Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Yow, gobba geeby, baugh!

The San Francisco Giants defeated the Kansas City Royals, 3-2, in Game Seven of the 2014 World Series at Kauffman Stadium in Independence, Mo., last night, and won their third world championship in five years. Yes! The San Francisco Giants are, once again, champions of the baseball universe, Lords of Time and Space, and Kings of the World!

"King of the World"... perhaps that's an accolade immodest enough to fit the magnificent Madison Bumgarner, who last night completed perhaps the single greatest performance in World Series history. Certainly "Most Valuable Player" doesn't cut it, true though it may be; it's shared by far too many.  Having won two games already in this Series, "Bum" entered last night's game in relief, in the fifth inning of a one-run game; and five shutout innings later, that one run was still the difference-- the difference that gave his team the championship over a most worthy and capable opponent. Bumgarner finished the Series with one run allowed in 21 innings (0.43), two wins and perhaps the greatest "save" of all time, and unparalleled status as the one-man starting rotation on a world championship team. Christy Mathewson and  Bob Gibson, move over; it's getting crowded at the top.

Looking for recent-- or any-- comparables to Bumgarner's heroics, we recall Randy Johnson in 2001, winner of two games already, entering Game Seven in relief and pitching his team to an upset win. It was the stuff of legend, but it was one and two-thirds innings, with no lead of any kind to protect, and the win came when his teammates rallied to score two runs in the bottom of the ninth off Mariano Rivera. Yes, it was great, and it was similar-- but this is even greater. This is unprecedented. Mathewson pitched three shutouts in five days, and that will never be equaled. Gibson won seven straight World Series games over three years, including two Game Sevens, before losing one heartbreaker Game Seven-- and eight of his nine starts were complete games. This is the company 25-year-old Madison Bumgarner now keeps.

A great deal of what we celebrate as pitching is in fact defense, and to our shame this is the first time in the postseason we've acknowledged the brilliantly routine work turned in by Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik, Pablo Sandoval, and Brandon Belt, all of whom make all the plays all the time to the point that we simply take it for granted-- that a ground ball will result in a perfectly-executed double play, that the batter will hit the ball exactly where the fielder has placed himself-- that the play, whatever it is, will be made. Certainly Bumgarner, and all the Giants pitchers, rely on that certainty every time they throw a pitch, and how much of "Bum's", or anyone's, unshakable confidence derives from this certainty would be impossible to quantify as well as to deny.

Every now and then a truly spectacular defensive play reminds us. In the third inning yesterday, before Bumgarner even began warming up in the bullpen, the game was tied at 2-2, starter Tim Hudson had been gone for an inning already, and Jeremy Affeldt was in a pickle, Lorenzo Cain having led off with a single. Eric Hosmer smashed one toward second base; Panik made a headlong dive to stop the ball from going through. Flat on the ground, he flipped the ball, out of his glove, high into the air toward the bag. Crawford managed both to hold his foot on the bag and snare the arching toss with his bare hand for the force, then pivoted and threw hard to Belt at first as Hosmer senselessly dove for the bag. Umpire Eric Cooper ruled Hosmer safe initially, but in the first case of replay overturning a World Series field call, the review process determined Hosmer was, indeed, out. (Another baserunner costs his team an out by diving instead of running through the bag. When will this insanity end?)  It was the play of the game, if not the Series; Affeldt got Billy Butler to end the inning and the threat, and KC would not put another runner on base until they were behind and "Bum" was on the mound.  

Hudson, the oldest man ever to start Game Seven, kept the ball down in the first inning, which is his MO. His teammates rewarded him with a spirited second against Jeremy Guthrie. Pablo Sandoval, who went 3-for-3, was nicked by an inside pitch and Hunter (.444) Pence singled. Brandon Belt drilled a sharp single through second, obliging the "Panda" to hold third. Mike Morse then began the most memorable night of his career with a long fly ball to right; Sandoval tagged up and scored the game's first run. Brandon Crawford followed with a second sacrifice fly to center as Pence came in. Making the most of what they had, the Giants handed Hudson a two-run lead.

It didn't last. Hudson couldn't keep his pitches down in the second, and by the time Affeldt had shed his jacket and thrown a few warmups, the Royals had "Huddy" in big trouble. Butler led off with a single and Alex Gordon doubled past Pence in right-center, Butler comically short-stepping his way around to score and cut the lead to 2-1. Hudson then lost control of an inside fastball and it struck Salvador Perez just above the left knee. Writhing in pain, the Royals' indefatigable catcher finally managed to limp his way to first. Hudson got Mike Moustakas on a fly ball to medium left for the first out, but Gordon brazenly tagged up and hustled safely to third just ahead of Juan Perez' strong throw. The move paid off as Omar Infante then lifted one to center, deep enough to score Gordon. Two innings, three sacrifice flies: it would not be the first nor the last time we were reminded of just how evenly-matched these two teams were. Hudson appeared safe for the moment, but after Alcides Escobar ripped a single through short, Bruce Bochy had seen enough. On came Affeldt, walking into history, although he didn't know it at the time.

