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[this was the Championship Season, August, amidst Lincecum’s first crash]

First Pitch 1:06pm – Indian Summer began with a heat wave and the warm weather seems to correlate directly with baseballs sailing out of AT&T Park.

The Giants, a great pitching team that struggled to produce three or four runs a game in San Francisco‘s foggy, cool summers, had, with the heat, flipped the script, smashing the ball against the surging, Central Division-leading Reds – scoring 27 runs in the first two night games to win 16-5 and 11-2. It was the beginning of a home-run fiesta that would carry the Giants to the playoffs.

Headed into the city on BART that morning after the long-ball fest of the two previous nights, we met lots of Giants fans looking for a sweep.

We all talked about how the day game would be even warmer, and hoped Giants bats would stay hot. More than once we heard the refrain: “I wish they’d save some of those runs and scatter them across a few games.”

We were excited to see Madison Bumgarner, the newest member of the starting rotation, a tall, strong 21-year old with big-time game. It would also be my first time seeing the Reds’ Joey Votto live. He didn’t disappoint.

In the first, with two men down, Votto blasted a two-run homer. Worse, his was followed by back-to-back solo shots by Jonny Gomes and Ryan Hanigan that got out of the park in a hurry. The Reds shelled Bumgarner mercilessly before that last out. Reds 4, Giants 0.

Though the Giants were down big before they’d even had a chance to bat, my son, the woman to my right, her son (wearing a floppy-eared Panda hat) and I all agreed not to let it bother us. Giants batters were coming off 27 runs in two nights! Pandahat favored Aubrey Huff.

Yes, game we were, in the face of four runs, and, as if to prove us and the whole universe true, Bumgarner settled down in the second, and in the bottom half Jose Guillen singled to left, was advanced to second by a Sandoval base hit (much to Pandahat’s excitement) and to third by an Uribe sac-fly. The Giants chiseled him across the plate from third on a Freddy Sanchez single. Reds 4, Giants 1.

But in the top of the third, the 21-year-old Bumgarner lost it with two outs again. Rolen doubled, Gomes singled, Hanigan walked on a full count and Drew Stubbs tripled to clear the bases. Just like that it was seven to nothing. Ugh.

Then, just when we thought it couldn’t possibly get worse, the poor kid blew it like I haven’t seen since Little League.

With two outs, three men in, and Stubbs standing on third, Righetti and Bochy decided to intentionally walk Paul Janish to set up the force out at second, first or home.

So picture it: runner on third. catcher Buster Posey standing up, glove-arm extended. The ump’s got his hands on his hips. Janish at the plate is barely even in his stance – holding the bat in a  relaxed posture awaiting his walk.

And then suddenly, Madison Bumgarner throws a wild pitch on an intentional ball! Missed Buster entirely! And Stubbs scores from third on an E1. Reds 8, Giants 1.

I had no idea what to say. Talk about brain freeze. I looked at my son between the top and bottom of the inning, speechless. I ran through the list of clichés out loud:

“Hey you know, there’s no clock in baseball, it’s the most changeable sport, anything could happen. A coupla runs here, a solid inning in relief there and a couple-few more runs, and we’re right back in this thing.”

It was weak, but the woman to my left chimed in appropriately and together, we showed strength in the face of adversity to the boys – but not before she leaned over and whispered “I wish they’d saved some of those runs from yesterday to scatter across a few games.”

Then again, torturously, with two outs in the fourth, in his first at-bat against our new right-hander Ramon Ramirez, Joey Votto homered for the second time. It was impressive. He worked the count against the second pitcher he’d face that day and calmly jacked a solo shot to left. Votto already had two big flies and three batted in. Reds 9, Giants 1.

When the Giants failed to score in the bottom of the fourth, a lot of people left, but the woman to my right and her son stayed. They minded our stuff as we took a quick walk down to concessions to see if it might change our luck. My son flipped his hat round, the first of many rally caps I’d see that day. We never leave games, but this one just got worse.

In the fifth, with two outs, Ramirez walked Stubbs, then issued a back-to-back, full count walk to Janish and finally capped his performance by yielding a single to the pitcher, Homer Bailey, scoring Stubbs.

