Familiarity and Execution: The two, foremost themes heading into NLDS Game 5 between the Dodgers and Giants

By Morris Phillips

SAN FRANCISCO–The biggest game in the long history between the Giants and Dodgers is here. Twice, the Giants struck first, and the Dodgers answered emphatically both times. Now in Game 5, only one statement remains to be made. Which team will win this epic series with all of the baseball world focused on Oracle Park Thursday night?

The Dodgers took the first, and biggest gamble of the series on Tuesday, in bringing back Walker Buehler on short rest to start Game 4. And Buehler delivered. That allows Los Angeles to now start Julio Urias on regular rest, opposite the Giants’ Logan Webb in Game 5. Manager Dave Roberts said he eyeballed Buehler, and what he saw made the manager’s decision easy.

“I would feel really weird not pitching a game that we could lose a series,” Buehler said in explaining the vibe he sent to Roberts.

“Sometimes when you might be a little bit more fatigued and not too amped up or too strong, you kind of try not to do too much,” Roberts said of his ace’s Game 4 performance. “And all night long he stayed in his delivery. All the stuff — the velocity, the characteristics of his secondary pitches — was really good.”

Both starters for Thursday have already won a game in the series. Logan Webb was spectacular in Game 1, pitching into the eighth inning and forcing the Dodgers’ hitters into uncharacteristic mistakes. Urias had a shorter stint in Game 2, pitching five innings and allowing three hits and a run. But when Urias departed, the Dodgers were already in control, leading 2-1 in a game they would break open in the sixth, and win 9-2.

For the Giants, the questions are clear: Can Webb summon the magic a second time? And can the San Francisco bullpen support him when he departs? The odds of both happening are good.

Webb remains a problem for any ballclub that steps into Oracle Park. He’s yet to lose a ballgame at home (6-0, 1.96 ERA in 73 1/3 innings in 2021, not including his 7 1/3 scoreless innings in Game 1), and his unwavering demeanor and penchant for dialing up strikeouts will energize the sold out crowd on Thursday. The only issue? Los Angeles’ hitters were undisciplined in Game 1. This time, they will challenge Webb to be at his absolute best this time by only swinging at baseballs in the strike zone.

Overall, the Giants’ pitching staff has done some good things. They’ve kept the Dodgers’ best hitters from leaving the park. Only two Dodgers have homered in the Series: Will Smith has two, and Mookie Betts greeted Giants’ reliever Jarlin Garcia with bad news in the fourth inning on Wednesday night. A host of other Los Angeles sluggers have been left frustrated trying to drive one out, especially in Game 3. For the Giants, that needs to continue.

Also, the Giants’ pitchers that have shown some vulnerability most assuredly won’t throw in the deciding game. Starters Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani both must turn the page, and get ready for the next round if the Giants advance. Dominic Leone and Garcia have both had a pair of substandard appearances.

So that leaves Camilo Doval, the re-emerging Jake McGee, and Zach Littell as top options for Gabe Kapler if the Giants’ are fortunate to reap high-leverage situations in Game 5 after Webb departs. Littell–awful in Game 2, but lights out in Game 4–is the most intriguing. He’s a trusted arm, and Kapler is likely to forget his Game 2 hiccup, and remember his four strikeouts in an inning plus on Tuesday.

The Dodgers also will be in great shape to unearth a well-pitched game in the decider as well. Urias, the 20-game winner will start, and the best bullpen in baseball will follow. All signs point to a tense, low scoring game.

From a hitting standpoint, the Giants will have all-hands on deck, but they’ll likely depend on the most familiar suspects against Urias. Both Brandon Crawford and Buster Posey had hits off Urias in Game 2, and Austin Slater will likely earn another start in right field against the Dodgers’ left handed starter. Slater, too, doubled off Urias in Game 2.

Darin Ruf (left field) and Wilmer Flores (first base) will likely be in Kapler’s starting lineup, as will Kris Bryant, who has picked up his game after a lackluster end of the regular season, giving his manager tremendous versatility.

“A bat of that caliber and that quality, and knowing that they can play anywhere and they are going to be ready to go gives us the flexibility to do a lot of things,” Kapler said of Bryant. “So I guess it’s not just Kris, but also what that does for the rest of the roster and how we can construct our lineups.”

The defending champion Dodgers are easier to decipher. Betts, Trea Turner, Corey Seager and the youthful, but dangerous Smith can each be the one to individually or collaboratively ruin the evening for San Francisco fans on Thursday. And don’t forget Justin Turner either. He’s done almost nothing in the series thus far–hitting .059–but he undoubtedly will be in the Roberts’ lineup and a serious threat to come up clutch in a big spot.

Longo Takes Scherzer Out And It Stands Up!: Giants take Game 3 of epic, LA-SF showdown

San Francisco Giant hitter Evan Longoria swings for the game’s only run in the top of the fifth inning for the Giants second win of the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles on Mon Oct 11, 2021 (AP New photo)

By Morris Phillips

On an unusually windy night in Los Angeles, pitching ruled the evening in Game 3 of the NLDS. Heaters, thrown by numerous pitchers, darted, dashed and overwhelmed hitters, especially up in the strike zone. Those that were hit all came to rest near the warning track in a subdued Dodger Stadium.

Only one man on either team stood up: Evan Longoria.

“I didn’t want to get beat by another fastball,” Longoria said of his fifth inning confrontation with the incomparable Max Scherzer.

He didn’t. Scherzer threw an 0-2 fastball that grabbed too much of the plate, and Longoria launched it… 407 feet into the left field bleachers. Incredibly, that one run stood up in a 1-0 Giants’ win that has them one victory from taking the series with Game 4 in Los Angeles on Tuesday, and a potential, winner-take-all Game 5 in San Francisco on Thursday. There were 20 strikeouts in the game (14 suffered by San Francisco hitters), only one extra-base hit (Longoria’s) and after the Giants’ third baseman gave the Giants the lead, they never saw the base paths again: the last 15 Giants’ hitters were retired, most without a fuss.

