Given the circumstances, Matt Moore pitched and played the game of his major-league career. The soft-spoken Giants left-hander tossed a two-hitter, confounded the Chicago Cubs for most of his 120 pitches, singled in what could have been the run that sent the series back to Chicago, walked off the field after the eighth with a three-run lead.
The only thing he didn’t do – that he couldn’t do – was save the Giants from their embattled bullpen.
In a nightmarish ninth inning, the Cubs scored four runs off five relievers to take a 6-5 victory and the National League Division Series before a stunned, sold out AT&T Park crowd. Shocked. Dazed. Infuriated. Giants fans aren’t accustomed to this, to being on the receiving end of playoff-crushing defeats.
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“This is the agony of losing,” Moore said in the quiet, somber locker room. “These are the types of things that make you love baseball, right? Because you really have to love baseball to come back for more after something like this.”
Occasionally, and even for the Giants, sports is like life. It throws curves when least expected.
Joe Maddon managed Moore when both were with Tampa Bay. A hard-throwing rookie named John Lackey threw a gem to defeat the Giants in the seventh game of the 2002 World Series. Until Tuesday night, he was the only active pitcher to beat the Giants in an elimination game.
Fast forward a few more years. Moore was acquired by the Giants at the July 31 trade deadline for two minor leaguers and third baseman Matt Duffy, who a year earlier emerged as a fan favorite and stabilized the infield for the first time in the post-Pablo Sandoval era.
Moore, 27, went 6-5 with a 4.19 ERA after the deal, not exactly endearing him to Bay Area fans who were still pining for Duffy despite his troubling injury issues. But the thoughtful, low-key lefthander finished the regular season with a flourish, and was particularly impressive at AT&T. In his last eight starts, he was 6-2 and dropped his ERA to 3.77, while striking out 17 and walking only two hitters.
“It starts with his stuff,” Bruce Bochy said before the game. “He’s got a fastball that’s around mid-90 (post Tommy John surgery in 2014). He’s got a good breaking ball. He’s got a cutter, a changeup. He just has four pitches that are plus pitches in the major leagues. When you can throw low to mid 90s and have the kind of carry he does on the fastball, and then work both sides of the plate, then have that really good breaking ball, that makes you pretty good.”
Moore was better than good Tuesday night, certainly was good enough to keep that Giants elimination game win streak alive had he received a little more help from his friends. The series-ending defeat makes it Giants 10, Opponents 1 in elimination games since 2012.
Then, of course, there is that other streak that was busted: World Series titles in even years 2010, 2012, 2014, with enough highlights along the way to ensure that at least the thrill of the threat endured.
Tim Lincecum’s dominance. Barry Zito’s revival. Travis Ishikawa’s series-ending blast. Marco Scutaro’s surprising power surge. Sandoval’s three-home run fiesta. Brian Wilson’s edge-of-seat relieving. Buster Posey’s all-around brilliance. Brandon Crawford’s chronic stinginess at shortstop (excluding two uncharacteristic throwing errors Tuesday night) and momentum-swinging doubles in each of the two home games. Joe Panik’s RBI double that ended Monday’s 13-inning marathon. Madison Bumgarner’s legendary rescue in Kansas City.
On and on it went, the Giants getting down, getting back up, and providing one improbable, seemingly impossible thrill after another.
Conor Gillaspie? Conor Gillaspie. Really. The heir to the injured Eduardo Nunez, who was the successor to the departed Duffy, contributed timely blows and demanded attention with a .421 series average.
“You keep fighting and really you don’t have a choice,” said the implacable Bochy. “That’s your job. These guys do a good job of it.”
Some of them, anyway. With the ballpark still buzzing from Monday night’s 13-inning marathon, Moore began by striking out Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant, and after walking Anthony Rizzo, induced Ben Zobrist into a harmless grounder to short.
Denard Span led off the bottom of the inning with a double down the right-field line, took third on Brandon Belt’s fly to deep left, then scored on Posey’s fly to right for a 1-0 lead. The Cubs tied the score when Moore missed with a rare changeup that David Ross blasted over the wall in left.
But other than a single by Rizzo in the fourth – the slumping first baseman’s first hit of the series – Moore confounded the Cubs with every one of those four pitches and all that movement and command Bochy talked about earlier. He saved the Giants by striking out 10, only walking two, and walked off the field after that 120th pitch hoping for a crack at the ninth, but sensing that his night was over, that Bochy – who is masterful at working with his bullpen – was turning the game over to his relievers.
“At that point,” Bochy said later, “he did his job. We were lined up. All our guys are setup guys. And he had gone far enough.”
Ah, but about that bullpen and that nightmare ninth inning. Let the second-guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking begin. The Cubs scored four runs off five Giants relievers – Derek Law, Javy Lopez, Sergio Romo, Will Smith and Hunter Strickland – and took a 6-5 lead before Ross grounded into an inning-ending double-play.
Enter Aroldis Chapman, the Cubs lights-out closer who took the loss a night earlier. Beat him once, OK, but good luck beating him two nights in a row.
Moore could only lean on the railing in the Giants dugout next to Bumgarner, rocking nervously, while Chapman struck out Gorkys Hernandez and Span on fastballs that reached triple digits. That left Belt, who was 0-4 on flyouts, and he didn’t have any luck, either. He whiffed on a 101 mph fastball that sent the Cubs charging onto the field for a shocking, stunning, rowdy celebration.