It was only one game.
Technically, just one inning.
One long, torturous, repulsive inning.
Nearly 10 months to the day, the San Francisco Giants suffered one of the most horrifying bullpen collapses in postseason history, their season coming to an abrupt end against the Chicago Cubs in the National League Division Series.
Now, as the Giants looked across the field at the same team at AT&T Park this week, it’s as if they’re seeing a ghost.
While the Cubs went on to win a World Series championship, and are back in first place again in the NL Central, the greatest team of this decade is merely a shadow of itself.
The Giants, winners of three World Series in the last seven years, aren’t going anywhere this October.
Really, they’ve known that since the third week of the season when ace Madison Bumgarner climbed atop his dirt bike on a Denver road course and crashed, taking the Giants down along with him.
The Giants, 45-70, have been left with the third-worst record in baseball, on pace to lose 99 games for only the second time in franchise history, trailing the Los Angeles Dodgers by 35 ½ games in the NL West.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy was so exasperated one evening that he actually gave the lineup card to CEO Larry Baer.
“He told me, ‘Hey, I’m out of ideas,’ Baer said, “ “You fill out the card.’ ’’
Even the Giants’ sellout streak of 530 games, a National League record, came to screeching halt last month.
And, to think, just 10 months ago, they were three outs away from evening the NL Division Series at 2-2, and heading to Wrigley Field for a decisive Game 5 against the Cubs with Johnny Cueto on the mound and Madison Bumgarner in relief. The Giants were convinced they would have won Game 5, and Cubs manager Joe Maddon can’t disagree, remembering how Cueto dominated them in Game 1.
The Giants instead were left all winter re-living the nightmare of using five relief pitchers in a six-batter span, desperate to find somebody who could get an out, only to watch the Cubs score four runs in that inning for a 6-5 victory – and an abrupt end to their remarkable streak of 10 consecutive victories in elimination games.
“It was like getting hit by a 2-by-4,’’ Baer says, staring outside onto Willie Mays Plaza from his third-floor corner office. “When you step back, you had guys that had never lost a playoff series. They were not used to this.
“I’m not blaming that game on this season, but it was a big blow to the culture here, and we’ve seen things go so bad this year for players who aren’t used to losing.’’
The cruel reality is that the Giants’ struggle extends more than a year, as they were just 30-42 in the second half of 2016, and now have lost 112 of their last 187 games. They have the second-worst offense in the game with a major-league low 91 homers. Rookie Ty Blach became their first eight-game winner on Tuesday. Closer Mark Melancon, who signed a four-year, $62 million contract, has made just 22 appearances and has not pitched since June 22 with a strained elbow.
“It’s been a hard season for all of us, very tough,’’ Giants GM Bobby Evans says. “We’ve had some losing seasons before, but not like this. Our expectations, as well as our fans’ expectations, are high, and to struggle like this right out of the game has been hard to take.
“We haven’t even had a winning month.’’
Could the Giants’ collapse on that Oct. 11, 2016 evening, really be responsible for this year’s miseries?
“Any time you have success, and finish strong, it can have an impact on next year,’’ Evans says. “I think it was hard this winter for guys to process getting eliminated after having so much past success. Obviously, it changed our perspective on last season.’’
Still, to blame this year’s demise on simply one loss, the Giants’ players say, is a cop-out.
“If it did,’’ Giants All-Star catcher Buster Posey said, “I wouldn’t tell you.
“But no, honestly, I don’t think so.’’
Still, no matter what impact that postseason game had on the Giants’ season, they realize they’ve got to let go of the past if they want a vibrant future. This is a team that was willing to part with virtually everyone but Posey and shortstop Brandon Crawford at the trade deadline; the lone player to draw strong interest was utilityman Eduardo Nunez, who went to the Boston Red Sox.
This isn’t the Chicago White Sox filled with stars that teams coveted, allowing them to rebuild in hopes of turning into the next Cubs or Houston Astros. You’ve got to have players that teams desire.
The fear is that the Giants could become the next Philadelphia Phillies, a franchise that went all-in for so many years, it became an old, decaying team overnight.
It’s not as if they have a burgeoning farm system ready to replace their struggling veterans. They’ve got to stick to what they have in hopes they can become next year’s Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that went 69-93 in 2016, only to be sitting in prime position for a wild-card berth this year.
“Why can’t we do what they’ve done?’’ Baer says.
They still believe that Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Matt Moore and Blach can be a formidable rotation, providing that Cueto (6-7, 4.59 ERA) doesn’t opt out of his deal, trying to lure someone into tacking another year or two on his contract. They will have Will Smith back in their bullpen, along with a healthy Melancon. Perhaps veteran outfielders Hunter Pence and Denard Span will produce more than 18 homers and 72 RBI in the final years of their contracts. Crawford isn’t a .231 hitter and first baseman Brandon Belt isn’t a .469 slugger.
Still, the Giants aren’t naive enough to stay status quo. There will be changes. Maybe big changes.
“We really need a big bopper in that lineup,’’ Bochy says, “just to take the pressure off everybody else.’’
Yes, they’re talking about you, Jay Bruce and J.D. Martinez.
Despite a recent history of deep loyalty to players, they won’t be afraid to trade Belt or second baseman Joe Panik, either, letting teams know they’re open for business, and their players know they won’t tolerate another 2017.
“We know we have to make some changes,’’ Evans said. “The struggles we’ve had concern us. We know we have to be much better than this next year.
“How that happens, with the current roster and with changes, remains to be seen.’’
The Giants, for now, are only assuring us there will be no firesale. The Giants aren’t there yet. If this misery lasts a couple of more years, maybe they’ll think about it, but they’re too proud of a franchise with those fresh World Series banners hanging at their gorgeous ballpark to consider it now.
“We’ve had a lot of heavy lifts over the years in the 25-year history of this investor group,’’ Baer says, “but we don’t believe we have to have a tear-down. We’re not fearful, but actually very optimistic we’ll turn this around. Our history shows us that if we have a down year, we bounce back.
“Look, we view this as the golden age of Giants baseball. We have some good-will in the bank, but we don’t take any of that for granted. We’ll see. We’re going to have to do a full-scrub evaluation. I can’t promise anything, but this group here has been resilient.
“This is August, 2017, but in our view, 2018 has started now. It’s an even year. And even years around here means playoffs.
“We’ll be back.’’
This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.