The Giants searched for months for ways to navigate a ninth inning that continued to beguile and betray them. When their season finally ended Tuesday night it was with all those futile attempts seemingly, cruelly, distilled into one last collapse.
Manager Bruce Bochy used five different relievers in the ninth inning trying to protect a three-run lead, and each contributed to the meltdown as the Giants suffered a 6-5 loss to the Cubs that ended their season in Game 4 of the N.L. Division Series.
It was the Giants’ first loss in a postseason series under Bochy and snapped their streak of 10 straight wins in playoff elimination games. While the Cubs took a step toward ending their 107-year title drought, the Giants were left to watch an opponent celebrate knocking them out of the playoffs on their field, a first for many of their players.
"It kind of sucks," said shortstop Brandon Crawford. "Not the way anybody wants to go out, not the way anybody wants to end the season. Especially with a lead in the ninth it’s kind of a punch to the gut."
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In a quiet clubhouse afterward, it seemed as though the finality was still sinking in. The Giants’ postseason runs in the last three even-numbered years had all ended with them celebrating World Series titles. Tuesday night, players exchanged hugs and goodbyes as they headed their separate ways into the offseason.
"We pour our whole lives into this," third baseman Conor Gillaspie said. "To see it end like this, to be honest, I’m still shocked."
In a way, it was all too familiar. Matt Moore handed the Giants’ bullpen a 5-2 lead with eight dominant innings, holding the Cubs to two hits with 10 strikeouts. An offense that struggled to manufacture runs in the second half compiled 11 hits, four by Gillaspie, to back the left-hander in his first postseason start as a Giant.
A crowd of 43,166 at AT&T Park cheered wildly as Moore walked off the mound after the eighth inning, having struck out Dexter Fowler on his 120th pitch, a winner-take-all Game 5 seemingly inked in for Thursday at Wrigley Field.
But for a bullpen that had blown 30 saves during the regular season, and another Monday night, certainty proved elusive. And before the ink could dry, the Giants faltered.
Derek Law allowed a leadoff single to Kris Bryant. Bochy summoned left-hander Javier Lopez, who walked Anthony Rizzo. He then called for Sergio Romo, the stopgap closer down the stretch, who’d given up a game-tying homer in the ninth to Bryant in Game 3.
"At that point I thought, let’s go with a guy that’s been closing games," Bochy said.
Romo fell behind 3-1 to Zobrist, who ripped an RBI double down the right-field line. It led Bochy to bring in his fourth reliever, Will Smith, for the inning’s fourth batter. And pinch-hitter Willson Contreras chopped a single up the middle, bringing both runners home to tie the game.
"Got the ground ball," Bochy said. "Just got a bad break there."
The nadir was not complete. Jason Heyward bunted and Smith threw to second for one out, but sure-handed shortstop Brandon Crawford relayed wildly to first for his second throwing error of the game, allowing Heyward to take second. Bochy then deployed his fifth pitcher of the inning, Hunter Strickland.
Strickland’s third pitch broke the bat of Javier Baez. But Baez, the electric 23-year-old second baseman who’d won Game 1 with his eighth-inning homer of Johnny Cueto, fought the pitch back up the middle for a single, bringing Heyward home for the lead.
"You’re doing everything you can to try to figure a way to get guys out," said catcher Buster Posey. "Couple of those balls are hit in different spots and we might be talking differently. But I want to be clear I’m not taking anything away from those guys. They definitely played really well."
The Giants’ season came down to needing a run against Aroldis Chapman, arguably the toughest closer to hit in the National League. They had staged a go-ahead rally against him in Game 3, but this time the flame-thrower did what the Giants’ bullpen could not. Chapman preserved the lead by striking out the side on 13 pitches, throwing a 101 mph fastball past Brandon Belt to end the game and the Giants’ season.
"It’s tough," Moore said. "I think it’s just the way the last couple weeks have been for us. We’ve been kind of riding by the edge of our seat right there. The ball could’ve rolled a couple different ways.
"This is the type of thing that makes you love baseball, because you really have to love it to come back for more after something like this."
Some might question why Bochy did not send his starter out for more after not allowing a hit in his final four innings. With Moore at 120 pitches, Bochy said, it was not a thought.
"No, that’s a lot of work he did," Bochy said. "At that point, where he’s at, he did his job. We were lined up. All our guys, our set-up guys, everybody."
Moore, who threw 133 pitches in a near no-hitter in August at Dodger Stadium, said no one expressly told him when he came off the field after the eighth that he was done. But he said he felt confident turning the game over to the bullpen in the ninth.
"You always feel you can dig deeper," Moore said. "But 120 pitches is 120 pitches, and they’re a pretty good ballclub over there. You’ve got to be focused and very convicted with every pitch you throw. So I mean, it’s a little early for the what-if, Monday morning stuff."
Moore sat in the dugout in the ninth watching the lead slip away, TV cameras capturing his pained expression. The Giants’ bid to prolong their season for at least one more game, something they’d done unfailingly in the playoffs under Bochy, finally came up short.
"It’s a tough one, no doubt about it," Posey said. "I think everybody was anxious to get back to Chicago. Hats off to the Cubs for not shutting it down in this one. It would have been easy to say, go ahead, we’ll get them in Game 5. So you’ve got to give them credit for that. It’s a tough way to end the season. But it happens."
The Giants’ season was difficult to figure out. They ended the first half with the majors’ best record at 57-33, then went 30-42 in the second half, going from first place for most of the season to fighting in the final week to keep a wild-card spot.
"It’s a tale of two seasons," Bochy said. "I think what I’ll remember is how they really bounced back and found a way to get in there, to get to the wild-card game."
It will also be impossible to separate this season from the late-game failures. The Giants lost a franchise-record nine games when taking a lead into the ninth inning. Nine of their blown saves came in September alone.
Tuesday night, they built a lead by five different players scoring runs and five -- Moore included -- driving one in. Yet for just the second time in franchise history, and the first since the 1911 World Series, the Giants lost a postseason game in which they took a lead into the ninth.
Afterward, players made a point of not laying this loss squarely on the bullpen.
"We don’t look at it in terms of that," Belt said. "We look at it as we either win or lose as a team. We lost this series as a team. That’s all we’re thinking about."
The Giants will have all winter to ponder and reflect on losing a postseason series for the first time in 12 tries. Tuesday night, they were still processing a new feeling.
"It’s a little strange, yeah," said Lopez, the veteran reliever. "We’re a victim of our own success here. You don’t expect to go home, at least wearing this Giants uniform. It’s been three great runs to the World Series, and obviously this year it came up short. But I’m proud of everybody in this room. And I think we all expressed that to each other."
After winning 10 consecutive postseason elimination games, the Giants were knocked out of the playoffs by the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday night at AT&T Park. Here’s a look at San Francisco’s historic run since 2012:
Game 3: at Cincinnati, 2-1
Game 4: at Cincinnati, 8-3
Game 5: at Cincinnati, 6-4
Game 5: at St. Louis, 5-0
Game 6: vs. St. Louis, 6-1
Game 7: vs. St. Louis, 9-0
at Pittsburgh, 8-0
Game 7: at Kansas City, 3-2
at N.Y. Mets, 3-0
Game 3: vs. Chi. Cubs, 6-5 (13)
Game 4: vs. Chi. Cubs, 6-5 loss