Affeldt remarked after the game that he couldn't remember ever pitching in the second inning before. But over the second, the third, and the fourth, he kept his zero Series ERA intact and was rewarded with the most important "W" of his career. His teammates got him that winning run in the fourth. Again it was the Glimmer Twins, Sandoval and Pence, opening the frame with a single-single duet. Guthrie got Belt on a fly ball to left, but Sandoval emulated Gordon's move, tagging up and advancing to third. Who says we can't run? With Morse due up, Ned Yost called for Kelvin Herrera and his 100-MPH stuff. No mighty home runs here; Morse fouled off two pitches and drove a fastball into right field, Sandoval rumbling home for his second run and a 3-2 Giants lead. It was zeroes, nothing but zeroes, for both teams the rest of the way.

Bumgarner opened the fifth by surrendering a leadoff single to "Bad Penny" Infante. Clearly searching for his command in this unusual situation, the big lefty went 2-0 on Escobar before the Royals' shortstop dropped down a perfect sacrifice bunt. With the tying run in scoring position, Nori "Half-Pint" Aoki sliced an evil-looking drive down the left-field line. Bruce Bochy, however, had foreseen this development, or at least he can say he did. Perez, starting in place of Travis Ishikawa in left specifically for defensive purposes, glided over and speared the drive without trouble. Bumgarner's command seemed to click into place after that; twelve straight Royals went down from the sixth into the ninth, as the Giants bullpen remained empty and "Bum" grew stronger and stronger. On the KC side, Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland did likewise, but that single-run difference on the scoreboard seemed to loom larger and larger with each out methodically recorded by the Giants' ace.

Two out in the ninth now, Royals fans praying, Giants fans anticipating, Hosmer gone on strikes, Butler gone on a popup, Alex Gordon standing in as the last hope. Bumgarner hit 93 with a fastball; Gordon fouled it off.  Next a slider, and Gordon went with it, sailed it into left-center. It looked at first like a Series-ending fly ball. Gregor Blanco charged in hard; suddenly he pulled up as it dropped in front, but he'd overrun it! Horrifyingly, the ball bounced past him and past Juan Perez backing him up, the park now in total uproar as Perez fumbled the pickup at the wall, and we imagined Gordon charging around third and heading for the plate, a game-tying inside-the-park home run, all that effort suddenly wasted, extra innings, a back-from-the-dead rally Royals-style, a brand-new ballgame, in short... and then reality, sanity, relief surged back. A good throw by Perez. Gordon sensibly holding third with two out. 

Salvador Perez standing in. Lump in the throat. Panic in the air. Crowd on its feet. The tying run ninety feet away. And here's Perez, briefly felled by an injury that would have driven lesser men from the game, catching six innings on that throbbing knee. Perez, solely responsible for the only run scored against "Bum" in this Series. Perez, who if he reprises that Game One blast will pull a "Bill Mazeroski" and go down in history with the great walk-off heroes. Tension reigns everywhere-- everywhere, that is, except the pitching mound, where all is calm. Bum looks in. "C'mon, big boy, c'mon," murmers Jake Peavy in the dugout, to himself or to everybody, we can't tell. Two swinging strikes, two balls away. "Down to their last strike," whispers a voice; "Nineteen-eighty-six," responds another, searing our consciousness as we pace back and forth in front of the screen.

It's October 29, 2014, and it's time to end the baseball season. Bumgarner fires a fastball, Perez pops it up in foul territory wide of third, Sandoval hustles over, positions himself, and makes the catch, tumbling onto his back with an ecstatic grin as the dugout empties and for the third time in five years, the San Francisco Giants celebrate a world championship on the defeated team's home field.

Call the roll of champions: Tim Hudson, Michael Morse, Juan Perez, Joe Panik, Yusmeiro Petit, Jean Machi, Andrew Susac, Matt Duffy, and Hunter Strickland are World Champions, and have earned their first rings. Jake Peavy is a World Champion again, and a World Champion with the Giants for the first time.  Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Travis Ishikawa, Gregor Blanco, Hunter Pence, Ryan Vogelsong, Joaquin Arias, and Angel Pagan are World Champions, for the second time. And now we salute the core of this team, this dynasty: Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Tim Lincecum, and Matt Cain, all of whom are three-time World Champions.  Bruce Bochy, the master manager whose ticket to Cooperstown has just been validated; Brian Sabean, the emotional decision-maker who has grown from greenhorn to genius over twenty years; Larry Baer, always ready to credit others for the success he oversees-- these leaders are World Champions once more, as are Bochy's right-hand men, all of them: the incomparable Dave Righetti, good old Mark Gardner, enthusiastic Roberto Kelly and big-hearted Tim Flannery, steady Ron Wotus, reliable Hensley Meulens, and Mike Murphy, the legendary clubhouse man who's seen it all. 

