It was about 12:14 p.m. Sunday when the Giants’ Brandon Belt doubled to right field with Denard Span on base to put runners on second and third with nobody out in the first inning. And it was 12:16 p.m. when Buster Posey lined a ball into right field to score them both. Already, the pressure was on the St. Louis Cardinals, who started at 12:15 p.m. our time, against the Pittsburgh Pirates, half a country away.
Scoreboard watching is always more fun when you’re up by five runs, which the Giants were after they scored three more times in the second inning. It made for a fun afternoon of October baseball, with plenty of help from the Dodgers, who didn’t break a sweat in losing by a sweep.
On Vin Scully’s final day on the job, the Giants were kind enough to play a videoboard tribute to the master broadcaster in which he called the Dodgers-Giants rivalry “the greatest in professional sports.”
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Over the weekend, the Dodgers did nothing to enhance it. In dropping three in a row, they got killed 9-3, shut out 3-0, and pummeled once more in the finale 7-1. They played Sunday’s game the same as the previous two – as if it meant nothing to them, which it didn’t. The Dodgers had already sewn up first place in the National League West.
The Giants on Friday sat a game up on the Cardinals for the final National League wild-card spot. Such precariousness gave them an edge of desperation in the final three games of the regular season, which comes in handy when you’re looking for a competitive edge. It also helps when the other guys played the weekend as if they were back in spring training.
It turned out that the Giants needed to win all three, on a weekend where the Cardinals were also in the mood to sweep.
“We couldn’t count on somebody helping us,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said afterward. “It was up to us to take care of business, and these guys took care of business in a great way. Five runs in the first two innings – they were on a mission, you could tell.”
The Dodgers will play with more inspiration if they meet the Giants again this month. If they do, it will be for the N.L. championship. The two teams haven’t faced off with the pennant at stake in 54 years. It seems like only yesterday when the Giants took the Dodgers in best two out of three falls to win the flag in 1962, and it really wasn’t that long ago when you think that Scully was already 13 years into a broadcasting career that spanned more than half of the game’s Modern Era.
All the Dodgers have to do to get there is beat Washington, and you’ve got to figure they’ll take a sense of competition to the nation’s capital that they forgot to include on their charter to San Francisco. All the Giants have to do to qualify for an all-California N.L. championship series is to beat New York and Chicago, two bigger cities with one much better team, even if it is a club that hasn’t been to the World Series in 71 years.
If the Giants get past the Mets, don’t be surprised if something horrible happens to the Cubs. Maybe Steve Bartman will come out of retirement and screw it up for them again. Bartman, of course, was the fan sitting on the rail down the left-field line that wouldn’t back off and let Moises Alou catch a foul ball when the Cubs were four outs away from going to the World Series in 2003.
While the Dodgers caught up on their rest in San Francisco, the Giants looked like a team that wasn’t in much of a mood to do any scoreboard watching. If any single play exemplified the intensity level they brought into the 162nd game of the regular season, it came in the third inning when Conor Gillaspie risked an assortment of body parts to turn in an incredible catch. His team might have been up five runs at the time, but Gillaspie jumped the dugout rail to grab a foul ball before tumbling down the ramp. When he returned to view, he clutched the ball high overhead and showed the Dodgers the type of effort they’ll need to find in the coming days if they intend to play for keeps.
“It’s kind of just one of those magical moments in a guy’s career,” Gillaspie said. “I can honestly say I never even looked to see where the wall was. I was just kind of on a feeling of how close I was. I knew if it was close enough for me to catch in these types of situations, you’ve got to go out there and put your own physical well-being to the side to try and win games, especially in a game we had to win.”
Gillaspie isn’t the only guy who laid out Sunday for the Giants. Denard Span sprawled a couple of lengths to snag a deep drive in the ninth. Up four runs in the seventh, the Giants pulled off a double steal going for more. Hunter Pence hurdled the bullpen mound in right going after a foul ball.
Add it all up, and you could see what a touch of desperation can do.