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Cardinals, Giants or Mets: Which team will miss NL playoffs?
1:19 | MLB
Cardinals, Giants or Mets: Which team will miss NL playoffs?
Tuesday September 20th, 2016

The final matchup between Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw at Dodger Stadium on Vin Scully's watch took place on Monday night, and it was a contest worthy of that distinction—a taut pitcher's duel that for seven innings featured only one improbably scratched-out run scored by San Francisco in the third inning. But the game turned when Bumgarner blew his cool in the seventh inning, and with the Giants' rickety bullpen coughing up the lead by failing to retire a batter in the ninth inning, their hopes of winning the NL West have all but vanished.

For those seven innings, Bumgarner stifled the Dodgers, yielding just one hit and hitting two batters. His toughest challenge before the end of the seventh arose when he yielded a two-out–second-inning double to Yasiel Puig and then plunked Yasmani Grandal with two strikes. Chase Utley battled to a full count and took what he thought was ball four—a borderline 92-mph strike low and away—only to watch home plate umpire Jim Reynolds call it as strike three. The only other base runner Bumgarner allowed was when he hit Rob Segedin, who was pinch-hitting for Kershaw to lead off the bottom of the sixth, but that wound up going for naught as the lefty whiffed both Kiké Hernandez and Corey Seager back-to-back for the second time of the night; the pair accounted for six of the lefty's 10 punchouts.

Making his third start since returning from a 2 1/2-month absence due to a herniated disc in his back, Kershaw wasn't quite his sharpest self, but he was still plenty good. He allowed just three singles and one walk, striking out seven over six innings; the free pass, just his 10th of the season against 162 strikeouts, was his first since returning to action. The key hit came with two outs in the third inning, when Eduardo Nunez tapped one past the pitcher's outstretched backhand to the second base side; Utley fielded the ball barehanded and sidearmed the ball to first, but too late to beat Nunez's belly-flop slide. Two pitches later, as Kershaw dropped in a big curveball to Angel Pagan, Nunez stole second base and took third when Grandal's throw sailed about 12 feet wide of second base and into centerfield. Two more pitches later, Kershaw spiked a slider that squirted past Grandal, bringing Nunez home with the first run of the game.

Temperatures heated up with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, when Puig hit a seemingly harmless chopper up the first base line that Bumgarner came off the mound to field. He fired to first in time, slapped his glove and dropped an F-bomb—apparently to nobody in particular—but Puig turned around after passing the bag, and at that point, the pair locked glares and a verbal altercation began. Their lips were easy to read. “Don't look at me!" shouted Bumgarner multiple times, varying the cadence with an expletive or two. "What? What are you going to do to me?” replied Puig. The pair approached each other, with first baseman Brandon Belt and first base coach George Lombard quickly between them, soon joined by the Giants’ dugout (which was on the first base side) and bullpen before the Dodgers’ reinforcements arrived.

Shoves but no punches were thrown, with Lombard briefly falling down. Bumgarner wound up near the center of the scrum, with Puig on the periphery, and both were restrained from further escalation by Giants players, with the pitcher still lobbing verbal bombs. It was the third time the two principals have exchanged pleasantries following two confrontations in 2014: the first on May 9 after a home run and a bat flip, the second a relatively innocuous hit-by-pitch on the foot on Sept. 23 that also emptied benches to no great effect.

In Bumgarner's mind, apparently Puig had once again violated the game's unwritten rules. "I guess looking at someone, or staring in their direction, might offend some people," said Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner after the game. This is not the first time the Giants’ lefty has taken it upon himself to act as the enforcer. Via The Baseball Codes' author Jason Turbow, he's previously mixed it up with Jesus Guzman, Delino Deshields Jr., Carlos Gomez, Jason Heyward and Wil Myers. Whether or not it's significant that only the last of those players is white, the imbalance of the tally is impossible to ignore.

