Giants’ special season comes to abrupt end against Dodgers

Sports

San Francisco Giants’ Wilmer Flores, right, is called out swinging in front of Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Will Smith for the final out of the ninth inning of Game 5 of a baseball National League Division Series Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Only the San Francisco Giants themselves envisioned a season with success quite like this.

They were all but an afterthought given the defending World Series champion Dodgers and San Diego Padres had been heavy favorites to win the NL West out of spring training. The Giants instead captured their first division crown since 2012 by holding off eight-time reigning NL West champ Los Angeles on the final day.

Still, a franchise-record 107 wins to edge the Dodgers by a single game for the division? No way. Or those career years by the Brandons — Belt and Crawford? Probably not that either. Or young Logan Webb dominating the Dodgers twice on the big October stage? Nah.

But San Francisco’s surprising season ended abruptly on its home field with a 2-1 loss to LA in the decisive Game 5 of the NL Division Series on Thursday night.

“The unselfishness that this team showed throughout the year, the trust that they showed in one another was second to none, better than any season that I’ve ever been a part of as a player, as a coach, in any position in baseball,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “I just respect the hell out of a team-first mentality. I’ve never seen it like this. This is the best I’ve ever seen.”

There will be time this winter to ponder all they accomplished, yet for now this really stings.

“That clubhouse in there is extremely special and it’s because it’s full of great people that you want to be friends with your whole life,” utilityman Darin Ruf said. “When you take the field with them, everyone’s got your back, you know, everyone is pulling in the same direction and going to step up, step up for you if — you saw examples of it all year. Guys go down, next guy steps up.”

Here are some highlights from a 107-55 year during which the Giants held baseball’s best record for 125 days and made a remarkable turnaround from a team that went 29-31 in Kapler’s pandemic-shortened first season:

MISSING BELT

Belt captured the hearts of his team, coaches and fans when he taped a C on his jersey and named himself captain.

He earned it, for sure.

San Francisco missed him down the stretch and in its first playoffs since 2016. Wilmer Flores and Ruf filled in admirably but the offense Belt provided went unmatched.

He was injured Sept. 26 at Colorado after being hit on the left hand with a pitch while squaring to bunt.

That ultimately ended the 33-year-old first baseman’s stellar season. He batted .274 with a career-high 29 homers and 59 RBIs.

Belt’s injury was one of many to key players the Giants somehow withstood over the long haul, leading to their “Resilient” mantra.

WEBB’S EMERGENCE

Webb dazzled under pressure and firmly left his name in Giants postseason lore.

The 24-year-old right-hander and two relievers shut out the Dodgers in a 4-0 Game 1 victory last Friday night. Then he kept the Giants in the game again Thursday, when Flores’ disputed check-swing ended the game.

Webb pitched the Giants past the Padres in the regular-season finale and went unbeaten after a May 5 loss at Colorado.

“I learned that it’s a lot of fun. The crowd was just awesome. That was really cool,” Webb said. “Just being in the spot with our guys. We deserved this, to be here, and that was the coolest part for me. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen the way we wanted it to end.”

BULLPEN POWER

Kapler relied on little-known relievers in key spots to keep his team at the top through a tough September when Johnny Cueto was injured and Alex Wood worked back from a bout of COVID-19.

From Camilo Doval and Dominic Leone to Tyler Rogers and Zack Littell, they are a feared group now.

San Francisco’s bullpen led the majors with a 2.99 ERA and had six relievers who threw at least 50 innings with an ERA lower than 3.00.

They all helped pick up the load when closer Jake McGee missed the final three weeks with an oblique injury.

PINCH-HIT WONDERS

The Giants established a major league record with 18 pinch-hit home runs, getting significant contributions from an always-ready bench night after night.

Austin Slater hit four of those, and Alex Dickerson three. LaMonte Wade Jr. had his share of big hits in his first season with San Francisco, too, earning himself the nickname “Late Night LaMonte” thanks to six game-tying or go-ahead hits in Giants wins this season.

Wade was 13 for 23 (.565) in the ninth inning for the best average in that inning for players with a minimum 20 at-bats since Jim Thome hit .690 in 2004 for the Phillies.

Kapler made a point to rely on everyone — so each player felt a part of this run.

“We’re going to build on this season and be better because we have that foundation in place, that foundation of trust and unselfishness,” he said.

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