So what had to happen for the NL West champions, did. Giants’ pitchers–starter Alex Wood and relievers Tyler Rogers, Jake McGee and 24-year old Camilo Doval–ruled the evening, shutting down the Dodgers for nine innings, despite some base traffic, and quite a few anxious moments.

Scherzer, who was previously foiled by the Giants in the 2012 World Series, was great again. The surefire Hall of Famer went seven, striking out ten, and walking one, but he couldn’t corral Longoria in the fifth. That one pitch unraveled his whole evening.

“He’s just a professional hitter who has done it very successfully for a very long time,” manager Gabe Kapler said of Longoria.

In the manner that Kapler has employed all season, his team switched roles and convention on the fly. Closer McGee, who had 31 saves this season, but was only pitching for the second time in a month on Monday due to an oblique injury, came on in the seventh in a big spot. With two runners on, McGee struck out Austin Barnes on three pitches, and got Mookie Betts to line out to shortstop Brandon Crawford, who climbed an imaginary wire to make the catch.

Doval, the closer of the moment, then came on to shut the door in the eight and ninth, needing just 22 pitches to retire the side in each inning, and give the Giants the win.

Bucking convention? Sure, but it all made sense, really. McGee was the NL Reliever of the Month in July, and Doval–sensational in 14 1/3 scoreless innings with 20 strikeouts–was the NL Reliever of the Month in September. In a bullpen filled with high-leverage arms, Kapler sensed the shift, and followed his instinct. In both Giants’ wins in the series, Doval was the one to close it, despite only having 29 appearances–all this season–in his career.

Wood, the former Dodger who still participates in fantasy football leagues with his ex-teammates, wasn’t looking around for familiar faces on Monday. He too was fantastic, working through situations and lengthy innings that drove his pitch count up. He pitched into the fifth inning, allowing just two base hits and no walks.

Fly balls populated the outfield throughout as everyone in the park, and watching at home, learned to train their eyes on the sold-out bleachers, and watch the reaction of the fans seated there. Every time, with the exception of Longo’s blast, there was no reaction. The fans in the outfield–and their inactivity–told the story. The final blow from Gavin Lux off Doval may have been the most threating, but it too found a home… in center fielder Steven Duggar’s glove.

“I think any other night, the (Chris Taylor) ball and the Gavin Lux ball would have been home runs,” Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts said.

“The Best Night I’ve Ever Had At the Ballpark”: For this Journalist-on-the-Weekends NLDS Game 1 Giants-Dodgers was just that

By Morris Phillips

SAN FRANCISCO–From age six, I’ve been in the ballpark. I’ve been to hundreds of Major League baseball games, as wide-eyed kid to the present as a journalist for a Bay Area-based website. I’ve enjoyed every game, every experience, but none could top NLDS Game 1 Friday night at Oracle Park.

The atmosphere was electric. The stadium was sold out. And the people–from the stadium employees to the players on the field, and everyone in between–were energized beyond belief. At the end of the evening, no one wanted to leave.

And… oh, yeah, the Giants beat the Dodgers 4-0.

For me, the evening unfolded by providing mixed signals. My decision to ride one stop past Oracle Park on the Muni T Line backfired and left me motionless on the train at the corner of 2nd and King for… eight minutes. Finally, the train operator announced that we were going to be turning left.

“Ok, but when?” I thought to myself. Well, after eight minutes was the answer.

Released from the train, I waited to retrieve my credential at the media will-call window for the three home games in the series, a young woman approached in need of a mask. The COVID mantra seemingly never ceases: no mask, no entry.

I reached in my bag and offered her two. Her reply was a mind bender, and temporarily left me stunned.

“How much (do you want me to pay)?,” she said.

Finally–fractions of a second ticked off–I responded politely, “You needed a mask, and I gave you one (two).”

It’s approaching game time at this point, and what do I know about monetizing the endless supply of free masks I’ve unearthed over the last 19 months? Absolutely nothing, especially with the game less than an hour away, and me already thinking about all the conversations I wanted to have once inside the park.

So in the park I went, and talk I did.

Within our website, sportsradioservice.com, are schedules and a pecking order that anointed my colleague, Jeremy Kahn and I entry for the series, but only one of us is required to write the recap for each game. That schedule, based on the day of the week, gave him both Game 1 and 2. My assignment for the evening was to piggy back Kahn’s story with a feature piece, the subject matter of my choosing. On the occasion of the first Dodger-Giants playoff game ever, I was free to roam.

And while most of the people’s heroes last night were on the field with names like Mookie, Buster, Craw and the like, all my heroes are in the press box. If there’s anything I love more than baseball, it’s the journalism and stories that accompany the game, and the people that chronicle them.

The press box was full Friday night, all familiar faces, many I hadn’t seen since the advent of COVID.

I immediately approached Kerry Crowley, the talented, and youthful, beat writer for the San Jose Mercury News and the Bay Area News Group. Crowley wrote the story on Bryan Stow, the Giants’ fan who traveled to Dodgers Stadium only to suffer a life-threatening injuries in the parking lot after the game at the hands of two perpetrators who were inebriated and violent, Dodgers’ “fans.”

Upon the 10-year anniversary of that tragic evening, Crowley, in February, wrote how Stow soldiers on, in a wheel chair, permanently disabled, and is under the constant care of his immediate family, who quite frankly, are angels. These days, Stow travels to local schools in the Santa Cruz/Soquel area giving speeches to school age children about the pitfalls of bullying, by referencing his story softened for much younger audiences.

I know the Stow story. My 13-year old daughter and her mom live just blocks from Stow in Capitola. We’ve trick-or-treated at his house on Halloween. I’ve seen Stow numerous times over the last 10 years at Oracle Park, when he’s been invited by the Giants’ organization to attend games. His life is difficult, painful as are the lives of his family.

I catch Crowley to ask if he had read the comments section for his article. In this case, for his story, the world of trolls–the people motivated to comment and say almost anything under the cloak of anonymity–goes to a dark, dark place.

