It’s not often that you can trace a dynasty back to its starting point, especially in baseball. It’s usually some sort of roster move: a group of young players getting called up, a big free agent acquisition, something in that vein. A moment that slides by the casual fan and can be traced back to a mundane transactions page somewhere in the depths of Fangraphs or Baseball Almanac. Rarely, if ever, can the big bang of an empire be witnessed on the field of play. But that’s exactly what happened when the Atlanta Braves hosted the San Francisco Giants on October 10th, 2010.
It was the third game of the National League Division Series, a best-of-five contest. The teams had split the first two games, so game three was played in Atlanta and would determine who would take control of the series. When the ninth inning of the game began, Atlanta was up 2–1. An old baseball-ism goes: “If you’re struggling, the ball will find you.” This was especially true for Braves second baseman Brooks Conrad, who had already committed two errors in the game. Craig Kimbrel had gotten the first two outs but had also given up the tying run. And Peter Moylan came in to face rookie catcher Buster Posey, who hit a hard ground ball up the middle. Conrad had a read on the ball quickly, and moved into position. Glove the ball, routine throw, take it to extras. Instead…
The silence in Turner Field was deafening. The Braves weren’t just on their heels—they were tumbling backwards off of them. They would never recover, and would lose control over the series. It’s easy to say the Braves lost the series, but looking back, one can’t help but wonder: did they? Or was something special happening here?
The Giants would advance to the NLCS to face the—you guessed it—heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies, once again being cast as the “happy to be there” bunch. Philadelphia was in their third straight Championship Series, and just two years removed from their most recent World Series title. The Phillies rotation was considered the best in baseball, led by Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay, who had just no-hit the Reds in the Divisional Series. Their lineup was just as formidable, headed up by slugger Ryan Howard and a middle infield tandem of Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. Many expected the Phils to make quick work of the wide-eyed rookies and move on to another World Series. That’s…not exactly what happened.
The Giants gave the mighty Phillies everything they could handle, and just a smidge more. They would take the NLCS in six games, eking by with a composite box score of 20–19. Every game except one was decided by three runs or less (the Phillies took game two 6–1), with some games having as many as five lead changes. David had taken Goliath. Onward to the World Series, their first appearance in eight years. The World Series was almost a nonevent: the tidal wave had already crested, with its sights set on Arlington, Texas. The Rangers were a formidable team, but simply could not fend off the surging Giants. They were defeated handily—shut out twice during the five-game series, and outscored 29–12 in the process. Tim Lincecum of the Giants hoisted the World Series trophy, completing their magical run and bringing San Francisco its first ever World Series title. Edgar Renteria was named the MVP—but just as in the season that brought them there, it was the core that made it happen.
It’s a nice story, right? Well, it’s only beginning…
2012: The Return
Informed by a disappointing 2011—star catcher Buster Posey missed almost the entire season with a broken leg suffered in a home-plate collision—many in the industry didn’t exactly peg the Giants as favorites to make another run at a title, or even to make the playoffs. The core of the team had not changed drastically since 2010. But they didn’t have the horsepower to win it the first time, so why would anyone pick them again, especially after they finished eight games behind the Diamondbacks the season before? Ya know, hindsight and all of that…
Instead, they took the NL West with authority, winning 94 games along the way—thanks to superb efforts from Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval, and the mended Buster Posey. Posey, in fact, took the NL batting crown, hitting .336 and driving in over 104 runs. Just as in 2010, the baseball world wasn’t quite sure what to do with these Giants, who were no longer the wide-eyed “happy to be there” bunch they were just two years ago. They were back, and they were out for blood.
But they didn’t exactly look ready to hunt when they faced the Cincinnati Reds in the NLDS. Cincinnati handily took the first two games, outscoring the Giants 14–2 in the process, which put San Francisco’s back against the wall immediately. It was at this point that the wiry, awkward Hunter Pence would become the team’s spiritual ringleader. Pence (despite only going 4–20 with four singles at the plate) became a source of inspiration for the Giants: under his leadership, the team began to take charge. The Giants would storm back to win the next three in a row, taking the series from the stunned Reds. The Giants would face defending World Series Champions the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship series. The Cardinals were coming off of an epic World Series win the previous season, and although they scuffled during the regular season, accruing only an 88–74 record, they (much like the Giants) had risen to the occasion every time. Hunter Pence once again assumed the role of ring leader, giving the team inspirational speeches before each game.
At first, it seemed maybe it wasn’t working; maybe the team had met its match. The Cards took three of the first four games of the series, thanks to timely hitting by St. Louis stars Carlos Beltran and Matt Carpenter, coupled with strong pitching performances by Adam Wainright and Kyle Losche. The Giants once again had their back against the wall, and called upon their struggling lefty, Barry Zito. His last appearance had resulted in four labored innings in the NLDS against the Reds, and he was looking for redemption. What he did was pitch seven shutout innings and breathe new life into the Giants. They won game six by a score of 6–1, which set up the grandest of all events: game seven.
