By Michelle Dingley
“Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout; ”
But there is no joy in Nor Cal – the Giants have been knocked out.
Ernest Thayer’s famous “Casey at the Bat” sure captures that feeling of dismay. We all knew it was coming, but nonetheless, the Giants’ elimination was almost a shock. It started as exasperation, then quickly developed into dejection, which evolved into a numbness. All the color was drained from the world. Birds ceased chirping, and the sky grew dark. On September 24, after all the trials and tribulations we had to overcome, all the injuries and slumps we fought through, the Giants’ season for all intents and purposes was over.
It’s an all-too-familiar story: in the series opener against Arizona, Matt Cain’s fabulous performance was wasted yet again. He came out in the 8th with two runners on and the score tied at 1. Sergio Romo, who had been spectacular all year, surrendered a two-run triple to the D-backs’ star rookie. And that was it. The Giants were eliminated in the West. But we still had another option: the Wild Card. With Atlanta in a tailspin, if we could just get on a hot streak, we had a chance. The Giants sent rookie Eric Surkamp to the mound the following day. The game was over almost before it began. We’ve had some ugly games this year, but this might have been the ugliest. With the season on the line, Surkamp got rocked, giving up 6 runs while recording only two outs. The rook was hardly the only Giant that had problems that night. Six pitchers combined for 13 free passes, tying a San Francisco record. The few who watched the contest to the end saw the Giants lose 15-2.
That’s the way we go out? With our prized pitching staff imploding? “Imploding” might be putting it lightly. After those games, all the air was let out of the season. It didn’t even matter when Tim Lincecum couldn’t get us a win in the final game of the series. It was hard to think about the next series, when we would face the Rockies in our final homestand. It was even harder to think about 2012, when I am convinced that we will be in contention. I could find little consolation in the fact that we played in meaningful games almost to the end. It was no big surprise that we didn’t make the playoffs. By the time we got to the Arizona series, we had dug ourselves quite a hole, and we had to win the next six straight to remain in contention. I thought I was mentally prepared for the loss, but knowing something will likely happen and actually experiencing it are exceedingly different. There was probably still a place where men were laughing, a place where children shout, but not here, not now.
A few days passed, and the Giants took two of three against the Rockies. Despite losing the season finale, we saw that spark, that potential that seemed to be either missing or wasted throughout the season. The sun peeked out from behind the clouds. Those games reminded us that we have the parts to make a quality team. We’ll spend the offseason gathering missing pieces and shoring up our weak spots, and we’ll get right back out there. We’ll be a force to be reckoned with next season.
After winning the World Series in 2010, to not make the playoffs is, of course, disappointing. But with all the adversity we faced, 2011 went better than it could have. We played 158 games that meant something. We weren’t good in them all, but we stuck around almost until the bitter end – and that end sure was bitter. Nonetheless, it could have been much worse.
We could have been the Red Sox. They led the Wild Card in the beginning of September by 9 games, only to suffer the worst September collapse in baseball history, relinquishing their playoff spot to Tampa Bay. The last month of the Red Sox’s season was their worst since 1952. Both years they went 7-20. Baseball great Hank Aaron predicted a Giants-Red Sox World Series back in February. That was definitely reasonable at the time. It seems nearly impossible that neither team made the playoffs.
We could have been the Braves. Almost perfectly parallel to the AL Wild Card, the Braves ruled the NL Wild Card by 8 ½ games with 23 to play. They had been in first place in the Wild Card, either tied or outright, since June 8. Their lead looked so strong that even when the Giants were fewer games back in the Wild Card than the division, conventional wisdom said they had to shoot for the West crown. There was no way the Braves would choke, right? Like Boston, September was Atlanta’s downfall, with the Braves losing 18 of their last 26. The Cardinals took the opportunity to grab the Wild Card for themselves. This was the second-largest Wild Card collapse ever, after the Red Sox.
We could have been the Pirates. They were looking not only to end their streak of 18 straight losing seasons, but also to make the playoffs for the first time since 1992. The Bucs entered play on July 27 tied for first in the NL Central. A blown call in the 19th inning ended the game in favor of the Braves. From that point on, nothing seemed to go the Pirates’ way. They ended the season 72-90, in fourth place and 24 games out, for their 19th consecutive losing season.
We could have been the A’s. As they entered the 2011 season, they were serious contenders, expected by many to take the AL West. Like the Giants, the team across the bay also suffered from injuries. The Athletics lost four starters in the span of a month. They struggled defensively and offensively for the bulk of the season. Things were going so badly that they fired their manager mid-season. The A’s closed out the season 74-88, 22 games back and in third place in the division.
We could have been the Rockies. The only team expected to challenge the Giants for the NL West, they started strong but quickly fell apart. Their former star pitcher, Ubaldo Jimenez, performed worse than expected and was traded to the Indians. It was eventually clear that Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez were forced to carry the team (with help from Todd Helton). That’s just not enough to sustain a ballclub. Battling injuries like so many other teams, the Rockies finished 2011 73-89, 21 games out and in fourth place.
We could have been the Dodgers. A horrifying thought any year, this would be the last season we’d be willing to switch places with our rivals. They dealt with injuries as well, but their biggest problems took place off the field. They filed for bankruptcy protection on July 27, and the Frank McCourt story took precedence over anything happening on the diamond. They saw attendance plummet, bottoming out on May 9 at 11,373, a Monday night game against the Pirates (Dodgers lost 4-1). The Dodgers closed out their season over .500, 82-79, but in third place and 11 1/2 back.
So, Giants fans, you are not alone. There are 22 teams (and 22 fan bases) that have been left out of the playoffs. Some had no chance to begin with, while others failed down the stretch. It’s always disappointing, especially coming off a championship season. But there’s always next year. Find a Red Sox fan or a Braves fan and commiserate while plotting your amazing 2012 comeback. Spring will be here before you know it.