SAN FRANCISCO – This was the scene that wasn’t supposed to take place for the Giants this season. Not with two talented divisional opponents like the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres standing in the way, and certainly not with this many days left in September.
But there was rookie reliever Kervin Castro on Monday, on the mound in the ninth inning with the announced Oracle Park crowd of 21,078 on its feet. Castro got the sign from catcher Curt Casali and struck out Ha-Seong Kim, giving the Giants a 9-1 victory over San Diego to become the first MLB team to punch a ticket to the 2021 postseason.
The Giants hit four home runs, with Tommy La Stella and Evan Longoria both taking Padres starter Yu Darvish deep in the first inning, and Mike Yastrzemski and Brandon Belt doing the same in the fourth. Longoria’s three-run blast gave San Francisco a 5-0 lead, and Belt’s two-run shot put the Giants up 9-1.
The Giants’ bullpen combined to take care of the rest over nine innings, starting with two scoreless from Dominic Leone, as San Francisco clinched its first postseason berth since 2016.
It’s the earliest a Giants team has ever clinched a playoff spot in the 139-year history of the franchise, are 18 games and 20 days now remain in the regular season. Entering Monday, the Giants’ 93 wins through 143 games were fourth-most for any NL team since 1969.
How unlikely was that at the start of the season, especially considering this was a 29-31 team in 2020?
“I’m really pleased with the performance of our group and more than anything else, I’m just so proud of their preparation process on a regular basis,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said. “It’s a group that’s very tight, very unselfish and that’s why we’re here.”
The Giants still have the NL West to play for, as they, for the moment, increased their lead in the division to three games with the Dodgers’ game versus the Arizona Diamondbacks still in progress.
After the game, Giants players in the dugout did not sprint but walked toward the infield to congratulate their teammates. Players, coaches, and other team personnel then put on ‘Built for October’ T-shirts on the field, offered each other hugs, and posed for a team photo around the mound.
So how were the Giants going to celebrate if they happened to win Monday? Party it up, or take it in stride? Kapler, before the game, wasn’t sure.
“I want to encourage our players to be themselves, and I want to encourage our staff to be themselves,” he said. “Everybody celebrates a little bit differently. There are some who want to have every opportunity to kind of blow off some steam and celebrate and reflect. And there are others who prefer to take every step as kind of one in the process. And I respect both ways.”
No one could blame the Giants for being boisterous if they went in that direction.
The Giants were predicted to be on the outside looking in this season, even with the return of Buster Posey, a more experienced bullpen, and a deeper starting rotation. The Dodgers were coming off a World Series championship, and the Padres made all kinds of offseason moves to help make another deep playoff run.
But the 2021 Giants are a team that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
The Giants entered Monday with 213 home runs, second-most in the big leagues behind Toronto’s 230 and their most in a season since they hit 235 in 2001. Yastrzemski hit his 23rd home run in the fourth inning to give San Francisco a 6-1 lead, and Belt followed that with a towering two-run shot to right for his 24th of the season.
It’s the first time since 2010 that the Giants have had two players hit at least 23 home runs in the same season. That year, Aubrey Huff and Juan Uribe hit 26 and 24, respectively.
The Giants, entering Monday, were also tied for sixth in MLB with a .986 fielding percentage. In 60 games last season, San Francisco ranked 27th in the bigs with a .980 fielding percentage.
The pitching staff has also done its part in 2021. San Francisco had a 4.64 ERA in last year’s shortened season, which ranked 18th in MLB. This season, the improvement in that area has been awe-inspiring, as the Giants owned a 3.27 ERA, second-only in MLB to the Dodgers (2.95).
Kapler said Monday that in spring training, “our players were setting goals. They were determining what this club was capable of, and our staff was just there to support that vision and continues to be there to support that vision.”
Within the NL West, the Giants have taken care of business against the lesser lights and held their own with the Dodgers and Padres. San Francisco has a combined record of 26-6 against the Colorado Rockies and Diamondbacks and are now a combined 16-13 against the Los Angeles and San Diego.
San Francisco plays three more games against the Padres this series and then welcomes the Atlanta Braves into town for a three-game set from Friday to Sunday.