Santiago Casilla came in to get the last out and stood on the mound facing people’s backs as they climbed the steps to scramble out, and a frustrated remaining crowd. In a tension-relieving moment akin to broken glass Casilla then beaned Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips.

It was inadvertent, but took Philips out of the game, clearly bothered, in the sixth. Casilla then just took a strikeout, so his box reads: one beaning and one strikeout in a third of an inning’s work! That was enough for our seatmates, who bolted up the steps – Panda ears a-flappin’.

And that was how the Giants got down ten to one in the first five innings of a game we now refer to as one of the greatest comeback performances in SF Giants history.

When the Giants came up to bat in the fifth down ten to one, there were maybe 20,000 of us left, enjoying a rare, hot day at the park. It was a gorgeous Wednesday afternoon and there really wasn’t a better place to be in SF. Oh, the waning light in Indian Summer, then, like a consolation gift to us for staying.

Giants recent acquisition Mike Fontenot drew a lead-off walk and Andres Torres singled and then – what, what? – Aubrey Huff advanced both to scoring position with a grounder. When Pat Burrell singled to right to bring in two runs, we made noise. Reds 10, Giants 3.

All year, our expensive left-handed reliever Jeremy Affeldt – whom we’d signed last year to a two-year, nine million dollar deal – has struggled in relief. He seemed as likely to throw a wild pitch as a strike. When he entered the game in the sixth, I felt Manager Bruce Bochy and Pitching Coach Dave Righetti had given up on this one.

I assumed they were happy taking two of three from the Reds over the week and had decided to use this opportunity to help some guys who’ve been struggling work out kinks. I had resigned myself to watching Affeldt fail before he even threw a pitch and even prepared my son for it.

Affeldt had taken a beating in the press and been shown up significantly by left-handed acquisition Javier Lopez, a specialist, whom the Giants pay one tenth of his salary. Affeldt watched Lopez enter games in pressure situations just days before – in San Diego and at home – and end them with less than ten pitches. It must have been a blow to his ego.

Affeldt stepped up and closed out the sixth without giving up a hit. Three up, three down. An electricity passed through us. None of our guys want to be the one not carrying his weight. Anybody who loves effort and was at AT&T Park that day fell in love with this team.

In the sixth, Juan Uribe hit a one-out single to short, just beating the tag. Nate Schierholtz – pinch hitting for Affeldt who’d done his job – smashed a double to right, sending Uribe to third. After five and two-thirds, the Reds pulled Bailey with a seven-run lead and brought Bill Bray in relief.

It was Bray’s wild pitch that made everybody sit up. It was a parallel to Bumgarner’s run-scoring wild pitch in the first – karma. This one brought Uribe home and sent Schierholtz to third. Fontenot then stepped up with one down and grounded out to second, allowing Schierholtz to cross the plate. Reds 10, Giants 5.

Now, the vibe in the building was palpably “no-hitterish“. It was ten to five. Nobody wanted to talk about a comeback for fear of jinxing it. But there was an excitement after that wild pitch – like maybe the Reds were more vulnerable in relief.

We were all two days full of recent memories of towering homers by Posey and Uribe and Burrell – could the Giants come back? I wondered what Kruk, Kuip and Jon were talking about. [still haven’t heard what I’m told is an epic broadcast].

In the seventh, the Reds brought Logan Ondrusek in relief of Bray, Sergio Romo pitched for the Giants, and both pitchers held.

Still down five now in the top of the eighth, the Giants brought closer Brian Wilson in early to keep the Giants within reach. Wilson, who would go on to end the season with a major-league leading 48 saves is our nutty backstop – crazy as a loon, but who knows how to finish.

Again. In Wilson, we felt the fight in this team. The unwillingness to just rollover and call it a day because you’re down.

We went to the bottom of the eighth inning trailing by five runs, but having crept back to within striking distance against the Reds bullpen. Has there ever been a more exciting inning played by an SF team than the Giants eighth that day? That’s for historians to decide, but it was the craziest Giant inning I’ve ever seen live, hands down.

Guillen leads off with a single to left, and then Sandoval, to center – runners in the corners for Juan “One-Swing-of-the-Bat” Uribe. <BLAM> three run homer. Nobody out. Ondrusek done. Reds 10, Giants 8.

