A rare error by a Giants team that never seems to make them in October has the Nationals still kicking in the NLDS.
SAN FRANCISCO — For the first time in a long time, the Giants made October mistakes. For 10 consecutive postseason games, all victories, over two seasons, they had seemed to do everything right. Every close contest seemed to fall their way. They had survived elimination games, forced opponents into crucial misplays and watched the most unlikely players (Barry Zito, anyone? Cody Ross? Brandon Crawford?) turn into heroes, as if sprinkled by some magic playoff dust.
"There is an expectation of success," rightfielder Hunter Pence said before Game 3 of their Division Series against the Nationals on Monday. "The guys on this team believe that whatever needs to happen will happen, that whatever we need to do, it will get done."
Perhaps that will be true again, even as soon as Tuesday night, but on Monday, San Francisco was finally the team that cracked. When pitcher Madison Bumgarner threw wildly to third on Wilson Ramos' sacrifice, two Washington runners scored, giving the Nationals a 2-0 lead in the seventh, and they turned that bit of good fortune into a 4-1 victory that kept the Giants from clinching the best-of-five series. The Nats now trail 2-1 and will try on Tuesday night to send the series back to D.C. for a deciding Game 5.
"We were saying the other night [after their 2-1, 18-inning loss in Game 2] that all we need is one break, one thing to change the momentum of the series," said Washington reliever Drew Storen. "We finally got it."
Ramos bunted with two strikes, which might have been a somewhat reasonable choice if he was a proficient bunter. He is not. The Nationals' catcher hadn't laid down a successful sacrifice since 2011. It shouldn't have worked out well, but it did. That's the kind of thing that usually gets said about the Giants.
Bumgarner's error wasn't the only thing that went wrong for the Giants. This time, they were the team that couldn't quite get the big hit. Crawford's drive to left-centerfield in the second inning died in Bryce Harper's glove near the wall, a few feet short of a three-run homer that might very well have taken the heart out of the Nats. Even 88-year-old singer Tony Bennett, who knows a little something about San Francisco and heart, was slightly off his game, muffing some of the lyrics to "God Bless America."
It was all a little disorienting, since the Giants have owned the last two postseasons they were in, winning the World Series in 2010 and '12. Every time you looked up lately, they were extending some postseason streak. There were the 10 straight playoff wins. Bumgarner ran his postseason scoreless streak to 22 innings before his error. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval stretched his playoff hitting streak to 14 games on Monday. Manager Bruce Bochy said he wasn't shocked that the Giants finally stumbled, but he might have been the only one.
"I know they want to get that out at third base but they probably tried to do a little too much there," he said of Bumgarner's miscue. "They've played so well in these type games. We made a mistake."
It was an uncharacteristic performance by the Giants, but for the Nationals, it felt as though things were getting back to normal. They did Nationals things again, with Doug Fister throwing seven scoreless innings, allowing only four hits, and Storen, whose last two postseason outings had been disastrous, coming in to close things out. For good measure, Harper, their lightning rod of a leftfielder, launched a prodigious homer to right-centerfield that quickly quieted the Giants fans who had begun to chant that he was a bum.
None of that surprised Washington manager Matt Williams, particularly Fister's performance. Stephen Strasburg, the Game 1 starter, is generally considered Washington's ace, but Fister, who had a 2.41 regular season ERA, might well be their best pitcher. Despite being 6-foot-8, he's not a power pitcher. He shut the Giants down on sinkers and the occasional knee-buckling breaking ball with two strikes.
"Doesn't matter where he pitches," Williams said before Game 3. "It could be here, it could be D.C., it could be the moon. He's unfazed."
The dynamic of a playoff series can change drastically with every game. The Giants went from having a stranglehold on the series, with their ace trying to close it out on Monday, to needing a win in Game 4 to avoid being one loss away from what would be a humbling collapse. Suddenly, the Giants' lumber slumber becomes a concern.
Since Sandoval's game-tying hit in the bottom of the ninth in Game 2, they have scored only two runs in the last 18 innings. The Nats, on life-support nine innings ago, now turn to yet another top-shelf starting pitcher, Gio Gonzalez, to try to even the series. In an autumn in which regular-season powerhouses like the Angels and Tigers have made unexpectedly quick exits, the Nats may have regained their stride just in time.
"To run off a streak like this over a couple of years is great," Bochy said, "but that's behind us and now we have to find a way to win a ballgame."
With the Nationals having changed the feel of the series, one thing is clear: Whatever magic the Giants might have possessed will no longer be enough.