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Giants spoil opportunity to spoil Dodgers’ season

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The Dodgers have clinched a postseason berth, but the Giants can still keep them from winning the West.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Francisco Giants D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

This was easily the most-important game for the Giants all season. With the Cardinals beating the Cubs earlier today, there still lived a dream of dishonoring the Dodgers by sending them to a one-game playoff for the second Wild Card spot. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Until the ninth, this was a close game. If the Giants had managed to pull it out, it would have been the best game since game three of the 2016 NLDS. Things fell apart at the end, but for the six and half hours before Will Smith came unraveled, this was a great, tense game. The Giants haven’t played one of those in a while.

It was an auspicious beginning for Dereck Rodríguez before it was an inauspicious one. He began his afternoon getting ahead of Joc Pederson 0-2. He then coaxed Pederson to swing at a pitch at his shoulders. Pederson hit it over the Willie Mays wall.

In my piece about how hard it is to homer at AT&T, I found that surprisingly high percentage of homers are “cheap” homers (neither barreled nor solidly hit). I said that I didn’t recall seeing a cheap homer at AT&T, but Pederson’s is roughly what they look like. On balls hit at 95 MPH and 36 degrees, like Pederson’s, batters have hit just .174 and homered on just 12 percent of those balls.

This isn’t to say Pederson or the Dodgers got lucky. He beat a decent pitch, and it’s not like the Giants couldn’t have stockpiled flyball hitters like Pederson to take advantage of their short porch. It’s just unfortunate that it came at the worst possible time and Rodríguez probably deserved better.

Rodríguez deserved to have Yasiel Puig hit that changeup a million miles though. Even on a two-strike count, it’s hard to get a good hitter out with a middle-middle changeup. Especially when it’s the third one that’s been thrown in the at-bat.

The Dodgers could have had a big inning in the fourth if not for their hubris. Even if Pederson didn’t deserve his dinger, Max Muncy got AT&T’d hard. He hit a 420-foot triple. You could sense that Muncy thought he deserved his run as he tried to score on a hard grounder right to Brandon Crawford. The nincompoopery was strong in that TOOTBLAN.

Then in a 3-0 count, Cody Bellinger popped out in foul territory. It wasn’t a terrible pitch to swing at on a 3-0 count, but it also wasn’t a meatball. Would Bellinger have been better off taking the pitch and trying his luck on 3-1? Maybe. Probably. I’m glad we didn’t find out.

The Giants got their first run in incredible fashion: by getting a two-out hit with a runner in scoring position. Nick Hundley led off the inning with a base hit, and Brandon Crawford would have hit into a double play had he hit the ball hard. As is, the Dodgers couldn’t turn their 36th double play of the series. Crawford advanced to third on Aramís García’s ground ball and Gorkys Hernández knocked him home with a ground ball through the 5 and 6 hole.

Somehow, the Giants managed to add on the next inning. Grégor Blanco led off the inning with a single to set up a bunt from Rodríguez. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but the Giants pitchers haven’t been great at bunting this year. Rodríguez struck out on three miserable bunt attempts, and the prevailing feeling was that the Giants would waste their lead-off baserunner, but then Hunter Pence: Folk Hero, doubled down the line. Even the fleet-footed Blanco couldn’t score from first, so the Giants had runners at second and third with one out. With a proper bunt, the game would have been tied at two.

Then Joe Panik sliced a low-liner to left that Pederson dove for. Pence, meanwhile, took off on contact. If Pederson caught it, Pence would easily be doubled off. But Pederson did not catch it. He trapped it, and the Giants took the lead.

Immediately, the Giants gave up the lead. Rodríguez walked Puig to begin the inning and Yasmani Grandal followed it up with a broken-bat flare that landed equidistant between Panik, Crawford, and Pence. Rodriguez got Kiké Hernández to a 1-2 count, but he couldn’t execute a curveball and had to rely on his two-seamer which had been less-than-stellar. Hernández doubled into the right-center gap to knock Rodríguez from the game.