Luckily, Crowley said he never reads those comments. Unfortunately, I did.

Underneath the Stow story, a commenter is ranting, and taking on all who find his words objectionable. The commenter says Stow was drinking that evening as well, and had he not encountered two men who attempted to take his life in the parking lot, he may very well have been the subject of a DUI incident in which he injured, or killed, someone else. The dissenters weighed in, as if asking this crazy theorist what planet he was from.

And the troll continued. Next, he claimed that Stow was the instigator in the event, hurling bad language and slurs at his attackers, provoking them. Of course, no proof exists of that, the lengthy court case that followed never crossed such a bridge. Once again, this was a dark place. I finally ran from my laptop that day in February, disgusted.

I took a deep breath, thanked Crowley for his words, and moved on. The rest of my interactions Friday night were far lighter.

I went upstairs to the broadcast level, and encountered Dave Flemming, the ubiquitous Giants’ play-by-play man who must work 200 nights a year (I exaggerate) and is much in demand, and paid handsomely, for his velvet-smooth work behind the microphone.

At the same time, Flem and I are in the bathroom, the only quiet bathroom in the entire building normally, and especially on a night where 41,934 are packed in.

“Flem, we’ve been to three World Series, Barry Bonds hit his 73rd home run here, and this feels like the biggest night the ballpark has ever seen,” I tell him.

Fleming says, “I agree,” and he’s off… back to his booth to interact with John Miller, Kruk and Kuip.

Next, I speak with Thomas Harding, the long time beat writer for the Colorado Rockies. He’s escaped Denver and the substandard baseball that was played there by the home team this summer, and snagged a plum national assignment for MLB.com. Harding, always jovial, complains lightly that younger journalists within his organization are getting assignments that he would prefer, but he soldiers on, happy to be associated with the game, taking what he can get, and grateful for his long run in the press box.

I’m not sure if he exactly remembers who I am, but he acts as if he does, and that’s all that matters. After all, Harding, too, is one my heroes.

John Shea, the local dean of baseball journalists with 33 years stuffed into his notebooks, is next. We interact briefly, and I tell him this postseason is packed with good teams, not just the Dodgers and the Giants, and that the winner of this epic series isn’t in anyway ordained to play their best baseball for another three weeks after this and win the World Series. Not with the mercurial Tampa Rays, the newly “clean” and dangerous Houston Astros, not to mention the quietly-positioned Milwaukee Brewers looming.

Shea agrees with me (wow!) and then references the ’93 Atlanta Braves. He says, remember how the Braves outlasted the Giants that year in the previous, divisional race of the ages, winning 104 games, while the tough-luck Giants faltered on the season’s final day, winning 103? Well, the Braves, he says, didn’t have anything left. The lost to the Phillies, four games-to-two, in the NLCS, falling short of the World Series.

Michael Wagaman, the Associated Press writer, read nationally through numerous outlets–and per AP’s policy, often read anonymously–walks up, and we both start laughing uncontrollably. I’ve recently one-upped Waggs on Facebook, agreeing with his post in which he writes to a friend that he’s “not sure how it’s going to go down” in regards to his postseason assignment.

I wrote, humor in full-bloom, that “Waggs knows how it’s going to go down… AP said, “Wags, we want you to work the NLDS and the potential NLCS but we need you sit in the auxiliary seating behind the left field foul pole and sit in one of the two seats facing away from the field and the temporary TV monitors.”

“Thank God (Waggs) had enough self-respect to say, “I’m not so sure.”

Wagaman loves my take, but his colleague, Janie McCauley, the only universally revered sportswriter in the entire room, not so much. McCauley, acting as part stepmom, and maybe a bit peeved that my post may have slighted her as she doles out the assignments for AP’s local stable of writers, scolds me when she walks up to my seat a few innings later.

“How dare you say that about Waggs,” McCauley says. “I almost called you.”

I’m rendered speechless, and laughing. Needless to say, given her stature, I owe her an apology no matter what. She’ll be getting that apology within the next 24 hours.

Eric He, a 2019 USC graduate, is sitting next to me. We’ve got as much in common as any two men 35 years apart in age could possibly have: we both love the profession, he’s unquestionably on his way up, and I love asking him questions about his experiences, and mentoring in anyway I can. Already, in less than three years, He has written for the Los Altos Town Crier (local news), sfbay.ca.com (sports) and currently with Patch, the new-age news organization that promises news from any U.S. location, you just punch in the zip code.

We’re chatting like crazy, and when I get all blubber-mouthed about Scott Ostler, Tim Kawakami, T.J. Simer and Bill Plaschke, the super quartet that have fueled the Los Angeles Times sports pages over the last quarter century in different, overlaying stints, He taps me and gets me to pipe down. Eric quickly points out that Plaschke is sitting right in front of us and I should lower my voice.

Andrew Baggarly, formerly of the Mercury News and NBC Sports Bay Area, and currently with the Athletic, is next. Baggarly and I both went to Northwestern University in Evanston, IL at different times with Baggarly going on to big things and me flunking out. I tell Baggarly that Mark Fainaru-Wada was my sports editor at NU that assigned me to cover the women’s softball team my sophomore year. Fainaru-Wada hit it big with the book “Game of Shadows” he co-authored that chronicled the BALCO scandal and outed Barry Bonds. But back in 1984, he was a senior at Northwestern, and he somehow found some extra money in the school paper’s budget to send me to Omaha to cover the softball team at the College World Series.

How could I say no to Fainaru-Wada? He was my editor and an unquestioned big shot, even back then. But I knew the timing of the CWS and final exams weren’t going to bode well for my plummeting GPA. But I went anyway–on Greyhound–to Omaha.

Sure enough, that June, just two weeks after the semester ended, a letter arrived at my home back in San Francisco. The Medill School of Journalism declared I wasn’t studying 10 hours per day and that they were not renewing my financial aid package. The School was right, I wasn’t studying 10 hours a day, but I wondered how they could so definitively say that I wasn’t.

