LOS ANGELES – Near the end now, in about the last place on earth they'd have it end, the San Francisco Giants stepped around the inevitable.
"We're still breathing," manager Bruce Bochy said, "but …"
Charming as World Series champion misfits and castoffs, thong-stretchers and freaks, cartoon characters and incorrigibles, the Giants are ordinary as National League West runners-up.
Just another team missing a part or two, whiffing the big moments, running out of baseball season.
They'll lose a handful of games they didn't as division winners, however. Barring a miracle, the kind that even they can't believe in anymore, they'll be one-termers, champions one season and home for October the next. They won't even play for their repeat.
They were beat up and run over and exposed. Some of it was bad luck. Some of it was misguided faith. They could not protect second-year catcher Buster Posey(notes) from the game any more than they could entrust their season to a lineup so offensively frail.
The spirit of 2010, when hits fell in the name of destiny and their pitching staff required only a couple runs – three tops – had been lost to exhausting expectations, demoralizing injuries, down years and a weekly reality show.
Instead, the Giants awoke in their Pasadena hotel Wednesday morning 4½ games behind the Atlanta Braves for the National League wild card, and 5½ games behind the league's new darlings – the Arizona Diamondbacks – in the West. An eight-game winning streak had died against Clayton Kershaw(notes) on Tuesday night, their fifth loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander, the first on opening day, the last pushing them near elimination.
At the most pivotal moment at Dodger Stadium, the Giants had worked Kershaw just hard enough to chase him from the game with 115 pitches one out into the eighth inning. Bochy had made his play, the one he'd prepared for two hours. With two on, he pinch-hit Pablo Sandoval(notes) against right-handed reliever Kenley Jansen(notes). Sandoval was batting .364 in September, but a shoulder injury has left the switch-hitter nearly useless against left-handers. He'd sat against Kershaw, waiting for a right-hander and a meaningful at-bat. Against Jansen, he struck out on three pitches. Carlos Beltran(notes), batting over .400 in September, followed. He, too, struck out, without lifting the bat from his shoulder.
A ballpark cast quiet and dreary for most of the summer, Dodger Stadium nearly burst from the joy. Lincecum would lose again to Kershaw, and afterward back Kershaw for the NL Cy Young award.
And the Giants would mourn the hit that did not come, the baserunners who would not score, and what it's done to their season.
In the end, few teams were less adept at putting runners in scoring position, and no team in baseball batted worse than their .220 once they got them there.
By late Tuesday night, the winning streak appeared to be nothing but a September tease. The Braves and St. Louis Cardinals had won ahead of them. The Diamondbacks lost, but so had the Giants, and another day was gone.
Tim Flannery, the third-base coach and mystic philosopher, poked at the dugout floor with a fungo bat, jabbing at answers just out of reach. As a team, the Giants pitched even better than they had a year ago, when they led the league in ERA, but they'd lost even the minimal ability to support that with runs or defensive sturdiness. All that indefinable stuff that made them winners, made them champions, made them rock stars, that too had dissolved.
"It takes a lot of things to go right," Flannery said. "It takes an energy – a sustained energy. A relentless flow of the positive river, is what Javy Lopez calls it."
For all the numbers, baseball is still played from within. For all the roster spots, the game can turn on one player, and one tangled play at the plate. The Giants know that most of all, having learned even more about last season through this one.
"There's this total belief that this is your time," Flannery said. "There has to be, because this is such a tough game."
They're not giving it up just yet. Like Bochy said, they're still breathing. But, they're realistic. This will be someone else's time. The game has all but convinced them of that. They didn't play as well as often. They were booed at home. They weren't quite as charming, they learned, when they didn't win.
"This year," Lincecum said, "it's hard not to think about what people are thinking and what people are saying. You play well, it's expected. If not …"
In 17 starts since late June his ERA is 1.90. The Giants won eight of those games. It's just the way it's gone, the way it'll likely end.
"I'm worried about getting us back there," he said.
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