How do we define a dynasty? The only NL club ever to win three Series in five years before was the St Louis Cardinals from 1942-1946; they appeared in four of those Series, playing under Billy Southworth in 1942-1944 and then Eddie Dyer in 1946. Since the division era began, only the legendary Oakland A's of the 1970s-- three straight World Championships from 1972-1974-- and Joe Torre's New York Yankees, who won four in five years from 1996-2000, have managed to do better, and no other team has done as well.  These Giants resemble the old A's more than they do the '90s Yanks: like the Giants, Oakland had a habit of beating teams who looked, on paper, to be superior, and, like the Giants, they had a most unconventional way of getting it done, with otherwise-overlooked players turning into postseason heroes. And they had an ace, Jim "Catfish" Hunter, God rest his soul, who if he were here today would undoubtedly call himself flattered to be likened to a right-handed Madison Bumgarner. Both Carolina boys, too. Well, that's enough of that.

This one wasn't like the others, the five- and four-game steamrolling of Texas and Detroit. Without question, this is the unlikeliest of the Giants' championship teams, a wild-card qualifier at the start, a team that looked dead in the water several times in the season's second half. World Series seventh-game failures from 2002, 1962, 1924, and 1912 were waved like voodoo charms by opposition fans.  By the time the Series began, the starting rotation, if you can call it that, was Madison Bumgarner and a lot of prayer. The team which clinched the Series last night started two outfielders whom we claimed, not so long ago, gave the Giants no chance of winning: "NO WAY" was how we expressed it. The Kansas City Royals, their outstanding manager Ned Yost, their resilient lineup (Lorenzo Cain, especially), and their outstanding bullpen, were and are a force to be reckoned with, and they could have won this Series as surely as they lost it. That they simply couldn't touch, or match, Bumgarner, is the difference. Expect the Royals to be back in the Series before long; and it's good for baseball, good for sportsmen and sportswomen everywhere, that winning is back in fashion in Kansas City, that the old-school new-look Royals are equipped to conquer the best Los Angeles, New York, and Boston can buy. 

So, before the homecoming parade begins (they're having one in Kansas City too, and they should), before the winter meetings and the contracts and the hard decisions, before we turn our full attention to the 49ers, before we face the chilly days of winter with secret longings for Florida and Arizona and spring training next year, before we leave this electronic fireplace and move on...  we look out, not back, but out, across the time/space continuum, across fifty years, and across fields and packed stands and empty seats and superstars and stumblebums, on-field brawls and dropped fly balls, from Candlestick to China Basin and across the land, in domed stadiums and downtown stadiums and torn-down stadiums, in fading ink on aged newsprint, on frayed and worn T-shirts and caps that have long since lost their shape, on coffee mugs and keychains and rolled-up posters, images of the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars and the bay and the fog and the wind and the skyline, and so many memories, good and bad, all part of it, indivisible, with moments of heartbreak and joy for all...

And we say to the world, "These are our guys. Our big guys. Our Giants."          
The San Francisco Giants face the Kansas City Royals in Game Seven of the 2014 World Series at Kauffman Stadium in Independence, Mo., tonight. Game time is slated for 7 PM local time (8 PM EDT). The Royals evened the Series emphatically last night with a 10-0 blowout win.

As many had predicted going in, this World Series has now gone the distance. The two teams have showcased their brand of baseball on different nights, and for the 36th time in World Series history there will be a winner-take-all finale. It hasn't been a classic Series, exactly-- there's only been one close game, and the one come-from-behind rally turned into a rout-- but it's been entertaining, and neither team has been cheated or forced out of its style of play for long. Totally unlike the two other World Series of the Giants' Bruce Bochy era, this one has been an ongoing test of strengths and weaknesses for both sides. Now one more test remains.

There's little to say about last night's game, Sadly, Jake Peavy's tendency to pitch to contact is exactly what the Royals thrive upon, and their seven-run second-inning explosion is a perfect model of their style. Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, and Mike Moustakas opened the frame with single-single-double, the first two hit softly and the third hit hard, all early in the count. It set the pattern. Yusmeiro Petit began warming up, Dave Righetti visited the mound, and Peavy fanned Omar Infante on a couple of nasty cutters. With second and third, one out, a tough spot, Peavy made his pitch to Alcides Escobar, who grounded meekly to first. Brandon Belt looked Perez back to third, but looked a little too long-- Escobar, running down the line, dodged Belt's awkward swipe-tag and was safe, to load 'em up. In came the infield, and Nori Aoki fouled off four pitches before slicing a cue shot through short. Only one run scored, but this was the signature hit of the inning, and the game.

