Most teams that win 107 regular-season games would expect to run away with the division title the way Secretariat did with the 1973 Belmont Stakes, when the great stallion capped a Triple Crown victory with a 31-length win.
The San Francisco Giants were afforded no such luxury despite setting a franchise record for wins this season. They had the Dodgers, baseball’s equivalent of Man o’ War, nipping at their heels all summer, the teams never separated by more than 2½ games from Aug. 20 on.
The Giants held off the relentless, 106-win Dodgers by one game to win their first National League West title since 2012, clinching the division with an 11-4 win over the San Diego Padres in Sunday’s regular-season finale.
The mettle they showed in fending off the defending World Series champion Dodgers—winners of their 107th game on Wednesday night with their 3-1 walkoff victory over the St. Louis Cardinals—with a series of clutch hits and late-inning heroics down the stretch should give San Francisco plenty of confidence when the archrivals meet in the best-of-five NL Division Series beginning Friday night.
Nine things to know about the Giants:
1. Late-Night LaMonte
He is not the feared Giants slugger Barry Bonds was, but the Dodgers should want nothing to do with LaMonte Wade Jr. in the late innings of a close game. The left-handed-hitting outfielder-first baseman had six game-tying or go-ahead hits in the ninth inning, the most by any player in a season in the last 40 years.
Wade had 19 go-ahead hits and 13 game-winning hits on the season. He hit .377 (26 for 69) with a 1.040 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with runners in scoring position, .407 (11 for 27) with a 1.373 OPS with runners in scoring position and two outs and .565 (13 for 23) with a 1.409 OPS in the ninth inning.
2. No short end of the stick
The Dodgers have the reigning World Series and NL Championship Series most valuable player in shortstop Corey Seager, who had a torrid September, but it’s the Giants shortstop — resurgent 34-year-old veteran Brandon Crawford — who will garner regular-season MVP votes this season.
Crawford had career-highs in average (.298), OPS (.895), homers (24) and RBIs (90), and hit .353 with a 1.098 OPS with runners in scoring position. He often makes difficult defensive plays look routine, and he has one of the strongest infield arms in baseball, unleashing a 98-mph relay to first on one game-ending double play in September.
3. Bullpen depth charge
Until this season, only five bullpens in major league history had as many as five relievers who threw 50 innings or more with a 3.00 ERA or less. The Giants, who had a major league-low 2.99 ERA, can boast of six this season, a statistic unearthed by Andrew Baggarly of the Athletic.
The over-50, sub-3.00 club consists of right-handers Tyler Rogers (2.22 ERA, 81 innings), Zack Littell (2.92 ERA, 61 2/3 innings) and Dominic Leone (1.51 ERA, 53 2/3 innings) and left-handers Jose Alvarez (2.37 ERA, 64 2/3 innings), Jarlin Garcia (262 ERA, 68 2/3 innings and Jake McGee (2.72 ERA, 59 2/3 innings).
4. You Gotta Have Heart
There is no statistic or advanced metric to measure it, but second-year manager Gabe Kapler is convinced that toughness and grit were important factors in his team vastly outperforming the projections of those who thought the Giants, coming off four straight losing seasons, would hover around .500 in 2021.
“There are some intangibles those projections and those viewpoints fail to take into consideration,” Kapler told the Oracle Park crowd after Sunday’s clincher. “The first is toughness. We had so many points over the course of the season when it would have been easy for us to quit, and we never did.
“Another intangible it didn’t account for: grit. A lot of people in this group got beat up this season. We had guys with injuries, guys who were struggling for a long period of time, and they just got back to work every single day. They stuck with their process. They got stronger. And they came back better.”
5. From cameo to Camilo
Remember Francisco Rodriguez, the hard-throwing 20-year-old with the knee-buckling slider who was called up by the Angels in September 2002 and morphed into a dominant setup man during the team’s World Series run? The Giants may have a similar bullpen X-factor in 24-year-old right-hander Camilo Doval.
Doval, who combines a 99-mph fastball with an 86.5-mph slider, shuttled between triple A and the big leagues twice in the first five months before sticking in early September and earning NL reliever of the month honors.
He did not give up a run while striking out 20 and walking three in 14 1/3 innings of 15 games since Sept. 5, and he teams with the submarine-throwing Rogers and the hard-throwing lefty McGee to give the Giants three diverse late-inning looks.
Like the Dodgers, who lost first baseman Max Muncy to a potential season-ending left elbow injury last Sunday, the Giants will play the division series without their slugging first baseman, Brandon Belt, who suffered a broken left thumb when he was hit by a pitch while squaring to bunt in late September.
The hope is that the left-handed-hitting Belt, who batted .274 with a .975 OPS, 29 homers and 59 RBIs in 97 games, will return by the NL Championship Series. Meanwhile, fill-ins Darin Ruf, Wilmer Flores and Wade helped produce a .969 OPS, 48 homers and 106 RBIs from the first-base position this season.
7. Platoon leaders
Farhan Zaidi, who left the Dodgers to become San Francisco’s president of baseball operations before the 2019 season, has built a platoon-heavy Giants lineup, just like he did as Dodgers general manager from 2015 to 2018.
The Giants have four left-handed-hitting outfielders in Mike Yastrzemski, Steven Duggar, Alex Dickerson and Wade and three right-handed-hitting outfielders in Austin Slater, Kris Bryant and Ruf. Tommy La Stella and Donovan Solano split time at second base.
They won’t hesitate to pinch-hit early to counter an opposing pitching move. Gaining a platoon edge often trumps previous performance. Slater was three for three against Madison Bumgarner in a Sept. 30 game when he was pulled in the seventh inning for Wade, who hit a game-winning RBI single in the ninth.
8. Caught in Logan’s Webb
Right-hander Kevin Gausman (14-6, 2.81 ERA, 227 strikeouts) will probably garner Cy Young Award votes, but right-hander Logan Webb (11-3, 3.03 ERA) has been the team’s best pitcher in the second half. On Wednesday, the Giants announced that Webb would start Game 1.
Webb, who mixes a lively 93-mph sinking fastball with an 82.5-mph slider and 86-mph changeup, a repertoire that produces a ton of ground balls, is 10-0 with a 2.40 ERA in 20 starts since May 11, with 125 strikeouts and 22 walks in 116 1/3 innings, and the Giants have gone 18-2 in those games.
9. Good in a pinch
The Giants led the NL with 241 homers this season, and in 406 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter, they hit a major league-record 18 homers, including four by Slater, who had only 12 homers on the season, three by Dickerson, who had 13 homers on the season, and two each by Solano, Flores and Belt.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
Source: Yahoo Sports