The San Francisco Giants sat atop the National League West with an eight-game lead on June 26.
Cut to September 29, and the division throne has been claimed by none other than the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Giants have just four games left to hoist themselves into a Wild Card slot — they currently hold the second, with the Cardinals one game behind them.
A 57-33 first-half record was smothered by a 26-42 second half and soon the Giants found themselves staring into the eyes of elimination.
It’s difficult to fathom the kind of epic collapse this team is skating on. There are few moments in history that can even compare.
The Golden State Warriors blew that 3-1 Finals lead this June, and the Bay Area had to sit and watch in horror as the rock that once looked so sturdy, cracked, and took a beloved team with. The Warriors’ demise happened in a flash, quick and painful.
Other baseball comparisons come close.
The 2011 Boston Red Sox had a 55-35 first-half record, spent 60 days in first place and held a nine-game lead in the Wild Card race. But they slipped into a 20-loss September and lost their once-assured playoff spot in a final, ninth-inning loss to the Baltimore Orioles.
Before that fateful game, the Sox were 77-0 in games they led after eight innings. But one ninth-inning disaster in the final game of the season cost them everything.
The Giants are living in an inverse parallel, of sorts, slipping through the ranks mostly by their inability to conquer that ninth inning — on the mound and at the plate.
The bullpen and the ninth inning
The Giants kicked off the second half with a cool, fresh new way to lose: a Santiago Casilla balk-off lost versus the Padres.
The bullpen went into complete meltdown mode after that, blowing 12 more saves, which pushed them to an MLB-high and franchise-high 30 blown saves in 2016.
Preserving leads has been an issue all season, the Giants led the league in blown saves in the first half (17) compared to a 13 in the second half.
Three other teams have blown it a couple more times than the Giants in the second half, something that would surely surprise the casual observer.
But the magnitude of the late losses in September seem to have amplified the issue. The Giants held a one-run lead in the ninth against the mighty Chicago Cubs on September 4 when Casilla gave up the game-tying RBI single to Jason Heyward. The Cubs took it to the 13th inning before walking off.
And so a September theme was born: the Giants gave the Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers a shot at a ninth-inning comeback and they all obliged.
Santiago Casilla blew five saves in the second half, three in September, and the Giants offense could only salvage one of them.
Derek Law, once the rubber cement that held bullpen hopes intact, lost some juice on his fastball velocity and the rest of the Giants bullpen had trouble making up the key outs. Relievers lived out-by-out and any established roles became completely mired in Bochy’s desperate attempt to salvage a game matchup by matchup.
Nine total ninth-inning losses stand especially tall if you look at the NL West standings. Those close-game-wins-turned-losses could have made up the difference between a go at the division and a brutal battle for one Wild Card spot.
But that’s baseball.
We’ve re-lived the season’s most nausea-inducing moments, let’s move on to the positives.
Sergio Romo is back, it seems, and ready to take on the black hole. The closer’s spot.
He recorded his first save of the season in the Giant’s latest win against the Dodgers and notched two more in a pair of appearances thereafter. Bochy won’t fully, verbally, commit to Romo as his closer, but that seems to be the direction he’s headed.
The ninth inning and a woeful offense
The Giants are 0-62 in games in which they’ve trailed after eight innings.
And so a lopsided pair of numbers capture this team’s struggles: they’re inability to claw back into games. It’s something Bruce Bochy noticed after the team couldn’t make due with a ninth inning leadoff double in a critical game against the Colorado Rockies, couldn’t turn the tides with the go-ahead run at the plate:
“That’s been our thing in the ninth, finding a way to win games and that just hasn’t happened. … That’s something that makes a season, when you can pull games out like that.”
It’s a shortcoming the team glossed over with some unlikely wins in the first half, but has grown into a visible bald spot on these decrepit final months. It’s why even a postseason berth will leave fans uninspired, thinking “where’s the team’s comeback spirit?”
The offensive production, in general, has slid slightly between halves.
This team has seven walk-off wins. All of them came in the first half. They have six walk-off losses, five of them came in the second-half.
Four games remain in this lopsided 2016 season, and the Giants have a real shot at the postseason.
They also have a shutdown starting rotation, an elite defense and three successful postseason runs flashing behind them as they approach the gate.
“They could be cold for the whole second half and get hot just at the right time.”
The Giants have four more games to secure their spot in the postseason, and they know better than any other team how to play under the October lights.