SAN FRANCISCO -- The familiar story lines were moving in perfect sync toward Game 5, which could have been deliciously narrative-rich.
The Chicago Cubs were about to feel the weight of 108 years of bumbling and frustration come crashing down on their heads.
Then, there was the even-year thing. That one was a lot of fun for a while and it even gave the San Francisco Giants' marketing people their billboard and hash-tag campaign. But you know what was hard to keep "believen" in? The San Francisco Giants' bullpen, which made the events of Tuesday's Game 4, in which five relievers formed a firing line of brutal ineffectiveness in a 6-5 loss to the Cubs more surprising for a national audience than it was for Giants' fans.
They had seen this act before. They had seen it all season, as the Giants lost a franchise-record nine games that they led entering the ninth inning. They had seen it most painfully in September, as their team nearly blew not only any chance of winning the NL West but its grasp of a wild-card berth. The Giants frittered away nine saves in the final month alone. Once closer Santiago Casilla flamed out, they could never find the right fix.
In fact, the team they were jostling with for that final wild-card spot even used the Giants' inability to hold leads as their dugout rallying cry when they saw the Giants take an early 5-1 lead on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the final game of the season. St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny admitted as much to reporters.
The Giants were able to cobble together enough late-inning outs to reach the postseason and even put a scare in the frighteningly talented Cubs, but it caught up to them in one spectacular meltdown in the ninth inning Tuesday evening. It was as if manager Bruce Bochy summoned each of the five relievers -- finally, an actual committee of closers -- and instead of telling them, "I'm going to need you to get one out," told them, "I'm going to need you to put on one baserunner."
It's a good thing MLB commissioner Rob Manfred had already left town, because Tuesday was an affront to the spirit of picking up the pace. With no closer, Bochy asked Derek Law to get Kris Bryant. Law later said he missed his spot and, instead of rolling over the pitch and hitting it right to Brandon Crawford, Bryant rolled it into left field.
That brought in Javier Lopez, who walked Anthony Rizzo, which led to Sergio Romo, who gave up a double to Ben Zobrist. Come on in, Will Smith and, while you're there, give up a two-run single to Willson Contreras. Jason Heyward hit a double-play ball, but Crawford threw it away as Contreras slid into him near the bag. In came the hardest thrower of the bunch, Hunter Strickland, but he brought no relief. Javier Baez, the MVP of the series if there were such a thing, had the winning single.
You might not need Mariano Rivera to win a World Series, but when you have five guys who can't get a single clean out before it's too late, you have a systemic breakdown on your hands. The Giants knew they hadn't fixed the problem. They were just hoping their October steeliness and starting pitching could keep it at bay long enough to win another World Series. It was a bold run.
"I would like to think you're going to get three outs there," Bochy said. "We couldn't do it."
What was fascinating to hear Tuesday night was Cubs manager Joe Maddon talk about the prospects of Game 5, which he wasn't particularly excited about. Maddon's wariness, in fact, indicates that, had they simply gotten bad shoddy relief pitching Tuesday, not a barrel filled with TNT, the Giants might have actually pulled off this amazing caper.
Somebody asked Maddon what was going through his mind when his team entered the ninth inning down three runs.
"Johnny Cueto at Wrigley Field," Maddon said. "I was telling the folks in there if you ever looked at those numbers, they're not good for us. He's really tough on us."
In 15 career starts at the friendly confines, Cueto had held opponents to a .240 batting average and .687 OPS. He had a 3.07 ERA. Anthony Rizzo is 3-for-25 off Cueto; Jason Heyward is 4-for-18; Dexter Fowler is 3-for-16. And yet thanks to the Giants' bullpen, he'll never get that chance to complete the Cubs' implosion and spur on his new teams' drive to an every-other-year parade.
In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's charade, the Giants hadn't quite had a chance to get their stories straight. Some of them were preaching togetherness, but a bitter residue still hung over the room after the way things ended. It's one thing to lose collectively. It's another to succeed collectively and then see one segment of the team continually undermine those efforts.
"We look at it as we either win or lose as a team," Brandon Belt said. "We lost this series as a team. That's all we're thinking about."
But Denard Span said, "The name of the game was get three outs and we didn't do that until they got the go-ahead runs. It's tough to watch it unravel. Just tough."
Which prompted a follow-up question about the team's inability to hold late leads in the final, fateful weeks.
"I don't want to speak on that," Span said.
Monday's game seemed to shake something loose in the Giants' lineup: energy. Instead of a jolt from nowhere that typified their previous postseason games this year, they had the sustained pressure they're famous for in October. The Giants badgered John Lackey in every inning he pitched, scoring in the first, leaving two on in the second and breaking through for two more runs and three hits in the fourth.
Lackey was gone by the fifth inning and Cubs relievers had no more luck stemming the tide. The Giants added two more runs on Justin Grimm and Travis Wood. The loudest shot was Crawford's blast off the right-field wall. It missed clearing the brick wall by an inch or so, careening off the top and bouncing back onto the field.
Meanwhile, Giants starter Matt Moore made key pitches to get out of most of the trouble the Cubs could brew up. Even a rare Crawford error led to only one run in the fifth. He pitched brilliantly for his new team, giving up only two hits over eight innings, walking two and striking out 10. Still, Moore said there was no discussion about going out for the ninth after he threw 120 pitches (barely a month after he threw 133 in a near no-hitter).
"Everyone kind of knew it was my last one," Moore said of the eighth.
Tuesday was the second time the Giants had blown a postseason game they led after eight innings. They also did it 105 years ago. It blew up a lot of impressive streaks, including 10 straight wins in postseason elimination games and 11 straight winning postseason series.
And yet it didn't feel like a once-in-a-century phenomenon, because it had grown commonplace in the previous weeks around here.
"How do you explain any of the blown games we've had as a bullpen?" Law said. "I don't really know. I don't have an answer for you on that."
They've got another four months to chew on that one.