That was it for Peavy, an inning and a third. Petit made his third appearance of the postseason-- but his first with inherited runners on base. Whether or not that was the reason, he was a different pitcher this time. Lorenzo Cain blooped one that dropped in front of Gregor Blanco in center-- running at the crack with one out, both Moustakas and Escobar scored. Hosmer doubled to center, scoring Aoki and Cain, and Billy Butler finished off the barrage with another double, Hosmer scoring the seventh run. Five were charged to Peavy, two to Petit, and the game was essentially over.

Yordano Ventura, making his second Series start, was inconsistent early, and he nearly let the Giants right back in it in the third by walking the bases loaded with one out. Buster Posey, thirsting for the big hit, first-pitch grounded into an inning-ending double play. Taking heart, the young Ventura settled down and finished with seven three-hit innings, the walks his only blemish, and got his first post-season win. He'll likely earn many more.

Jean Machi pitched three innings, thankfully taking one for the team and allowing single runs in the third and fifth. Hunter Strickland gave up his obligatory homer, to Moustakas, concluding the scoring, and Ryan Vogelsong contributed one inning. These guys saved the Giants' bullpen for needed duty tonight, and other than two double plays turned by the infield, that's about all for Giants positives on this Royal-blue night in Kansas City.

The seesaw nature of this series continued. After being outscored 16-4 over the last two games, and held scoreless for 14 consecutive innings, the KC lineup was due to break out, and the Giants, who'd gotten a hit every time they needed one two games in a row, fell silent for the first time since Game Two. The fragile nature of the Giants' starting "rotation"-- which amounts to Madison Bumgarner and a lot of hope-- is perhaps the most worrying issue we face as Game Seven looms. 

Tim Hudson is scheduled to start his second game of the Series, and if it's anything like his first start, the Giants should win the game and the championship. But we all know that's a mighty big "if." Peavy didn't exactly rock the house in Game Two, but he did carry a 2-2 game into the fifth. Last night, in his second start, he was in trouble from the get-go, and showed it. "Huddy" is less likely to reveal his emotions, but he too tends to pitch to contact-- and hittable balls low in the zone are at the top of the Kansas City menu along with barbecued ribs. The Giants will face Jeremy Guthrie again, whose Game Three effort was similar to Peavy's in Game Two-- except that Guthrie's relief got him out of his sixth-inning jam. Strangely enough, the home field may give Guthrie little advantage; he benefited most nicely from the ample confines of the 'Bell.

There is no indication Bruce Bochy will substitute Madison Bumgarner for Hudson, starting the ace on two days' rest. But there is every indication "Bum" will fill a Randy Johnson role, ready to come in on short notice as the Big Unit did in Game Seven of the 2001 Series, and work his way to a win.   

This, That, and Th' Other
When we think of ace lefties and Game Seven on two days' rest, we think of Sandy Koufax, shutting out Minnesota on three hits in the 1965 Series, and we think of the Cardinals' John Tudor, winner of Games One and Four, getting lit up by the George Brett-era Royals in this very park in 1985, KC's only world championship...  Much of the pregame fodder last night centered on Game Six and its amazing pedigree. There's Carlton Fisk's twelfth-inning body english in 1975, Reggie Jackson's three-pitcher three-pitch consecutive home run barrage in 1977 (we heard both those amazing moments over the radio while at work in San Francisco's Marina district), Bill Buckner's through-the-legs agonizer from 1986, and David Freese's Series-turning walk-off homer in 2011. Then, of course, they had to bring up Dusty Baker handing the game ball to Russ Ortiz in the seventh inning of Game Six, 2002, holding a 5-0 lead. And people wonder why baseball folk tend toward superstition!

Of course, the most replayed Game Six moment of all around these parts is Jorge Orta's infield single in the ninth inning of the 1985 Series, in which he was called safe by umpire Don Denkinger despite plain evidence he was out. Many believe this cost the Cardinals the Series, which is utter nonsense. Orta was the leadoff hitter and he represented the tying run. Following Denkinger's honest mistake, to which he has always owned up like the class act he is, the Cardinals, quite simply, collapsed, a team-wide choke job that carried over to the next day's 11-0 massacre. Recounting that ninth inning may help us get our mind off last night's debacle, so here goes. With Orta on first, Steve Balboni stood in, a double-play candidate if ever there was one. Instead, he singled to center. Jim Sundberg then flubbed a bunt attempt, giving the Cards a gift as they got the lead runner at third. One pitch could end the Series now; instead catcher Darrell Porter allowed a passed ball, both runners moving into scoring position. (If you're looking for the one play that cost St Louis the game, folks, that was it.)  Todd Worrell then had to load the bases with an intentional walk, and Dane Iorg's two-run single won it. If you really think all of that is Don Denkinger's fault, you are in serious need of mental help.

