So I’d saved the best for last. My team’s best pitcher against the game’s best pitcher. Madison Bumgarner vs Clayton Kershaw. Giants vs Dodgers, on the first Saturday of the season. What better way to cap off my Californian baseball extravaganza? There was just one problem: rain.
For two weeks, we’d been taking advantage of all the outdoor activities California had to offer. We’d kayaked, snorkeled and been on multiple boat trips. We’d hiked the trails of Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks. We’d camped on Santa Cruz in the Channel Islands National Park. For a couple of days it was very windy. One day, there was quite a lot of cloud. What we never saw was a single drop of rain.
That is, until Friday, April 8th, the day before Bumgarner-Kershaw. The first tip-off was that rain seemed to be the primary news topic on almost every broadcast we watched on Thursday or early Friday. It won’t come as a surprise to many that California is in the midst of a long drought – so much so that there’s a website dedicated to dealing with it – so perhaps it also shouldn’t have been surprising to me that there was plenty of coverage, but in the UK rain is definitely not news, unless it’s a spectacularly large amount. The sky looked ominous on Thursday evening, and on Friday morning it was actually raining – not significantly so, but enough that you might be concerned that a baseball game wouldn’t start. That evening’s game did start as planned as the rain subsided, but by the time Dave Roberts removed Ross Stripling from his no-hitter and Trevor Brown tied the game with the Giants’ first hit it had started again, and would continue to do so into the tenth, when Brandon Crawford ended the game with a second bomb. The fans sure weren’t bothered by the rain at that point, but the game wouldn’t start the next day if it was raining that much either.
As I had now been convinced that it does rain in California, I was disappointed but not surprised to find it continuing to do so on the morning of Saturday, April 9th, the day of the game. It would be ok, though – the morning weather-masquerading-as-news show had indicated that the rain would clear by around 12 and the afternoon would be dry, perfect timing for the game. For that reason, I was still relatively optimistic as I walked down to the park in the rain, although by the time I arrived I was regretting my choice of footwear.
My brother happened to be in California with a friend of his, so I’d talked them into attending this game to give my long-suffering other half a break. I was also set to meet up with my colleague over at Friends With Fantasy Benefits, Justin Mason, That day, however, there was going to be a giveaway: a ‘Beat LA’ flag. With the rain still coming down hard, I decided to get inside quickly, get my flag, and quickly come back out to give my brother his tickets. At this point, it was shortly after 12, and it was still raining. I was getting less confident by the minute.
What didn’t help was the fact that no-one seemed to know when, if ever, the game might be starting. Following the updates on my phone, it was clear that the game was unlikely going to start on time, but Kershaw didn’t seem to know that, as he came out to start his normal warm-up routine and then was told to go back in to the clubhouse. I wandered around the covered sections of the park and looked at the merchandise for a little while, then I stood in the area below the clock & video board and ate a hot dog as I watched the rain continue to fall, just as hard as it had been for the last couple of hours. My brother sent me a message: they were running late but he’d let me know when they were close to the park. “The start will be rain delayed so don’t rush!” I messaged back. By this point it was official; it was barely half an hour to the original first pitch time and even if the rain stopped – which it hadn’t – we were looking at a delay.
At this point I was starting to reflect on the wisdom of seeing a game barely 24 hours before flying home. It would have been much worse had this been the only game I’d planned to attend; nonetheless, it was not as though I could pop out to a game whenever I felt like it. Improbably, California’s weather looked as thought it would let me down.
Then, around 1 o’clock, the rain finally started to stop. My brother and his friend turned up at the park shortly afterwards and so did Justin; now I was an excited Giants fan about to watch baseball with people, instead of a bedraggled Giants fan watching rain by myself.
Justin wasn’t able to get seats in the same section as us, so we went to our separate sections right before the game started, with the idea that Justin would come over and take a seat near to us as people left later in the game. We were in section 143, the bleachers in right-centre, as Justin had said the fans were likely to be the liveliest there, and I thought it would be a good angle to watch the two left-handers pitch from. I’d explained to the others that they didn’t really have areas for away fans in baseball, so it was quite a surprise to all of us when we got to our seats in row 20 and every row from there to the back of the section was filled with fans in Dodger blue.
Yes, it seemed that every row behind us – all thirteen of them – had been booked out by a massive group of Dodgers fans. Instead of the occasional boos that had been dispensed any time a Los Angeles shirt appeared in the previous game, we could barely hear ourselves over the chants of the Dodgers fans. Somehow, in a game that doesn’t have sections for away fans, we would spend the next three or so hours sat in front of an entire section of away fans. I could see other Giants fans in front of us looking somewhat puzzled and disturbed by the presence of so many of their rivals in one place.
The rowdy Dodgers fans were only further encouraged when the game started, as Bumgarner gave up a leadoff double to Kike Hernandez and then walked Puig. The big lefty managed to get out of that jam despite an error from Duffy that loaded the bases, but it was an inauspicious start. Although the Giants’ lineup did a little more to subdue the LA supporters club, with a Pagan single and a Pence walk threatening Kershaw a little, the frame would end scoreless.
It was still 0-0 in the bottom of the second with two outs as Bumgarner came up to bat. I had just told my brother that Bumgarner had been the best hitting pitcher over the past couple of seasons, and that he’d homered off Kershaw last season, when this happened:
Awfully good of you to make me look so knowledgeable, Madison. This did succeed in subduing the Dodgers fan club somewhat; sadly that wouldn’t last, as Bumgarner let things get away from him in the top of the third, three singles loading the bases with one out. We then thought he’d escaped the first part of the danger by striking out Scott van Slyke, but instead the pitch clipped the outfielder, forcing in the tying run. The good news was that he also had his strikeout stuff working, allowing him to punch out Trayce Thompson and A.J. Ellis to limit the damage to one.
