© John Hefti | 2021 Sep 13
Gabe Kapler wanted the celebrations, if the Giants won, to be spontaneous. Organic. Every player — and coach — is unique. Some have been here before, some haven’t. Everyone reacts to situations differently.
“I want to encourage our players to be themselves,” Kapler told reporters pregame.
The third-year manager was responding to a question about possibly popping champagne bottles, but his answer may be more perceptive than intended.
To get this far, the Giants have empowered their players to be their best selves.
Kevin Gausman leaning into his best pitch more than ever to become a Cy Young contender. Darin Ruf drilling line drives no matter where he bats in the order. Tyler Rogers embracing his unique pitching style. LaMonte Wade Jr. hammering righties, and cheering on whichever right-handed hitter does the reverse in his stead.
It happened in the first inning against Yu Darvish, too. Leadoff man Tommy La Stella worked SD’s ace into a hitter’s count, then blasted a cutter over the center field fence for a solo home run. Ruf, one of the most patient hitters in MLB, drew a four pitch walk. Wade Jr. squared up a triple to right-center to score him, and Evan Longoria pulled a homer over the left field fence to record his third three-RBI game in as many days.
The Giants (94-50) have gotten the most out of their individual talents all year. And now, they’re heading to the playoffs for the first time since 2016. Monday’s 9-1 win over the Padres, one of 94 so far, only cemented the inevitable for the team that’s spent nearly all of 2021 in first place and becomes the first MLB club to reserve a playoff spot. It’s the fastest playoff clinch in franchise history.
And the franchise’s playoff drought was supposed to continue in 2021. The Padres, Monday’s opponent, were picked preseason to finish comfortably ahead of San Francisco and contend with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL West. San Diego’s star power to the left of second base and offseason pitching acquisitions made them a force. Some wondered whether the Dodgers could be the best team ever assembled.
Inside SF’s clubhouse, though, the Giants had their own vision. And as the Giants have thus far outpaced both LA and SD, it’s been realized so far.
They’ve done it on the backs of franchise mainstays (Posey, Crawford, Belt), castaways (Gausman, DeSclafani, Wood, Ruf, McGee), hidden gems (Wade Jr., Yastrzemski) and homegrown studs (Webb, Rogers). They’ve done it with the largest coaching staff in baseball led by the presumptive NL Manager of the Year Gabe Kapler — whom many doubted when Farhan Zaidi hired him in 2019.
They’ve also done it by ranking in the top three in MLB in both hitting home runs and preventing them. On Monday, six pitchers held the Padres completely inside Oracle Park, while La Stella, Longoria, Yastrzemski and Belt each left it. SF is now 18 shy of the franchise record of 235 home runs.
Kapler’s club has a real shot at even greater history, too: currently at a 106-win pace, the 2021 group could match or break a centuries-old franchise record for regular season wins. The New York Giants won 106 games in 1904 and 105 the next year, and the San Francisco-era high mark is set at 103 victories.
SF has a chance at the franchise record because of their depth and malleability. Even without starters Alex Wood and Johnny Cueto, the Giants have won a season-high eight consecutive games. They’re now 3-0 in contests Dominic Leone “opens,” and he’s allowed one hit and no earned runs in five innings across those three starts.
The Giants have also started six different players in the leadoff spot this year. La Stella was the one to smack their fifth game-opening homer.
Adept plate discipline has also been an integral part of what Kapler calls SF’s “process.” They don’t swing at pitches out of the zone, and even wait for ones they can barrel in the zone to pounce on. Against Darvish, who throws six different pitches, position-player Giants whiffed on just three of his 96 offerings. Their patience — along with their power — led to an insurmountable eight runs in the first four innings.
There was hardly any drama in Oracle Park; the Padres never came within three runs of San Francisco after the first-inning eruption. SF’s relievers struck out 11 in their third win without a traditional starter. So with 18 games remaining, the Giants have secured a playoff berth. This fall will be SF’s eighth playoff trip since moving onto the edge of McCovey Cove in 2000.
In 2003, a year after San Francisco lost Game 7 of the World Series to the Anaheim Angels, the Giants celebrated on Sept. 18 when they beat the Padres to clinch the NL West. They knew how much work they still had to do to reach the mountaintop, having hiked just short of the peak a year prior, but poured champagne down each other’s shirts in the clubhouse anyway.
— Brian Bannister (@RealBanny) September 14, 2021
Giants president Larry Baer remembers 2003 manager Felipe Alou reminding his team to celebrate every milestone. Baseball is an impossibly hard game, and success should be recognized. It should be rejoiced.
Like the ‘03 club, this Giants team has a long road ahead to achieve their ultimate goals. Crawford told the San Francisco Chronicle that their eyes have always been on the division title.
Still, Buster Posey and Kris Bryant joked in the dugout as the final batter stepped in. After the final out, Longoria rushed to second base to hug Crawford. As they always do, the outfielders met in center field. The postgame handshakes, back taps and embraces lingered just a half-second longer. Some players ran out with ski googles for the impending champagne showers, fresh with “Built for October” t-shirts. They partied in the clubhouse, tricked out with neon strobe lights and alcoholic beverages.
As they should. They were being themselves, together.