It’s a common trope in baseball to say that you’ll remember a specific play, inning, or game when you reflect on a season. To identify something outrageous or outstanding or out of the ordinary and say, That! That right there is how we’ll define the tens of thousands of pitches we watched this year!
The trope is often honest when a season is good. You don’t even need to close your eyes to perfectly replay the final pitch of the 2010, 2012, and 2014 seasons. You may even remember a critical moment from the regular season that epitomizes the journey; you certainly remember a few in the postseason.
But the trope becomes fleeting in bad years. The San Francisco Giants have put Felix Baumgartner to shame, with a free fall that has lasted nearly three months. Along the way I’ve identified a dozen or two innings or plays that have embodied the way the Giants have both artfully and clunkily rode their raft down the rocky waters of a failed season. I’ve written about those things. I’ve tweeted about those things. Save for the still-very-recent memory of Tuesday’s fiasco, I’ve already forgotten all of them.
So perhaps I am the exceedingly hungry person who buys three dreadful-but-filling chicken bakes at Costco because they can’t possibly comprehend that one will satiate them. Perhaps I’m the eager listener who shouts the name of the album they just listened to for the first time when asked to give their desert island discography, thinking there’s no way they’ll grow sick of it by the ninth listen. Perhaps what I’m about to say will make me look like a foolish prisoner of the moment in a week’s time.
This game had the moment. The series of moments, even. This game had what you will remember when the season concludes in what will almost certainly be just 10 days. It had what you’ll think of when you look at offseason free agency predictions and mutter, What idiot would give Matt Chapman that much money? Double it, Zaidi. It had what you’ll reflect on when you watch somberly on the couch as the Not Giants hoist the World Series trophy for the ninth consecutive season. It left a sour taste that in November will make you want to give up on baseball and in January will make you itch and squirm for the sweet release of a new season.
Only then can you forget.
But for now, you’ll think about the sixth and seventh inning of Thursday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. You’ll think about it tonight and you’ll think about it tomorrow morning. You’ll think about it as the nail in the coffin if the Giants end the year on a losing streak, and you’ll think about it as what could’ve been if they find some life over the remaining nine games. And then you’ll think about it some more.
In the top of the sixth the Giants tied the game on a very surprising play. They had yet to record a hit, though for the second time this week they’d scored a run while being no-hit. After a brilliant but short start by Emmet Sheehan, the Dodgers had turned to lefty Alex Vesia and, with a righty warming up in the bullpen, Gabe Kapler decided to let Joc Pederson stay in rather than make a move that would be countered. As if convention were flipping a well-timed double bird to the Giants ways, Joc broke the no-hitter with a majestic home run that was not only his first of the year against a southpaw, but just the 14th of his career.
The game was tied. There was hope. Forget the standings. Forget the disappointment. Forget the 25 losses in their last 30 road games (now 26 and 31, respectively), a San Francisco-era record for futility. The Giants were giving themselves a chance to do the single best thing in baseball: Beat LA.
In the bottom half of the inning, Kyle Harrison capped off a delightful return to the Majors by retiring leadoff batter Freddie Freeman, then departing. Kapler would later reveal that Harrison was battling an illness and was a coin flip to even pitch, so the team was extra careful.
John Brebbia replaced him, and the first batter he saw — Will Smith — bashed a ball into right-center fielder. Center fielder Tyler Fitzgerald, all of two hours into his MLB career, showed off the speed that had prompted a late-season call up, and as he sprinted towards a ball that you assumed was a hit, you began to believe.
Fitzgerald dove. The ball found the recess of his mitt for the briefest of moments, just long enough for inertia to kick in; as gravity began to slow Fitzgerald’s impressive speed, the ball sprang out of his mitt as though he were still running 20 mph. It went cleanly past right fielder Mike Yastrzemski, and headed for the corner.
Were it not for Smith’s speed which befits his backstop position, it would have been an easy inside-the-park home run. Instead, he settled for a triple.
With his back against the wall, Brebbia got J.D. Martinez to hit a lazy fly ball to right field. It traveled a mere 253 feet to Yastrzemski, owner of the Giants best outfield arm. You breathed a sigh of relief. It didn’t seem deep enough to score Smith. The Giants would get to two outs without the runner scoring.
If you didn’t watch the game — bless your heart — you probably think you know what happened next. You probably think Smith tested Yaz anyway, and perhaps the ball squirted away from Blake Sabol, or hit Smith, or maybe ricocheted off one of those god awful beach balls at Dodger Stadium.
But no. This is the Giants we’re talking about. This is the 2023 Giants were talking about. This is the team that shoves with jack-three off suit and, right as you’re picking up your cards to fold, they say Damn, bluffing sure is fun.
Yaz forgot there was only one out. And Smith scored the go-ahead run.
