Baseball is not a fair sport. With the way the playoff bracket was set up at the beginning of the postseason, Major League Baseball guaranteed that at least one team that won over 100 games would not be playing past the League Division Series. When Chris Taylor cranked a slider over the left field fence at Dodger Stadium last Thursday, an NLDS battle between the 107-55 Giants and 106-56 Dodgers was confirmed, and the teams with the two best records would meet before the Championship Series.
This series was close all year, from the checked swings to the home run robberies. The Giants notably won the season series 10-9, and the Dodgers still managed to outscore them by 2 runs. After the trade deadline, when the Dodgers acquired three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and All-Star shortstop Trea Turner from the Nationals, they won 44 games in a mad chase for their ninth consecutive division title. The Giants, with the help of the newly acquired Kris Bryant, won 43 games in that same time frame to hold off the Dodgers and win their first division title since 2012. The pennant race was exhilarating, as the division crown came down to the final day of the regular season. These two were clearly meant to meet in October.
The first game of the series was all Giants, as Logan Webb, in his first postseason start ever, shut down the Dodgers lineup to the tune of zero runs, zero walks, five hits, and ten strikeouts in 7.2 innings of work. Offensively, the Giants were lifted by home runs from Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey, and Kris Bryant. Game 2 was the opposite, with the Dodgers pummeling the Giants by 7 runs, behind doubles from Cody Bellinger and A.J. Pollock in the sixth inning to drive in 4 runners. Game 3 was a different kind of battle, as both the Dodgers and Giants had to deal with wind blowing 15 mph in Dodger Stadium, and in a classic pitcher’s duel between Scherzer and Alex Wood, the Giants stood tall thanks to an Evan Longoria homer for the only run of the game. Needing a win to stay alive, the Dodgers turned to star pitcher Walker Buehler, who pitched on short rest for the first time in his career. A gutsy performance from Buehler and home runs from Mookie Betts and Will Smith sent the titans of the NL West back to Oracle Park, to finish perhaps the best rivalry in the majors this year in a winner take-all, do or die Game 5.
The intrigue for Game 5 started building hours before, as Dave Roberts announced that instead of turning to Julio Urías, who had experience pitching for the Dodgers in the postseason and had an ERA of 2.96 in 2021, he would trust Corey Knebel to take the ball as an opener. This was a bold move from Roberts, who wanted to manipulate Gabe Kapler’s tendencies to platoon by telling him a right handed pitcher was starting and a left hander would also be pitcher. Kapler ultimately did not take the bait, starting 6 right handed hitters in the lineup (including the pitcher).
Webb, who had dominated against the Dodgers in Game 1 at Oracle Park, would be the man on the mound for the Giants, and similar to his first postseason outing, Webb had the Dodgers locked down. However, the opener for the Dodgers would keep the Giants in check as Knebel would pitch a scoreless first. The right hander Brusdar Graterol would follow Knebel in the second and would preserve the shutout despite the traffic on the bases. It was time for Julio Urías to pitch.
The game remained deadlocked at zero until the sixth inning. Mookie Betts, on an 86 mph changeup from Webb, singled to left with an out, and promptly stole second base. Corey Seager would step into the batters’ box next, and doubled on a changeup to left, scoring Betts and breaking the scoreless tie in the sixth. Webb would get the next two outs to escape the inning. Julio Urías, pitching with a lead for the first time all night, served up a 95 mph fastball to the leadoff hitter, Darin Ruf. Ruf, who had crushed lefties all year with a 1.007 OPS, would smack the fastball 452 feet to center field at 110 mph, tying the game for the Giants. Urías would get out of the inning, but the Giants had tied the game and Roberts would turn to his bullpen yet again.
