Saturday, October 9, 2010

The San Francisco Giants face the Atlanta Braves in Game Three of their National League division series on Sunday afternoon at Turner Field in Atlanta. Game time is slated for 4:30 PM EDT.

The Giants find themselves needing a win at Atlanta to stay alive in this series. Their brief home-field advantage vanished into the vapor last night, along with a 4-0 sixth-inning lead, as they dropped a tough, tough one to the resilient Braves in 11 innings, 5-4. After utterly dominating the proceedings through 14 scoreless innings pitched, all of a sudden the Giants face the real possibility of elimination if they can't beat the team which holds baseball's biggest statistical home-field advantage, in at least one of the next two games.

It unraveled with stunning suddenness last night. Matt Cain was on cruise control entering the sixth. The Giants had pounced quickly on Atlanta starter Tommy Hanson, scoring three in the first and another in the second. After first Freddy Sanchez and then Buster Posey poked seeing-eye singles through the infield in the first inning, Pat Burrell stepped up and launched Hanson's first pitch halfway to Mendocino, a tremendous bomb into the upper reaches of the left-field bleachers. An inning later, Cain himself slapped a ground ball up the middle to score Cody Ross, who had alertly taken second after left fielder Melky Cabrera stumbled while fielding his single. In the fifth, the Braves had two on with one out, and Cain forced an inning-ending double play ball from standout rookie Jason Heyward. That made 14 straight scoreless innings, and with a 4-0 score few would have been surprised to see the Braves go quietly and hope to regroup on the flight home.

But while the Atlanta club may have been run off the road by Philadelphia's amazing September surge, they themselves never quit fighting down the stretch, nor did they quit last night. In the sixth, Burrell fumbled Derrek Lee's two-out single into a double, and the slugging first baseman scored an unearned run, the Braves' first of the series, on catcher Brian McCann's single. But Cain got out of the jam with no further damage, and nobody figured the Braves would be shut out for the whole series anyway. Even when Bruce Bochy finally relieved Cain with two on and two out in the seventh, lefty Javier Lopez got the job done with a called third strike on the thoroughly befuddled Heyward.

Six outs away. Sergio Romo, opening the eighth, had nothing. Singles by Lee and McCann brought Bochy right back out of the dugout, summoning Brian Wilson for a two-inning save. Ten of Wilson's saves this year required four or five outs, but none needed six, like this one. Quickly, Cabrera laid down a bunt; Pablo Sandoval's throw pulled Aubrey Huff off the first-base bag as Lee crossed the plate. Wilson, bearing down, retired Brooks Conrad, but Alex Gonzalez then smoked one to the wall in left-center, tying the game. Five outs away now-- five outs away from extra innings.

The Giants loaded the bases with one out in the tenth, sparked by Edgar Renteria's pinch-hit leadoff drag-bunt single. A single by Freddy Sanchez and a walk to Huff brought up Buster Posey-- "and tell me, folks, who'd you rather have up here in this kinda situation?" The Braves were tottering again: legendary closer Billy Wagner had been forced from the field with a hip injury after fielding  Renteria's bunt, and Kyle Farnsworth was showing signs of wildness. But he who would eventually be this game's winning pitcher got Posey on an around-the-horn double play, and it went into the eleventh, when former pitcher Rick Ankiel sailed one into McCovey Cove to finally give Atlanta the lead. Farnsworth closed it out in the bottom of the frame, the series was tied, and Giants fans were once again fit to be tied.

That ol' "recurring lack of offense" is back in town. Shut out over the last nine innings of the game, the Giants left four men in scoring position. Simply put, they had a chance to put the Braves away, probably for good, and let it get away. Railing at the bullpen's failure misses the point: the game never should have gotten that close to begin with. As we have said before, no team can win in the playoffs if there is NO margin of error for the pitching staff. We may see a reshuffled starting lineup tomorrow afternoon.

Jonathan Sanchez gets the start Sunday against veteran Tim Hudson. The young lefty's two starts against the Braves this year were unmemorable, though the Giants came back to win one of them. For his part, Hudson pitched a three-hit shutout against the Giants at the 'Bell almost exactly two months ago. He also pitched well against them in April at Turner Field, but got no decision in a game that went 13 innings and, in many ways, was the inverse of last night's debacle.

Erratum: We previously referred to the Braves' leadoff hitter and third baseman as "Carlos" Infante. It's Omar Infante, thankyaverymuch, and while the retiring Bobby Cox would certainly prefer to have Chipper Jones out there, Infante's a good ballplayer and deserves to have his name spelled right.

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