AT&T PARK — As Javier Baez rounded first in the ninth inning on Tuesday night, he took a wide turn, stopped some 15 feet past the bag and clapped his hands emphatically before pausing to stare at Hunter Strickland.
Moments earlier, the Chicago Cubs second baseman had sent a broken-bat single into center field to bring home Jason Heyward, capping a four-run, ninth-inning rally, which ended the San Francisco Giants’ 2016 season. It also handed the club its first elimination game loss under the watch of manager Bruce Bochy.
“It kind of gives you an empty stomach to go out like this,” Bochy said after the 6-5 loss. “But these guys, last two weeks have been playoff games, they played their hearts out. It’s a tough way to go out.”
The inning started with Derek Law trotting in from the bullpen and ended with Strickland walking slowly back to the dugout.
In between, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo and Will Smith all took their turns struggling on the mound, as the Giants’ bullpen — which blew 30 saves during the regular season — botched its second in as many nights during the National League Division Series.
“It’s definitely a tough way to end what was a very, very trying season,” Romo admitted. “You know, a lot of ups, and again, a lot of downs, too.”
Before the disastrous ninth, which had felt like so many before it, Matt Moore delivered a gem.
“This is the type of thing that makes you love baseball,” Moore said. “Because you really have to love baseball to come back after something like this.”
The left-hander held the visitors to two runs on as many hits, while striking out 10 Cubs over eight innings. In the process, Moore fired 120 pitches — his second-highest total of the season.
“Nobody really came up to me and told me I was done,” Moore said when asked if he could have pitched the ninth. “We were pretty fired up coming off the mound and back into the dugout.
“Everyone kind of knew it was my last one,” he added. “Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not really remembering — we didn’t have a conversation like, ‘Hey, how do you feel? Can you get another one?’”
In the fourth inning, Moore provided a ground-ball single — just the fourth of his career — to give the Giants an early 2-1 advantage.
Along with Moore’s rare base hit, the Giants grabbed runs on a pair of sacrifice flies, a near-double-play ground ball and yet another big hit by Conor Gillaspie — the club’s newest unlikely October hero.
Afterward, in the quiet clubhouse, Giant after Giant sat in front of his locker, staring off into the distance. Lopez — a winner of three rings and a free-agent to-be — made his way around the room, offering hugs to his teammates.
Hunter Pence also made the rounds, embracing and offering words of encouragement to veterans and youngsters alike.
Then there was general manager Bobby Evans, who stopped in front of every stall, to shake hands with each player on the roster.
“There’s a mutual respect that goes on in this clubhouse and it starts with the front office,” said Romo, who like Lopez is a three-time champion and is set to hit the open market.
“Those guys being down here — Bobby came down here and just said he was proud of us and that we never gave up,” Romo said. “And that was the truth.”
— In a reminder that you can’t predict ball, reigning Gold Glove winner Brandon Crawford became the first Giants player since 1954 to commit two errors in a postseason game since 1954.
The first miscue — a three-base throwing error in the fifth — set up a sacrifice fly by David Ross.
The second, which also came on a errant throw, allowed Heyward to advance to second on a potential double-play ball before eventually scoring the go-ahead run.
— Just minutes after the season ended, Romo was asked about the likelihood of him returning for a 10th go-around with the Giants: “I’m a free agent at the moment. I’d love to be back, but, you know, I can’t see the future,” he said with a chuckle.
— Joe Maddon, asked what was going through his mind in the top of the eighth when his team was down 5-2, and six outs from heading home for Game 5.
“Johnny Cueto at Wrigley Field,” he said. “And I was telling the folks in there if you ever looked at those numbers, they’re not good for us.”
“So, I’m happy to not have to face him in a winner-take-all game. That was it. I’m being very honest.”