SAN FRANCISCO – If this is the way this season is going to go – if the Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers are going to battle each other down to the last pitch of every game – then what a season this will be.
It’s been too long since these ancient rivals were relevant at the same time and each had exciting players who seemed to crank it up higher when facing each other.
Thursday’s pulsating 2-1 win by the Dodgers was the third consecutive taut affair in a series taken by the Giants this week. In fact, the Giants have taken two series from the Dodgers now – one in Los Angeles and one here.
But as both teams cleared out of a gorgeous AT&T Park for their charter flights, they did so tied for first place in the National League West.
We’re only 16 games into the 2014 campaign, both teams are 10-6, but the signs are all there for a rivalry renewed on the field as opposed to just in our memories.
It’s been 10 years since the Giants and Dodgers went down to the last weekend vying for the N.L. West. Steve Finley hit a walk-off grand slam in that one, vanquishing the Giants of Barry Bonds to a long offseason with the sounds of a raucous Dodger Stadium in their ears.
Now a new chapter seems to be emerging – at last.
Thursday’s game had it all, including a flash of star power by Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig that no one in attendance will soon forget.
You could say this one was decided by three plays that Puig made in right field that had a sellout crowd buzzing for long stretches after he had already left the field and was sitting in the Dodgers’ dugout.
One was a bonehead play that almost compromised a fragile Dodger 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning, when Puig inexplicably dropped a routine fly ball from Giants second baseman Brandon Hicks.
It’s true that Giants first baseman Brandon Belt didn’t exhibit the best baserunning by freezing like a deer too far from second base as Puig’s brain locked and Hicks’ flare hit the grass.
It’s true that Belt had to start running again from a dead stop and lost valuable time scrambling toward second base. But Puig was in deep right. It seemed Belt would make it easily into second until Puig gunned him down with a throw that few big-league outfielders could have made.
All in attendance were still wrapping their brains around that when Giants outfielder Gregor Blanco hit one of the very few strong drives off Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu – a shot that got into that funky jet stream in the vast acreage of right field.
Puig went dashing back like a stallion, turned his back completely to the infield, threw arms up – less like an outfielder and more like a Pilgrim giving praise at a religious revival – and he caught the ball.
How did he catch that ball?
The question hung in the gorgeous sun, as shock waves seemed to charge through the AT&T pavilions. The Dodgers were back at bat and the place was still buzzing.
Puig has been a national story again this week as new details have emerged from his harrowing escape from communist Cuba – the details sounding more like a spy novel than a baseball story.
He was literally smuggled out. Puig may have been held captive for a time by some dangerous people who may still be trying to extort him for money.
Oh, and he drives his team to distraction by showing up late to games and mentally falling asleep in the outfield and on the base paths.
But this 23-year-old “wild horse,” as dubbed by Dodger legend Vin Scully, is a one-of-a-kind mixture of talent and drama. You can’t take your eyes off him.
He wasn’t of much consequence offensively on Thursday. Puig had one hit. But then in the bottom of the eighth, with a Giants runner on second and no outs, Puig streaked out of right field with great aggression to catch what looked to be a seeing-eye bloop single by Joaquin Arias. From the moment it left Arias’ bat, that hit looked like trouble. Dodgers’ second baseman Dee Gordon was not going to reach it – no one was but Puig.
That was the ballgame right there.
In a master class in shutout pitching by Ryu, there was little room for error given the shutout relief pitching by Yusmeiro Petit and Jeremy Affeldt of the Giants.
Hard-earned Dodger runs in the second and fifth innings off Giants starter Madison Bumgarner also were protected by a spectacular running catch in center fielder by Dodgers star Matt Kemp.
There was high drama when former Giants closer Brian Wilson took the mound in the eighth to huge boos – and needed nearly 30 pitches to protect the Dodgers’ lead.
And though Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey and Michael Morse – the heart of the Giants’ lineup – were held hitless, the Giants had the tying run at second in the last of the ninth.
The game ended after 3 hours and 8 minutes, but you wanted it to go on – all summer long and into October.