Monday, October 11, 2010

The San Francisco Giants defeated the Atlanta Braves, 3-2, at Turner Field in Atlanta last night, and thereby took a 2-1 lead in the National League division series.   

Finally- finally-- FINALLY  the Giants' near-dormant offense rose to the occasion when needed, with a two-run game-winning rally in the ninth that reversed the Braves' own two-run rally an inning earlier. Yes, the winning run scored on a particularly egregious error, and yes, it was another skin-of-the-teeth one-run win, but for the first time in the series the San Francisco lineup actually came to the aid of a pitching staff that's been asked to be nothing short of perfect, all the time. It couldn't have come at a better time, or in a better place, and despite the rampant second-guessing and all-around sloppiness that marked this exciting ballgame, the Giants now stand one game away from the National League Championship Series and a date with the defending league champion Philadelphia Phillies.

So it will be rookie Madison Bumgarner and his 21-year-old left arm carrying the torch for the Giants this evening in Game Four (Turner Field, 7:30 PM EDT). Derek Lowe, who started Game One for the Braves and pitched well in defeat, will oppose on three days' rest. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, who has announced his retirement following this season, is by no means ready to end his legendary career just yet.

This was the best game so far in an extremely tight series. Jonathan Sanchez, who has officially come of age as a top starter in the National League, pitched seven shutout innings, striking out 11 and walking only one. He had a no-hitter into the fifth, and was dominant in the manner of Tim Lincecum three nights before. The only run he got-- and, from the way it appeared through seven, the only run he would need-- scored in the second. Mike Fontenot, playing third in place of Pablo Sandoval, drilled one to deepest right field that ticked off the glove of  a leaping Jason Heyward and caromed off the fence for a stand-up triple. Heyward, momentarily shaken up, fortunately was not injured.  Second baseman Brooks Conrad-- more on him later-- then flubbed a blooper off  the bat of Cody Ross and the Giants had an unearned run. Sanchez had every appearance of making it stand up over nine, but Alex Gonzalez drilled a single for the Braves' second hit with one out in the eighth. Second baseman Conrad then popped up his sacrifice attempt, to a chorus of boos, for the second out, and Cox sent Troy Glaus to the plate to bat for left-handed Rick Ankiel. Bruce Bochy immediately pulled Sanchez in favor of Sergio Romo, who as we all remember had his troubles with this Atlanta lineup two nights ago. Glaus, whose recurring injuries have long since derailed what could have been a Cooperstown career, hasn't hit a lick since the All-Star break; it was his slump, perhaps induced by yet another injury, that obliged Cox to pick up Derrek Lee from the Cubs in August. Sanchez, with 105 pitches in the bank, was still bringin' it, and the only logic behind Bochy's move appears to be that dear old lefty-righty two-step, once again.

Cox countered with Eric Hinske, who sliced one down  the right field line just inside the foul pole for a two-run homer, a blow eerily similar to Scott Spiezio's game-changer from back in the 2002 World Series. The capacity crowd went absolutely nuts, as did the Braves' normally restrained dugout. Sanchez visibly wilted in the Giants' dugout, his own chance at a win long gone and his team's chance in serious jeopardy. Romo, bearing down, got the third out, but in the ninth Atlanta sent out young righty Craig Kimbrel and his 98-MPH fastball. The Giants hadn't been able to touch him in either of the first two games.

Travis Ishikawa, who barely made the postseason roster, pinch-hit for Romo with one out and worked a walk. The Giants, as a rule, don't walk a lot. This particular exception to that rule ultimately tipped the balance for this game, and perhaps for the season. Andres Torres, trying to be patient as well, was overly so, and took a called third strike. Freddy Sanchez quickly fell behind 0-2. With the Giants "down to their last strike," as commentator Dick Stockton had it, Sanchez slapped a grounder up the middle to put the tying run in scoring position. Then it was Cox's turn to do the dance, as he summoned lefty Michael Dunn to face Aubrey Huff. Hitless so far in the series, Huff pulled a humpbacked liner into right-- "Get down! Get down! Get down!"-- which scored Ishi and moved Sanchez to second. Buster Posey hit a sharp one-hopper to the aforementioned Conrad. He tried to short-hop it and instead watched it skip between his legs and on into the outfield as Sanchez scored the go-ahead run. The TV camera panned to the Giants dugout, which was boiling over with excitement, in particular a skinny guy named Lincecum who leaped so high in the air that we held our breath and hoped he wouldn't hurt himself. Brian Wilson allowed a single to Brian McCann in the ninth, but that was it. He got his first postseason save, and the Giants had an exhausting victory.

Both Cox and Bochy made moves that could have, and even should have, cost their respective teams the game. Pulling Sanchez appeared to us, and still appears to us, a hasty move. Gonzalez hadn't hardly crushed his single, the bottom of the order was up, and Glaus is simply not the hitter he used to be. No one disputes the platoon differential exists, but it exists on a larger scale than the individual matchup. Sanchez was the best choice to face Glaus, just as Cain Friday night was the best choice to face Heyward (although Javier Lopez certainly did his job well). The Giants' bullpen has been good this year, but the starters have been better, and as Earl Weaver used to say, it's easier to find one guy who can pitch than several. Cox, for his part, did not have injured Billy Wagner available to close it; Kimbrel was his best choice, and Kimbrel should have been left in to face Huff. There's also Cox's decision to leave the snakebit Conrad in there, rather than using a defensive replacement in the ninth, ostensibly to save a bench player for later, if necessary. The point of this nit-picking paragraph is to caution against the temptation to over-manage, a symptom of the inability to see that you generally are going to win with your best players on the field.     

One thing Bochy did not tamper with was the lineup.  The Giants went with the same guys in the same order as Friday night, except for Fontenot replacing Sandoval. They grounded into only one double play last night, courtesy of Juan Uribe. But one thing Bochy could do is try to remove the DP tendency from the heart of the order, remembering that this club led the league in GIDP this year and that such plays are absolute killers in a series of close, one-run games. Casey Stengel once advised that he never put two slow, right-handed hitters back-to-back in the middle of his lineup because "the double plays will kill you." Right now the Giants don't have two, they have three such hitters in the 4-5-6 spots: Posey, Burrell, and Uribe. While it's unfair to call Posey "slow," exactly, neither would it be true to call him "fast." Burrell and Uribe, of course, are veritable boat-anchors, though Uribe to his credit is quick on his feet in the field. Regardless, it might be worth a try to move Posey up to third, Huff to fourth, and Uribe to seventh with Mike Fontenot sixth. Now, that's a lefty-righty quadrille we might even learn to like.

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