The Reds, suddenly only up two, scramble. Massive substitutions. Helsey in at left, Bruce at right and Arthur Rhodes on the mound to set up Cordero, the closer. It was crunch time and we, long-suffering Giant fans – desperately searching for situational hitting and run support – watched five of our guys make it happen.

Ross and Fontenot hit back to back singles to left and Torres jumped on a Rhodes change-up, smacking a stand-up double to the same part of the park, scoring both. Reds 10, Giants 10. And then in two quick at-bats against Rhodes, Posey and Huff earned sac-flies to bring Torres home, sliding to the plate to beat the throw. The Giants lead 11 to 10.

Wow. The place went crazy. My seven-year old was high-fiving seventy-year olds! It may have been the smallest standing ovation the Giants will ever receive, but it was unequaled in sincerity.

When I looked around it was apparent that since the fifth some fans had returned, or maybe had come in from a downtown bar to catch what they were seeing on TV or hearing about in the streets or on the radio – The Greatest Comeback in Giants History.

Now, there is some dispute about what constitutes a Great Comeback. To me, it isn’t a comeback unless you win. There are many who share this opinion. This definition dominates the view presented by the mainstream sports press. But for some, a comeback is defined by effort, as measured by the difference in the lead you make: if you were down by a hundred but lost by only two, it must have been a really amazing game, and you must have made superhuman effort though you took the loss.

I find this definition of a comeback without victory to be suspect in sports with only two opponents. Because, where in a foot race, it applies to the difference between second’s finish versus third’s in relation to first (and more importantly fourths distance from third), it makes no real sense where only two are competing against each other.

That said, the ten runs made up by the Giants to take the lead was the greatest deficit overcome in Giants history. We were exhilarated. The relief of tension was palpable. We all felt special. It was incredible. We were going to sweep the Reds, scoring almost 40 runs in three days. The elders behind us and my son were just glowing in the late afternoon light . . .

It’s a shame home games don’t last just eight innings. There’s those last three pesky outs to get. Even after a huge comeback achieved as a team, you have to stay focused … and seize the win. To me, that’s what makes it a comeback.

Now, here a word must be inserted about Pablo Sandoval. I was at a local pub the other night watching the game when Sandoval made the throwing error by sending the ball home with a force out at every bag without stepping on third, preventing a double play from ending the inning – a mental slip that allowed a run to score later and lose the game for the Giants- when a patron beside me said he blamed the marketing department for Pablo’s problems.

That was when I put it together. The Marketing department, desperate to replace Barry Bonds with a ‘batting persona’ forced the 23-year old Sandoval to become The Panda. And went nuts making Panda suits, hats, bobblies, glasses, mats, key chains, stuffies and everything else. Did anyone in marketing notice that our strength is pitching and that we need team play and contact hitters? It was undue pressure to put on Pablo Sandoval.

I enjoy shouting out to the players in encouragement when I am sitting low enough to be heard. We were just up the first base line behind the Reds dugout for this one and in the third I can remember shouting to Freddy Sanchez as he awaited a pitch with Panda on first, “Hey, Freddy, You got ‘em, man! They can’t touch you!”

Pablo, standing on first, turned, pointed at me from first with two black-gloved fingers and shouted, “That’s Right!” My son was thrilled. Freddy hit into a double play. It felt like poor Pablo was cursed.

With one out in the top of the ninth and the Giants up 11 to 10 after coming back from being down 10 to 1, the greatest comeback in Giants history, Brian Wilson delivered and the Reds’ Drew Stubbs hit a routine grounder to Sandoval. I was sitting right behind first base. I looked right at him. He scooped it up and had plenty of time.

For a second, I thought I saw his eyes looking right at us. And then I watched his right arm just go screwy and his face turn. The ball flew way wide of Huff at first and into the grass in front of the dugout. Stubbs, thinking it was going to be a routine out, hadn’t really come close to first, so he turned the corner and turned on the speed, arriving standing at second.

It was a two-base throwing error on Pablo Sandoval that put the tying run in scoring position and the fifth Giant error of the game. Moments later, Wilson gave up the single to Janish that scored Stubbs. He then got the final out. Reds 11, Giants 11.

