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When the magic finishes a run short

The Giants fell to the Dodgers 2-1 in Game 5 of the NLDS.

Division Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants - Game Five Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Let’s start with a fact: the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the San Francisco Giants 2-1 on Thursday night, officially winning the NLDS and unofficially winning the six-month battle for NL West supremacy.

Let’s continue with an admission: this recap will not do the game justice. It won’t do the game justice because the game was too good (objectively) for all but a handful of writers to tackle, and it was too bad (subjectively) for my emotional bandwidth to begin debriefing.

And let’s move on to a reality: the Giants didn’t lose because of a bad call, but they deserved better. Everyone deserved better.

The Giants, fresh off the best regular season in their 139-year history, deserved to go down swinging, not on the inaccurate perception of such.

Baseball fans, witnessing the winningest matchup in postseason history, deserved a decisive ending to put an emphatic stamp on one of the best dances the sport has ever seen.

And even the Dodgers, winners of a 24-round fight, deserved to have the headlines and post-game questions focused on their triumphs, and not on the inaccurately raised fist of a first base umpire.

But no.

Just as it did in 2020, the Giants season ended on a poorly-administered strike three call, the likes of which all but one person seemed to see clearly.

The Dodgers win probability going into the at-bat was 90.4%, and that was before Wilmer Flores fell behind 0-2 to Max Scherzer, one of the greatest pitchers to ever live.

In all likelihood, the Giants lose with or without the call.

But the Giants were not a team of likelihood.

They were not likely to compete in the treacherous NL West.

There were not likely to win 80 games, let alone 90, let alone 100, let alone 107.

They were not likely to make the postseason, let alone be the top seed in either league.

The Giants built a cottage of magic on a hill of unlikelihood, and were denied one final chance at a room addition.

And that’s sometimes how baseball goes.

The ending may leave a sour taste in everyone’s mouth, but the game — if you could remove your heart from inhabiting your eyes — was brilliant.

It was more than just a head-on collision between the two teams who had been baseball’s best since day one — one arriving as expected, and another a surprise entrant. It was also a clash of styles: the Giants leaned on their ace Logan Webb for seven innings, losing a home game he started for the first time all year, through no fault of his. The Dodgers opted for an opener followed by a reliever, handing just four innings to their star pitcher, Julio Urías.

There were clutch defensive plays, and pitchers on both sides de-jamming situations with aplomb.

There was drama in the form of Darin Ruf’s game-tying home run, hit further than any ball this postseason, reminding you that the Giants can work wonders relying on the long ball.

There was poetry — god-awful, horrendous, immoral poetry that you should absolutely not waste your time reading — in the go-ahead hit for the Dodgers, a shift-busting single by Cody Bellinger.

Bellinger, the 2019 MVP, who struggled all year, hitting just a hair better than your garden variety pitcher. Bellinger, the former Giant Killer, who had two hits in 54 plate appearances against the Giants in the regular season. Bellinger, the suddenly unlikely hero, donning a cape to help the behemoth Dodgers best the team comprised almost entirely of unlikely heroes.

There was heartbreak — but I repeat myself, having already mentioned the poetry — in Camilo Doval, the stat sheet’s loser in a game that deserved none. Doval, who entered the game with 18 consecutive scoreless appearances, transforming from wild Minor League prospect to dominant reliever in the time it takes most of us to get around to the weekly to-do list plastered to our fridge. Doval, unable to keep one of his heat-seeking missiles from Justin Turner’s elbow, then unable to keep Gavin Lux and Bellinger’s ground balls from bouncing to exactly where his defenders took post for the first 20 years of his life.

There was love — again, repeating myself — in this Giants team proving, in perhaps their lone dark hour this season, to be as worthy of your hugs, grace, and fandom as you had hoped; rewarding you for gravitating more towards them than towards almost any other team you have rooted for.

And there were inches. An inch here, an inch there. Analytics departments may have angered every cloud-jeering baseball traditionalist, but the inches that define the game haven’t gone anywhere.

A few Dodgers ground balls a few inches left or right and it’s a different game. A few Giants ground balls a few inches left or right — or a few line drives a few inches up or down — and it’s a different game. A few inches of more accurate umpire eyesight on a 3-1 pitch to Kris Bryant and perhaps the Giants score more runs. A few more inches in his stance and perhaps Turner — ice cold all series — doesn’t get plunked and earn a free trip to first. A few inches — no, a few centimeters — more plate on a ninth-inning Scherzer pitch and LaMonte Wade Jr. ends the game in walk-off fashion, instead of banging one off the bricks 30 feet foul.

These aren’t excuses. They’re not robberies, and they’re not tragedies.

They’re just reminders. Even in the longest of seasons — 167 games, thousands of at-bats taken, even more pitches thrown — nothing normalizes. It still comes down to a few inches here, a few inches there, a clutch play, and an unassuming hero. And that sometimes leads to a broken crowd, a celebrating rival, and an offseason of fighting the urge to dwell on the what-ifs.

The Giants deserved the series, deserved the champagne, deserved it all.

So, too, did the Dodgers.