The winner goes to the World Series. The loser becomes an extra in the drama of the season. It was the third inning. The Giants were already leading 2–0 and had chased Kyle Losche from the game with the bases loaded. From the on-deck circle, Hunter Pence sauntered to the batters box. And what happened next was, well…magical.
I affectionately refer to this as “The Triple-Double Incident” because it’s just so ridiculous. The ball hit his bat THREE times and just sort of rolled off the end. Only Hunter Pence could ever accomplish such a feat. It broke the game open, and we were treated to one of the most dramatic final outs of a decisive postseason game. As the rain began to fall in San Francisco, the Giants advanced to the World Series.
Much like in 2010, the World Series was not much more than a footnote for the Cardiac Kids in San Fran. The Tigers didn’t stand much of a chance against the Giants pitching staff, so the mighty bats of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder were silent, managing to scrape just six runs across the plate over a four-game sweep. The Giants had taken both their postseason series to the final game, and needed just the minimum to bring home their second title in three years. https://youtu.be/Zjtoh8hlZEU Do you believe yet?
As the 2014 season opened, many were predicting a solid, but not spectacular team to complete the “even year magic” cycle. Many of the same players who brought the Giants its titles in 2010 and 2012 remained on the team, which fueled the unoptimistic predictions. By now, though, the pundits were wise enough to pick them for a second wild card berth, behind the Dodgers, Nationals, and Cardinals. The team would go on to win 88 games and indeed grab a spot in the NL Wild Card game (by this point a single elimination game) against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The funny thing about play-in games is that they can be unpredictable. In this case, though, the Giants seized control by about the fourth inning, and their folk hero, Madison Bumgarner (more on him later), shut out the Pirates to advance to the NLDS against the Washington Nationals. The Divisional Series is remembered mostly for the second game, which trudged on for 18 innings and over six hours until Brandon Belt skied a Tanner Roark pitch into the seats. The 2–1 victory was mercifully sealed after Hunter Strickland shut the door in the bottom half of the inning.
Though it was a tightly contested series, the Giants ultimately took down the Nats in four games and moved on for a rematch of the 2012 NLCS with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Giants came prepared this time and managed to force the Cardinals’ backs to the wall early, putting them in position to take the series in game five. The game was tied in the bottom of the ninth, when Michael Wacha came in to try and force the game to extra innings (a decision many questioned after the fact, with fireballer Trevor Rosenthal sitting in the bullpen). But he got into trouble early, allowing a single to Brandon Belt and a walk to Pablo Sandoval, which is when Travis Ishikawa came to the plate. The journeyman outfielder had mustered just three home runs all season, so he wasn’t viewed as a power threat—and with one out, Wacha felt better facing him than Sandoval. Oops.
His teammates stormed the field as he shoved them aside to touch the plate, and just like that, as Joe Buck exclaimed into the night for the first time in 63 years: “THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT.” The Giants were on their way to another World Series. Madison Bumgarner earned MVP honors, pitching 15.2 innings and allowing only three runs while striking out 12 Cardinals along the way. The stone-faced pitcher continued to add to his postseason legacy as the Giants set their sights on Kansas City.
FINALLY: a World Series in this story that isn’t just a footnote. The Giants had established themselves as the favorite going into the Series—at this point, why would you bet against them? For the third time in six years, a virtually unchanged team had overcome the odds to make it to the big stage. The world simply said, “Yep, we get it.” And just like that, David had become Goliath. They were facing the scrappy Kansas City Royals, a team with a killer bullpen and a small-ball style of play—dubbed “YostBall” after their stoic manager, Ned Yost. The Royals reminded many of the 2010 Giants: not a lot of star power, but timely plays when they mattered. Now they would try to beat the Giants at their own game, and they almost did. The teams would trade wins for the first four games of the Series, each team blowing out the other in due course. San Francisco opened the series with an 11–4 win only to see the Royals counter with a 7–2 win the next night. The Giants seemed to take control of the Series, winning the fourth and fifth games and forcing the Royals into a possible elimination in Game 6. Instead, the Royals would trounce the Giants in a 10–0 effort, bringing on a seventh and deciding game.
Tim Hudson was slated to start the seventh game. However the sturdy veteran couldn’t escape the second inning, and after giving up two runs, he was relieved by Jeremy Affeldt, who pitched two-and-a-third innings, allowing only one hit throughout. Bruce Bochy had a choice to make. His team had taken a one-run lead in the fifth inning of the last game of the season, and that lead had to be protected at all costs. Enter Madison Bumgarner. The burly hurler came in and promptly retired 14 of the next 15 batters he faced, taking that precious lead to the ninth inning. He struck out Eric Hosmer to start the inning. Two outs to go. Designated hitter Billy Butler was next; he popped out to foul ground. One out to go. Left fielder Alex Gordon came to the plate. He lifted a ball into left center, and it just about evaporated…
Alex Gordon was 90 feet from taking it all away, yet he was held at third. The unflappable Bumgarner composed himself and stared down Salvador Perez to try and lock up the win. He did…because of course he did. And the Giants celebrated.
Dynasty. Even Year Magic. Call it what you want: it’s…historic.