Santiago Casilla spent most of this season and last as the Giants’ closer. Tuesday night, as the Giants tried and failed to hold a three-run lead in the ninth inning of their season-ending loss to the Cubs, Casilla, a veteran of three World Series teams, did not even warm up in the bullpen.
It spoke to the inconsistency of the Giants’ bullpen this season and foreshadowed what is likely to be a winter of change for a group that has been such a constant under manager Bruce Bochy. The offseason arrived abruptly for the Giants with a 6-5 loss in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
The Giants’ bullpen blew a major-league leading 30 save chances during the season and two more in the NLDS, including the four-run meltdown in Game 4. Casilla, Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo, the remaining members of the “Core Four” who played on all three championship teams, will be free agents this offseason, and the front office will have to decide whether any fits into the plans for 2017.
But its first priority will be finding a solution for a ninth inning that proved a challenge for the Giants all season. Casilla was the Giants’ closer during their World Series run in 2014. But after repeated failures, Casilla was removed from the role in September and the Giants used Romo, their closer in 2012, as a stopgap down the stretch.
Even that was tentative. After Romo allowed a tying home run in the ninth inning of NLDS Game 3, Bochy tried using matchups to protect a three-run lead in Game 4 and deployed five relievers in the ninth as the lead slipped away. When Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman came in firing 100-mph fastballs and struck out three batters to end the game, it punctuated the lack of such a go-to, shutdown option in the Giants’ bullpen.
“I think anybody will tell you that you always want a closer, so you just know when your roles are going to be,” Lopez said afterward. “And we were in flux a little on the roles.
“But that’s no excuse. You have to go out and get outs. We’re professionals, and you need to do your job. It’s just one of those things. It just didn’t work out tonight.”
It left Lopez to wonder if his walk of Anthony Rizzo, the lone batter he faced in the ninth, was his last appearance as a Giant. At 39 years old, the left-handed specialist may also be nearing the end of a successful career, but Lopez indicated Tuesday night he would keep his options open.
“I don’t know what’s next for me,” Lopez said. “Free agency is going to be what it is. If I have an opportunity to come back (to the Giants), I welcome that. But it’s out of my hands at this point.”
Across the room, Romo also expressed uncertainty about his future. The Giants may have their toughest decision with Romo, who spent most of the first half of the season on the disabled list but when healthy recorded a 2.64 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings.
“I’m a free agent at the moment,” Romo said. “I would love to be back. But I mean, I can’t see the future.”
Romo and Lopez said they believe the Giants have the makings of a strong bullpen. Derek Law was arguably their most consistent reliever as a rookie, while right-hander Hunter Strickland and left-handers Steven Okert and Josh Osich remain under team control this winter. So does left-hander Will Smith, acquired by the Giants at the trade deadline, who will be arbitration-eligible along with right-hander Cory Gearrin.
The Giants see Law as a potential closer, but they were not ready to hand him the job outright down the stretch and could look to add a proven closer this winter through a trade or free agency. Options on the latter market could include Mark Melancon, whom the Giants reportedly pursued at the trade deadline, Chapman and others.
“This is definitely a good bullpen to be a part of,” Romo said. “A lot of weapons I think Bochy will have going into next year. They’re going to be amazing.”
While lack of defined roles was an issue – Giants relievers led the majors in appearances of fewer than three outs and games entered with men on base as Bochy mixed and matched for much of the season – catcher Buster Posey said it was “tough to pinpoint” the root of the bullpen’s struggles, especially in the ninth inning.
“Just like our offense, they had their ups and downs,” Posey said. “I think there’s a lot of promise in the bullpen going forward. And I fully expect them to be lockdown like we’re accustomed to going forward.”
Lopez, a co-winner of this year’s Willie Mac Award for inspirational play, spent much of the season mentoring the Giants’ young relievers, lending 14 seasons of perspective to discussions of in-game situations and scenarios. There was plenty to parse in what proved to be a trying year for the bullpen, up to the very end.
“I look forward to what the future holds for these guys,” Lopez said. “There are a lot of guys that are young, power arms. It’s going to be a fun few years for us with all of these pitchers coming back.”