Although we had flown into San Francisco to start our trip in late March, the first thing we’d done upon picking up our hire car was to head south to Monterey, before embarking on a very long trip around the state that took in several national parks, the majority of the Pacific Coast Highway, and a challenging encounter with the Los Angeles traffic. Instead of the 20 minute, 13.5 mile journey from the airport to AT&T Park, it was therefore almost two weeks, and well over 1000 miles, between landing in California and arriving at the home of the San Francisco Giants. There had certainly been plenty of time for the anticipation to build, but it would be worth the wait. Our tourist activities since arriving in the city included a trip to Alcatraz, which offered its own spectacular views of the bay:
I was no longer a baseball novice, having seen the Athletics defeat the White Sox just the previous evening, but I anticipated that this might be a different experience altogether. The Dodgers were in town, it was a glorious day and AT&T Park was going to be packed with around 40,000 fans, the vast majority of whom wanted one thing: a Giants victory. I had my Giants cap and Tim Lincecum jersey on, ready to be a full-blown fan rather than simply a Billy Beane appreciator.
As soon as we got near the park, it became clear that this would be an altogether different experience from the previous day’s game, in terms of numbers if nothing else. The quantity of fans walking to the park and clustered around the bars and restaurants en route made it something of a challenge to do anything other than move at the same pace as the throng. Once we got to the park, the entrance gates were packed with fans queuing to get in and many more trying to snap up any last minute tickets. The visuals were very different too: where the Coliseum had been all concrete, this was red brick and glass, with palm trees lining the sidewalk and Willie Mays, post-swing, immortalised amidst them.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the exact location of the Giants’ park, it’s on the east side of the city, immediately adjoining San Francisco Bay. That means spectacular views of the Bay Bridge and the entire bay to the east of the city from almost anywhere in the higher decks, and as we were high up in right field, the vista certainly didn’t disappoint:
I had priorities, though. Before any baseball got played, there was one thing I absolutely had to do: try the garlic fries. On the advice of many, including Baron of all baseball podcasts Ryan Sullivan, garlic fries were top of the list of AT&T Park’s attractions. This felt like a lot of pressure to put on some thinly sliced potatoes but I’m happy to confirm that they nonetheless lived up to the billing. The complimentary mints at the counter also presumably save thousands of fans a year from being constantly subjected to garlic breath.
As it was the home opener, the level of pomp and circumstance was higher than might usually be expected, including fireworks, a rendition of ‘God Bless America’, and the unfurling of a giant US flag in the outfield. To honour the memory of recently-deceased Giants great and Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, Irvin’s daughters – also accompanied by Irvin’s teammate Mays – threw out the first pitches. The team ran a video package to mourn the passing of every member of the Giants organisation over the past year, from Irvin and long-serving third baseman Jim Davenport to members of the ballpark team, which was nice – if sad – to see.
The treatment of away fans was markedly different from the A’s game too, in that people actually noticed there were away fans, and they definitely let them know about it. Every time someone wearing a Dodgers shirt or hat appeared on the steps at the bottom of our section, hearty boos and jeers broke out, just in case they’d forgotten what Giants fans think of Dodgers fans.
The first inning was quick but not entirely promising from a Giants perspective. Jake Peavy gave up a hard-hit line drive to Chase Utley that fortunately found Denard Span’s glove, and then surrendered a first-pitch single to Corey Seager, getting out of the inning when Yasiel Puig grounded into a double play on the very next pitch, much to the delight of the crowd (neither Puig or Utley were very popular with large sections of the crowd). With Alex Wood cruising through the bottom half of the first on three weakly-hit balls (albeit one that was an out because Wood’s throw hit Span as he was on his way to first), Peavy was soon back on the mound and giving me the opportunity to reflect on what a good angle we had to see balls hit to the outfield as Adrian Gonzalez smashed one to deep, deep centre…
…and off the top of the wall. The Dodgers first baseman pulled into second standing up, having missed a home run by perhaps two or three feet. Any relief from that was short-lived, as Peavy would give up three consecutive singles to load the bases with one out, the second scoring Gonzalez. It then looked as though Peavy had escaped with just one run allowed after a double-play off Wood’s groundout, but Dave Roberts came striding out of the dugout to challenge, and it emerged that Joe Panik’s foot had come off second base a fraction before he received the ball, meaning that Austin Barnes was safe at second and Joc Pederson had scored. Two-nothing, Los Angeles. Brandon Belt raised hopes of an immediate reply by hitting one almost exactly as far as Gonzalez had done in the top of the inning. Like his fellow first baseman, Belt watched his drive thud into the top of the wall in deep right-centre as he strolled into second; unlike his fellow first baseman, Belt watched his teammates fail to do anything to move him off second base and he was stranded there to end the frame.
