took him eight years to do it.
Bumgarner did not give back any portion of the lead, as he did in Detroit after the Giants jumped on David Price. He even survived a 12-pitch walk to Justin Turner that loaded the bases in the fifth inning, responding by getting Adrian Gonzalez to fly out to end the fifth.
He said he didn’t feel tired then, or at any point. He is a 25-year-old and he’s almost four years removed from winning a World Series game. He understands how to conserve, and when needed, how to excel on fumes. The bigger the stakes, the richer the mix.
“That right there,” he said. “That’s probably as close as you can get to a playoff atmosphere without actually being in the playoffs.”
Bumgarner is the Giants’ first 18-game winner since Tim Lincecum in 2008, and he’s got three scheduled cracks to get the two victories he needs to reach 20.
“There’s a lot of pitchers having good years in the NL but he should he up there in the Cy Young vote,” Crawford said. “I mean, he’s done that all season.
Said Bochy: “This one, it’s right up there, looking at the importance of the game. Bum’s thrown a lot of these and he’s a guy you want out there.”
A one-night snapshot would leave little room for argument: The Giants were the superior team. They had the deeper and more potent offense. They ran the bases better, hit in the clutch better, sustained rallies better, and the Dodgers’ middle infield was so laughably poor that they should’ve been made to run wind sprints. Ryu was taken out after the first inning with a sore shoulder, and the back end of the Dodgers rotation might have gotten squishier as a result. Puig hasn’t homered since July 31 and is hitting .125 in his last 16 games.
And that’s without delving into any questions about clubhouse chemistry or comparing managers, although Bruce Bochy did flub a failed challenge in the first inning.
The Giants are four up on everyone else in the NL wild card standings. There is a reason nobody in their clubhouse is looking at the NL wild card standings.
But Zack Greinke forgives many sins. And Clayton Kershaw is a walking, breathing benediction. So the Dodgers might have their way yet this weekend.
But they’ll have to beat the Giants at home. And that’s not as easy as it used to be.