For the Giants, a Rapid Ascent, a Hard Fall and Hopes of a Rematch
SAN FRANCISCO — The three-time champion wound his way through the tunnel outside the San Francisco Giants’ clubhouse after the most intense nine innings of this baseball season.
“Sorry,” Stephen Curry said, bumping fists with the Giants’ chief executive, Larry Baer.
“Hey, thanks, man,” Baer replied. “It was a gut-punch.”
The Giants won three titles in the 2010s, just before Curry’s Golden State Warriors did the same in the N.B.A. But the parade route always ends, and when rivals run you off the road, the path back to glory can be treacherous.
For the Giants, that meant four losing consecutive seasons after their last playoff berth, in 2016. When they suddenly erupted for 107 victories, defying even their own projections, their happy place, the World Series, seemed tantalizingly close again.
The Los Angeles Dodgers put an end to that on Thursday. They were the best wild-card team ever, with 106 wins of their own, and they eliminated the Giants, 2-1, in a thrilling capper to this five-game National League division series.
The final moment will be debated for decades: Did Wilmer Flores, representing the winning run with two out and one on in the bottom of the ninth, really check his swing? The first base umpire, Gabe Morales, said he did. Season over.
Realistically, Flores had almost no chance. He was down in the count to a fire-breathing Max Scherzer, against whom he was 0 for 17 in his career. But the Giants and their fans will always want one more pitch.
“I don’t know how much it makes sense for us, on our side, to pick that apart,” Manager Gabe Kapler said. “I don’t know how helpful it’s going to be.”
The Giants scored 10 runs in the series while batting .182. In Game 5, they countered the Dodgers’ opener strategy with four pinch-hitters, each with a matchup advantage. But none of the replacements got a hit.
“The arms you’re facing from that team are as good as it gets, top to bottom,” Buster Posey, the Giants’ stalwart catcher, said in the dugout after Game 5. “I felt like we did a pretty good job of not chasing too much; if you chase on those types of arms, they’re really going to expose you. But they’re so good that even if you don’t, there’s a chance they’re going to still hold you down.”
Posey, 34, had perhaps his best season since 2014, the last year the Giants won the World Series. The Giants faced 11 different teams in Posey’s prior playoff runs, Atlanta and Philadelphia and St. Louis and the rest. But the Dodgers are different up here, and Posey said he always wanted a shot at them. All of the Giants did, and now they want a rematch.
“This won’t be the last time we play them in the playoffs,” said Logan Webb, the team’s breakout pitching star. He was seated at an interview table with Darin Ruf, an outfielder the Giants signed from the South Korean league who had homered for their only run.
“We don’t plan on taking any steps backwards, and I know they don’t,” Ruf said. “So it will hopefully be fun for years to come.”
Hopefully, of course, is the critical word. Like the 49ers of the Joe Montana era or Curry’s Warriors, the Giants might find themselves playing in the shadow of their golden days. They moved here in 1958 and could not win a championship with Willie Mays or his godson, Barry Bonds. Claiming three times in five years — with Posey and a shutdown pitching staff — may be as good as it gets.
Posey seems to grasp that, though he naturally sees reason for optimism after a season like this. The biggest, perhaps, is Webb, a 24-year-old right-hander who held the Dodgers to one run in 14 ⅔ innings in this series. It was a refreshingly grown-up effort in an age when teams baby their best young arms.
“When you can build around pitching, I think Webby’s a great start,” Posey said. “And I think the way that the hitting coaches were able to get the most out of some players that have been around for a while. On top of that, you hope to have some more young players step in and be impactful.”
He paused for a knowing beat or two.
“Baseball’s a tough sport to predict — obviously, with the way this year went for us,” Posey said. “But it seems to bode well.”
Baer has spent 30 seasons with the Giants, bridging their years at wind-whipped Candlestick Park and their renaissance downtown. Every prepandemic season at Willie Mays Plaza, where the Giants moved in 2000, has attracted more fans than their best-attended season at Candlestick — 2.6 million in 1993. An extended lull on the field threatened that streak, but not anymore.
“To produce 109 wins, including the playoffs, was magic, and they captivated the community,” Baer said. “It’s an amazing platform for the future for us. We didn’t get to the ultimate goal, but there was so much progress in a short period of time. We feel empowered and emboldened.”
With only two players signed past 2022 — infielders Brandon Crawford and Tommy La Stella — the Giants could be a force in free agency. Their president of baseball operations, Farhan Zaidi, has a knack for finding bargains, and after an uneven start to his managing career in Philadelphia, Kapler has been a revelation with a roster of role players.
“The trust that they showed in one another was second to none, better than any season that I’ve ever been a part of as a player, as a coach, any position in baseball,” Kapler said. “I just respect the hell out of a team-first mentality. I’ve never seen it like this.”
Neither had anyone else, ever — 107 wins in the regular season, the most in the history of this flagship franchise. The Dodgers are better and deserved to move on to face Atlanta in the N.L. Championship Series. Their pitching should make them favorites to repeat as World Series champions.
But the pain of a gut punch, even from a bitter rival, lasts only so long. The Giants are back, and that is an easy call.