Belt’s double aside, Wood looked like he was confounding the Giants hitters. Being side-on to the pitchers, it was a great angle to see how awkward his delivery looked, but sadly that was matched by some of the batters’ swings as numerous weak grounders made for easy outs. This seems like an important time to note that at the end of that second inning, the Dodgers had pitched 29 straight scoreless innings to start the season, having shut out the Padres over three games by the cumulative score of 25-0. Belt’s double was in fact just the second extra-base hit they’d given up. It wasn’t hard to see why the optimism of the first home game was starting to be replaced by a sense of unease amongst the fans.
Nevertheless, there was still plenty of enthusiasm and support in the face of the Dodgers’ seeming invincibility. One woman in a Madison Bumgarner jersey a few rows in front of us retained a consistently optimistic approach throughout the game. By consistent, I mean that whenever a Giants player came up to bat, she could be counted upon to yell “HIT IT IN MCCOVEY COVE [player’s surname]!” Standing next to the rail that marked the edge of the stands in right field, as though she was the custodian of McCovey Cove itself, she instructed hitter after hitter to send the ball into the water, whether it was Hunter Pence, who has 198 career home runs, or Span, who has 38 in almost a thousand games.
This relentless strategy did not seem to be inspiring Giants hitters, and the scoreboard looked even less favourable when Gonzalez doubled again in the top of the third on another ball that came close to clearing the fence, this time in left. Angel Pagan vainly reached for the ball but only succeeded in crashing into the padding instead as Puig, who had singled moments before, came home to score. The Giants mustered a single an inning in the third and fourth, but that was the extent of their offensive contributions when Scott Van Slyke hit one to deep left field in the fifth to score Corey Seager for a 4-0 lead.
So the game was half over, the Giants were losing by four, and the Dodgers, now at 31 scoreless innings to start the season, were about to tie a 53-year-old record for the most innings to start the season without giving up a run. This was not exactly how I had hoped my first Giants game would go. Now the team had to try and score against Wood, who had given up just three hits and no walks, with barely more than 50 pitches thrown.
I’d say that Brandon Crawford came out swinging, but he didn’t. Instead he took three straight pitches for balls, then two more for strikes, drawing a walk on the sixth. The leadoff man was aboard! This was all the fans needed to get a bit excited, and Bruce Bochy inserted Kelby Tomlinson into the lineup in place of Peavy, who had laboured through 5 innings and 79 pitches. Tomlinson promptly laid down a perfect bunt parallel to the first base line, and now first and second were occupied. Two quick groundouts followed, and somehow without getting the ball out of the infield, the Giants were on the board. A guy in the row in front of us was dispensing high fives to everyone around him, including us.
Then Joe Panik stepped up to the plate. “HIT IT IN MCCOVEY COVE, PANIK!” yelled the woman in the Bumgarner shirt. Joe, ignoring her, drilled the first pitch high back past Wood, out towards Pederson in centre. The Dodgers outfielder sprinted back and to his left, leapt as the ball came down, and missed it by a matter of inches. Tomlinson cruised home as the ball rolled all the way to the CF wall, Panik easily made it to third standing up, and now the crowd was really going. “BEAT L-A! BEAT L-A! BEAT L-A!” came the chants, and for the first time in 2016, it looked like that might actually be possible. High-five guy went for his second round in a matter of moments.