The "Denkinger play" is similar, in fact and in legend, to "Snodgrass' Muff," the fly ball which, dropped by center fielder Fred Snodgrass, is alleged to have cost the New York Giants the 1912 Series. As with Orta, Clyde Engle, who hit the fly ball, was leading off the inning, and like the '85 Cards, the Giants were ahead by a run, and in both cases the error represented the tying run. Many mistakes had to follow for that game to be lost, and they did. Principally those mistakes were made by the greatest of all pitchers, Christy Mathewson, who was also dog-tired and perhaps trying too hard. Harry Hooper followed the "muff" by crushing a drive to deepest center, over 400 feet; Snodgrass hauled it in Willie Mays-style but Engle was able to tag up and advance to third. Matty, who rarely walked anyone, walked Steve Yerkes, perhaps pitching around him to set up a double play. Tris Speaker popped one up in foul territory wide of first, but Mathewson called off Fred Merkle and Chief Myers, the catcher, couldn't get there in time. Given the reprieve, Speaker singled in the tying run. On the late throw home Yerkes took third and Speaker, critically, took second. Matty had to walk Duffy Lewis to set up the force, but he couldn't get Larry Gardner to hit one on the ground. Instead, Gardner lifted a fly ball to right, deep enough to score Yerkes with the Series-winning run. Snodgrass' legacy is that both runs were unearned thanks to his error, but as you can plainly see, his teammates gave him plenty of help in losing that game, in perhaps the greatest World Series ever played.

Well, this little jaunt down Out-Of-Memory-Lane has kept us from ruminating on all the Game Sevens the Giants have faced down throughout history (hint: all of them ended badly until the arrival of "Boch"), and you know that can't be bad.  

This is our fiftieth year of Giants fandom. After decades of discouragement, we had abandoned all hope of ever seeing our beloved boys win a world championship. Now, our guys have won two in four years, and are one win from a third in five years. As die-hard fans, we have been blessed beyond all measure, and win or lose tonight, we know this team, at this time, has been more than worthy of our unfailing devotion. It's been a great, and unexpected, season, and now's the time to finish it, with one more win!


Monday, October 27, 2014

The San Francisco Giants defeated the Kansas City Royals, 5-0, in Game Five of the World Series last night at AT&T Park. Madison Bumgarner's brilliant and historic complete-game four-hit shutout has brought the Giants to the brink of another World Championship, and it wrapped up the "home" portion of this Series in grand fashion after a rousing, celebratory 11-4 rout of KC in Game Four the previous night. 

And so the 2014 World Series returns to Kauffmann Stadium for its final act. Game Six will  be played Tuesday night, with the possibility of Game Seven on Wednesday. Though the Giants hold the whip hand in this matchup now, they haven't won it yet, and if they do so the celebration will take place on the opponent's home field, as it did in 2010 and 2012.

They ran out of accolades for Bumgarner about a half-hour or so after the ballgame ended last night. He has passed into exalted territory, the province of Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Curt Schilling, and Christy Mathewson-- the greatest of all the World Series pitchers.  Now 4-0 in four Series starts, "Bum" has an all-time low ERA of 0.29, having pitched three shutouts in those starts and allowed one run in the other. His overall performance this postseason, beginning with the Pittsburgh masterpiece, ranks with anybody's since division play began in 1969. Bumgarner was in command of the game from start to finish. KC got one man into scoring position all night while striking out nine times. He didn't allow a walk and afterward he volunteered to pitch Game Seven if it becomes necessary. Since the arrival of Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, we Giants fans have become accustomed to excellent pitching as our franchise standard, but Bumgarner right now is a cut above the rest, the jewel in the crown of an organization determined to find and develop the best pitchers in baseball. 

There was little drama in this game, thanks to "Bum's" dominance, but the man who's been largely forgotten already is James Shields, who for six strong innings held his own with the ace and more than made up for his shaky Game One outing. Shields allowed eight singles, but to score off him the Giants had to revert to "small ball," the tactics that eked out wins against Washington and St Louis. After Saturday's offensive outburst, the team was eager for more of the same, but the big hits didn't come until later, when Shields had left and the Royals' bullpen was hung out to dry. Few would have predicted that sequence of events.

After a quiet first inning, Hunter Pence, now hitting .474 for the Series, singled in the second. Brandon Belt, observing the overshifted infield, dropped a bunt, untouched, up the third base line. Travis Ishikawa flied to center, deep enough to advance Pence to third, and when Belt saw the throw coming in toward short he alertly advanced to second. This eliminated the double-play possibility, so that Brandon Crawford's grounder to second scored Pence instead of ending the inning. One run was all "Bum" would need, but the Giants scraped together another in the fourth. In between striking out the side, Shields gave up singles to Pablo Sandoval, Ishikawa, and Crawford-- his second RBI. The Royals' starter would have one more scare in the fifth. With two on and two out, Pence absolutely clobbered one to deepest right field-- "Triples Alley"-- only to see it run down in spectacular fashion by Lorenzo Cain. That was enough to keep KC in the game-- or rather, would have been, had they been able to hit Bumgarner. If there was an archetypal at-bat last night, it had to be Billy Butler's, pinch-hitting to lead off the eighth. A dangerous right-handed hitter, Butler went down on three pitches, the last a lazy, arching curveball of a type not seen all night, which dropped in over the plate for an almost regretful strike three. Butler stood motionless at the plate for some time thereafter, he, Posey, and umpire Hunter Wendelstedt perhaps meditating on the meaning of it all. Eventually the inning went on.

