The ninth inning of Tuesday's Game 4 of a National League Division Series will long be remembered as a nightmare for the San Francisco Giants.
The Giants were in full control at AT&T Park with a 5-2 lead after a brilliant outing by starter Matt Moore, but the Chicago Cubs exploded for four runs against five different relief pitchers to earn a 6-5 win and clinch the series.
The sequence: Derek Law allowed a leadoff single to Kris Bryant, Javier Lopez walked Anthony Rizzo, Sergio Romo gave up an RBI double to Ben Zobrist, Will Smith allowed a two-run single to Willson Contreras and got Jason Heyward to bunt into a forceout, and Hunter Strickland gave up the game-winning single to Javier Baez.
Rachel Nichols of ESPN reacted to the rally after the Giants had won a 13-inning thriller in Game 3 on Monday:
Rachel Nichols @Rachel__Nichols
This series is drunk.2016-10-12 03:56:20
Aroldis Chapman struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth to give the Cubs a spot in the National League Championship Series.
Perhaps the most incredible takeaway was the fact the Giants lost an elimination game in an even year, as ESPN Stats & Info highlighted:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Giants have their 10-game winning streak in games when facing postseason elimination snapped2016-10-12 04:11:04
San Francisco won the 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Series, but Stats LLC (h/t Fox Sports) noted Chicago starter John Lackey was the last active pitcher to beat the Giants in an elimination contest (Game 7 of the 2002 World Series, when Lackey was with the then-Anaheim Angels).
Lackey didn't eliminate San Francisco on Tuesday, as he struggled through just four innings of work, allowing three earned runs on seven hits and two walks while striking out four.
His counterpart, Moore, was nearly unhittable through eight innings. The southpaw gave up one earned run on two hits and two walks and struck out 10. He appeared primed to add his own chapter to the Giants' postseason legacy until the fateful ninth.
Conor Gillaspie—who tallied a go-ahead two-run triple in the eighth inning Monday and the decisive three-run home run in a victory over the New York Mets in the Wild Card Game on Oct. 5—nearly played the role of offensive hero again with four hits, a run and an RBI. He even drew "MVP" chants from the crowd. Moore, Denard Span, Buster Posey and Joe Panik also drove in a run apiece for the Giants.
San Francisco wasted little time jumping on Lackey, as Span doubled to lead off the bottom of the first, advanced to third on Brandon Belt's fly out and scored on Posey's sacrifice fly.
Anthony Masterson of Stats LLC pointed out the Giants' lead was nothing new:
Anthony Masterson @MasterTones
The Giants have a +40 run differential and a 1.52 ERA in their last 10 elimination games (all victories) @MLBONFOX2016-10-12 01:04:13
Chicago bounced back in the third when David Ross drilled a home run to left field. At 39, he became the oldest catcher and Cubs player to homer in the postseason, per Andrew Simon of MLB.com.
Lackey kept San Francisco off the board in the bottom half, but it was Baez who turned heads. The second baseman made an incredible diving stop and nearly threw out the speedy Span on a play that was reviewed. He then slapped a lightning-quick tag on the leadoff hitter to help catch him trying to steal second.
Baseball journalist Andrew Baggarly called the first play the best he's ever seen by a second baseman, and Bob Nightengale of USA Today praised the 23-year-old:
Bob Nightengale @BNightengale
And, yes, Javy Baez is also the finest tagger in baseball, a catcher's dream.2016-10-12 01:38:30
Baez couldn't do anything to stop the Giants in the fourth. Gillaspie and Panik singled with one out, and Moore came up with the bases loaded after Gregor Blanco walked. Moore smacked an RBI single on an 0-2 pitch, and Span made it 3-1 on a fielder's choice.
Joel Sherman of the New York Post underscored how unlikely the pitcher's RBI was:
Joel Sherman @Joelsherman1
Matt Moore, whose one and only career RBI came in 2012, just delivered an RBI single on an 0-2 count v. Lackey #Cubs #Sfgiants2016-10-12 02:05:56
The Cubs got one back in the next inning when Baez advanced all the way to third on a throwing error by shortstop Brandon Crawford and scored on a sacrifice fly by Ross.
San Francisco appeared to break things open with one out in the bottom of the fifth. Hunter Pence singled, and Crawford blasted the ball off the top of the wall in right field. Pence didn't score because he went back to re-touch second base, and Crawford ended up with a double.
SF Giants on CSN highlighted just how close it was to a home run:
SF Giants on NBCS @NBCSGiants
Craw couldn't get much closer to a HR. #SFGiants https://t.co/AlFqR5l9xS2016-10-12 02:30:56
Travis Wood came on in relief, but Gillaspie plated Pence with a single, and Panik scored Crawford with a sacrifice fly for a 5-2 advantage.
Chicago threatened in the sixth when Dexter Fowler drew a leadoff walk and Bryant dumped one into right field, but Pence charged the in-between ball and forced Fowler out at second. That was the last time the Cubs bothered Moore, who retired the Cubs 1-2-3 in the seventh.
The Giants reacted to his performance:
San Francisco Giants @SFGiants
1️⃣2️⃣3️⃣ 7th. Matt Moore is DEALING. #BeliEVEN | #NLDS | #SFGiants https://t.co/HtF00vaX0O2016-10-12 03:06:53
Moore struck out Ross and Fowler in the eighth to cap his night in style.
But as great as Moore was Tuesday, his showing will forever be a footnote thanks to Chicago's offensive onslaught in the ninth. San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy didn't give the ball to Romo to start the ninth after the closer recorded a blown save Monday, and Law, Lopez, Romo, Smith and Strickland couldn't get the job done.
Adam Amin of ESPN noted the meltdown was nothing new:
The Giants will have all winter to think about their bullpen shortcomings after Tuesday's collapse.
The Cubs advanced to the NLCS, which starts Saturday at Wrigley Field. They will face the winner of Thursday's decisive Game 5 between the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Chicago can reset its rotation of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and Lackey, while its next opponent still has to register one more win and will likely be without its best starter until at least Game 2. The Cubs were 5-2 against the Nationals and 4-3 against the Dodgers this season.
Chicago reached the NLCS last year only to be swept by the Mets. One key difference this time around will be home-field advantage, as the Cubs will look to get off to a quick start in front of the Chicago faithful.
Gillaspie summarized things from the Giants' perspective, per Baggarly: "It's hard. We pour our whole lives into this. To see it end like this, to be honest, I'm still shocked."
Bochy said he didn't want to put Moore back on the mound for the ninth, per Alex Pavlovic of CSN Bay Area: "That's a lot of work [120 pitches]. He did his job. We were lined up."
Bryant noted the Cubs' confidence level in the final inning, per Steve Greenberg of the Chicago Sun-Times: "High. It's always high. We've got a lot of guys on our team who have had unbelievable years."
Baez talked about why he celebrated so much after his big hit, per Greenberg: "Their pitcher was staring at me for no reason."
Rizzo said the Cubs have a larger prize in mind, per Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago: "You can't take for granted what we've done last year and this year. But we got one mission, one goal in mind. That's eight more wins."
If they get those eight wins, Chicago will likely party until Opening Day next year.