The Reds had turned to Nick Masset to finish their debacle of an eighth, which the right-hander ended with a strikeout. Now, he manhandled the Giants in the ninth, striking out three. The Giants’ Javier Lopez, la specialista, entered in the tenth and true to form made quick work of the Reds. Again, it felt like Lopez didn’t want to be shown up by Affeldt, didn’t want to be responsible for failing when called upon.

I mean this in a good way.

Not like guys competing for jobs, but like comrades in struggle. In the eleventh, Bochy leaned on Lopez to extend and the specialist held the meat of the Reds lineup to just one hit. Meanwhile, Manager Dusty Baker and the Reds turned the ball over to their excellent closer Francisco Cordero.

The Giants wouldn‘t score in the tenth or eleventh, but we got the thrill of seeing a scoreboard I don’t think I’ll ever see live again – Eleven to Eleven in the Bottom of the Eleventh.

Arriving at the top of the twelfth, exhausted of left-handed relievers, I looked down to see Barry Zito trotting out to the mound. Bochy probably thought he had no other choice. Maybe he thought it would help the slumping Zito get back some lost confidence. But there was starter Barry Zito on short rest, entering a tied game in the 12th inning in relief.

Janish singled to left, then Matt Cairo doubled to center sending Janish to third. With two on, nobody out in the twelfth inning of a midweek day-game, the last of a series in August, against the Central Division leader, and a failing Zito on the mound, these Giants refused to die.

The next batter, Chris Helsey, hit a sharp grounder to Uribe hoping to at last get the winning RBI. Janish sprinted for home, but the hard-charging Uribe scooped it up and threw a bullet to Posey at the plate, in time to get the sliding Janish. We roared.

It was still 11 to 11. But now it was one away with runners in the corners for Zito facing league MVP-candidate Joey Votto. We knew the battle between Barry Zito and Joey Votto would decide this game. As Votto fought off pitch after pitch on the strikes and Zito missed the box by millimeters on the balls, the sinking feeling that we were losing this one crept into us all.

In a way I was resigned to it when Barry ran out there, but somehow it didn’t matter. We had seen superhuman effort by our Giants. Grit, toughness and an unwillingness to rollover and die.

Finally though, one guy was tougher than them all and in an epic display of game-winning force, Joey Votto hit a ball so hard into shallow right field that nobody could’ve handled it – a smokin’ dribbler. Sanchez stopped it and tried to get the ball home.

Cairo, who had taken a huge lead from third arrived at the plate almost simultaneously with the ball, but Posey had blocked the plate. The two collided hard as Cairo outstretched for the plate, but Posey held on! The umpire, Hirschbeck, signaled vigorously and shouted, “Out!” … then the ball flew up in the air, slipping out of Buster’s hand … and the call was reversed. He was safe.

Reds 12, Giants 11.

Cordero retired the side in order and stole a win as the Cincinnati Reds beat the San Francisco Giants 12 to 11 in 12 crazy innings. Zito took the loss to fall to 8-9 (he didn’t win again this year and this was the one that made him a losing pitcher for the 2010 season).

Epilogue

Amazingly, the story of this game and its internal question of whether or not you can lose a Great Comeback was buried by baseball itself, which, in its statistical perfection provided a definitive Comeback Game on the very same day, by the very same margin of difference as ours.

In a staggering coincidence only possible in the mathematical infinity of baseball’s continuity, the Atlanta Braves were ahead by the exact same score of 10 to 1 over the Colorado Rockies and allowed Colorado to come back and win 11-10. On the same day! So guys were like, “Now, that’s a comeback.”

Thinking about it now, you could say it was the last game the Giants lost because of a collection of their own mistakes rather than by a single player’s lapse or by being outplayed by the better performance of their opponent. But despite the lop-sided opening and all the crazy errors made by so many Giants, this against-the-odds contest was also the grittiest expression of this team’s fight that I‘ve yet witnessed.

I’ve never been happier after a loss in my life. I was just so proud of our guys for trying that hard. You could feel that pride among all the fans as we shuffled toward the exits, smiling.

The whole team had an unwillingness to lose, yet lose they did, and in a sad but poetic way, that loss came at the hands of our own beloved, expensive, Prince of Inability, Barry Zito. Yes, we were proud of our Giants, despite, and now I understand what people mean when they say a Great Comeback can end in a loss.

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