Brian Wilson's nightmarish collapse Monday night was worth only a half game in the N.L. West standings, but make no mistake: it was a dagger thrust that cut deep into the Giants' heart, a dark symbol that stood for all the misfortune that has befallen the world champions.
It was as heart-wrenching a loss that a team can withstand, particularly this deep in the year and under the precarious conditions that the Giants seem to be constructing for themselves.
The Giants' 5-4 loss to the Braves was all the more poignant in the way it wiped out 8 1/2 innings of positive vibes that promised to build into something special. The Giants were on the verge of their third straight win, which would have begun to open some distance from the rough patch they'd been through. They were now in a groove, or were at the edge of capturing that good feeling.
They were poised to claim a victory over the tough veteran right hander, Tim Hudson, having smacked him around for a rare pair of home runs, while riding the hard-nosed performance of the young left-hander Madison Bumgarner, whose wicked slider had Braves hitters almost literally screwing themselves into the ground chasing the un-hittable offerings.
They'd overcome what could have been a devastating first-inning injury to their star, Pablo Sandoval, by sending out a replacement, Mike Fontenot, to fill out the task with an opposite field home run and a dazzling diving play to save a run.
Taking the first game from the Braves by beating their ace could have been a cutting message for the rest of the series: it would have said that whatever troubles that had been ailing the Giants, they were back. They were doing it with power, solid defense and their trademark stellar starting pitching. And the Braves would have to rethink this business of waltzing to a wild card title, knowing that the Giants would be on their heels.
All that changed in mere moments, and the details matter, the small stuff added up.
Here's how that ninth inning unfolded. Count the ways that Wilson added fuel to his own fire:
First, there was the infield two-hopper that the fleet Jose Constanza slapped into the hole at shortstop. It was a play that shortstop Orlando Cabrera could have made if he hadn't rushed, foiled when he could not get the ball out of his glove on his first grab.
Then, there was the walk to pinch hitter Eric Hinske. Wilson appeared unwilling to go straight after Hinske, especially after Hinske ripped his 94 MPH fastball foul on a 2-and-0 count. So, when he got to a full count, Wilson chose to try to nibble at the corner and lost him on a pitch that wasn't even close.
Undoubtedly, Wilson had in mind the dramatic game-tying home run Hinske hit last year as a pinch hitter in Game 2 of the NLDS (which the Giants came back to win, 3-2). Hinske has hit 10 home runs in 206 at bats this year.
But, that was about as inexcusable walk as you could have in the ninth inning because it set up a bunt situation, in which the Braves would be able to move the tying run into scoring position. Michael Bourn's bunt achieved that.
Wilson's approach to Martin Prado was just as boggling. After jumping ahead in the count 1-ball-and-2-strikes on a 96 MPH fastball that he blew by him, Wilson floated a 90 MPH cutter out over the plate, which Prado ripped into left field for a run, and pushing the tying run to third.
Why would Wilson go with his secondary pitch there, especially after powering right by Prado a pitch earlier? He sped up Prado's bat, and put it on a tee for good measure. Wilson looked equipped to blow his way through the Braves hitters: he had a great fastball. He was just reluctant to use it. Almost as if he's too proud of his wide repertoire to be seen merely as a flame thrower.
With runners at first and third, Wilson clearly pitched around the dangerous Brian McCann, walking him on four pitches. That's understandable in most circumstances, except that in this case, it moved the winning run to second base for free.
Wilson rallied to strike out the dangerous Dan Uggla, blowing a 97 MPH fastball right by him on the outer edge. His best fastball was there. There was no reason to continue going back to his less effective cutter. Not in a situation that called for a strikeout.
But here's how he went after rookie Freddie Freeman: A cutter up (ball one); a 97 MPH fastball fouled (1-and-1), a 96 MPH fastball on the inside corner (1-and-2); a 96 MPH fastball way up, rather than something the would tempt him; it was an easy take (2-and-2). And get this: he went back to his 91 MPH cutter away, again trying to nibble but without effect. Freeman wasn't biting; it was another easy take.
So, Wilson was forced to come in over the heart of the plate. He had no room for mistake, so he had to lay it in there and hope that Freeman would hit it at someone. Rather than using the 1and-2- and 2-and-2 counts to get Freeman to chase on tough fastballs (like the one he threw to Uggla), Wilson toyed with Freeman.
He paid for it with the next pitch, and it was just another psychic blow the Giants will have to recover from. Boss Bochy is hoping Pablo can recover from the foul ball he slammed against the top of his foot. But it will be his team's ability to heal quickly from Wilson's meltdown that he'll be watching closely.