Aside from the pitch he’d left out for Bumgarner to hit, Kershaw also looked excellent. Plate appearances rarely lasted more than 3 or 4 pitches and much of the contact made was poor. Bumgarner would give up a couple more lead-off doubles over the next three innings, but always seemed to find a strikeout pitch when he needed it to eliminate any danger. With both starters keeping it at 1-1 through to the bottom of the fifth, Kershaw struck out Bumgarner swinging to avoid a repeat of the first at-bat. Then Ehire Adrianza, who had one major league home run to his name when he came to the plate, sent Kershaw’s first pitch over the fence in left to give the Giants a 2-1 lead.
Having a lead against Clayton Kershaw because of home runs from your pitcher and a marginal utility infielder must be pretty uncommon, but that’s what we were seeing. It was made all the more strange by the ease with which Kershaw seemed to be retiring everyone else. If ever I needed an illustration that it can only take a couple of missed pitches or sweet swings to spoil a start, this was it.
One run was certainly not enough of a deficit to silence the Dodgers fan club behind us. “LET’S GO DODGERS!” was frequently chanted whenever a hint of a rally came, or they just wanted to drown out the Giants fans around them. They even used it during ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame’, creating a medley that did not work very well.
Bumgarner was withdrawn after the sixth, having thrown 102 pitches and struck out eight, with just the one run given up. The Giants bullpen would maintain the 2-1 lead through the eighth inning, although Lopez would add some tension by allowing another leadoff double – the Dodgers’ fourth of the game – to start the eighth. To further underline his dominance for almost the whole game, Kershaw retired the next 11 hitters in a row after Adrianza’s home run, finishing with a line of eight innings pitched, five strikeouts, a walk and just four hits; unfortunately for him, two were home runs.
Unlike the first two games we’d been to, people didn’t seem to be leaving the game early at all in our section, so there wasn’t anywhere opening up for Justin to come and join us. However, my brother’s friend had some other people she wanted to say hi to at the park, so when she went off to see them, he came over to join us and we were able to chat about the game and how we’d become Giants supporters in the first place. When my brother’s friend returned from high in left field, she told us that people had asked her if she was ok when they found out we were sitting right in front of the Dodgers fans – obviously they didn’t just sound rowdy from our perspective.
Around the end of the seventh, the rain started again. At first it was quite light, but by the time Santiago Casilla was warming up to start the ninth, it was pouring and raincoats and ponchos were being put on everywhere. Casilla therefore started his save opportunity in conditions at least as wet as those that were deemed unsuitable to start the game. It didn’t go well. A simple enough flyout preceded a walk to Utley, in which ball four drifted way outside, and that was followed by a single that Puig chipped over shortstop on a curve that was low and away. Groans broke out around the stadium as Casilla’s second pitch to Justin Turner slipped out of his hand and hit the third baseman in the shoulder, hardly surprising given the conditions.
The bases were loaded with one out and the tying run was at third. A double play or a strikeout was called for, and Casilla got a pretty good double play grounder out of Gonzalez, only for Kelby Tomlinson to bobble the ball in the wet dirt. He recovered to retire Gonzalez at first but Utley had tied the game. A line drive hit straight at Pagan meant that we were heading for extras, unless the Giants could get to Chris Hatcher in the bottom of the ninth. Of course, as Justin remarked, it was Hatcher who had blown the no-hitter the previous night by giving up the Trevor Brown home run.
Posey singled and dangerously stole second on Pence’s strikeout; he may well have been out had Johnson not dropped the ball in the process of applying the tag. This was the chance: I’d seen a grand slam already, now I wanted a walk-off! Duffy couldn’t oblige, though, as a knee-buckling splitter deceived him, and LA weren’t taking any chances with Belt having the platoon advantage, intentionally walking him. A protracted nine-pitch battle with Panik (who was now pinch-hitting for Tomlinson) ensued, with several balls sent flying foul, but in the end Hatcher got him looking low and inside and we went to the tenth.
By then it had been raining for over half an hour. The bottom deck of the stands in particular was an entertaining sight; under the section at least somewhat covered by the deck above, many of the fans who had stayed were huddled in a tightly packed mass of colourful raincoats. In the uncovered areas, far fewer braved the conditions. Of course, we were made of hardier stuff in the bleachers; the majority of the benches were still full, and the Dodgers fan club – now buoyed by the prospect of a victory – were still packing their temporary home.
The Panik strikeout had felt like the Giants’ big chance to get away with this one, and so it proved. Back-to-back doubles from Culberson and Corey Seager to right field meant that George Kontos coughed up the go-ahead run, and when Kenley Jansen stepped onto the mound with a 3-2 lead, I wasn’t expecting a dramatic comeback. Three outs – including a wild swinging strikeout of Adrianza – later and the game was over. After two games in which they’d looked like they were going to cruise to victory, the Dodgers had finally taken their first of the series in a game that they were perhaps one cleanly-fielded ground ball away from losing.
It was disappointing to lose, but it had been a terrific experience, watching two of the best pitchers in the game, meeting a great friend from the internet for the first time, and getting a real taste of the bleacher atmosphere, from fans of both teams. As we walked back up the steps to leave the stadium, a delighted Dodgers fan told us in mock commiseration that there would always be the next game. For me, it would be longer between games than most, but if the trip had convinced me of one thing, it’s that I would certainly be coming back.Next post: The Semien Report: Week 4, Mallex Kidd and Good Eaton Edition
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