Ty Blach was tasked with getting out of a runners on second and third, nobody out situation, but at least Clayton Kershaw would be first batter—aw damn it, Kershaw knocked in two runs to make it 5-3.

The Dodgers’ playoff hopes weren’t the only things at stake in this game. With a more Rodríguez-like performance, Rodríguez could have ended his season with a lower ERA than Kershaw. Coming into the game, the Giants rookie had posted a 2.50 ERA, 0.03 runs better than Kershaw. After allowing five runs in 3+ innings, Rodriguez’s ERA climbed all the way to 2.81.

But the Giants would not go quietly. Kershaw mowed through the next four batters until he hit the brick wall that is Abiatal Avelino. Avelino spit on two sliders, narrowed his eyes at Kershaw and said, “Throw me a fastball you coward.” Kershaw abided and Avelino roasted it down the left field line. That brought up the indefatigable, inexorable Hunter Pence who doubled down the line. On his way around third, Avelino shouted to the heavens, “I DEFY ANY PERSON TO STRIKE ME DOWN. MY BODY, HEWN FROM MARBLE, IS INVINCIBLE. I AM A RUNAWAY TRAIN NEVER COMING BACK.”

The relay was, of course, late. Pence advanced to third on a wild pitch, and Panik hit a medium-deep fly ball to left. Pederson had a shot to throw out Hunter Pence, but after two great throws earlier in the game, his shot went wide, and Pence scored easily.

Kershaw finished the fifth, but he did not come back for the sixth inning. Kershaw will end the season with a 2.73 ERA, so Rodríguez missed his chance to one-up Kershaw. However, this will be the first time Kershaw has not lowered his career ERA. This would have happened even if Kershaw threw a shutout, but I point it out because (A) it’s remarkable he did it for so long and (B) lol Kershaw is broken.

Just when it looked like the Giants had a shot at winning this game, Ray Black came in and put runners at second and third with nobody out. In came Tony Watson who needed to get through Chris Taylor, Justin Turner, and Max Muncy. He struck out Chris Taylor despite not getting a called third strike.

It can be tough to see the difference pitch framing makes, but the near 30 run difference between Grandal and Nick Hundley really showed today. The Dodgers always seemed to get the borderline pitches, but Giants pitchers had closer pitches called balls consistently.

Watson then got Justin Turner to pop out, and in a prolonged battle in which Muncy fouled off just about everything Watson threw at him, he finally struck him out to end the threat.

Derek Holland came on to pitch the seventh and he got the first two outs with ease, but then he gave up a base hit to Puig and a double to Grandal. In a stunning gambit, Bruce Bochy intentionally walked Hernández and brought in Mark Melancon to face David Freese.

Melancon threw Freese four straight cutters on the outer part of the plate to get to a 3-1 count. Each looked tempting, but Freese didn’t offer at any of them. On the fifth, Melancon threw another cutter over the heart of the plate and Freese lined it right at Panik, and the Giants escaped another dangerous inning.

They could not escape an eighth. Melancon allowed another leadoff baserunner and got two quick outs. He brought Machado to a 1-2 count, and threw him a cutter off the plate, but Machado hit it off the top of the Willie Mays wall. It’s probably lucky it didn’t go over because that meant the Giants were only down one run with two more opportunities to come back for a third time.

The Dodgers didn’t have a single inning where they didn’t have at least one baserunner. The Dodgers may have to settle for the Wild Card because they haven’t done well in high leverage situations, and for most of the game, that remained true. But even a team that hasn’t done well in big moments will break through if given enough opportunities.

The Giants have failed to keep the Dodgers from the postseason. The worst they can do now is to keep them from winning the West for the sixth year in a row. That doesn’t feel nearly as good, but the Dodgers’ season could end on Tuesday. Tomorrow still means something.