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Don Mattingly had dodged questions all week about these Los Angeles Dodgers against those San Francisco Giants, about the long (and possibly naïve) view of burying the Giants and winning a division a full month before the season would end, and then Wednesday night happened.
He went to the mound in the ninth inning to see Clayton Kershaw, to see if 127 pitches in a one-run game weren't quite enough for his ace, what with two Giants on the bases and one out still undone.
"How am I doing. I'm good. That was about it," Kershaw recalled of a meeting he had little use for.
The distance between the two teams would be 4½ games or 6½, depending perhaps on what happened over the next few minutes, so Mattingly nodded, and a handful of men in the bullpen looked on (closer Kenley Jansen, who'd pitched the previous two nights, was not warming), and four infielders and a catcher returned to their positions, and Kershaw threw five more pitches. The last – his 132nd, as many as he'd ever thrown in a professional game – was a slider. The result – his 15th strikeout, tying a career high – brought a 2-1 win, a sweep of the Giants and an admission from Mattingly.
"It's not the last, last, last day," he said. "But I do know if you've got these guys down at all you want to keep them there."
Those nights when he took the ball from Kershaw a few pitches sooner than many – including maybe Kershaw – would have liked, or even an inning or more sooner, Mattingly said, were for this, a September game against the defending World Series champions that the Dodgers, or the Giants, would never get back.
"You want to save the bullets," Mattingly said, "for when you want to let him go."
At the end of a three-game series that resulted in three one-run wins for the Dodgers, the Giants were left with a seven-game deficit in the loss column and 29 games to make them up. The wild card might not save them either; the deficit is the same there.
So, perhaps, after five months, some of them awkward, some of them oddly mediocre, the Dodgers had begun to flex their financial might. That was Kershaw. That was Chase Utley, whom the Giants also sought in mid-August. That was a run-scoring double by Carl Crawford.
It seemed the Dodgers' money would bring something more, I don't know, convincing. Maybe they're getting to that.
The Giants aren't paupers. Their payroll is about $170 million, so slightly less than – or within a long reach of – the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
They just look a little ratty next to the Dodgers, who have the biggest house on the block. (The Dodgers also stuffed the front lawn with statues. And the grass is screw-you-drought over-watered. And the hedges are shaped like zoo animals. And the Christmas lights are still up. It's busy.)
That said, the Giants showed up at Dodger Stadium on Monday night with an opening to toilet-paper the hippo shrub, and for three nights could not negotiate the koi pond.
They were 3½ games back in the NL West. The Dodgers were down Howie Kendrick and Yasiel Puig. They'd been no-hit once a week for two weeks. And, besides, the Giants had beaten them already nine times in 12 tries. This is what the Giants do. They're surprisingly, some would say annoyingly, competitive for six months, and then they're unbeatable in the seventh month. Happens all the time.
This week, the first in September, appeared to be the ideal week for them to do what they do – pitch a little, make a play or two, roll a hit into a gap, rattle around in somebody else's bullpen – and make the bloated, disjointed Dodgers uncomfortable. They'd need to win at least two games, maybe three, to achieve that, starting Monday night, when the Dodgers' starting pitcher was known as Not Greinke Or Kershaw. Also, the Giants had acquired an outfielder in late summer, which meant Marlon Byrd would be their newest hero, because that happens all the time, too.
By Wednesday evening, in his dugout, Giants manager Bruce Bochy was talking about the close plays that had gone against him, the close calls, the pivotal moments. It's amazing about the game, really, that he would witness tens of thousands of pitches, so that many opportunities, over five months, and a few – less than a handful – from the previous 48 hours would ride him so.
"They've been good games," Bochy said before Kershaw would take the ball for the third game of the series. "They have. You hate to lose one-run games. But, didn't play out.
"We're behind. We need to win games. Obviously it hasn't gone well and now we have a little steeper hill to climb."
Five-and-a-half games, at that point.
Several hours later, as the Giants went into the bottom of the sixth inning tied 1-1 with Kershaw, and the Dodgers unable to muster much against Mike Leake, the series had already turned in two somewhat unlikely places.
A changeup by Yusmeiro Petit in the 14th inning Monday.
A swing by Joc Pederson in the seventh inning Tuesday.
It's maybe not where you'd expect this particular Giants-Dodgers series to go, though it was Adrian Gonzalez who hit that changeup over the left fielder's head, and it was Madison Bumgarner who made the pitch that eventually sailed over the center-field wall. Those were the places where the Dodgers won, and the Giants lost, on Monday and Tuesday nights, before Kershaw went big and Utley short-stroked a home run on Wednesday night.
Pederson was batting .212 at the time, minus two fly-outs against Bumgarner, with three home runs in 87 at-bats against left-handed pitchers. Bumgarner had a 2.97 ERA, minus six innings of one-run ball against the Dodgers, and had allowed one home run to 117 prior left-handed hitters.
Bumgarner threw a full-count fastball. It cleared the fence by a couple feet. The Dodgers won 2-1.
"Got a pitch and didn't miss it, simple as that," said Pederson, who for a few months has had his fill of the alternative. "I got one pitch in that at-bat. I didn't miss it."
Why then? Why that pitch in that game against that pitcher?
"I wish I knew," he said.
He'd back-footed that ball, circled the bases hard and fast, and arrived in the dugout to a violent hug from hitting coach Mark McGwire. He'd been working on that swing. That result.
The night before, Petit had walked into an awful situation. The bases were loaded in the 14th inning. There were none out. Gonzalez, the one hitter the Giants had hoped to avoid in a tepid Dodgers lineup, was waiting. Petit had thrown a single pitch, turned, watched the ball get small in the other direction, and went straight to the clubhouse.
"A changeup," he said, nodding.
The Dodgers won 5-4.
"I started him with a changeup because it's the one pitch I throw that stays down and away from a lefty," he said. "I thought he'd be waiting for a curveball or a fastball. So I tried to stay down in the zone, opposite side of the plate. For a ball."
Soft spoken, Petit shook his head.
"He's smart, man," he said. "Really smart."
By the time the marquee lit up, and Kershaw stepped from stage left, the Giants had lost five in a row, the Dodgers had won eight of nine, and a few days in L.A. might have beaten the Giants for good. We'll know more in a few weeks, when the Dodgers get to San Francisco for four games, the last of which is on Oct. 1.
The Giants are pretty good in October. They'll see about September.