A rookie named Travis Jankowski, he of the .219 batting average, ended your hoping, dreaming and scheming Wednesday night. The Dodgers already had won thanks to big rips from Chase Utley, who wanted to play in L.A. though he lives in Sausalito. Trying to hang within six games of the division leaders, the Giants blew a late lead in San Diego when Jankowski ripped a two-run double off Sergio Romo.
There was a glimmer when they tied the game in the ninth inning on a wild pitch by normally unflappable Craig Kimbrel, but Jedd Gyorko ended it minutes later with a laser off Santiago Casilla, who hasn’t been dependable all year. After the 5-4 loss to the Padres, the Giants now are seven games out, as the Dodgers’ magic number to clinch the National League West dropped to five.
So stop what you’re doing, the drooling on your pocket schedule. You know: “Greinke has a calf issue, and Bum wins tonight, and the A’s are using Zito as a gimmick against Hudson. The Giants sweep Oakland, and they shrink the deficit to four after Dodgers starters not named Kershaw or Greinke are throttled all weekend at Coors. Then the Dodgers arrive at AT&T for four, choking while 41,000 crucify them. The Giants win all four and…”
Stop. It’s not happening — even after Hunter Pence announced in the clubhouse, “Miracles can happen.”
Stop. It’s not happening — even after Bruce Bochy said, “I’ve talked about this so many times: You never know.”
Admittedly, as someone who roots for great stories and not the team I’m writing about, it would be a hypercultural hoot watching the blood rivals — one left for dead after a season of injuries and front-office mistakes, the other a collective head case despite a record $305 million payroll — engage in a gripping series. But forgive me if you also hear my teeth grinding and see my face scrunching.
See, it didn’t have to be this way.
If baseball bosses Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans — with CEO Larry Baer on high, answering to the money people who collectively own this franchise — had been more aggressive and productive with their decision-making in late July and last offseason, the Giants would be positioned to pounce right now and return to the postseason. Hell, they probably would lead the division already, and we’d be discussing the possibility of an all-time sporting achievement — four World Series championships in six years, in a parity-and-subsidy-driven era in which no champ has repeated since a three-peat by the 1998-2000 Yankees.
I don’t want to hear about injuries, OK? The Cardinals of St. Louis have been ravaged by injuries and adversity since the offseason, when they lost their prized outfield prospect, Oscar Taveras, in a tragic car accident. They haven’t had their pitching ace, Adam Wainwright, all season. They lost their 3-4 hitters, Matt Holliday and Matt Adams, for significant stretches. They were without five of their Opening Day starters at one point. And they’ve dealt with 15 members of the major-league roster missing time, including their most indispensable player, catcher/leader Yadier Molina, who injured his thumb the other day and might miss the rest of the season, just as hopes were rising that Wainwright could contribute in the playoffs. At one point, the outfield was so thin that Randal Grichuk had to play center with a sore elbow. When he fielded the ball, he tossed it underhanded to the right fielder, Jason Heyward, who threw it back to the infield.
Through it all, the Cardinals still have the best record in the major leagues, without any evidence of hacked computers to maintain their winning percentage. How have they maintained? With some of the best pitching we’ve ever seen, from a miniscule-ERA rotation to a lockdown bullpen.
We used to throw similar bouquets to the Giants’ pitching staff, molded and employed expertly for their arm-favorable ballyard. As chronicled here ad infinitum, the front office bet heavily on sentimentality and medical science in hoping Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum would justify their ample salaries. In both cases, the idea backfired, and Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti have been scrambling all season to rescue a ravaged rotation and somewhat inconsistent bullpen. Only Madison Bumgarner, whose overusage might have led to occasional slipups that cost him the Cy Young Award in an otherwise monster season, fit the category of “reliable,” much less “front-line starter.”
So while it was daunting to lose a procession of key players to disabled-list hell — Pence and Joe Panik the biggest losses — don’t insult me and say 2015 was a lost cause because of injuries. When the Giants are eliminated next week by the Dodgers, it’s on management. Baer told me in March that the Giants made a run at Jon Lester, who chose a Cubs team run by his former boss in Boston, Theo Epstein. If the offer indeed was competitive, it was a departure from a basic Sabean tenet: Don’t give monster contracts to starters over 30. Which means, after being rebuffed, the Giants should have chased Max Scherzer, 30. But, ahhhh, the market was higher for Scherzer, who signed with Washington for seven years, $210 million.
Pablo Sandoval left, a blessing when Matt Duffy replaced him — after the front office’s Casey McGehee screwup, that is — and became a Rookie of the Year candidate. But the offseason was too quiet. And while the primal force of Bochy’s wisdom, Bumgarner’s dominance and Buster Posey’s complete package always will keep the Giants respectable, Sabean and Evans did not surround them with the necessary accompaniments to repeat. The rotation was short all year, and the only big move in July — Mike Leake — has been a major disappointment. As for depth when the injuries piled up, Marlon Byrd and Alejandro De Aza were suitable plug-ins but hardly revelations.
This was Evans’ first year as general manager in a shakeup that allows Sabean more time to escape the day-to-day madness. Know this: Every decision is run through Sabean, and he is still very much in charge.
Also know this: The teams that thought big at the trading deadline have been rewarded spectacularly.
The Giants inquired about David Price. Toronto won the trade derby. Since going for the powerful Price-Troy Tulowitzki perfecta in late July, the Blue Jays have bolted out of the middling pack and become the majors’ best team — Vegas’ pick to win the Series. Price, dominant from his arrival, is 17-5 with a 2.34 ERA and en route to the American League Cy Young Award that Sonny Gray won’t win.
The Giants inquired about Cole Hamels, who agreed to come despite a contract clause allowing him veto power on trades. Texas won the derby. Since then, the Rangers have vaulted into the AL West lead by leaning hard on Hamels, winning his last seven starts.
Yoenis Cespedes hit eight home runs in his final 21 games in Detroit. The Mets noticed this, dealt for him and watched him hit 17 more home runs over the next month and a half. They are going to the playoffs, too.
Really want to wince? The Pirates took a flyer on J.A. Happ. His ERA is under 2.00 in his eight starts.
Call it exactly what it is: Other teams outhustling and outmaneuvering Sabean and Evans. Throw Bochy in there, too, for they rely on his voice when making decisions. Bochy wanted Leake, a longtime friend of his son. Leake is no David Price or Cole Hamels in a playoff race, not even J.A. Happ.
You almost feel awkward criticizing these guys, realizing and respecting the magnitude of those three trophies. Last week, when I mentioned management’s miscalculations during a show segment on 95.7 The Game, host Damon Bruce reminded me how fans are overly protective of the Giants’ payroll. Don’t be. The franchise is valued at more than $2 billion now.
The lesson for Baer and his baseball guys: If you have a chance to win again, even when you’ve won three times, go for it. Then, when the Dodgers gag and wheeze, you’re not so far back in the standings that it doesn’t matter.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.Bobby EvansBrian SabeanLarry BaerLos Angeles DodgersSan Francisco Giants