SAN FRANCISCO All you can ever ask your team to do is stay in a pennant race until the seasons switch. Come September, if your team has done its job, you get to watch baseball at its most watchable, before the baton is passed to football.
For one thing, the light bends differently, and it gives day games a sense of timelessness that connects one area to the next. The nights are different, too, especially in San Francisco, where you can shed a layer of clothing as the Central Valley cooldown shoots warmer air to the coast.
If you’re in the race, or the races as they go nowadays, with the also-rans fighting for two extra playoff spots, the crowds get cranked up earlier. Fans at AT&T Park know every inning matters, especially after the Giants, despite another strong outing by ace Madison Bumgarner, lost 3-1 Wednesday to be swept by the lowly San Diego Padres for the second time this season and fall to 20-35 since the All-Star break.
On Tuesday night, the 41,000 favoring the Giants bellowed into a full-throated roar in the first inning when hot-hitting Hunter Pence stepped in with Buster Posey on second base and two outs. Then they whooshed like air from a balloon when Pence struck out.
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September is the month of magnification as contenders rush toward October. Everybody knows the count; every pitch is a potential momentum changer.
These are tough. There’s no getting around it. At this stage, it’s a punch in the stomach. But we’ve got to bounce back. It’s baseball.
Bruce Bochy, Giants manger, after his team blew a three-run ninth-inning lead Tuesday
“It’s why you play; I’ve said it so many times,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said after Tuesday’s gut-wrenching 6-4 loss to the Padres. “It’s an exciting time of year. Every game is important. I think everybody’s doing some scoreboard watching.”
The Giants keep an eye on the Los Angeles Dodgers as they enter the final weeks of the season separated by only a handful of games in the National League West. Also on the Giants’ minds are the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals, who come to the Bay Area for a four-game series beginning Thursday. The division and wild-card dances should give everybody enough to worry about until football overwhelms the sports consciousness, as it soon will.
Nearly two hours into Tuesday’s game at AT&T Park, the Giants and Padres had played only 4 1/2 innings. Maybe because it was September, the crowd wouldn’t let this one slip into the doldrums. The Dodgers had lost, but the Mets had won and the Cardinals were winning. This was no time for silence, so the fans broke theirs – and Angel Pagan rewarded them with a leadoff home run in the fifth to put the Giants ahead 2-1.
When Gorkys Hernandez homered in the seventh to give the Giants a 4-1 lead, they uncorked themselves in anticipation of a huge September win.
It’s also the time of year when more players watch at the dugout rail rather than from the bench. Maybe it’s because September call-ups have expanded rosters to 35, or maybe it’s because players are more tense, more excited.
“They seem to be enjoying it,” Bochy said of his players’ approach to meaningful September baseball. “Listen to the clubhouse before the game. It’s loose, bouncy. They’re having a good time. It’s an exciting time for them. Trust me, they know what’s at stake. They’re savoring the fact that we’re playing important games.”
But the beauty of playing big games in September can be offset by the beast of losing them.
Down by three runs going into the ninth, the Padres, with one of the worst records in the N.L., could have been expected to text in their final three at-bats, take a shower and go off in exploration of San Francisco’s restaurant scene.
20-35 Giants’ record since the All-Star break
Only they flared a couple of pop flies over the Giants’ infield. They worked reliever Hunter Strickland for a walk. They rolled a couple of ground balls around the infield. So it was 4-3 when Ryan Schimpf, the Padres’ 28-year-old rookie second baseman, stepped in against left-hander Steven Okert and hit a two-on, two-out, two-strike homer to dead center that won the game for the Padres.
Players on losing teams like playing September baseball, too.
“It’s fun for them (the Giants), but it’s still fun for us showing up at the ballpark every day, sticking together as a team, trying to get better, not cashing it in, just trying to finish strong and win as many games as we can,” said Schimpf, whose 19 home runs have all been since July 1.
The intensity of September baseball makes it tougher to rationalize a loss as just one in a 162-game season.
It’s especially difficult when you lose the way the Giants did Tuesday, giving up a three-run ninth-inning lead.
“These are tough,” Bochy said after Tuesday’s loss. “There’s no getting around it. At this stage, it’s a punch in the stomach. But we’ve got to bounce back. It’s baseball.”
Make that September baseball, and the Giants have a whole lot more of it to go.
N.L. wild card