It’s the time of the baseball season where, if you’re lucky enough to have have won a fair amount of games, team success far outweighs individual success. Squads long removed from contention may have flipped the page to the individuals — giving prospects their first glimpse of the show, trying players in new roles and at new positions, chasing accolades — but those still looking at the standings are focused primarily on the team.
Win, win, win. That’s the goal. That’s the focus. That’s what matters.
And that’s what the San Francisco Giants did Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. They won, they won again, and they won a third time, at a juncture where they were desperate for an advancing number in the W column.
It was the team’s success that mattered most for a team that had somehow fallen out of playoff position after losing seven consecutive series as every element of their precariously-built — but extremely well-oiled machine — was suddenly and simultaneously on the fritz.
The team. Not the individuals.
But baseball is a funny sport, and one of the reasons we adore it so inexplicably is because it can’t make its mind up as to whether it’s a team sport or an individual sport. It’s the most individual-heavy team sport in existence, or perhaps the most team-oriented individual sport. Outside of a connection between pitcher and catcher, there really aren’t any team elements, in the traditional sense. You don’t work together on a play, so much as you work individually on many plays and then tally the results.
One of the things I love most about baseball is the romance and resonance that follows from that. When you’re playing a true individual sport, you don’t get to watch others in wide-eyed fascination, because you’re trying to defeat them. When you’re on a team in the basketball or football sense of the word, you don’t always get to zoom out and admire your teammates, because you’re acting with them instead of next to them.
But in baseball? You get to revel in the brilliance of the individuals wearing the same colors as you ... and then you get to be inspired by it. And that creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts in a way that is wholly unique to the sport.
So while the Giants beating the Atlanta Braves 8-5 on Sunday was, first and foremost, a story of the team winning, it was also an inspiring tale of Thairo Estrada’s pregame speech, and Tristan Beck using his first career start to mow down the first 12 batters he faced while competing against a historically great team that also drafted him.
And while the Giants beating the Cincinnati Reds 4-1 on Monday was, from a pure value standpoint, notable because of the outcome, the headline grabber was Kyle Harrison pitching 6.1 shutout innings with 11 strikeouts in his home debut, and just the second game of his career.
A cursory glance at the scoreboard tells you that the Giants 6-1 win over the Reds on Tuesday was about the team winning their first series since August 3, notching their first three-game winning streak since that same day, securing the tiebreaker against a team they’re directly battling, and sliding back into playoff position.
But your heart is focused on Alex Cobb.
Baseball is full of “I never in a million years would have guessed that” moments, from Sunday’s 3-1-4-2 double play, to the Giants ceding a center field wall tightrope act inside-the-park home run a few weeks ago, to Casey Schmitt starting his career with numbers that only Joe DiMaggio had matched.
The latest? Cobb and the Giants needing just 24 hours to one-up Harrison’s outing, which was one of the rare games that I can say with confidence I’ll remember in a few decades.
But one-up him he did. He one-upped him with such emphasis that, according to Harrison, Cobb even apologized for it in the victory handshake line, still wet from the sweat of his fresh accomplishment.
Alex Cobb had some words for Kyle Harrison after his near-no-hitter pic.twitter.com/vFrBSWU926— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) August 30, 2023
Cobb accomplished one of the most cruel and rare things in baseball, recording the first 26 of 27 outs needed for a no-hitter. And then, with two outs in the ninth, so close to — as Jon Miller dubbed it when Tim Lincecum accomplished the feat — his “rendezvous with history,” Cobb gave up a fly ball to Spencer Steer that carried just beyond the outstretched and desperate arm of Luis Matos, ending not just the no-hit bit but scoring a run in the process.
Unfazed, Cobb dug into the mound and struck out phenom Elly De La Cruz to put the bow on one of the most majestic individual performances of the season.
There’s sadness in a lost no-hitter, and perhaps doubly so in this one. A 35 year old who debuted in between the Giants first and second World Series wins, it’s been a season of firsts for Cobb. He made the All-Star Game for the first time, more than 200 starts and 1,200 innings into his career. He earned recognition as a bonafide top-of-the-rotation starter for arguably the first time. And he came inches away from a first career no-hitter which, if we’re being realistic, is almost surely something that will now never happen for him.
Along the way Austin Slater made a catch that would be remembered as The Catch 2.0 had the no-hitter held up. The kind of catch that would have deserved a plaque of its own on the Gregor Blanco Wall of How To Make Your Pitcher Love You Forever With One Dive.
Cobb will likely never get his no-hitter, and Slater will likely never get his defensive gem immortalized by a no-hitter. Those things are sad.
They’re also OK. Because Slater and, in particular, Cobb, understand that the most important thing was the team winning, and the second most important thing was the individuals inspiring each other to reach to greater heights.
Does Harrison deal his gem if the team is listless instead of invigorated by Estrada’s speech and Beck’s gutsy outing? Does Cobb flirt with a no-hitter if he didn’t have Harrison’s dominance to leap on and bounce off of?
Who knows. Many will say the answer is “yes,” but I prefer the romance that accompanies a “no” here.
But it’s not just inspiring for individual players. Success, grittiness, and marvelous achievements carry with them an aura that has a domino effect in every direction. Fans have clamored all season that Gabe Kapler is too robotic and spreadsheet oriented (a complaint I disagree with, but that’s a story for another time).
Beck stayed in longer than the models said he should have. Harrison was pegged for four or five innings and about 75 pitches, and instead pitched well into the seventh inning, blowing past his pre-determined pitch count. And after Steer’s double, Cobb stood on the mound and looked around ... he’d thrown 125 pitches, already a career high, and 16 more than his highest total since joining the Giants last season. His shot at history was gone. Every computer invented said to take the ball, tell him he gave it a great shot, pat his derriere with gentle firmness, and call in a reliever.
But Kapler stood still and the bullpen sat quietly. And Cobb got to sign his masterpiece, taking a step back to admire it all, even that one little smudge in the corner.
We’ll never know how to quantify these moments, or even prove if they’re meaningful at all. If the Giants lose their next five games we’ll forget all about how this week started, and if they win their next five we’ll look back on these three games and say, yeah, that’s when they turned it all around.
But we’ll never be able to quantify them, and truthfully, I wouldn’t want to know the numbers even if we could. All I care about is that baseball, in spades, keeps giving them to us.