The underdog Giants have been here before

PHILADELPHIA — When he bought the tickets seven months ago, Jeff Passama, a Giants fan who arrived early to the 1 p.m. San Francisco-Philadelphia series finale to stand with his son and a Sharpie down the third baseline, didn’t think he’d be watching his team play meaningful baseball. August 1, especially this year, is a risky time to go see your favorite bad baseball team. By then, they might have shipped out anyone worth seeing. That was the fear, anyway, among Giants fans the first three months of the season. Buy tickets for August or September, and you’ll be seeing an ace-less team at its nadir, paying the price in star power for having won three championships in five years and never really committing to a rebuild since.

That was before they went 19-6 in July, posting the best record in baseball, to pull within two games of a wild-card spot in the crowded National League field and making it a lot harder on their new general manager to justify flipping major league talent for an investment later on. Making it harder, that is, to trade Madison Bumgarner.

Farhan Zaidi wouldn’t say as much — only going so far as to say that their hot streak “changes the equation a little bit” and otherwise refusing to comment on specific players — but the point is that on Aug. 1, the Giants still had Bumgarner, they still had their closer, Will Smith, and they were playing a team just ahead of them in the wild-card hunt.

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The San Francisco Giants went 19-6 in July, posting the best record in baseball, to pull within two games of a wild-card spot in the crowded National League field. (Getty Images)
The San Francisco Giants went 19-6 in July, posting the best record in baseball, to pull within two games of a wild-card spot in the crowded National League field. (Getty Images)

“Now I’m stoked that we got tickets when we did,” Passama told Yahoo Sports.

Granted, Thursday wasn’t a great day for Giants fans. They never even got to see Smith as the team fell 10-2 in a blowout, ending a streak of eight straight series wins. But early in the afternoon, fans were dreaming big about what the recent run could mean.

“I think after the Mets series it started to feel like they have that magic that they had back in 2010, ’12, ’14,” said Joshua Gregory, a fan from the New York area. Two weeks ago, the Giants won three games, all in extras, in a four-game series at home against the New York Mets.

“We’re gonna make a run like we did in 2014, it has that feeling,” Passama said. “They’re gonna make the wild card, and from there it’s magic.”

***

Shortly after the deadline on July 31, Bumgarner was his usual laconic self about his role as the biggest move that wasn’t made.

“Nothings changed for me.”

“I never expect to be anywhere else until that happens.”

“I feel the exact same.”

Up until a few weeks ago, it had seemed inevitable that Bumgarner — who spent the first decade of his career in San Francisco, playing an increasingly pivotal role in each successive championship season — would be traded to a contender with a need for another arm (which is to say: a contender).

Did he gain any new insight from an extra 20 hours to ruminate about what could be seen as a referendum on the front office’s faith in this team’s ability to make Bumgarner’s last season worth giving up a potential trade return? Does it feel any different to come to the ballpark on the day after the deadline?

“No.”

On the day he turned 30, Bumgarner was still very much his old self — that is, a self-described “just-cross-the-bridge-when-I-get-there kind of guy.”

He perked up talking about the importance of stamina now that the bullpen has been thinned out by the trades that were made and the pride he takes in his own ability to go deep into games. Characteristically, he resisted the implication that this particular part of his skill set on the mound, and his prominence in franchise history, serves to set an example of grit for other guys in the rotation and around the clubhouse.

But, of course, it does. As Bumgarner goes, so do the Giants.

“The fact that we can keep Bum, who’s a leader on our staff, he sets a tone,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. It’s not just that his teammates are happy to keep their ace — although, of course, they are — it’s that keeping Bumgarner, and Smith, too, means playing meaningful baseball down the stretch. “There’s a sense of confidence in the clubhouse that ownership believes in us.”

Madison Bumgarner was not traded at the deadline and is still a member of the San Francisco Giants. (AP)
Madison Bumgarner was not traded at the deadline and is still a member of the San Francisco Giants. (AP)

Or maybe it means that the price for anything but the most elite starter plummeted at the last minute — see: the return on Marcus Stroman — and playoff-bound teams got a little too comfortable coasting into October with the rotations they already had. Either way, the end result is the same in the Giants’ clubhouse: hope.

Even in the absence of a blockbuster, the Giants were fairly busy at the deadline. They traded away four relievers — Mark MelanconDrew PomeranzRay BlackSam Dyson — and were replaced with a number of pitchers called up from Triple-A, including career minor leaguer Sam Selman. And even without moving a key piece, they were able to improve their long term outlook by picking up a major league-ready infielder in Mauricio Dubon and a handful of other minor leaguers, to go along with veteran second baseman Scooter Gennett.

Evan Longoria contrasted the feeling this year with what happened in 2018 when the Giants traded Andrew McCutchen on Aug. 31. “We hadn’t had a run like we had this year, but we weren’t that far out of a wild card either,” he said. “We kind of had a feeling like, we could get hot and potentially do something cool. And then when you lose a piece like that it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re trying to rebuild.’”

And this time around?

“I guess the simple answer is: I feel like we’re going for it because we didn’t give Bum up,” Longoria said. “If you give Bum or Will up, either of those pieces, that’s kind of like the fold-the-table-up chip. I think keeping those guys is pretty significant because we probably sacrificed some leverage with both of those guys heading into the offseason to give ourselves a chance this year.”

A chance, sure. After the loss on Thursday, the Giants’ postseason odds were at 4.8 percent, according to Fangraphs. You wouldn’t bet on those odds, and the clubhouse knows it.

“We’re still the same team we were,” Pablo Sandoval said. “The underdogs.”

But they would. Guys like Sandoval, they’ve been here before.

“My expectation is: Don’t sleep on us,” he said. “Every moment reminds me of 2014 when every guy that came to the plate, I know that guy can get a hit to win the game. That’s the feeling we got right now.”

Bochy, who is managing in his final season with the Giants after announcing his impending retirement in spring training, knows that feeling well. But he wasn’t thinking about the pressure or even the renewed expectations that holding on to key pieces might put on the team when he first talked to Bumgarner after 4 p.m. Eastern time came and went on Wednesday.

“I told him, ‘You know how happy I am that you’re gonna finish it up with me.’”

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