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Bumgarner, who had thrown just 97 pitches to get through seven innings, was due to bat second in the top of the eighth, but manager Bruce Bochy chose to pull him for pinch-hitter Mac Williamson, who struck out against lefty reliever Grant Dayton. After the game, neither the manager nor the pitcher offered much insight into the decision. Via the San Jose Mercury News' Andrew Baggarly, a terse Bochy said, "I talked to Bum. We talked. I’ll leave it at that.” Bumgarner said, "You’re never going to say I can’t go anymore. But the tank’s running low for sure. At the same time, we believe in our guys down there. And they’re capable of getting the job done.”

Bumgarner’s answers don't hold much water. He’s thrown as many as 117 pitches in a game this year and has gone past 100 in 25 of his 32 starts, including 106 in his previous turn on Sept. 14. With the Giants clinging to a one-run lead in a division race that could swing to a gap of either four games or six with five head-to-head matchups still to come—the difference between his team retaining some grip on its own destiny and not—we're supposed to believe he was out of gas? This coming from the man who threw 68 pitches out of the bullpen on two days' rest in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series? The one who had put together his second-highest game score of the season to the point of the confrontation? With so much at stake, surely he had at least another inning in him against the Dodgers' 7-8-9 hitters, including the lefty Utley and the pitcher's spot.

On the other hand, Bumgarner shouldn't have been expected to throw his bullpen under the bus, but the evidence of the team's second-half collapse lay at its feet. The Giants were an NL-best 57–33 before the All-Star break but are a league-worst 22–38 since. Though the bullpen's collective ERA in the second half is 3.34 compared to 3.94 in the first half—with a league-best 22% rate of allowing inherited runners to score in each split—the unit has blown a league-high 30 saves, including eight in its 18 September games. San Francisco has gone 64–9 (.877) in games in which it has taken a lead into the ninth inning this year; the average team has posted a .959 winning percentage in that situation. That's a shortfall of six wins when spread out over the 73 times the team has been in that situation—the same margin as the division race, including Monday’s result. Via Baggarly, the Giants are 4–5 this month when taking a lead into the ninth.

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Bochy owns three World Series rings and likely a spot on the wall in Cooperstown thanks to his typically deft touch with relievers when the stakes are at their highest, but he has been far less sure-handed regarding such matters these days. Steering clear of deposed closer Santiago Casilla—who has blown nine saves in 40 attempts—he patched together a scoreless eighth using lefty Will Smith and righty Derek Law, but nobody he turned to in the ninth could get the job done. Law served up a leadoff single to lefty pinch-hitter Andrew Toles; lefty reliever Javier Lopez allowed a single to the lefty-swinging Seager; and then righty Hunter Strickland arrived to face the righty Turner, who throughout his career has hit same-side pitching at such a better clip (.830 OPS to .693 overall, .915 to .620 this year) that by-the-book platooning is a glaring mistake. Turner brought Toles home with a game-tying single, and then Adrian Gonzalez launched a hanging curveball to the rightfield warning track, where it deflected off the heel of Hunter Pence's glove and hit the wall, allowing Seager to skate home with the winning run.

With it, the Giants' chances at taking the NL West are seemingly gone; their odds to win the division are now a mere 1.3%, according to Baseball Prospectus. At 79–71, San Francisco is tied with the Cardinals for the second NL wild-card spot, one game behind the Mets (80–70), and the Giants hold the lowest odds of the three (54.6%, compared to 57.3% for St. Louis and 85.4% for New York). They’re in danger becoming the first team in MLB history to miss the playoffs after posting the league's best first-half record.

As for the Dodgers (85–65): With 12 games to play, they have a magic number of seven to clinch their fourth straight division title, which is uncharted territory in franchise history. With Kershaw having offered a second strong showing since returning from his injury—cumulatively, he's allowed three runs (two earned) and nine hits in 14 innings, with a 17.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio—they have to be feeling as good about themselves as they have all season.

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