More of the Same: The A’s season finale mirrors their uneven season as a whole in a rough 7-6 loss to the Astros

By Morris Phillips

Hard to believe, and even harder to watch, the A’s finished their season in familiar fashion. Building three, one-run leads, squandering them, and ultimately falling short after a valiant, ninth inning comeback in a 7-6 loss to the Astros at Minute Maid Park.

In the complicated, nuanced vernacular unique to this sometimes confounding game of baseball, you can’t make this stuff up.

You can imagine what manager Bob Melvin said after the game. Really, in this case you could mimic his words as they were said.

“We came up just short, like we did this season, unfortunately,” Melvin said. “But I think next year, it just gives us a little bit more edge to get back to the postseason.”

The A’s finished the season 86-76, third in the AL West behind the Astros and the hard-luck Mariners, who missed the postseason for an on-going record within all of the four major U.S. sports of 20 consecutive seasons. The A’s opened the season with six losses, but followed that soon after with a 13-game win streak, and their 44-21 record that concluded on June 18 was the best run in Major League Baseball within that 65-game stretch.

Then things got disjointed, the team’s momentum stalled, and did so in a frustrating way in which the team’s offense and pitching took turns sputtering. The A’s finished the season with a 42-50 record in their last 92, With the postseason still within reach in the last three weeks season, the A’s lost 12 of 16.

That’s a long stretch to play poorly, and a more intense level of frustration followed the team in September. It was hard on the team, the management and the fans. But the A’s are clearly capable. When Melvin says they can bounce back in 2022, that’s almost a certainty given their track record. But this is Oakland, California, and these are the A’s: what happens this off-season is anyone’s guess.

But we do know this: Melvin’s correct, the 2022 A’s can bounce back, but as always they’re going to need the majority of their roster intact, and make some pricey decisions that more often than not have lead them to do something less than pricey. Just the decisions regarding retaining Ramon Laureano (80-game PED suspension) and Starling Marte (arguably the most effective trade deadline acquisition in MLB) will be fascinating.

But this division is anyone’s to control, even with the presence of the 2017 champion Astros. The Angels have spent the last six seasons issuing expensive contracts, but getting little to show for it. We’ve already mentioned the plight of Mariners. The Rangers are in rebuilding mode, although their new stadium and surprisingly, robust attendance could speed up a revival. And the Astros have been great, but nobody stays great forever, and the return or possible retirement of Dusty Baker as manager will be one of the postseason’s storylines.

Of course, the A’s have their own uncertainties to add to the mix. Despite the easing of COVID restrictions, their attendance was abysmal. And the Oakland-Las Vegas “where will they play?” saga is enough to cripple any franchise especially given the drama has reached its second decade.

So in summation: we’ll see what transpires.

On Sunday, the A’s scored single runs in the second and third, getting solo shots from Seth Brown and Tony Kemp. But the Astros matched, and the game was tied 2-2 in the fourth, when the A’s gained a third lead, 3-2, on Kemp’s sacrifice fly that scored Luis Barrera.

A’s starter Cole Irvin went six innings, allowing five hits and striking out four, but he departed trailing 4-3 after he was touched for a two-run homer courtesy of Kyle Tucker in the fifth.

Houston added insurance runs in the seventh and eighth and appeared to be headed to the playoffs gracefully, leading 6-3 headed to the ninth. The AL West champs will host the White Sox in a best-of-five starting Thursday.

But the A’s came up clutch in the ninth. Chad Pinder led off with a base hit, and Seth Brown brought the visitors within a run and nobody out with a two-run homer that was the seventh of eight hit in the game.

The eighth? With two outs, Khris Davis delivered, tying the game and bringing back memories of his best days in an Oakland uniform.

Melvin turned to Lou Trivino to handle the bottom of the ninth, and get the final game of the season to extras. But it didn’t happen.

Jason Castro led off with a single, and after Jose Altuve was retired, Trivino surrendered a double to Yordan Alvarez with Castro stopping at third. Two pitches later, the season ended with Mark Canha’s swiping concession of a base hit from Yuli Gurriel that landed less than 10 feet in front of the leftfielder.

“We didn’t finish off the game like we wanted, but to have the fight in the ninth inning to come back and tie the game like that, especially with Khris’ homer at the end, it was a really good feeling,” Melvin said.

Cueto, Kazmir, Bumgarner and “Late Night” just part of the show in the Giants’ 105th win, 5-4 over the Diamondbacks

By Morris Phillips

SAN FRANCISCO–Consider the amazing NL West race featuring the Dodgers and Giants a stare down. After 159 games–and thus far in the season’s final week–neither team has flinched.

But the Dodgers–likely watching the conclusion of the Arizona-San Francisco game on television in their clubhouse–suffered a collective twitch.

After the Dodgers blew past the Padres in Los Angeles 8-3, the Giants followed with the “Late Night” Lamonte show at Oracle Park in their 5-4 win over the Diamondbacks. With three games to play, the Giants (105-54) maintained a two game lead over their rival in a race that has baseball history written all over it, and will command the baseball world’s attention in the final weekend.

“I would just say that this is two teams playing really good baseball in a pennant race,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Like I’ve said many times over, we can be in tune with what’s going on outside of our games which is part of the fun. But most importantly we just have to play good baseball. However, we get there–if we do that–bring it on.”

Madison Bumgarner, the MVP of the 2014 World Series for the Giants and Arizona’s starting pitcher on Thursday night, weighed in on the divisional battle that–at least for one night–included him in the drama. After five inning stint in which he departed with the game tied, 4-4, he certainly had a barrel full of perspective on his former team.

“I know people have counted them out all year and a lot of people can’t understand it and make sense out of it, but I’ve been on that side when people are saying the same thing,” Bumgarner said. “I know how dangerous the Giants are just in general when they get in the postseason. I’ve obviously seen that a time or two, so there’s something about that uniform.”

