Friday, October 12, 2012

The San Francisco Giants defeated the Cincinnati Reds, 6-4, at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati yesterday, and thereby won their National League division series, three games to two. OHHHHH YEAHHHHH!

As the first National League team ever to overcome a two-games-to-none deficit and win a division series, the Giants have outdone even themselves in resiliency. The team that shook off the loss of closer Brian Wilson, the suspension of leading hitter Melky Cabrera, the unexpected travails of ace Tim Lincecum, and, most recently, the one-sided wipeout of Games One and Two in their own ballpark-- this Giants team, having swept three straight games in Cincinnati, now moves on to the National League Championship Series against either the Washington Nationals or the St Louis Cardinals.

Buster Posey launched a titanic grand-slam home run off Cincinnati starter and loser Mat Latos in the top of the fifth inning, capping a six-run explosion that Matt Cain and four relievers made hold up, just barely, over the final five. The Reds, like a mugging victim spotting his assailant and doggedly chasing him from block to block through crowds and traffic, relentlessly pushed closer and closer, narrowing the gap in the fifth, the sixth, and the ninth, getting the tying run to the plate in each of the last four innings, and not surrendering until Sergio Romo struck out Scott Rolen, representing the winning run, with two on and two out in the ninth to end it.

Fans expecting a pitchers' duel between Cain and Latos got what they wanted through four scoreless innings before things got crazy. Cain earned the win with those four good frames, and with two more which he was blessed indeed to survive. Those would be the fifth, when the Reds answered back with two quick runs on a hit batsman, a single, and Cincinnati sparkplug Brandon Phillips' two-run double, and the sixth, when Ryan Ludwick led off with his third homer of the series. Jay Bruce then walked, and Scott Rolen singled, and Cain was wavering. Then came the play of the game. Cain battled Ryan Hanigan over seven pitches before reaching deep down and nailing him with a nasty outside fastball for called strike three. Bruce, running on the pitch, was immediately gunned down at third by the redoubtable Posey, and suddenly both Cain and the Giants had survived the crucible. Bruce Bochy then sensibly brought in George Kontos to lead the parade of relievers who saved this unlikely win.

Time seemed to stand still through the seventh and eighth as the Reds sent ten men to the plate, four of them reaching base, yet none of them scoring, In the seventh, Jeremy Affeldt got Ludwick on a comebacker after an eight-pitch battle with two on and two out. In the eighth, it was Brandon Crawford selling out on a desperation dive to snare Hanigan's one-out liner with Rolen at first. Moments later it was Romo, the Giants' third pitcher of the inning, trying to close out the frame with-- again-- two on and two out. And here came Angel Pagan's mad dash, charging Dioner Navarro's sinking fly ball at full speed to make a sliding, tumbling, game-saving grasstop catch that would have eviscerated the heart of a team less determined than Dusty Baker's.

As Romo went out to face the Reds in the ninth, Giants fans, for perhaps the first time all year, acutely felt the absence of Brian Wilson. Tension simmered as Zack Covart drew a one-out walk and Joey Votto lined a clean single to right. The tying run was now at the plate for the fourth straight inning. As Ryan Vogelsong began to get loose in the bullpen, the inevitable Ludwick ripped a clean RBI single to left, and now the winning run strode into the batters' box in the person of Jay Bruce. Over twelve harrowing pitches, Bruce fought his way to a full count, Romo pausing lengthily between each salvo, the Reds fans putting up a terrific din. Finally-- finally!-- Romo won the battle, an anticlimactic popup to left, and that brought up Rolen. Now we had the sense that Romo had passed the point of crisis, and indeed he owned the game's last at-bat, landing two called strikes on the outside corner before busting a nasty slider over Rolen's fists to drive the final nail.

For the second day in a row the Giants brought the wood with them, though this time the explosion was confined to one inning. In the fifth, Gregor Blanco singled and Brandon Crawford-- who was not benched in favor of Joaquin Arias-- slashed a bullet into the right-field corner. Blanco beat the relay for the game's first run, and Crawford pulled into third with a stand-up triple. Latos got Cain on a soft comebacker, Crawford holding, but Covart couldn't handle Pagan's subsequent grounder, making no throw as Crawford scored. Latos then walked Marco Scutaro on four straight pitches, and while Cincinnati fans craned their necks and wondered why Baker wasn't at least making a mound visit, Pablo Sandoval tapped a bloop single through short, loading the bases. Posey had a 2-2 count when he launched a cut fastball into the upper deck in left center, 420 feet away.

It would be difficult to select a MVP for this series, though both Phillips and Ludwick are worthy candidates from the other side, but our own modest suggestion would be Bruce Bochy. If he made a false move in this series, we didn't see it. If there was a matchup advantage to be made, he made it. If there was a player who needed his manager to believe in him, Bochy believed in that player, whether it was Sergio Romo, Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito, Gregor Blanco, Tim Lincecum, Hunter Pence, or Brandon Crawford, all of whom could easily have found themselves elsewhere when their turn came to stand up and make a difference. If there's a better manager in baseball, we haven't found him.

And now the champagne-soaked, tension-exhausted San Francisco Giants sit back and wait to see who and where they'll be playing this weekend. If the defending champion Cardinals defeat Washington tonight, the Giants will be flying home and getting ready to open the NLCS at the 'Bell. If Washington rallies tonight and wins again tomorrow, Our Boys likely will stay in the east and begin preparing for the opener at Nationals Park, just 75 miles from where we sit. And, yes, we might as well confess that should the Nats prevail, we'll be logging in to StubHub forthwith and seeing what our chances are to actually show up, in person, resplendent in orange and black, to cheer on the only team that is, after all, worth cheering on.

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