San Francisco Giants

Giants’ dream of even-year title still alive – barely

San Francisco Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto, right, and teammates greet teammate Conor Gillaspie after he scored in the bottom of the eighth inning during Game 3 of the National League Division Series on Monday, Oct. 10, 2016, at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Gillaspie hit a two-run triple to give the Giants a 4-3 lead and his run increased the lead to 5-3.
San Francisco Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto, right, and teammates greet teammate Conor Gillaspie after he scored in the bottom of the eighth inning during Game 3 of the National League Division Series on Monday, Oct. 10, 2016, at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Gillaspie hit a two-run triple to give the Giants a 4-3 lead and his run increased the lead to 5-3. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Baseball seasons are narratives where fervent hopes do battle with disquieting realities until one outcome prevails and one season is remembered for the emotions it inspired.

On Monday, in a game that will be long remembered by all who saw it, an entire Giants season of flaws and virtues were squeezed into 13 innings like a psychological thriller that could have gone either way and did – over and over.

The Giants won 6-5, but it easily could have gone the other way just as the Giants season was great before it was terrible and until hopes and realities collided until hope prevailed for the moment. Joe Panik’s long double off the bricks sent Brandon Crawford home with the wining run and everyone home happy.

Chicago still leads this National League Division Series 2-1. They still have a climactic home game at Wrigley Field of the Giants prevail here again Tuesday.

It took every ounce of strength the Giants had just to win one game. For one more day at least, the Giants hope of a fourth World Series title in seventh years remained alive – no matter how unlikely that dream may still be.

But that possibility can wait.

Monday’s game had heroism and weakness and then there was heroism displayed by men who had appeared weak in earlier moments that seemed decisive until they weren’t.

Giants closer Sergio Romo came back to pitch a dominant, shutdown 10th inning after the blowing the save – and what appeared to be a momentous Giants win – in the ninth inning.

Chicago Cubs right fielder Alberto Almora Jr.’s unreal ninth-inning sliding catch on the warning track robbed Buster Posey of what appeared to be the winning hit. This after Almora had been unable to catch Conor Gillaspie’s eighth-inning triple that also appeared to have won the game for the Giants, but didn’t.

There was Giants starter Madison Bumgarner, always so dominant in the postseason, suddenly seeming not only human but vulnerable. Struggling with command of his fastball as Cubs hitters feasted on it, Bumgarner hung in the game and gave his team five courageous innings after getting rocked for three runs in the second.

Gillaspie had been overmatched earlier in the game, practically eaten alive by Cubs starter Jake Arrieta.

He could only manage to tap meek grounders at Arrieta that the bearded, muscular ace fielded with aplomb. Gillaspie wasn’t even supposed to be playing but got the start because third baseman Eduardo Nunez is nursing an injury.

Gillespie had already been dispatched once by the Giants after they had initially drafted him. He was the guy who came up developmentally with Bumgarnger, Posey and other Giants stalwarts, only to fall short of their franchise excellence.

Then came Gillaspie’s triple that appeared to place him in the pantheon of unlikely Giants postseason heroes with Travis Ishikawa, Marco Scutaro and Cody Ross.

Struck just before 10 p.m., Gillaspie’s blast was momentous, thrilling and, ultimately, crucial to what seemed like another October moment for the Giants.

Five outs from being eliminated from the divisional playoffs by the Cubs, Gillespie’s blow – five days after his three-run homer to win the Wild Card game in New York – put the Giants up 4-3. When Brandon Crawford drove Gillespie in, the hope of people in orange and black was for a 5-3 win that would breathe life into series the Cubs led two games to none before play began Monday.

But then Romo faltered, surrendering a walk to leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler and a crushing two-run homer to Kris Bryant, the Cubs third baseman who is possibly the best player in the National League.

When Bryant’s blow barely cleared the left-field wall, a palpable sense of déjà vu crashed what appeared to be another in a line of stirring October wins.

Oh yeah, this was 2016. The Giants bullpen had just spent the second half of the season blowing games the team should have won, costing the Giants the National League West Division title.

In the process, the Giants went from the best team in the first half of the 2016 season to one of the worst in the second half.

Like Monday’s game, the second half of the season was filled with psychological gut checks that sometimes produced results that appeared to turn dismal Giants play into turning points – until those turn points proved to be fraudulent.

For this Giants team, the acronym for runners stranded in scoring position – RISP – became a four-letter word.

When they pitched well, as they did for long stretches of Monday’s game, Giants batters were unable to capitalize on scoring situations. As in the 11th inning, when Panik reached second base with one out but was stranded when pinch hitter Trevor Brown and center fielder Denard Span couldn’t get the ball out of the infield.

By the late in the game, the Giants juxtaposition of conflicting fortunes was like a repeat loop of gut-wrenching frustration. Rookie left hander Ty Blach pitched a stellar inning in the 12th, punctuated by a fantastic diving catch by Span. But then the heart of the Giants order could only manage infield grounders before being retired.

Blach got in trouble in the top of the 13th. It looked like it could go wrong, until a double play to end the inning and Panik’s blow.

The dream lives, barely.

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