Bumgarner–pitching for the first time in San Francisco wearing another uniform other than the Giants’–received a pair of well-deserved and loud ovations from the crowd of 27,503. In a twist that only baseball can provide, the second of those ovations came in the top of the first inning, not the bottom with him on the mound. At that point, Bum was the ninth batter of the inning with the D’Backs already leading 3-0. Despite the gravity of the game at that juncture, the lefty’s welcome was genuine. Genuine enough that he paused before stepping into the box and briefly waved his batting helmet.

“It was really cool,” he said. “This place, I’ve said it a bunch, it means a lot to me and my family. I don’t take that for granted by no means. I enjoyed that and I’m very thankful for that.”

The Giants were forced to go full improvisation in the inning as starting pitcher Scott Kazmir was injured on a ground ball that demanded he cover first base. So after recording just one out and throwing 12 pitches, Kazmir departed and Kervin Castro was summoned from the bullpen. The two pitchers allowed five hits in the first, and three runs, all charged to Kazmir.

But the Giants battled back, scoring single runs in the first, third and fourth to gain a 3-3 tie. In the fourth, Brandon Crawford homered off his old teammate, his career-best 24th and the only home run of the ballgame.

In the fifth with Arizona again leading 4-3, Buster Posey got his shot against his old battery mate. Posey’s RBI double scored Austin Slater from first base. The Giants’ catcher also delivered an RBI sacrifice fly in third.

Johnny Cueto, activated from the injured list, was the third of seven Giants’ pitchers to enter the ball game. Cueto pitched the third and fourth innings, along with recording the first out of the fifth. The veteran who has suffered elbow injuries, threw 48 pitches and seemed adaptable to his likely postseason role: pitching out of the bullpen.

It was Cueto’s first ever appearance as a reliever after 329 starts, and 135 wins.

“I’ll be myself,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. “Of course, I’ll be a little bit more aggressive because I know it’s going to be maybe one inning or two.”

The game remained tied until the ninth where Wilmer Flores doubled with one out. Reliever Joe Mantiply then intentionally walked Donovan Solano. Curt Casali in a pinch-hitting role was next and he drew a walk to load the bases. That brought a second pinch-hitter to the plate, “Late Night” LaMonte Wade Jr.

Wade, who had 13 hits and 12 RBI in ninth innings alone this season, delivered again. On a two-strike pitch, he stroked a hard-hit groundball that got between first baseman Paven Smith and second baseman Ketel Marte for a game-ending base hit.

Ironically, the prolific Wade had not delivered a game-ending hit at home. Twenty-seven Giants ran toward the slugger after touched first base to introduce him to the world of walk offs.

On Friday, the Giants’ open the final series of the season against the visiting Padres, who return to San Francisco after being swept by the Dodgers, and losing 39 of their last 58 games. The Giants will need to win twice in the series to clinch the division. That is, if they don’t get any help from the Dodgers, who will host the Brewers this weekend.

The Dodgers (103-56) have won 44 of their last 60 games since July 23.

NOTES: Before the game, Cueto and Darin Ruf were reinstated from the 10-day IL. Ruf started in left field, and went 2 for 4 with an RBI. Tony Watson was placed on the injured list with a shoulder strain, and Jose Quintana was designated for assignment.

Inching Closer: Giants go small, win 1-0 over Arizona to reach SF-era record 104 wins

By Morris Phillips

SAN FRANCISCO–Didn’t think the record-breaking, home run-hitting Giants had this in their arsenal?

Well, you would be half right, and not the half you believed in.

The Giants nudged themselves past the Diamondbacks, 1-0 on Wednesday night at Oracle Park to reduce their magic number to win the NL West to three. And they did it as small–offensively–as possible, winning on Kris Bryant’s sacrifice fly in the seventh inning that scored Steven Duggar.

The Giants (104-54) have hit a franchise-record 237 home runs and posted a bunch of shutouts, not surprising balance for a team threatening to join the 1975 Reds and 1986 Mets as the winningest single season teams in National League history since divisional play began in 1969. But winning 1-0?

Well, a quick look back reveals they won 1-0 on April 18 at Miami when Alex Dickerson singled home a run in the third inning that stood up. And they bested the Nationals on June 11 when Buster Posey homered in the fourth inning, after Max Scherzer–know that name?–departed with a groin issue after throwing just 12 pitches. But winning 1-0 on a sacrifice fly is smaller brand of offense that, well, the Giants hadn’t accomplished this year.

“We pitched really well and the bullpen’s been nails all year,” starting pitcher Alex Wood said. “I can’t wait for October.”

A couple of things turned this one into a nail biter. D’Backs starter Merrill Kelly played Houdini, walking four and allowing three hits in five innings of work while not allowing a run. Three Arizona relievers followed and were equally as stingy, but Noel Ramirez allowed a single to Tommy La Stella, Steven Duggar then pinch ran for La Stella and stole second. Lamonte Wade Jr. grounded out, moving Duggar to third, where he stood when Bryant delivered the game-deciding sacrifice fly.

A manufactured run if ever there was one, but the Giants will take it.

The Giants were denied a far more comfortable margin of victory in the eighth when Duggar was robbed by Gary Varsho’s catch at the top of the left centerfield wall with two runners on.

Wood was stellar through six innings, allowing three hits and striking out six. Wood had the look of a competitor attempting to insure that he will prominently featured in the Giants’ postseason rotation by issuing no walks then retiring for the evening after throwing an economical 74 pitches. Three relievers (Dominic Leone, Jarlin Garcia and emerging high leverage guy, Camilo Doval) finished the D’Backs, combining to allow one hit with none of three throwing more than 11 pitches in their inning each.

The Giants achieved an incredible first with the win, becoming the first San Francisco Giants’ team to win as many as 104 games in a season. What’s next? The NY Giants of 1905 won 105, the NY Giants of 1904 won 106, and the Mets and Reds–the most inconic NL teams of this era–both won 108.

“It’s a huge accomplishment,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “This team has done so many good things. To say that this club has won more games than any other San Francisco Giants team is quite fulfilling.”

At press time, the Dodgers were locked into an incredible, back-and-forth affair with the Padres, with the score 9-9 in the bottom of the eighth inning. The Dodgers led 5-1 after two, then trailed 9-5 in the bottom of the seventh, only to score five times in the eighth to regain the lead. If the Dodgers lose, the Giants magic number would be reduced to two.

