Mark DeRosa's scorching line drive just inside the right field foul line invited dreams of glory, but instead ended in a heap of disillusionment.
DeRosa had come through with the kind of hit the Giants have searched vainly for over the last month: a two out, two-strike run-scoring, game-tying hit in late innings. The Giants had just fallen behind, 3-2, to the Astros in the top of the 10th, and were staring in the face of a devastating loss.
And here comes DeRosa, the man who'd come off the bench to help preserve the Giants' pennant hopes a day earlier with the dash and dare of a savvy veteran. He'd led off a rally with a single, stolen second in a bold stroke, and raced home with the winning run.
On this day, DeRosa, again a late-game double-switch replacement, came to the plate with Andres Torres on second. Torres, who'd just returned to the roster on Sunday after a stint on the disabled list more to repair his wounded psyche than any real physical malady, had appeared just as overwhelmed all day as he had all season, popping out weakly, striking out en route to an 0-for-4 day. But, in the 10th, the Torres that Giants' fans had come to adore, re-emerged with a line drive single up the middle, and a quick-strike theft of second.
DeRosa took the count to two balls and two strikes before he laced the line drive inside the bag at first and up the right field line -- another bold stroke from the broken-wristed veteran! Torres scored easily from second with the tying run, and DeRosa headed for second in an inspired effort to get into scoring position with Carlos Beltran poised to hit.
DeRosa slid in under the tag as shortstop Angel Sanchez had to lunge at him after taking a throw wide of the bag. But DeRosa slid past the bag, momentarily losing touch with it, and had to reach back to reconnect with it.
He raised his left arm to dodge the tag, and appeared to get to the bag maybe a fraction of a second before Sanchez jammed his glove under DeRosa's arm pit. It could have gone either way to the naked eye, and on close review, DeRosa might have been safe.
But it was not meant to be.
As rookie umpire Dan Bellino punched the air with his emphatic out call, it was almost with disdain, a cold, dispassionate denouement from a novice arbitrator of the game.
Not only was the umpire, a 32-year old law school graduate and former high school catcher, snuffing out the Giants' last best hope in the game, it became all too clear that the baseball Gods were denying the Giants, too, revoking their status as world champions, turning them away at the Gates of the Pennant Chase.
It was as if an avalanche of lost opportunities had come careening down from the mountainside and landed at the center of the diamond, a declaration of punishment for past sins. If only the Giants had paid homage to the hundreds upon hundreds of gifts offered them over the year. They had wasted their fortune all too often, and for this, they must pay.
Their 4-3 loss and series split against the Astros, the last place team in the Central Division with the worst record in baseball, was emblematic of the tough luck Giants, now four games behind the unrelenting Arizona Diamondbacks.
Magic is an ethereal quality, particularly so in baseball. Either ya got it or ya don't. If they had fate on their side, the Giants may have been blessed with a safe call, and Carlos Beltran's ensuing looping single that dropped ever so eloquently into the soft patch in right center field would have been the game-winner that sent the Giants into a reverie with thoughts that perhaps fortune was headed their way.
Instead, it was a final flare snuffed out two batters later when the rookie, Brandon Belt, after a stolen base and intentional walk to Pablo Sandoval, crumbled before the pressures of a pennant race by striking out, looking at a curve -- a pitch that will be his downfall if he doesn't learn to hit it. The question must be asked: Did Beltran overreach with his stolen base? Should he have remained on first to give Sandoval a chance to hit? Perhaps the Astros would have pitched around Sandoval anyway.
It is the plight of the team that has failed to seize the occasion: so many questions, so many what-if propositions.
-- Having just taken the lead, 2-1, in the bottom of the seventh, Matt Cain, who'd pitched so brilliantly, was unable to respond with a shutdown inning. His troubles began when Jimmy Parades hit a line drive just off the tip of shortstop Orlando Cabrera's glove. Would Brandon Crawford have caught it?
But, Cain's difficulty to put hitters away with two strikes is what truly cost him in the eighth inning. With one out, he had a ball and two strikes on catcher Carlos Corporan -- the .190-hitting catcher who stung the Giants with a big hit in Houston last week. But Cain hit Corporan on the thigh with the next pitch, moving the go-ahead run into scoring position.
Granted, Corporan made no attempt to get out of the way, and should have been reeled back into the batter's box by home plate umpire Larry Vanover. But Cain let that pitch get away from him, perhaps a sign that he was losing his command.
But Cain struck out the next hitter, Jason Bourgeois, his stuff still dominant, convincing Boss Bochy to keep him in.
Fleet left-handed outfielder Jordan Schafer, who'd hit a big home run in the first game of this four-game series, had scorched a line drive off Cain in his previous at bat. And he put up a tough battle in the eighth, fouling off three two-strike fastballs in taking the count full. Cain had relentlessly aimed at the outside corner to try to put him away with explosive 93 MPH fastballs -- all spoiled by the pesky Schafer.
It is unjust to fault a pitcher who has registered yet another unrewarded masterpiece. It is unjust to lay the blame on a pitcher who cannot afford a single mistake if only because his hitting brethren are so stingy in their support. Yes, they finally had given him a lead -- a 2-1 lead heading into the eighth -- and perhaps he should have felt fortunate to get that much.
But Cain faltered in a time of need.
After nailing his location on the succession of fastballs away, Cain let one leak over the middle, and the unforgiving fates would not let this pass unpunished. Schafer ripped it into right field for the game-tying single and the lead the Giants had scratched and clawed for in the seventh -- centered around a rare clutch RBI hit by the ever-fading Aubrey Huff -- had vanished.
At that moment, eyes turned to Javier Lopez, warmed and ready in the bullpen. Should he have been in there?
It's not clear: Though Astros Manager Brad Mills had already burned right-handed hitting outfielder Bourgeois, he still had veteran right-handed hitter Jason Michaels on the bench. He likely would have brought him in to face Lopez, who has been extremely vulnerable to right handed hitters (recall recent clutch hits off Lopez by the Atlanta Braves' Martin Prado and Brooks Conrad).
But Michaels was a .196 hitter, for crying out loud, and has hit lefties this year at only a .218 clip. Maybe Lopez could have handled this right handed hitter.
As it turned out, left hander Jeremy Affeldt had a shot at Michaels in the 10th, with a runner at second and one out. Affeldt got ahead of Michaels 0-and-2. And then, he committed a sin that has plagued Giants pitchers this year: he grooved a hittable pitch on a count that major leaguers are so vulnerable on. It was a curve down but not down enough, and Michaels slammed it against the wall for a run-scoring double.
It gave the Astros a temporary 3-2 lead. DeRosa's dramatic single would tie it up in the bottom of the 10th. Might that have been the winning hit, if Affeldt -- so good all year long, as has been the rest of the bullpen -- had buried his 0-2 pitch in the dirt?
Instead, the Giants had to roll out a worn out Ramon Ramirez in the 11th. His unbelievable slider wasn't so unbelievable on this day, giving up a booming double to diminutive (all of 5-foot-3!) Jose Altuve and the game-winning RBI single to former Giants Matt Downs on consecutive flat, hanging sliders.
All the Giants had for an answer was an Aaron Rowand pinch-hit three-pitch strikeout and a Mike Fontenot groundout with the potential tying run at second.
Having only Rowand available in that spot was the Baseball Gods' way of sticking it to the Giants.