SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants entered the 2021 season as afterthoughts in their own division. They'll end it as the most unlikely of usurpers.
With an 11-4 rout of the Padres in Sunday afternoon’s regular-season finale at Oracle Park, the Giants ended the Dodgers’ eight-year reign atop the National League West and captured their first division title since 2012.
Logan Webb struck out eight over seven strong innings -- and crushed his first career home run, to boot -- while Buster Posey, one of three remaining players from San Francisco’s last championship core, went 2-for-4 with three RBIs to unseat the Dodgers, who became only the 11th team to win 100 games and not finish in first place.
“You’re going to be hard-pressed to see another race like this for quite a while,” said Posey, who opened the scoring with a bases-loaded single in the third and then capped the milestone day with his 1,500th career hit in the fourth.
By seizing the NL West crown, the Giants clinched the best record in baseball and the No. 1 overall seed, guaranteeing them home-field advantage through the postseason. They’ll await the winner of the NL Wild Card Game -- which will feature the Dodgers and Cardinals -- in Game 1 of the NL Division Series on Friday at Oracle Park.
Dethroning the Dodgers -- the reigning World Series champions -- required a historic campaign from the Giants, who won their 107th game to set a record for most wins in a single season in the franchise's 138-year history. They’re the first NL team to win more than 106 games since the 1986 Mets -- a stunning feat considering they were pegged to win 75 games by Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections.
The Giants fell only one win shy of a playoff berth last year, but they were expected to face an uphill battle to stay relevant in the NL West this season following frenetic offseasons from the Dodgers and Padres, who each bolstered their talented rosters with splashy additions over the winter. The Dodgers signed reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer, while the Padres swung blockbuster trades for a pair of frontline starters in Yu Darvish and Blake Snell.
Sure enough, the NL West ended up turning into an epic race between two World Series contenders -- just not the one everyone thought it would be. While the Padres collapsed in the second half, the Giants emerged as an unlikely juggernaut, rising to the top of baseball’s toughest division despite constant pressure from the Dodgers.
“I think we were pretty transparent about it -- we thought we were a competitive team,” president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said. “You never know how that translates into a win-loss record, but we felt we were going to be a tough out. We thought we were going to play meaningful games late into the season. The veterans in that clubhouse kind of came out right away and said, ‘We respect the competition, but we’re not conceding anything. We want to win the division. That’s what we do this for.’ So for them to back that up with the season we had was pretty amazing.”
The Giants aren’t quite as star-driven as their Southern California rivals, but they managed to defy their modest expectations thanks to a roster filled with rejuvenated veterans -- led by Posey and fellow 34-year-old Brandon Crawford -- and a deep assortment of quality contributors. Helmed by manager Gabe Kapler and a highly regarded coaching staff, the Giants adopted a selfless, team-first mentality, buying into the club’s effective platoon systems and flexible roles for pitchers and position players alike.
That collectiveness is perhaps best encapsulated by the fact that the Giants led the NL with a franchise-record 241 home runs despite not having a single 30-homer hitter. Eighteen of their homers came in pinch-hit situations -- a single-season MLB record -- which Kapler has attributed to not only his players’ preparation, but also their willingness to pull for each other and not sulk if they’re asked to pass the baton to a teammate in a big spot.
“I think it’s one of the milestones that I take more pride in on behalf of our team than the others,” Kapler said of the Giants’ pinch-hit homers record. “I think it’s really cool that our team was as unselfish as they were all year, that the players were as prepared and that they took the responsibility of coming into games -- sometimes early in games, sometimes middle of games, sometimes late in games -- so seriously. It’s not like that always. I’ve seen it be different. …To a player, they are all on board.”
Amid the return of the grueling 162-game season, San Francisco remained metronomic in its consistency, becoming the first NL club since the 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers to post a .600 winning percentage in each of the first five full months of the season, according to Stats LLC.
Even after becoming the first team in the Majors to clinch a playoff berth on Sept. 13, the Giants made it clear that they had unfinished business, as they remained relentlessly focused on winning the division to avoid tying their fate to a coin-flip Wild Card Game. They responded by sprinting to the finish, giving the Dodgers no opportunity to catch them in a high-speed chase for the ages.
“It felt like we had to win every game for the last month, and we were pretty close to doing that,” Posey said. “It was a grind. When you think about winning 107 games, you think that you’re going to get to relax the last 10 days or so, at least, of the season. It makes it all the more special to come down to the last day and to play as well as we did on this last day.”
Now that they’ve crossed the finish line, another marathon awaits: a run to the World Series.