Once again, Dusty and the Reds fall short

There was one more epic confrontation left for the San Francisco Giants before they could close out one of the great comebacks in playoff history.

Sergio Romo, the guy with the long beard, an 87 mph fastball, a nasty slider and the control of Dennis Eckersley, against Jay Bruce, a slugger with as much raw power as any other hitter in the game.

The Cincinnati Reds had scored one run in the bottom of the ninth, and Bruce represented the winning run with one out. After Wednesday night’s drama, you had the feeling something amazing was going to happen yet again.

My notes: 87 mph fastball fouled off; 87 chopped fouled again; 78 slider outside, Bruce Bochy pacing, fans chanting “Bruuuuuuuuce!!,” fouled off on low and outside; 87 fouled off; 87 fouled off Dusty Baker chomping on toothpick; 88 fouled back to screen; Bruce steps out, Buster Posey visits the mound; 82 slider low and away; 88 up and in, doesn’t get the call, 3-2; 79 slider, fly ball to left field.

What a showdown. A great at-bat by Bruce, fighting off all those pitches on the corner, with Romo throwing pitch after pitch on the corner. Romo won on the 12th pitch and then struck out Scott Rolen to begin the celebration.

The Reds had trailed 6-0 after Posey’s fifth-inning grand slam. They brought the tying to the plate in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. They brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the ninth. They had 17 baserunners.

But the Giants found a way. The entire series, they found a way.

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In the end, the Giants made the big plays, and the Reds didn’t. In the end, the Giants had Posey, and the Reds didn’t. In the end, Bochy had a quick hook on his starter when he had to, and Baker didn’t. And, yes, in the end, the Reds had to win a series without their ace and with a hobbled Joey Votto.

Despite needing just one win at home to advance to their first NLCS since 1995, the Reds couldn’t get it done. Despite Homer Bailey flirting with a no-hitter in Game 3 and the Giants finishing with just three hits, the Reds couldn’t win that game. Despite knocking out Barry Zito in the third inning of Game 4, they couldn’t win that game. Despite again generating some offense against Matt Cain, they couldn’t win Game 5.

Give credit to the Giants for going on the road and taking three in a row. Give credit to Angel Pagan for a big Game 4 and to Tim Lincecum for his relief effort in that game. Give credit to Posey for crushing the decisive hit of the series, the grand slam off Mat Latos on Thursday that powered the Giants to a 6-4 victory.

Let’s start there. The game was 0-0 heading into the fifth, a pitcher’s duel as many had predicted. Latos had retired 11 of 12 entering the innings. Gregor Blanco led with a single to left, and then Brandon Crawford tripled into the right-field corner. During those at-bats, Latos was visibly upset with some calls by plate umpire Tom Hallion. After Cain tapped back to the mound, Pagan reached on shortstop Zack Cozart's error, scoring Crawford. Marco Scutaro then walked on four pitches, including a first-pitch pitchout. The bullpen began stirring as Sam LeCure took off his warm-up jacket.

Pablo Sandoval singled to left, loading the bases.

Now, you have to ask: Did Baker leave Latos in too long? Should he have had the bullpen up earlier? Was LeCure even the right guy? It’s an elimination game, and the last thing you want to do in an elimination game is leave your starter in to give up six runs. The Reds had the best bullpen in the majors during the regular season. Sure, if anybody could get you out of a bases-loaded jam, it would be a guy named Aroldis Chapman, only one of the greatest strikeout relievers in the history of the game, but that would require thinking outside the box. Baker had little option but to leave Latos in.

Latos grooved a 2-2 cutter to Posey that didn’t cut much. Posey ripped it over the fence in left-center.

Down 6-0, the Reds didn’t quit. Brandon Phillips doubled in two runs in the fifth. Ryan Ludwick homered leading off the sixth. Jay Bruce walked, and Scott Rolen singled to put runners at first and second. Then came one of the most surprising moves I remember in recent postseason play.

With catcher Ryan Hanigan up, the count went full. Now, Hanigan is a good contact hitter. He struck out just 37 times in 371 plate appearances this season; among players with at least 300 plate appearances, that was the 16th-best strikeout rate in the majors. Still, that means he strikes out 10 percent of the time. In 53 potential double-play situations, he grounded into six double plays -- 11 percent. Factor in that Cain is a decent strikeout pitcher and one with a low ground-ball rate (37 percent), and the odds tilt slightly away from a potential double play and a little more to a potential strikeout.

Baker sent the runners. Hanigan fouled off a pitch. Baker sent the runners again. Cain threw a fastball that tailed back over the black, Hanigan took it for strike three, and Posey gunned down Bruce at third. Look, it was an aggressive play. Baker obviously trusted Hanigan to put the ball in play, even against a tough pitcher like Cain. Bruce is not a fast runner, a guy with just 29 steals in 52 career attempts. Most managers sit tight there, not wanting to run themselves out of a potential big inning. Instead of making the Giants turn two, the Reds gave them an easy second out at third base.

“That was big," Posey said afterward on TV. "They had a lot of momentum going, putting a lot of good at-bats together.”

Unfortunately, that seems to be Dusty’s karma in the postseason. Back in the 2002 World Series, the Giants led 5-0 in the seventh inning in Game 6, only to lose. In 2003, the Cubs were up 3 games to 1 in the NLCS. They lost the Bartman game, and then Baker left in Kerry Wood to give up seven runs in Game 7. And now his Reds became the first National League team to blow a 2-0 series lead in the Division Series.

The Reds rallied twice more. They got two runners on in the seventh with two outs, but Jeremy Affeldt finally retired Ludwick on a bouncer to the mound after an eight-pitch duel. In the eighth, Crawford robbed Hanigan with a diving catch of a line drive, and then with two on and two outs, Pagan made another diving catch of Dioner Navarro’s soft liner.

In the end, the Reds were left with Chapman pitching the ninth inning with a three-run deficit. In the end, the Reds go home frustrated and disappointed. They'll be haunted by two plays at third base -- the Brandon Phillips play in the first inning of Game 3 and the one from Thursday. Two plays that the Giants made, and the Reds didn't.