LOS ANGELES – As much as it might have seemed a trolling move to have Brian Wilson throw the NL West-clinching pitch Wednesday night, the Giants did not lose the division with the final out of a 9-1 loss at Dodger Stadium.
They lost it against the Rockies in June, when Angel Pagan took sketchy routes and Sergio Romo’s slider flattened out. They lost it in July, when their home run deluge had long since abated and an offense too trained on trotting forgot how to score in other ways. They lost it in August, when a two-time Cy Young Award winner, Tim Lincecum, after 2 ½ years of struggle, was too ineffective to keep his place in the rotation.
They lost it when bone chips finally got the better of Matt Cain, when Pagan couldn’t play through back discomfort, when Michael Morse no longer unleashed beast mode, when their second base vacuum sucked in Dan Uggla, and when an infusion of rookies – Joe Panik, Andrew Susac, Matt Duffy among them – only provided so much of a bounce.
And most critically, during the softest stretch of their schedule, when the Giants played 17 home games out of 22 in June, when they could have expanded furlongs into an entire backstretch, they turned away one disappointed sellout crowd after another. The team built to win at AT&T Park lost 14 of 17 at home.
So began the steep decline from June 9, when they were 42-21 and held a 9 1/2 –game lead. (It’ll look like 10 for posterity because they later won a suspended game against Colorado.) They gave away the last bit of that lead on July 26, when Clayton Kershaw shut them out at AT&T Park.
And Kershaw finished them off Wednesday, along with a season that could make him the first National League pitcher to win an MVP award since Bob Gibson in 1968.
Kershaw struck out 11 in eight innings, he made a behind-the-back snag, he hit his first career triple to tie the game in the third inning and he found a way to decrease the magnification on a microbial ERA, from 1.80 to 1.77 – the lowest by a starting pitcher to finish a season since Pedro Martinez in 2000.
He became the first pitcher in 130 years to win 21 games in 27 or fewer starts. And at the game’s fulcrum, when he faced former batting champion Buster Posey with the bases loaded in the third inning, he bent and shaped a 1-1 curveball like a balloon animal for a double-play grounder that popped the Giants’ most promising chance.
Did Kershaw open the sparkling wine with a saber? I’ll bet he opened the sparkling wine with a saber.
Prior to the game, Giants manager Bruce Bochy called Kershaw the deserving league MVP. Afterward, Bochy offered more gallantry.
“Congratulations to Don (Mattingly) and the Dodgers for winning the division,” said Bochy, whose coaches stayed on the dugout rail long enough to tip their caps to their counterparts. “It’s a great year for them.”
Bochy credited the Dodgers’ solid play. He did not say they were the better team. Neither did Tim Hudson, who savors the thought of crossing paths with the Dodgers again in the NLCS.
“I hope we do,” said Hudson, who pitched with Kershaw until Yasiel Puig wrecked an 0-2 fastball in the sixth. “That means we got past the Pirates and the Nationals and we’d be playing these guys to go to the World Series. If that’s our case, I like our chances.
“This team has shown in the past they can handle adversity and win games they’re probably not supposed to win.”
Hudson made a few assumptions there. The Giants still need to beat the San Diego Padres at least once in a four-game home series that begins Thursday, or rely on the Milwaukee Brewers to lose once, to clinch a wild card spot. Assuming they do, their opponent still could be the St. Louis Cardinals if the Pirates catch them for the NL Central title. (The two clubs are separated by a game in the loss column.)
It’s still possible, though unlikely, that the Dodgers could surpass the Nationals for the league’s best record and await the wild card survivor in an NL Division Series, too.
Perhaps Hudson was making another assumption that Madison Bumgarner would be the Giants’ starter in the wild card game. He spoke as if the decision had been made.
“He’s a stud,” Hudson said of Bumgarner. “He’s as good as it gets. He competes at a level that’s pretty special. I’ll take my chances with him out there any time – and at the plate, too. He might hit a couple home runs for us.”
Hudson might have won consideration for his own place in a playoff rotation, if the Giants reach a best-of-5 series. He set aside a 9.92 ERA in September, had better sink on his pitches, worked in a more comfortable delivery following some mechanical adjustments and squeezed everything out of his 39-year-old body to match Kershaw into the sixth.
“The way things were going for me, I wouldn’t have had a whole lot of confidence in me to go out and pitch big games,” Hudson said. “I knew there were a couple things I had to do mechanically and physically. … I felt better from a pitch/body standpoint.”
Then Puig hit one of those intentionally high Hudson fastballs that he didn’t elevate enough and got boosted into the night sky. Two batters later, Matt Kemp hit a one-out double. The bullpen entered and the rest was wet cardboard and bad defense.
Gregor Blanco made two critical baserunning mistakes, getting thrown out at third base with the Giants down four runs. (“I think we’ve been thrown out enough by Puig,” Bochy said. “Shame on us.”) Joaquin Arias fumbled a double-play grounder, turning what should have been a 1-2-3 eighth inning into a 30-minute sitcom in which three pitchers faced 11 batters.
After that display, it would be hard for anyone to make a case the Giants were the better team. Then again, it depends on which team you’re referencing. The Giants packed several into one year. They didn’t have a season. They had operatic movements, and those soaring strings began snapping once they hit 42-21.
Never again will anyone cajole Bochy into saying he has nothing to complain about.