Will Smith scores after Mike Yastrzemski loses track of how many outs there were pic.twitter.com/8fnkiMXeFH— Jomboy Media (@JomboyMedia) September 22, 2023
It had to be Yaz making that mistake. Anyone else wouldn’t do. If Fitzgerald had made that mistake you might have sat there speechless for five minutes as though someone unplugged you. If Michael Conforto had made that mistake you’d put your head in your hands until your palms left an imprint on your forehead.
But Yaz making that mistake was poetic in the same way that Phoebe Bridgers is poetic. It touched something deep in you; it felt right; and then it made you question why we’re all so committed to the pelagic heartbreak of being alive.
Or, to use less depressing terminology, Yaz was the last person on the Giants I would have expected to make a Little League mental mistake with both a game and season on the line. One of the last people I’ve ever watched wear a Giants jersey that I would have suspected would do that.
So none of this is to pile on Yaz, who did all the piling on himself after the game, calling it “inexcusable,” and saying, “There are times where we just come out flat and I think it’s just an attitude thing where we should take a little more pride in our work. We’ve got to look in the mirror — myself first, more than anybody — but there are time where we deserve to be embarrassed, kind of like we are right now,” and “There are so many guys in here who work so hard and to continuously be snakebit by little stupid mistakes that can be avoided.”
Yaz would be the last person to make such a mistake, so it’s befitting the season that he did. Everyone else had done their equivalent; he was, indeed, the last one.
Still, it was only a one-run deficit, and though salt was poured in the Yastrzemski wound when he led off the seventh by striking out, a rally would form. Marco Luciano, in his return to the Majors, hit a 106.9-mph single, and Fitzgerald recorded his first career hit, a two-out double.
J.D. Davis, who had entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the fifth inning and struck out with the bases loaded, fell behind 0-2 before working a count to load the bases for the team’s best hitter, Wilmer Flores.
He popped up.
Pain was officially starting to sink in, but you didn’t know anything yet, pal. Just you wait.
You still believed the Giants could win, but then Davis kicked a Chris Taylor grounder for an error and the Dodgers had one on with one out. You still believed the Giants could win, but then James Outman ripped a line drive that bounced off of Flores’ glove for a double. It wasn’t an error, but Flores should have caught it; and if he hadn’t got his glove on it, it almost surely would have been a foul ball. There were runners on second and third with one out, and Luke Jackson had worked the count to 0-2 against Kiké Hernández.
You still believed the Giants could win, but then Jackson’s next pitch landed well short of home plate, smacked Sabol in the chest protector, caromed away, and Taylor scored. You were no longer sure if you believed the Giants could win, and then Jackson’s next pitch landed will short of home plate, smacked Sabol in the chest protector, caromed away, and Outman scored.
In the span of half an hour, the Giants break-glass-in-case-of-emergency rookie had come a hair away from making one of the plays of the year; their most steady and sturdy veteran had committed the most embarrassing of mental lapses; they’d left the bases loaded for the umpteenth time; their bad-defender-turned-good-defender third baseman had missed a routine grounder; their best offensive player had given back his contributions on defense; and they allowed two runners to score on two wild pitches thrown in a span of two pitches.
And you knew you’d remember the season like this.
It’s funny how hope changes in hindsight. How a glimmer of hope can feel so useless until it’s snatched from you and you realize how much you’d cherish it now if it were in your arms. Last night’s fairly pathetic loss had firmly pushed me into “stick a fork in the season, it’s done” territory. But as the Dodgers turned a 2-2 tie into a 3-2 lead, and then a 4-2 lead, and then a 5-2 lead, and then a 6-2 lead, and then a 7-2 lead, and as the out of town scoreboard revealed that the Chicago Cubs had lost, it became painfully aware that the Giants could have been two games out after tonight, and how glorious that would have been.
But no. That’s not the type of game they had, and it’s not the type of season they had.
The silver lining was, at least, worth smiling about. Harrison more than held his own against a vicious Dodgers lineup, pounding the zone, and needing just 75 pitches to get through 5.1 innings, allowing just four baserunners and two runs. I was watching the Dodgers broadcast, and they sounded as petrified of watching the Dodgers face Harrison for the next decade as I am of watching the Giants face fellow rookie Sheehan, who has somehow faced the Giants twice in his young career and hasn’t given up a hit.
Luciano looked calm and collected in his return, singling and walking and looking the part of next year’s everyday shortstop. Fitzgerald shined in his debut, not only hitting the double but working an absolutely artistic eight-pitch walk with two outs and the bases loaded, after falling behind in the count 0-2.
The Fitzgerald family was all cheers after Tyler walked to record his first big-league RBI pic.twitter.com/FRdS4Jk87Y— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) September 22, 2023
He became the 12th Giant to make his MLB debut this year, and 17 of the players on the 40-man roster are now in their first or second season.
We’ll have to wait to learn if the Giants young core is molded into the foundation of a perennial contender. But we don’t don’t have to wait to learn if the Giants have a young core. They do. It is present. And sometime in 2024 we’ll learn if it bears fruit.
By then this season, this game, and these two innings will be a distant memory, collecting dust on the shelf.