On Thursday, the Diamondbacks–now an incredible 54 games out of first place in the NL West–will bring Madison Bumgarner to the mound in his first pitching assignment in San Francisco since he left the Giants after the 2019 season. The Giants have not announced a pitcher, but Scott Kazmir’s name was being bandied on Twitter as if he would get the call on Thursday, but no announcement has been made.

Bad, Good: X-Ray reveals fracture in Brandon Belt’s thumb as Giants hope to capture NL West title

By Morris Phillips

The Giants have announced that first baseman Brandon Belt has a fracture in his left thumb, the result of a 93-mph fastball thrown by Lucas Gilbreath that clipped Belt as he squared to bunt in Sunday’s game in Denver.

Belt recoiled in pain upon the impact of the pitch and was removed from the game. The 33-year old in the midst of perhaps the biggest month of his career (.349 with 9 home runs, 18 RBI and 30 hits) expressed doubt that the injury was serious after the game, but it’s clear he will miss the final week of the regular season and at least the start of the playoffs.

Officially, the team said that Belt will meet with doctors tomorrow and in the days after to develop a plan of action, and a determination of how long he will be out. An update is expected after the first meeting with doctors tomorrow.

Belt suffered a broken left thumb in 2014 and missed 51 games. On that occasion in which he was hit by a pitch thrown by the Dodgers’ Paul Maholm, and the initial prognosis was that he would miss six weeks, and he ended up missing eight. In 2014, Belt played in a career-low 61 games (in 2020, Belt played in 51 of 60, the shortened season impacted by the COVID crisis) finishing with just 12 homers and 27 RBI. But that season, Belt was healthy for the postseason, hitting .295 with 18 hits in 17 games as the Giants captured the World Series title.

The difference between the two injuries? Belt (and manager Bruce Bochy) knew immediately his thumb was broken in 2014, but the injury transpired in the season’s 36th game, early enough for him to recover and aid the team’s postseason push.

This time, the timing couldn’t be any worse. Not only are the Giants battling for the division title with six games remaining, a potential showdown with the Dodgers would begin October 8, a date that might not be possible for Belt to meet even if his fracture doesn’t require surgery and he makes a quick recovery.

Besides the Belt injury, Sunday was another revelation for the club in that they again came up big late in a ballgame, besting the Rockies 6-2 and sweeping the three-game series in Denver. That, along with a Saturday loss by the Dodgers to Arizona in which starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw was roughed up for four runs before being lifted in the fifth inning of a 7-2 decision, gives the Giants a two-game lead with six games remaining.

According to baseball-reference.com’s playoff odds, the Giants now have 90.3 percent chance to capture the division, with the Dodgers clinging to hope with a 9.7 percent chance to prevail. The Giants have the easier schedule with home games against the Diamondbacks and the Padres, while the Dodgers close with the Padres for three, then the Brewers for three. Milwaukee has clinched the NL Central, but in a bit of scheduling intrigue may not be content to play their backups as they will be visiting Dodgers Stadium for the first time in 2021, and may want their regular lineups battle tested against the team they lost to in Game 7 of the 2018 NLCS.

The Brewers quietly could be planning big things. They have held of the challenge of the Cardinals–currently riding a 16-game win streak–and have several things in their favor heading into the final week:

The Brewers can, again, both rest and prepare, more likely with them playing their backups in a series with St. Louis beginning Tuesday, then ramp it up for the Dodgers over the weekend without hampering their preparation for Game 1 of the NLDS with them likely hosting Atlanta on October 8. Milwaukee already knows it will have home field advantage in the NLDS, and that they will avoid consecutive series against the teams with the NL’s best records, the Giants and the Dodgers. Also, if the Dodgers prevail over the Giants in a likely NLDS showdown, and the Brewers advance, Milwaukee would have home field against Los Angeles in the championship series.

Not what Giants’ fans would want, but Milwaukee is formidable with starters Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff along with closer Josh Hader (34 saves). Also, they’ve qualified for the postseason for the fourth straight season and have that 2018 disappointment they like to settle with Los Angeles.

For the Giants, especially with Belt injured, winning the division as quickly as possible is an even bigger aspiration. Look for them to go all out to sweep the D’Backs and put tremendous pressure on the Dodgers going into the final weekend. As an aside, Madison Bumgarner is the announced pitcher for Arizona in Thursday’s series finale, which would be his first time pitching in San Francisco since he signed with the D’Backs in the offseason prior to the 2020 season.

Also, the Giants would like to end things in the NL West as soon as possible to clear the path for Johnny Cueto and Scott Kazmir to pitch in the same game to test both veterans’ postseason readiness. If the division is clinched, that pairing of Cueto and Kazmir could come Saturday against San Diego.

On Tuesday, the Giants open their series with Arizona in front of a large, home crowd and Logan Webb on the mound. Arizona has announced Luke Weaver as their starter. Weaver is 0-4 with a 7.94 ERA in his five starts on the road.

Breathing, But Barely: A’s sweep the Astros on Canha’s walk-off hit, and avoid elimination in the AL West title chase

By Morris Phillips

OAKLAND–Too little, too late. Game 1 (through 6) counts just as much as Game 162. Save some of that offense (or defense) for tomorrow’s game. In 2021, the A’s have found themselves on the wrong end of all the familiar catchphrases that shape the confounding game of Major League Baseball.

A sweep of the AL West-leading Astros to end the home campaign sets up an exciting, and critical final week of baseball leading into the postseason. Yeah, the A’s did that by winning 4-3 on Sunday at the Coliseum, but their still six games out with six to play.

The wild card race? Not much hope there either. On Sunday, the Blue Jays and Yankees won, not to mention the huge issue of the Mariners being a game ahead of the A’s in both the division and the wild card race.

The good news? The A’s battled all weekend against long odds and came up winners against the second best team in the American League, and they made it happen in late game situations, which in 2021, have been often been problematic.

