The San Francisco Giants had an epoch in which they were the even-year team. They won the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014 with Bruce Bochy as their manager, and had many memorable moments from star players including Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, and others. No doubt these are memories that Giants fans will cherish forever. But one dark shadow lies in the way of the good old times, and that is 2016. Had the Giants’ playoff loss been a normal one, it could perhaps be forgotten by now. But it came just when the Giants appeared to be getting into their high moment. Their core of fan-favorite players seemed ready to do it all once more. Oh, the fateful ninth inning in which the Giants blew their three-run lead to the Chicago Cubs! If this is too depressing for you, it would make sense if you don’t want to read it. But for those who are interested, let’s look at that game and the ninth inning from a practical, analytical perspective.
The Inning That Sunk the Giants
The 2016 Giants: Background
For the first half of the season, the Giants appeared to be serious contenders for the NL West title. But then, things took a downturn. They started losing games. The bullpen became ugly, particularly in September. The Los Angeles Dodgers ultimately took the division title. Indeed, were it not for a last-minute hot streak, the Giants would not have qualified for the final NL Wild Card spot.
But there they were in the playoffs. The group that had fought all the way to a championship two years before had a fresh chance to do it again. In the NL Wild Card game, history began to repeat itself. Bumgarner pitched a complete game shutout to top the New York Mets. Conor Gillaspie had the key home run, driving in three in the ninth.
The Giants went on to face the Cubs in the NLDS. The Cubs won the first two games, with pitcher Travis Wood hitting a home run in Game 2. At that point, the Giants were on the brink of elimination, just as they had been in the 2012 NLDS. In that series, they completed the comeback and would eventually win it all.
The Extra-Inning Win
Bumgarner was back on the mound for Game 3. Jake Arrieta became the second Cubs pitcher to hit a home run in the series, launching a three-run shot in the second. Bumgarner had hit plenty of home runs himself, but had never allowed one to a pitcher. The Giants hung in there, scoring two runs. In the sixth, ace reliever Derek Law entered and pitched two scoreless innings.
Still, facing otherworldly closer Aroldis Chapman wasn’t going to be easy. He came in for a six-out save, and it seemed that the damage might have already been done. But the Giants rallied in the eighth. Gillaspie tripled in two, and Crawford singled in two more to put San Francisco ahead 5-3. Kris Bryant hit a homer to tie it back up in the ninth. In an extra-inning affair, the Giants ended up winning it in 13 on the strength of two scoreless innings from Ty Blach and back-to-back doubles from Crawford and Joe Panik.
This wild 13-inning win was, in its own right, one of the best postseason games the Giants ever played. The Giants appeared ready to go on from there and be the championship team of before.
The Ninth Inning of Game 4
Ah, we now come to the inning that sunk the Giants. Matt Moore, who had posted a 4.08 ERA and 23.9 percent strikeout rate in the regular season for the Giants, was the starter in Game 4. His regular season numbers may have been more or less unglamorous, but he was electric in this crucial postseason game. After eight innings, he was pulled, and the Giants bullpen took a 5-2 lead into the ninth.
Law, who had been effective all year, was brought in, and he promptly allowed a single to Bryant. He was then replaced by Javier Lopez, who issued a walk to Anthony Rizzo. Sergio Romo replaced Lopez, and he gave up a double to Ben Zobrist. Cubs manager Joe Maddon decided to go the platoon advantage route and initially brought in Chris Coghlan to pinch-hit for Addison Russell. Bruce Bochy then summoned lefty Will Smith. Maddon, determined to get the platoon advantage, scratched Coghlan and sent Willson Contreras up to hit. Contreras singled off Smith to tie the game at 5. Crawford then committed a deadly fielding error that brought Jason Heyward into scoring position. Hunter Strickland came into the game, but couldn’t hold the tie. Javier Baez singled to complete the rally and put the Cubs up 6-5. And this time, Chapman had no issues with getting the save.
Just like that, the Giants’ season was over.
— Cubs Talk (@NBCSCubs) September 29, 2018
Analysis of Bochy’s Decisions
It may just be torture to review an event that has already occurred. Plus, Bochy was known for being a situationally smart man when it came to managing a team in October. But there still may be insight to be gained by reviewing all the possibilities. We’ll never know for sure if history was capable of taking a different turn.
First of all, Moore could have stayed in for the ninth inning. He was on a roll, and it was the type of scenario where you really don’t want to take a guy out. The thing was, he had already thrown 120 pitches. There would have been a risk in leaving him in. But would it have been better than trusting a sometimes shaky bullpen?
Law also could have stayed in after allowing a single to Bryant. He had been a superstar reliever for the Giants that year, and not the fringe major leaguer that he would later become. He might have gotten the save. We’ll never know (this was before the three-batter-minimum rule). But Lopez, you can’t forget, had been long known as the ultimate lefty specialist. Countless times, he had stepped up to get that one left-handed batter out. In the postseason, he was a big part of the Giants’ success. So it would be hard to blame Bochy too much for wanting to go to him against Rizzo.
Still, Bochy could have employed a rare tactic that would have involved Law playing the outfield and remaining in the game. He could have returned to the mound after Lopez walked Rizzo. The defensive risk is obvious, but the plan might have worked. You just can’t always tell how much pressure rookie pitchers can handle.
Could Bumgarner Have Saved the Day?
Bochy could also have used Bumgarner in relief at some point in the inning. True, he had started the day before. But the guy that recorded a five-inning save on two days’ rest in the 2014 World Series would have been the man to save 2016 if anyone could.
While Johnny Cueto would have been a fresh starter-in-relief option, his usage would likely have disrupted the Giants’ plans for a potential Game 5. Jeff Samardzija would also have been fresh, but his ineffectiveness in Game 2 didn’t give him a positive outlook. So to sum up, Bumgarner’s the guy that should have been used.
We’ll never know what would have happened had the Giants done things differently. Bochy had quick decisions to make for sure. But it might have been possible to save the game. It will just have to haunt us forever. The 2021 defeat just adds to the grief.
But if the Giants continue to play the way we’ve been seeing, they will make the postseason in 2023. And this time, there needs to be a different ending.
Photo Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports
Players Mentioned: Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Conor Gillaspie, Travis Wood, Jake Arrieta, Derek Law, Aroldis Chapman, Kris Bryant, Ty Blach, Joe Panik, Matt Moore, Javier Lopez, Anthony Rizzo, Sergio Romo, Ben Zobrist, Chris Coghlan, Addison Russell, Will Smith, Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward, Hunter Strickland, Javier Baez, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija