For all of baseball’s magic, grace, beauty, and even drama, it often lacks the all-or-nothing late-game theatrics that other sports have.
Anyone who paired the San Francisco Giants Tuesday night game against the St. Louis Cardinals with some NBA Playoffs action was reminded of how often basketball gives us an all-or-nothing situation: make a shot and you win; miss a shot and you lose. Football does the same, with so many games coming down to a final play: score and it’s over; don’t score and it’s also over.
Baseball offers fewer opportunities. For starters, only one team can deliver a walk-off hit in any given game. But even that team doesn’t find themselves in an all-or-nothing situation very often. So often a potential walk-off hit occurs when the game is already tied, and there isn’t risk of losing. Or it occurs with less than two outs, when an out hurts the chance of winning, but doesn’t throw it out the window entirely.
For that matter, a true all-or-nothing situation doesn’t even exist in baseball. If you’re losing, there’s always a chance that you might just tie the game, rather than end it one way or the other.
It’s so rare when a team is in a position where an out ends the game ... and then they end the game in an entirely different way. Which makes it so, so special.
Such a special situation occurred on Tuesday, when the Giants were down to not just their final out, but their final strike. With Mike Yastrzemski on second base and the Giants trailing 4-3, Blake Sabol found himself in a 1-2 count, knowing any strike or any caught ball would send the Giants three-game winning streak to a screeching halt. The next pitch could end the game.
The next pitch did end the game, but instead of the winning streak slamming on the brakes, it downshifted and roared past the opposition in a way that would make Vin Diesel smile.
Blake Sabol, folks.
There was something particularly special about the hit coming off of Sabol’s bat. With Joey Bart suffering an injury setback on Monday, and Gary Sánchez approaching his contract vesting date, there’s extra pressure on the Giants Rule 5 selection to prove that he can stick.
And with the Giants opting for a full bullpen game that, if Twitter is any indication, embodied everything that the fanbase hates about the current regime, it was a hit from a player who unequivocally embodies the thought process of the braintrust that saved the team from a frustrating loss.
But more than anything, it was special. Darn special. Extremely special.
The Giants had one such walk-off last year, and that felt so special and rare, and it didn’t even come with two strikes. It doesn’t get higher stakes than two strikes and two outs, with a loss hanging in the balance, and a win dimly waving at you from beyond the center field wall.
It was so rare that I forgot it was even an option!
Unproductive out by Estrada, strikeout by Crawford. And it's all down to Blake Sabol. An out ends the game. A hit ties the game.— McCovey Chronicles (@McCoveyChron) April 26, 2023
Before we move on, let’s watch it again, but with Jon Miller’s call.
BLAKE SABOL WALK-OFF‼️— KNBR (@KNBR) April 26, 2023
Here's Jon MIller's radio call ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/KcIaGwBhbm
Sabol’s theatrics put a cap on a very odd game. One day after Alex Cobb pitched the team’s first complete game shutout in nearly two years, the Giants went in the complete opposite direction, opting to use eight pitchers and not even out of necessity.
The Giants turned to an opener for the first time all year, letting John Brebbia reprise the role he masterfully held for 11 games last season. He was masterful once more, retiring the first four batters he faced, before a single by Willson Contreras knocked him out of the game.
With the Cardinals so talented against lefties but somewhat worthless against righties, I was fully expecting Jakob Junis to come into the game, but instead Gabe Kapler took a detour with southpaw Sean Manaea.
Speaking of detours, let’s take one: after Manaea got out of the inning, Thairo Estrada scored in little league fashion. He got an infield single on a play that the defense felt they should have made. Then he stole second, took third when the throw went to center field, and took home when the center fielder didn’t know how to pick up the ball.
THAIRO RACES AROUND TO SCORE pic.twitter.com/jZn62uP7NS— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) April 26, 2023
Back to Manaea. He flashed some heat and brilliance out of the pen, but gave up an absolute tattooed homer to Tommy Edman to tie the game. And then, with two outs in the third inning and the bases empty, Kapler came to take the ball from Manaea.
The plan, it seemed, was to use Manaea to face the back of the order before returning to a righty. Still, it was a touch odd — at the time — that it was Manaea and not a more traditional reliever, like Scott Alexander or Taylor Rogers.
But in came Junis at last, with two outs in the third. He got out of the inning, then he retired the first two batters in the fourth inning.
And then ... out came Kapler again. The presumed non-starting starter was given just one inning, as the line kept moving. And moving. And moving.
Somewhere along the way there was a brief interlude for a majestic home run from Yaz, which came so close to being Splash Hit No. 100.
Kapler continued to attack one half of St. Louis’ lineup with righties and the other half with lefties. The lefty Rogers relieved Junis and had a lovely inning, and the righty Rogers relieved his brother and dealt two innings of dominance. The southpaw Alexander was next up, and that’s where the issues finally began.
Alexander opened the eighth by allowing a pair of singles. A near double play put runners at the corners with one out and Alexander, playing for another ground ball, instead ceded a double to Tyler O’Neill, tying the game and putting two runners in scoring position.
With the game hanging in the balance, Kapler turned to Camilo Doval. But unfortunately it wasn’t just the game that hung, as Doval’s second pitch was a hanging sinker that Paul “Mr. Giant Killer” Goldschmidt smacked for a two-run single.
The Cardinals led 4-2, and the tenuous hold on the game that the bullpen had was no more.
The Giants threatened in the eighth, with a one-out single by LaMonte Wade Jr. followed up by a walk from Michael Conforto. One pitch later, J.D. Davis had ground into an inning-ending double play, and the optimism left your body.
But then came the ninth. Joc Pederson led off and reached base on an error that was equally unfair to Joc and to Edman ... no infielder should be punished for not catching a 98-mph screecher away from them, and no hitter should have their stats reflect an out when they destroy a baseball. Yaz jumped on the first hittable pitch he saw, driving a deep double that scored a run and put the tying run in scoring position with no outs.
Yaz drives in Joc to bring the Giants within one pic.twitter.com/GNNw9Kg9no— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) April 26, 2023
It still felt like we were destined for heartbreak. Estrada couldn’t move the runner over, and Brandon Crawford struck out in an uncompetitive at-bat.
All that was left was Sabol, the unproven Rule 5 rookie just trying to show that he deserves a little extra leash as a backup catcher.