Next up was Buster Posey, who took one pitch and then lined the next into the left field corner for a double, scoring Panik to make it a one-run game at 4-3 (high-fives all round). Wood would then let Posey go to third on a wild pitch, walk Pence, and only got out of the inning after a 7-pitch at-bat by Belt ended in a groundout which Utley nearly threw away. Chris Heston came to the mound to replace Peavy and got a 1-2-3 inning, with Roberts choosing to send Wood back out to bat for himself despite the struggles of the fifth inning.
The Dodgers manager quickly changed his mind about leaving Wood out there when Matt Duffy and Crawford notched back-to-back singles and brought in Yimi Garcia, who saw the men move up on a sacrifice bunt from Ehire Adrianza, and then, to bring the “BEAT L-A!” chants back even stronger, Angel Pagan whipped one through the right side and both runners came home when Puig failed to uncork one of his trademark throws, giving San Francisco a 5-4 lead. Span almost made it aboard on a bunt of his own, advancing Pagan to second, before Panik flared one to shallow centre to score him, advanced to second on the throw home, and then Posey rolled a grounder just barely between third base and short. Panik charged home and Van Slyke came up gunning, but sent the throw way too high, making it easy for Panik to slide in as Barnes desperately reached up for the ball: 7-4, San Francisco.
The crowd was now raucous, and Pence’s wild swinging strikeout to end the inning almost seemed irrelevant. The scoreless streak that had seemed unbreakable after the fourth was a distant memory after the sixth, and the chants no longer felt like hope but a statement of fact: now we would beat LA. A Javy Lopez eight-pitch seventh only reinforced that feeling, and even when Gonzalez got his third hit of the game to start the eighth, it seemed to matter little. We had a three-run lead and we only needed six outs – five, once pinch hitter Carl Crawford grounded out – to win the game.
Then Joc Pederson stepped up, and gave me my first ballpark experience of how a homer can really suck the life out of the crowd. Sergio Romo hung one over the middle of the plate and Pederson sent it screaming into the stairwell in the right-centre bleachers, all of 442 feet away. 7-6 is a lot less comfortable than 7-4, and the sudden quiet really illustrated that. Even though Romo got through the next two batters with no further damage, the ninth looked set to be a lot more nervewracking than it had done five minutes earlier.
J.P. Howell first had to get the Dodgers through the eighth, and it did not start well. Gregor Blanco – single. Pagan – single. Span – bunt single. Up stepped Joe Panik, and of course he would help all the fans breathe a little easier, singling to right to push the lead back to two with the bases loaded and no outs. Now it was Posey; surely he would deliver? An ugly swinging strikeout was not what the sea of orange and black had in mind, but new pitcher Pedro Baez had other ideas, doing just that to bring a collective groan from the expectant crowd. We turned to Hunter Pence: could he bury this game for good? Let’s ask Jon Miller.
Pence depositing that pitch into the seats in left-centre was not, in the context of the whole game, the most crucial moment (the Baseball-Reference play-by-play account actually indicates it was behind all but one of the other Giants scoring plays by WPA). It was, however, the most euphoric, particularly after Posey had whiffed just seconds before to bring back that twinge of doubt that had surfaced when Pederson sent one over the fence. Pence put the exclamation point on this game, returning us to our jubilant high fives and confident “BEAT L-A!” refrain, and making Hunter Strickland’s ninth inning a very low-stress situation indeed. To add a second exclamation mark to Pence’s emphatic slam, Strickland struck out Puig with a 98mph fastball to end the game, condemning the Dodgers to their first defeat. They had gone from 31 innings without giving up a run to surrendering 12 in the next four.
As we made our way down the steps to leave the stadium, a man coming down behind us noticed my Lincecum shirt and asked what had happened to the team’s former ace. I had to sadly inform him that the two-time Cy Young winner was hurt and had not signed with any team yet, San Francisco or otherwise. We took a moment to lament the decline of a truly great pitcher; a decline that Sam Miller, in the course of his more morbid musings, would probably note as a reminder of our own inexorable decline. Today, though, baseball had prevailed, and there was only one important thing: the Giants had beaten LA. I hoped to see them do the same again on Saturday, and only one small obstacle stood in the way: Clayton Kershaw.Next post: BttP Podcast 52: Hill, Conley, Gordon, Tanking
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