Kansas City's bullpen, having suffered through a terrible ordeal in Game Four, had to endure another long inning last night. Kelvin Herrera, on in relief of Shields, got a double-play ball to kill a budding threat in the seventh, but was not so fortunate in the eighth. Back-to-back singles by the Ubiquity Twins, Pablo and Pence, brought on Wade Davis, perhaps the most dominating of the KC relievers. As stats rolled across the screen testifying to Davis' unnatural excellence, he dispatched Belt on strikes before Juan Perez stood in. The diminutive one, who had entered the game earlier as a pinch-runner, looked badly overmatched on two strikes. Trying to get Perez on something out of the zone, Davis missed with three. Perez fouled one off, barely staying alive, and then clubbed the 3-2 pitch high and deep to center, where it struck the very top of the wall and bounded back into play, Sandoval and Pence charging home in tandem like a relay team gone berserk. "Babe" Perez, having missed a World Series homer by that much, slid into third with a triple. That brought up Crawford, who dumped a pop single into left for his third RBI. The Giants have a way of making a good bullpen look very bad at times, and this was another of those times, although Davis did recover and finished the eighth with two strikeouts. 

There was no question "Bum," even with a five-run lead, would complete the game, and he closed out the ninth in order, though without a strikeout, the frenzied sellout crowd chanting "M-V-P! M-V-P!" at his every move. Few players have been voted MVP of both the LCS and the World Series, but that could very well happen here, as long as the Giants take care of business back in Kansas City.     

Saturday night in Game Four, the Giants "brought the wood" indeed. Scoffing at the notion that they struggle against lefthanders, the Giants ripped out sixteen hits, fifteen of them against no less then four KC lefties. Rallying from a 4-1 deficit that had more than a few fans praying for rain, they tied it in the fifth, erupted for three in sixth to take the lead, and piled on four more in the seventh as the capacity crowd went completely crazy. Hunter Pence led the charge, going 3-for-5 with two runs scored and 3 RBI; Pablo Sandoval had perhaps the two biggest hits of the night, both RBI singles from the right-hand side; Gregor Blanco scored three runs with two hits and a walk, and the number-nine spot, the pitchers' spot, added three hits-- two pinch-hit singles and a base hit by winning pitcher Yusmeiro Petit. Oh, it was something, all right; and Ned Yost's vaunted late-inning bullpen trio could only watch as their brothers ended up "taking one for the team."

Yet whenever you're talking Giants, at some point you're talking pitching, and amid all the runs and hits one pitcher stood tall: the aforementioned Petit. Relieving an overwhelmed and thoroughly disconsolate Ryan Vogelsong after only three innings, Petit stabilized the team and the game with three two-hit shutout innings. Implacable, resourceful, and just plain hard to hit, Petit has injected himself into the starting-pitcher debate if this Series goes the full seven, and likely has made a place for himself in the team's future plans. That's how critical his appearance and performance was. It absolutely saved the day.

That day began with Vogelsong in fine form through two innings. He was sharp and confident, shrugging off  a pair of two-out singles. Meanwhile, the Giants manufactured a first-inning lead for him. Gregor Blanco, continuing his wonderful postseason resurgence, drew a walk off Jason Vargas to start it off. A wild pitch moved him to second, and he then got a tremendous jump and stole third, tweaking the Royals' noses just a bit. Buster Posey drew another walk and Pence hustled his way to his first RBI, beating the throw to first on a grounder to third as Blanco crossed the plate.

In Vogelsong's second time through the KC lineup, though, things began to unravel. Alcides Escobar singled with one out in the third, and was immediately forced at second by Alex Gordon.  It was then, four games in, that the Kansas City running game finally made a difference. Gordon, hardly one of the team's top sack-swipers, stole second. Did this bother "Vogey" at all? Well, Lorenzo Cain grounded one to the grass past short; Brandon Crawford gloved it but had no play and Gordon alertly took third. Slugger Eric Hosmer then tapped a weak grounder left of the mound. Joe Panik was playing in short right field as the Giants had a shift on; Vogelsong thus took off after the ball but was called off by Brandon Belt. "Vogey" immediately headed to cover first, but his angle was off and he missed the bag as he awkwardly fielded Belt's throw. All hands safe, and a run scored. Clearly rattled now, Vogelsong walked Mike Moustakas on four straight pitches, loading the bases as Dave Righetti  came to the mound and Jean Machi hurriedly began warming up. Omar Infante, 9-for-14 lifetime against "Vogey," made it 10-for-15 with a two-run single to center, and Salvador Perez piled on with an RBI Texas Leaguer that dropped in front of Blanco. Bruce Bochy, who had shown a rare flash of anger in the dugout at Vogelsong's failure to cover first on Hosmer's hit, came out and summoned Machi. Vogelsong sat in the dugout, fighting his emotions, as Machi managed to get out of it by retiring pitcher Jason Vargas, batting for the second time that inning. 

