The San Francisco Giants defeated the Atlanta Braves, 3-2, at Turner Field in Atlanta last night, and thereby won their National League division series, three games to one. Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!
It was another night of tight, tense baseball, of Giant answer-backs to each Atlanta rally, of outstanding starting pitching and questionable relief-pitching moves, of sharp fielding one minute and shoddy fielding the next. And it was the last night and the last game of Braves manager Bobby Cox's illustrious career, one that has spanned three decades, 14 consecutive division championships, and nearly 70 post-season games-- and one that will land him in Cooperstown someday soon. In a wonderful display of sportsmanship and class all too infrequent nowadays, the Atlanta fans began chanting "Bob-by, Bob-by, Bob-by" only seconds after Travis Ishikawa recorded the last out of the game, and the Giants paused their already rather restrained on-field congratulatory exercise to stand up and applaud along with everyone else. It was only afterward, back in the clubhouse, that things really broke loose. For most of these guys, this is their first time on a winner, and what a feeling it is.
And so it will be the Giants against the Philadelphia Phillies to settle the National League pennant beginning Saturday at Citizens Bank Park in Philly. In a dream pitching matchup, Game One will pit Tim "The Freak" Lincecum against Roy "No-Hit" Halladay. The Phils, baseball's hottest team down the stretch, breezed to a three-game sweep over the Cincinnati Reds and will be solid favorites to defeat the Giants as well.
Cody Ross, who wasn't even on the team when they broke camp this past spring-- heck, he wasn't on the team until late summer-- continued his clutch hitting with two big RBIs, including the game-winner in the seventh. (Isn't it nice to see the name of a Giant hitter mentioned before any of the pitchers, for a change?) The Giants' two-run rally, answering right back after the Braves took the lead in the sixth, made a winner out of Madison Bumgarner, who pitched six solid innings, allowing two runs on six hits and, most importantly, keeping his team in the game. Bumgarner was mostly overshadowed by Atlanta's Derek Lowe, who pitched magnificently on three days' rest. Lowe carried a no-hitter into the sixth, when Ross led off the frame with a drive that just cleared the left-field wall to tie the game at 1-1. He struck out eight and allowed only three hits, but would ultimately be tagged with his second tough loss of the series.
Back to-back singles followed by back-to-back sacrifice fly balls had earned the Braves the game's first run in the third, and for a time that appeared to be all Lowe would need. Then, after Ross' homer had tied it, Atlanta catcher Brian McCann untied it with a home run of his own to open the bottom of the sixth, a drive to right that cleared a inch or so more space than Ross' had. But Lowe's lead evaporated quickly in the seventh. Huff walked, and Buster Posey dribbled one toward third; Troy Glaus fielded but had no play. The venerable Cox walked slowly to the mound. Lowe passionately pleaded to stay in the game, and Cox finally agreed. But Lowe then walked Pat Burrell to load the bases, and uttered a familiar expletive as he saw Cox emerge from the dugout a second time. Juan Uribe greeted reliever Peter Moyan with a sharp grounder deep into the hole at short. Alex Gonzalez grabbed it, but his throw to second pulled Omar Infante off the bag as Huff scored. In came lefthander Jonny Venters. He struck out Aaron Rowand, batting for Mike Fontenot, but Ross drilled a clean single to left, scoring Posey for the lead. Atlanta left fielder Matt Diaz then made the play of the game, throwing out Burrell on a bang-bang play at the plate to end the frame, but the Giants had the lead, and they would not lose it.
Bruce Bochy called on Santiago Casilla to open the seventh, and the Giants' least-known pitcher absolutely stifled the Braves over five critical outs before allowing a single to Gonzalez with two down in the eighth. Bochy summoned lefty Javier Lopez, who had struck out Jason Heyward at a similar juncture in Game One. He did it again, as the Braves' rookie fanned for the ninth time in the series. That left everything up to Brian Wilson, and the fearless one battled a battling lineup in the last of the ninth. With one out Wilson lost Rick Ankiel and then Eric Hinske on full-count pitches; he clearly was being careful with the Atlanta lefties. Challenging the right-handed Infante, Wilson got him on a checked-swing third strike, and then former Yankee Melky Cabrera grounded one to Uribe at third, whose long throw was speared by Ishikawa as the celebration began.
In four games the San Francisco starting pitchers-- Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, and Bumgarner-- combined for 29 innings pitched, allowing a total of three earned runs (0.93) while striking out 36. Yes, we know Atlanta was without Chipper Jones and Martin Prado. Yes, we know the Phillies have a much stronger lineup than do the Braves. But we remember the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks and the 2003 Florida Marlins and the 2005 Chicago White Sox, too. There's no limit to what this team can do when these guys are bringin' it, and now we'll see if they can bring the 2010 World Series to San Francisco.