Webb finished the seventh inning, and would exit with only one run allowed on four hits, seven strikeouts, and one walk. Roberts would get a clean seventh from Blake Treinen, keeping the game tied at one, and tension mounting for both sides. Kapler sent out Tyler Rogers, the submarine reliever, to keep the Dodgers’ bats quiet for another frame. Rogers allowed two hits, with Pollock and Betts reaching on singles before striking out Seager. With four outs potentially separating the Giants from a date with the Braves in the NLCS, Kapler went with the rookie Camilo Doval, who down the stretch would take the job of closer for the juggernaut. Doval got the final out of the eighth, with Trea Turner flying out to end the inning.
Kenley Jansen, as he had done many times this season for Los Angeles, followed Blake Treinen and faced three Giants, striking out two of them along with a lineout from Donovan Solano, sending the final game of the series into the ninth inning with both teams tied at 1. Doval came back out for the top of the ninth, and induced a groundout from Will Smith. The very next pitch, Justin Turner would get hit with a 100 mph fastball, putting the winning run for the Dodgers on first. Gavin Lux, the man who nights earlier almost tied Game 3 off Doval, would single on a ground ball to right field, sending Turner to second in the process. The maligned Bellinger approached the plate, and hit a liner to right field, scoring Turner and sending Smith to third. The Dodgers had once again broken the deadlock and took a 2-1 lead. Doval would be replaced by Kevin Gausman as a way to mitigate the damage. Taylor attempted a bunt, and would bunt lineout to first base. Matt Beaty would pinch hit for Kenley Jansen, and grounded out to end the Dodger half of the inning.
The Giants were down to three outs, and knowing that these were the most important three outs of the season for both clubs, the Dodgers sent out their most important pitcher in Scherzer. Crawford lined out to start the inning for San Francisco, then Bryant reached first on an error. Like the Dodgers, the Giants had a runner reach first, with the ability to end the game on one swing. LaMonte Wade Jr., who had gone an absurd 17-29 in the ninth inning or later replaced Austin Slater, and was called out on strikes. The Giants were down to their final out, with Wilmer Flores at the plate, and the ability to walk it off for the Giants and become a franchise legend. Scherzer would get Flores into an 0-2 hole, before the most controversial call of the year.
Scherzer wanted to go to his slider to end the series, a pitch that opponents were striking out on 41.7% of the time on, along with a .190 wOBA entering Game 5. Flores, against sliders struck out 21.1% of the time, and had a .237 wOBA entering Game 5. It was the pitch to try to get the out, as Flores did typically struggle on sliders. Scherzer threw his slider, and it was outside the zone. Flores appeared to check his swing but home plate umpire Doug Eddings was unsure. Eddings then deferred to first base umpire Gabe Morales to determine if Flores checked his swing or not. With a gentle motion of the right arm, Morales made the call. Flores went around. The game was over. The dream season for San Francisco was over, and at the hands of the hated Dodgers. The camera angles on the Flores’ checked swing showed that he did not go around, but the only opinion on the swing that mattered on the field was Morales’. An instant classic postseason game between two major rivals in the National League would end in a cloud of controversy.
All year, the Giants seemingly had the magic touch, with a major league record set in pinch-hit home runs and a franchise record in wins and home runs. They had an amazing season, swiping away the division crown from the Dodgers and overperforming even the most optimistic of expectations. The book on their whimsical 2021 season may be over, but this is a season to be proud of for the organization and their fans. While it may stink to lose the way they did, the Giants were the underdog that upended the mighty Dodgers and held them off to win the division. To do that against a team that won as much as and had as much talent as the Dodgers did is impressive, and the Giants deserve credit. I’ll tip my cap to the 2021 Giants, even as their season ends.
As for the Dodgers, they keep marching on in the postseason, heading to Atlanta to play the Braves, a rematch of last years’ NLCS. It’s a shame that these two teams couldn’t meet in a seven game series, but the five games that we got were insanely close, and victory for the Dodgers was not assured until the final out of the series. Even with the bad ending, these types of games live on in the memories of fans for generations.
Featured Photo of Wilmer Flores courtesy of D. Ross Cameron of USA Today Sports