A light rain had been falling earlier, but there would be no deliverance from above. Down 4-1, looking at a 3-games-to-1 deficit, with three innings left before Yost unleashed his three-headed shutdown squad, the Giants absolutely had to answer back in the fourth with something. Matt Duffy, first in a parade of pinch-hitters, singled to left. Blanco's slow grounder advanced Duffy in lieu of a bunt, and Posey came through with an RBI single to left. It was 4-2, the weight of the world had eased up just a bit, and the Royals had been served notice-- this one was going to remain a dogfight for a while longer.  Petit began his work, retiring the side in order in the fourth, and contributed a bloop single in the bottom, though he and Juan Perez would be left stranded. Hosmer greeted Petit with a double down the right-field line in the fifth, but the big guy, every bit as poker-faced as Madison Bumgarner, left him there after a strikeout and two popups. 

Joe Panik sent Vargas packing with a leadoff double in the bottom of the fifth that was nicely gloved by Cain, preventing a triple. In came righty Jason Fraser to face Posey, who advanced Panik to third with a grounder up the middle. Pence followed with another grounder up the middle, but this one went through into center for a RBI single and a one-run game. Sandoval's struggles from the right-hand side have been well-documented, and Yost thus played the percentages, bringing in Danny Duffy to face him. What percentages? Pablo drilled a single to left, and with the crowd roaring Duffy then walked Brandon Belt to load the bases. Perez blooped one to shallow center and Jarrod Dyson made a desperate charge and all-out dive for the ball. If it gets past him, it rolls all the way to the wall and Perez likely ends up with a inside-the-park grand slam. But Dyson made the spectacular diving catch; Pence tagged up and scored without a throw to tie the game. Dyson's play saved the inning for the Royals, but as it turned out, it simply delayed the inevitable.    

Which came quickly, if not painlessly for the Royals. Yost's third reliever, rookie Brandon Finnegan, faced Joaquin Arias leading off the sixth pinch-hitting for Petit. Arias singled to right, the Giants' second pinch hit of the game, and Blanco, going the other way, dropped one into left. Arias overran second and dove back to the bag just ahead of Gordon's alert throw, but it was close enough, and the situation serious enough, to warrant a replay challenge by Yost. He didn't get it, and Joe Panik moved the runners up with a bunt. Yost then decided to walk Posey, load the bases, and set up the force at home. It worked, at first, when Escobar took Pence's grounder and threw home to get Arias. But Sandoval, again from that troublesome right side, blew it all to pieces as he ripped a two-run single up the middle. Belt followed with another, and three runs had crossed, making it 7-4.

Given a three-run lead, Jeremy Affeldt and Sergio Romo would calmly navigate the seventh and eighth, each allowing one hit. And the bottom of the seventh was an exaggerated continuation of the previous frame. Crawford singled. Mike Morse, batting for Affeldt, walked, the fourth number-nine hitter to reach base.  That was enough for Finnegan and on came Tim Collins, yet another southpaw, to suffer a few indignities of his own. Blanco bunted to the left side; Collins fielded it cleanly, but threw wildly past first as Crawford scored. Panik crushed one over the head of Dyson in center, clearing the bases; one out later Pence followed with a double down the left-field line. Collins was in there for the duration, it became apparent, and he did get out of it, finally, despite allowing another walk to Belt. The seven-run lead was sufficient for "Boch" to allow Hunter Strickland the ninth inning to regain some confidence, which he did, ending the game on a comebacker from Hosmer, who on another day at another time might have been Strickland's worst nightmare. Not this night. The nightmares of Game Four were reserved exclusively for the Royals. 

Now it's a day of rest. The Giants, per their unconventional practice, remained at home for the night and will leave for Missouri later today. Jake Peavy is scheduled to face his Game Two opponent, Yordano Ventura, tomorrow night. Yusmeiro Petit will be standing by, ready to go by Peavy's second time through the KC lineup, somewhere around the third inning. Tim Lincecum likewise will be in ready reserve. "Bum" won't, but if things don't go our way Tuesday, the ace of aces has already thrown his hat in the ring for a possible Game Seven. Regarding all that, Bruce Bochy is taking this thing one game at a time, and we hyperventilating fans had best do the same.

