You thought this would be easy? Maybe you allowed yourself to look ahead a little and dream of another mystical Giants run where a seemingly limited team exceeds its limitations and celebrates it with champagne.
It could have happened Monday. The wild-card Giants were but a few little breaks from sweeping the favored Washington Nationals and preparing for that next stop in another even-numbered joy parade.
If not for the unbelievable talent and audacious fighting spirit of Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper, Giants Nation might be nursing a hangover today.
The chatter would be all about who do you want/hate more: The St. Louis Cardinals or the Los Angeles Dodgers?
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Either is a dream matchup for the Giants in the National League Championship Series, but Harper’s glove said no way. The arm and heart of Nationals starter Doug Fister refused to follow the script.
Nationals 4, Giants 1. Game 4 is tonight in this best-of-five series.
A lot will be written and said about the seventh-inning moment of madness when Giants ace Madison Bumgarner – egged on by Giants talisman Buster Posey – tossed the game away with an errant throw that broke open a scoreless pitching gem.
Two Nationals runs scored and a third soon followed. It was the ballgame in the literal sense, but it was also the kind of headline-grabbing play that can obscure truths that have marked three terribly tense and close games between these teams.
First and foremost, it could very easily be the Nationals leading this series 2-1 and not the other way around.
By having to empty their gun in an epic 18-inning win in Game 2, the Giants now are relying on the often unreliable Ryan Vogelsong to clinch this series tonight – and prevent them from having to get back on a plane to play a winner-take-all game in Washington on Thursday.
Every Giants blemish obscured by inspiration and Nationals naiveté was exposed on Monday.
With star leadoff man Angel Pagan lost to back surgery, Gregor Blanco has looked more and more like a liability as a fill-in. He went 0 for 4 Monday and is 1 for 14 (.071) in the series.
With Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez starting today, you wonder if Giants manager Bruce Bochy will tinker with the lineup and maybe move right fielder Hunter Pence into the leadoff hole.
“We’ll talk about what we’re going to do,” Bochy said gruffly when asked twice about Blanco’s struggles in the postgame news conference.
With Pagan gone and Blanco playing in his stead, left fielder Travis Ishikawa was exposed twice in that critical seventh. First, he lost sight of where Bumgarner’s errant throw had gone in the bullpen. In that moment, Harper – who had frozen on the basepaths – suddenly bolted for home and scored.
Then, Nationals second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera singled to left. Wilson Ramos is about as slow as they come, but the Nationals sent him home anyway – showing no respect for Ishikawa’s arm.
They were right: Ishikawa is a natural first baseman. His throw from left was accurate but had little on it. Ramos scored. The game was effectively over.
It would be unfair to solely point to Giants shortcomings in this game. Harper showed again why he is a rising star.
His athletic catch in the second inning at the left-center wall, off a Brandon Crawford blast, saved the game for the Nationals before Bumgarner lost it. Playing at AT&T Park in the middle of the afternoon in October is downright cruel to outfielders.
As the ball left Crawford’s bat, it had two-run double written all over it. There was only one out. Pablo Sandoval was poised to score from second and Brandon Belt was ready to race home from first with his deceptive speed.
But Harper not only followed the perfect route to the ball, he did so with a glaring sun in his eyes and in a madhouse ready to erupt. Harper caught it while leaping against the wall. The Giants didn’t score. They failed to capitalize on an admittedly “over-amped” Fister in the early innings.
Harper then robbed Ishikawa in the seventh with another diving catch, stopping the Giants from answering after conceding three runs. Then Harper hit a massive home run.
Fister, a Merced native, showed again how much pitching depth Washington has. Gonzalez, today’s starter, has been huge down the stretch. The Nationals did post the best record in the National League.
It’s all on Vogelsong now – he and his 8-13 record and 4.00 ERA.
It’s win tonight and advance or risk losing all the momentum and tempting fate again in Washington.
All that Giants’ magic seemed a lot more vulnerable as the ballpark emptied Monday. The Nationals seemed confident. The word easy had no application here.