“There’s a lot of desperation in what we’re doing right now,” manager Bob Melvin said.

With the game tied 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Mark Canha delivered an RBI single–scoring Sean Murphy–to earn the A’s a sweep against the team that more often than not (over the last six seasons) has gotten the best of them.

“We needed to grab some momentum and grab some good feels,” Canha said. “To sweep a great team like that feels really good, especially given the last homestand and what’s on the line.”

The A’s finish the season with three games in Seattle starting Tuesday, followed by the final weekend at Minute Maid Park in Houston for three more. Sunday’s win kept them from being eliminated in the division, and six more wins consecutively probably won’t help. According to ESPN, the A’s have a 0.6 percent chance to make the postseason.

“We’re just going to keep fighting. I think everyone is pulling in the same direction,” Canha said.

Across the board statistically, the numbers frame the A’s as a good team, just not good enough. They finished the home campaign with a 43-38 mark, the sixth, straight season they’ve been over .500 at home. But 43 wins isn’t how playoff teams eat. All seven AL teams in the postseason hunt have either won more than 43 games at home or have a chance to do so in the final week (Seattle, Toronto).

The A’s pitching has been just fine, except when it hasn’t. Starters Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea all averaged more than nine strikeouts per nine innings in 2021, which ranks them 1-2-3 in Oakland history besting previous high averages posted by Vida Blue (1971), Gio Gonzales (2011) and Todd Stottlemyre (1995). But all three weren’t what they could be in 2021: Montas’ best outings didn’t take place until the season was half over, Bassitt was terrific until he was felled by a horrific injury in August, and Manaea pitched equal parts dynamite and kryptonite.

The biggest number for A’s pitching in 2021 was a 5.20 ERA by the entire staff in September prior to Saturday. That and the bullpen collapsed at the end of August and beginning September resulting in a couple of disturbing losses and the demotion of closer Lou Trivino.

Offensively, the A’s collective batting average of .239 entering this weekend says it all. That number ranks fourth lowest in the AL, even as batting averages throughout the industry have plummeted. For the A’s who have wonderful numbers in drawing walks, hitting home runs and XBH’s along with a team record 93 passes issued from being hit by pitches, the batting averages lagged, dragging down the overall product. The result a 23-26 record in one-run games, along with one too many losses in which they scored zero, one or two runs.

Finally, the season was a rollercoaster. The A’s started 0-6, than won a major league-best 44 games over the next 65, than only 41 of their next 85 culminating with Sunday’s win. Too much up and down, and not enough in the stretch, which has been the calling card for the franchise under Melvin’s leadership.

Cole Irvin is the A’s projected starter for Tuesday’s series opener in Seattle. Chris Flexen is expected to get the start for the Mariners.

The Skinny On The Giants-Dodgers Division Title Race For The Ages: You don’t wanna finish second

By Morris Phillips

You don’t want to finish second. For the Giants and the Dodgers, winning the NL West is paramount.

Here’s why.

Barring a minor miracle–but also a real possibility–the first postseason meeting of the long time rivals begins on Friday, October 8, a full four days after the regular season ends on that previous Sunday. The best case scenario for both teams: they win the NL West outright, and get all four of those days to rest and set up their Operation World Series ’21 war room in which they align their rotations, rest key regulars and stay out of COVID protocols. Beyond that, the NL West winner would have time to develop a strategy to derail their rival in a seven-game series, then roll two more high-level opponents on their way to a Series title.

Now back to the minor miracle/real possibility that could evaporate one of these two 100 plus-win teams before October 8: a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, the almost certain, second wild card entrant currently riding an eight-game win streak that has all but retired the competition with two weeks remaining in the regular season. What would the Cardinals have to do to pull an upset? Summon the perpetual youth tonic for 40-year old Adam Wainwright and his battery mate, 39-year old Yadier Molina, who would be slotted to pitch and catch the Wednesday, October 6 wild card game as the only pair manager Mike Schildt–or the state of Missouri–would trust in such a situation. In a separate slice of baseball history, Wainwright and Molina have paired as battery mates 298 times. The October 6 clash would see them likely pairing for the 301st time, which ranks fourth in major league history for the most prolific catcher and pitcher pairings.

Wainright (16-7, 2.89 ERA) has a win against both the Dodgers and Giants this season (beating Los Angeles at Busch Stadium on September 8) although he was roughed up in the rematch against the Giants on July 16.

Think the stakes are high in these final two weeks for the Giants and Dodgers? Think higher.

The Giants are trying to secure the apex of their franchise history (which dates back to 1883 as the New York Gothams) by winning a fourth World Series in 12 seasons, a rash of success never accomplished by a franchise that’s won eight titles in 137 seasons.

For the Dodgers, who have had far more success at this level, this would mark some level of redemption after their well-chronicled postseason flame outs beginning in 2013. On the line for the Dodgers: an unprecedented ninth, consecutive division title, back-to-back Series titles, and the fulfillment of their stature as the team widely considered to be Major League baseball’s best.

Currently, the Giants have a one-game lead with 12 games remaining for both contenders. The teams will be on the road this week, and home next week, six road games then six home games. Amazingly, Baseball-Reference–the premiere MLB website chronicling the game’s history and all of its current metrics–favors the Giants to win the division with a 104-58 record, besting the Dodgers, who according to their database, are most likely to finish 103-59.

If you been following this race intently, you know those won-loss figures are extremely conservative and predict that neither team will win at their current clips, which are best described as torrid. The Dodgers since losing six of nine (four of those six losses to the Giants) at the end of July, have won 34 of 45. The Giants have won 13 of their last 17 ballgames after a four-game losing streak spanning the end of August and beginning of September.

Most likely, both managers (Gabe Kapler and Dave Roberts) are hoping for fast finishes with a record of 9-3 or better. For the Giants (97-53) that’s the safe spot. 106 wins should be the number the Dodgers can’t match. Of course, 105 might be just what the doctor ordered for the Dodgers (96-52). Obviously, it’s just that close.

