Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The San Francisco Giants defeated the Cincinnati Reds, 2-1, in ten innings yesterday, staving off elimination and staying very much alive in their National League division series.

As may be inferred from the final score, the Giants didn't exactly break out the lumber on a chill evening at the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark on the banks of the Ohio. In fact, the Giants engineered their victory with some of the smallest "small-ball" seen since the heyday of old John McGraw. Those two runs, which matched their total for the entire series going in, were produced in large part by a hit batsman, a sacrifice bunt, a sacrifice fly, a passed ball, and an infield error.

Yes, there were some hits as well-- a grand total of three, in fact-- but the salient point here is that the Reds, for the first time, struggled at the plate themselves. Cincinnati managed only four singles on the night, and only one after the first inning. Though they faced a second straight superb effort from a Reds' starter, righthander Homer Bailey, the Giants' own starter, Ryan Vogelsong, was equal to the task. In what is unquestionably the finest moment of his rollercoaster career, Vogelsong went five strong innings and could have gone farther. He gave the Reds nothing after they scored one in the first, and it was his sacrifice bunt which helped tie it up in the third. Thanks to Vogelsong, for the first time this series went into the late innings with the teams dead even, and the Giants, as they've done all year, found a way to win.

Buster Posey opened and closed the game with key plays. In the bottom of the first, Cincinnati's ubiquitous second baseman, Brandon Phillips, opened with a single, his sixth hit of the series so far. Phillips immediately stole second without a throw and, when he saw Posey fumbling with the ball, then got greedy, violating the old baseball axiom that you don't risk the first out of the inning at third base. Posey's perfect throw and Pablo Sandoval's sweeping tag nailed Phillips, and while the Reds did go on to score their only run in the first, they were denied the big inning that had been key to their two series wins. They would not score again.

In the tenth it was Posey who opened with a single to right, the Giants' second hit of the game. Hunter Pence, who's been struggling mightily so far, then singled to left. Reliever Jonathan Broxton, bearing down, struck out Brandon Belt and Xavier Nady. Then, with Joaquin Arias at the plate, Broxton's inside pitch glanced off catcher Ryan Hanigan's glove for a passed ball as both runners moved up. Broxton got Arias on a grounder to third, but the ball short-hopped the charging Scott Rolen, glancing off his glove. Rolen, recovering quickly, made a quick barehand pickup and fired a strike to first. There are perhaps three Giants on the roster who could have beaten that throw, and we may be grateful that Arias is one of them. He was safe by a full step as first-base coach Roberto Kelly danced with glee and Posey crossed the plate with the winning run.

In one of his more conservative games, Bruce Bochy used only four relievers last night, with only one mid-inning pitching change. Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Santiago Casilla, and Sergio Romo, 2010 veterans all, allowed no runs or hits over the final four. Romo pitched a perfect ninth and tenth to get a rare win, and even batted with two on and two out in the top of the tenth, recalling a similar Bochy move with Brian Wilson in Game Six of the 2010 NLCS.

As thrilling and desperately necessary as this win was, it doesn't obscure the Giants' continuing struggles at the plate. They scored the tying run in the third without benefit of a hit: Gregor Blanco took a pitch off his right tricep, Brandon Crawford walked, Vogelsong bunted the runners up, Angel Pagan's lazy fly ball to center scored Blanco. Through three games the top of the Giants' order is a combined 4-for-37 with one walk. Any questions?

Bochy has used the same lineup in all three games; last night saw a lot of lefty-righty switches, which is how Nady and Arias got into the action, and by the tenth "Boch" had used every position player except Hector Sanchez. For the second night in a row the Giants managed only one hit off the Cincinnati starter; Marco Scutaro got the token single in the sixth just as the TBS commentators were comparing Bailey's budding no-hit bid with Bronson Arroyo's on Sunday. The Giants successfully avoided an out-and-out embarrassment with this last-ditch win, but perhaps a lineup-shakeup is in order for today's Game Four.

It will be Barry Zito today at 4 PM EDT, finally making a postseason start after six years in San Francisco. As "Boch" has said, Barry Z earned this start with his outstanding effort down the stretch. The club has won his last eleven starts, and also has rewarded him with strong offensive support, which all too often has been lacking in his Giants career. There's nothing cheesy about his first winning season with the team, either: 15-8 with a 4.15 (league average 3.94). His history at the GABP is not a pretty one, but Zito actually pitched well there in his one 2012 start, though the Giants lost the game late. We may expect that Tim Lincecum will be standing by, ready to help at a moment's notice.

Ace Johnny Cueto's ongoing injury issues are causing concern on the Cincinnati side, and there was much discussion last night about Game Three being as important to the Reds as to the Giants. Whether that was true or not, the fact remains that Dusty Baker has not yet announced his starter for today's game as of this moment. The strongest possibility would appear to be Mat Latos, who pitched four shutout innings on Saturday. Going in, Baker was so confident in his top four starters he left fifth man Mike Leake off the postseason roster. To start Leake today would require disabling someone else, almost certainly Cueto, for the remainder of this series plus the following NLCS, if applicable. Only the Reds know Cueto's true condition, but from here Latos would seem the logical choice. He has a history of success against the Giants, and with Cincy's deep bullpen he'd only need to go five or six innings anyway.

Regardless of who starts for the Reds, it's up to Barry Zito to emulate Ryan Vogelsong and match that starter inning for inning. If the Giants can once again take the game into the late innings, we have every reason to look forward to a fifth-game showdown tomorrow. 

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