Even year magic is dead. But its demise was inevitable months ago.
It was the ending that made perfect sense.
Staked to a three-run lead in the ninth inning, the disheveled mess that was the 2016 San Francisco Giants bullpen found a way to outdo itself.
The regular season saw this unit blow a major-league worst 32 saves and convert just 59 percent of their save opportunities — the worst for any playoff team in the history of the game.
So when Hunter Strickland allowed the go-ahead single to the Cubs’ Javier Baez on the most hittable triple-digit fastball you could possibly throw, it really should have come as no shock to those involved or watching.
A five-pitcher collection of Strickland, Will Smith, Javier Lopez, Derek Law and Sergio Romo failed to protect the lead, Santiago Casilla was left wondering why he was disliked so much (and left unused) and the Giants coughed away the chance at a Game 5.
Conor Gillaspie won’t live in playoff folklore. Instead, he’s become just a nice footnote for this year’s iteration.
You can blame manager Bruce Bochy for not keeping in Matt Moore after a stellar performance where he kept Chicago’s bats at bay. Even with his right arm, Moore might have had a better chance than the ‘pen attempting to support him.
You can get mad at the rest of San Francisco’s lineup for failing to come up with hits in key spots. If a .256 career hitter like Gillaspie is carrying the team, something probably went horribly wrong.
But this was a loss three months in the making. It was preordained at the trade deadline. And it stared the Giants down in the bottom of the ninth.
On the other side, Aroldis Chapman came in, and unlike Strickland and his batting practice fastballs, he blew away the Giants with 100-plus MPH heaters, putting the Cubs in the NLCS for the second consecutive year.
Chapman wasn’t a Chicago Cub at the beginning of this season. He began the year with the Yankees and came over to the North Side days before the non-waiver trade deadline in July. Chicago’s bullpen, not exactly a weakness per se, was bolstered by his 46 strikeouts in 26.2 innings.
And that’s not to say he would or could have been part of the Giants this season. Chicago traded one of their top prospects, Gleyber Torres, just to get Chapman for half a season. You can’t fault Brian Sabean & co. for not pursuing Chapman harder. But one has to wonder why there wasn’t a push for another one of the relievers available.
The Indians dealt for Andrew Miller, and while that took a bevy of prospects as well, Miller is under team control until 2018. To plug one of your weaknesses, someone might think one of the best left-handers in the game could have been an option.
The common denominator between Miller and Chapman was that they were both Yankees. Maybe general manager Brian Cashman didn’t like what the Giants had to offer in terms of prospects or other suitable major league-ready players, which is a fair argument. The Giants don’t have a top-10 farm system anymore, so their depth is thinner.
But there were other pitchers available that took less to acquire. For one, the Nationals got one of the best relievers in the game over the last three years in Mark Melancon for Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn. The Yankees picked up Tyler Clippard, who forged a 2.49 ERA down the stretch and kept them in the Wild Card race until the last week of the season.
Even the Mets, who had a pretty strong combination working in the eighth and ninth innings with Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia, found a way to make Fernando Salas useful, as he worked 17.1 solid innings in August and September. Joe Smith, picked up by the Cubs and left off their NLDS roster, could have made an impact on the series if the Giants had picked him up.
The Giants did make two deadline deals, and one was indeed for a reliever in Will Smith. He did pitch mostly well down the stretch, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the rest of a bad unit. There were other relievers to be had and the Giants balked.
San Francisco’s historically bad bullpen was more than an Achilles’ heel on a team that was the best in baseball during the first half of the season.
This team, even with its shortcomings in relief, somehow managed to pull within two wins of the NLCS.
Easy to question in hindsight, but it makes one wonder if the even year magic would still be alive if the Giants had made one more move or two when they had the chance.