Now for what might happen after game 162 with the caveat that neither of these teams is fearful of playing a big game in the other team’s ballpark. Both have had too much success, and have won too consistently (with pitching) to feel any other way. That’s why one (Los Angeles) or both teams may not scared to finish second, and get ready for the postseason without the burden of overusing their bullpens, starters or key starters.

But here’s why they would.

Playing on Monday–Game 163–burns a critical starter who would otherwise be primed to pitch Game 1 of the NLDS. For the Giants, based on how the rotations are set up (and there’s little reason for either team to dramatically juggle their rotations with the aces in line to pitch the final weekend or on that following Monday) Logan Webb would likely be a one-game playoff starter, Julio Urias (18-3, 2.99, the NL Cy Young favorite) would be most likely for the Dodgers.

The loser of Game 163 would then host the Wild Card game Wednesday and assume the challenge presented by the Cardinals. Then after burning two prime starters, they would open the NLDS as the visitor on Friday.

Does the second place scenario offer a reasonable path for success? Sure, for either of these balanced clubs. But potentially, playing eight, consecutive Dodgers-Giants games doesn’t set you up to play exceptional baseball for three weeks–against two, more formidable opponents–after that.

So, in conclusion… if 2021 is your year, the “your” part starts now.

And the quote of the weekend from Kris Bryant of the Giants: “I feel like we’ve been playing great baseball, and they have been matching us. That’s annoying.”

On Tuesday, the Giants open up a three-game set in San Diego against the frustrated, fussing, faltering Padres with Kevin Gausman facing Joe Musgrove. Gausman will be pitching with four days rest, Musgrove with five.

A’s Win, Late Drama Included For Free: Miscues late almost ruin 3-2 win over the Angels

By Morris Phillips

Yeah, yeah, the A’s bullpen… but here’s a twist: this time Lou Trivino was the hero with a warm, Southern California breeze sprinkled in.

Trivino came on to record the final five outs of the game–without allowing a hit or a walk–after the Angels scored a pair of ninth inning runs to break up a shutout authored by starter Frankie Montas and Jake Diekman, who combined to put the home team asleep for eight innings, allowing just one hit.

The A’s secured a 3-2 win in Anaheim to sweep the series–and keep their playoff hopes alive–when Mark Canha singled, and Jed Lowrie followed with a sacrifice fly to score placed runner Matt Olson in the top of the 10th.

Winners of five straight, the A’s still face daunting odds to pass the Yankees (who lost Sunday) and either the Red Sox or Blue Jays (both who won) to secure one of the two wild card spots. Among the biggest of the A’s challenges: they’re in the midst of a 16-games in 16-days stretch that won’t digest any easier after Sunday’s heart stopper.

But before all of what come’s next, the A’s have to be proud of themselves for what was accomplished in Anaheim. Not only did they complete a road sweep, they finished 15-4 in the season series against the Angels, a domination of a division rival that’s almost a prerequisite to gaining a playoff berth these days. But not only that, the A’s stood up to Shohei Ohtani, who was terrific, firing darts across the plate for eight innings.

Ohtani struck out ten, utilizing his splitter on more than half of his 108 pitches across eight innings. He was energized, showing great life on his fastball late in the game when he struck out the side in the seventh, and fanned Matt Chapman in the eighth with a couple of the pitches hitting 98 mph. But Ohtani failed to keep Yan Gomes in the ballpark in the third, and Chapman from circling bases in the fourth. The two solo shots were the difference–until the late drama–as Ohtani allowed three other hits and no walks in his the third longest outing of his career.

But Montas was just as good.

The A’s ace in the absence of the miraculously healing Chris Bassitt took full advantage of an Anaheim lineup that was absent of the normal big names with the exception of Ohtani, who he smartly walked twice. Beyond that, Montas struck out seven, walked two others for a total of four, and allowed a double to Brandon Marsh in the third inning with two outs. Montas then shut that down, by issuing a pass to Ohtani, and striking out Phil Gosselin to end the inning.

“When you go up against Ohtani, you know you have to be really good, and he was,” manager Bob Melvin said. “He matched him all the way until both were out of the game and out-pitched him really.”

But as so many baseball games go, the pitching gems didn’t decide it, instead the follies almost did.

Romo, hardly an ideal closer given the lack of velocity on his pitches, was called upon in the ninth, a role he’s assumed following Trivino’s well-chronicled struggles. Almost immediately, Romo fell into straights allowing a double to Gosselin, and an infield single to Jared Walsh after throwing just six pitches. After Luis Rengifo grounded out, but advanced the runners, Jose Rojas delivered a single to left that plated Gosselin. But Seth Brown’s throw to the plate–with Walsh held at third–sailed over Gomes at the plate and to the backstop. That pinned an error on Brown, freed up Walsh, and allowed the Angels to tie the game.

Just that quick–after 10 pitches–Romo was done, and Trivino was summoned. On six pitches, Trivino struck out Max Stassi and Jack Mayfield (both looking) to keep the Angels from grabbing a lead.

“It’s demoralizing to give up the lead,” Melvin said. “You have to go back out there and work for it again and they did. It doesn’t surprise me.”

In the tenth with the lead, Trivino did it again. He got David Fletcher to ground out, Brandon Marsh to ground into a fielder’s choice, wiping out Mayfield, the runner placed at second to start the inning. Then he got Kean Wong to fly out to end it, all done with eight pitches.

In five outings ending September 4, Trivino allowed runs in each appearance, all in games that the A’s ended up losing. That cost Trivino his closer’s role. But this week, he’s been better: despite allowing five hits combined in appearances Wednesday and Friday, he posted two holds and a win.

“Huge for him kind of getting back to what he’s been doing here for the better part of the season,” Melvin said. “Great for us, great for his confidence and obviously the timeliness of it was huge.”

The A’s open up a four-game set with Seattle at the Coliseum on Monday night. Sean Manaea will be opposed by the Mariners’ Tyler Anderson, who’s allowed three home runs and five walks in his two most recent starts and has a 6-9 record on the season.