Cody Bellinger probably would have had a better season if he’d hit right-handed all year. Long one of the premier power hitters in the game, the 2019 National League MVP closed out the 2021 campaign with a slash line of .165/.240/.302. His bat had slowed to near-uselessness; including the postseason, he has only 10 hits off pitches 95 miles per hour or faster.
224 players batted as often as Cody Bellinger this season. Bellinger ranked 223rd in park-adjusted offense.
Of course he’d come up with the biggest hit of the season.
— Zach Kram (@zachkram) October 15, 2021
Camilo Doval is one of the few humans on earth blessed with the capacity to throw a baseball 100 miles per hour. Yet facing Bellinger with one out in the top of the ninth, with NLDS Game 5 tied and the go-ahead run on second base, Doval didn’t throw a single fastball. Instead, the Giants rookie delivered four straight sliders. Bellinger saw 20 pitches in Game 5, 17 of them off-speed pitches or breaking balls, and fouled off 10 of the first 16. The 17th he lined through the shift to score Justin Turner.
Bellinger’s clutch RBI single made it a 2-1 game, a score that would hold until the end of the Giants’ season. Max Scherzer, who took the loss in a blustery Game 3, inserted himself in the bottom of the ninth in an attempt to earn his first MLB save. He worked around an error and a frighteningly long foul ball from pinch hitter LaMonte Wade Jr., and struck out Wilmer Flores to end the series.
Strike three came on an egregious blown checked-swing call by first-base umpire Gabe Morales. Flores, who also struck out for the Mets to end the 2015 World Series, had no recourse. The Giants—who won more games than any other NL team in 35 years, who gave the juggernaut Dodgers all they could handle and then some, who were close to perfect from Opening Day until Doval plunked Turner in the top of the ninth—are going home.
They deserved better. Certainly on the season-ending call, which punctuated nine innings of capricious strike zone judgment from plate umpire Doug Eddings. But more generally, these Giants were better than a one-and-done team.
Despite having to play the Dodgers 19 times, the Giants finished with the best record in baseball, a game ahead of Los Angeles and 12 ahead of any other NL team. Their reward: Playing the second-best team in the league in the divisional round. If the Giants had stayed in New York, perhaps they would’ve won 120 games in a division populated by the helpless and hapless, and avoided a matchup with the Dodgers until the NLCS.
For almost a decade, the NL playoff picture has been about finding a team that can stand toe-to-toe with the Dodgers, or at least rock-paper-scissors their way through one of the few Los Angeles weaknesses. This year, that team was supposed to be the Padres, who entered 2021 with massive hype and ended as the league’s biggest disappointment.
Into that void stepped a Giants roster full of old guys, backups, and reclamation projects, expected to finish closer to the NL West cellar than the playoffs. Given the humongous gulf in preseason expectations between the two clubs, one would have expected a Giants-Dodgers playoff series to be a David-and-Goliath affair.
On the contrary, the Giants and Dodgers finished first and second in the NL in both runs scored and runs allowed. After the NLDS, both have won 109 games this year, and split the season series 12-12. This wasn’t David and Goliath. This was Goliath and Other Goliath.
The Dodgers got to the playoffs in a familiar fashion, with familiar faces and splashy trade deadline acquisitions. The Giants, having remade their roster in the five years since their last postseason berth, had to carve out a new path. It was fascinating to watch that path unfold. The old guys—Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, and Evan Longoria—found new life. The Giants picked up Kris Bryant from the Cubs for a handful of magic beans; after a tumultuous end to his time in Chicago, Bryant regained his joie de vivre in black and orange. And San Francisco’s backups and reclamation projects turned into ass-kickers and flame-throwers.
Every new call-up, no matter how anonymous beforehand, added something unique and essential. Doval yo-yoed between Triple-A and the majors before emerging as the closer in an excellent bullpen. Darin Ruf, who played in Korea from 2017 to 2019, posted a .904 OPS and hit his longest home run of the year in the biggest game of his life. Wade, who nearly won Game 5 off the bench, produced one clutch hit after another, earning him the coolest new nickname of 2021: Late Night LaMonte. And the heroes don’t end there: Take Kevin Gausman and Alex Wood, Tyler Rogers and Dominic Leone, Steven Duggar and Austin Slater.
Up until the final inning of the season, you could see the Giants’ magic at work. Logan Webb, a 24-year-old sinkerballer with a face like an English middleweight and a changeup heavier than God’s kettlebells, picked up right where he’d left off in Game 1. With the season on the line, no room for error, and the entire country watching, he flummoxed the vaunted Dodgers lineup for seven astonishing innings, allowing just four hits and one run while striking out seven. Said Bellinger after the game: “He shoved it up our butts twice.” We were one inning away from Webb entering the NLCS as this postseason’s breakout star, though he was so good in his two starts that he might claim that title anyway.
Multiple outings of 7+ innings and no more than 5 H, 1 R in a single Division Series:
2021 – Logan Webb
2019 – Gerrit Cole
2013 – Justin Verlander
2012 – Justin Verlander
1981 – Jerry Reuss
— Andrew Simon (@AndrewSimonMLB) October 15, 2021
But in Game 5, the Dodgers’ pitching staff was just as impenetrable as Webb was. If Bellinger had never straightened out Doval’s slider, if Wade had been able to keep his ninth-inning missile fair, if Flores hadn’t been so cruelly robbed of his last strike, the Giants could be on to the NLCS, and would most likely be the favorites to win the World Series.
Even in defeat, the Giants erased any lingering doubts as to whether they were as good as their 107-win record suggested. But that’s cold comfort considering how much fight this team had left in it, how much story the likes of Webb and Crawford and Bryant seemed to have remaining in their magical playoff narratives.
Nobody ever expects a team to score off Scherzer, but up until the instant Flores was called out, it seemed like Bryant would find a way to come around from first to tie the game. The Giants had that kind of season.
Unfortunately, playoff baseball is a zero-sum enterprise. It doesn’t matter that these were the two best teams in the league, or that the decisive game was a heart-scrambling affair that cries out for a rematch. It doesn’t matter that the most improbable story in the sport ends with a check swing where the bat barely left Flores’s shoulder. Only one team can advance. It’s cold, it’s brutal, it’s unfair. But it’s baseball.