News of Oscar Tavares' tragic death in the Dominican Republic reached the ballpark during the game, and the FOX-TV crew had a nice tribute for the young Cardinals' star who certainly had a bright future in baseball. Barely 22 years old, Taveras was killed in a car wreck. Giants fans will remember how well he hit against us in the NLCS, with a pinch-hit home run in Game Two and a 2-for-3 performance overall. His family certainly needs the prayers of anyone who might read this... Taveras was a close friend of Juan Perez, and the Giants outfielder freely admitted the news briefly put him off his game when it reached the dugout. He recovered well enough to blast that triple in the eighth, at which point, he said, his emotions came flooding back after he'd slid into third... Bob Gibson, with 81 innings pitched, a 7-2 record, eight complete games, and a 1.89 ERA, is the dean of all World Series pitchers, while Whitey Ford (10-8, 146 innings in 11 Series) has totals that will likely never be equaled. "Bum" is already up there with Sandy Koufax and Curt Schilling, though, and remember, he's only 25! Gibson was nearly 29 before he ever pitched in a World Series. What will Bumgarner's totals look like a decade from now?... Pence (1.282 OPS), Sandoval, Crawford, and Belt lead the Giants' hit parade and have 14 of the team's 26 RBI... Pence has scored six runs but so has Gregor Blanco, who despite a .200 average has five walks in 20 ABs for a .360 OBP... Belt is at .400 for the postseason with 11 walks in 53 ABs... As a team, the Giants have drawn 18 walks in the five Series games, the Royals six.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The San Francisco Giants face the Kansas City Royals in Game Four of the World Series tonight at AT&T Park. Game time is slated for 5 PM local time (8 PM EDT).  The Royals now hold a two-games-to-one edge in the Series with last night's 3-2 victory on the Giants' home field. 

After two games in Kauffmann Stadium where each team showed off its best baseball at the expense of the other, last night's nail-biter emphasized how close the two clubs are in all phases of the game. It was a pitchers' duel all the way, first between starters, then between relievers, long strings of zeroes interspersed with brief scoring rallies. Ultimately the difference was that Jeremy Guthrie, the Royals' veteran starter, fared just a little better than did Tim Hudson, his Giants' counterpart. And how we got there underscores the unique quality of baseball; how the littlest things in this "game of inches" can move the biggest things, can turn the advantage one way or the other, can make the difference between winning and losing.

It happened in the top of the sixth, with Lorenzo Cain on second, one out, and Eric Hosmer with a 2-2 count at the plate. Javier Lopez, on in relief of Hudson, delivered a two-seam fastball on the outside corner, as good a pitch as he can make. It was strike three to Lopez, to Buster Posey, and even to Hosmer, who had battled Lopez over ten pitches, fouling off six in an epic at-bat. But to umpire Jim Reynolds, it was ball three. While the entire ballpark sagged in disappointment and disbelief, Hosmer, his life renewed, reset himself in the box with a confident air. Lopez was unwilling to walk him even with another left-handed hitter, Mike Moustakas, on deck, and so it was power versus power one more time. Hosmer drilled a clean single to center for an RBI, capping a two-run rally for a 3-0 Kansas City lead.  That third run would be the difference.

Having followed the Giants over 162 regular-season games and a dozen postseason contests, we knew two things: one, the Giants would not be shut out, and two, they'd rally to make a game of it. The rally came quick, in the very next half-inning, the bottom of the sixth being played by both teams as if it were the last of the ninth. It started with a single by Brandon Crawford off Guthrie to open the frame. Here came Mike Morse to bat for Lopez. The big guy has hit the ball hard in every single at-bat since his return from the DL. He turned on an 0-2 four-seamer and belted it high and far, reminiscent of his pinch hit blast against St Louis, except this one was twenty feet foul. Morse fouled off another, waited patiently as three low ones went by, then scorched a shot past Moustakas at third, all the way into the corner in left as Crawford came hustling around with the Giants' first run. That was it for Guthrie, and on came Kelvin Herrera, whom the Giants saw in Game Two. Manager Ned Yost's seventh-inning specialist was now asked to get five outs instead of the customary three. He was wild facing the patient Gregor Blanco, walking him; then Joe Panik bounced a Baltimore chop high off the plate, enough to advance the runners to second and third with one out. Buster Posey grounded to the right side, enough to score Morse with two out. Pablo Sandoval stood in, his 25-game consecutive on-base postseason streak on the line. He hit it hard but right at Hosmer, and that, in effect, was the ballgame.  The Giants would manage one baserunner over the final three against Herrera, rookie southpaw Brandon Finnegan, and the setup-closer team of Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Sergio Romo, Jerermy Affeldt, and Santiago Casilla would do likewise for the home team, but that only served to keep it a one-run game.

Hudson, starting his first World Series game at age 39, gave an effort similar to, though better than, Jake Peavy's in Game Two. In Bruce Bochy's words, Hudson was "ambushed" by leadoff batter Alcides Escobar. Normally one to take a couple pitches as leadoff man, Escobar drilled the game's first pitch, a high and hittable fastball, off the left-field wall for a double. He advanced to third on Alex Gordon's grounder, and came home on Lorenzo Cain's. From there, "Huddy" settled down and pitched well through five, gaining strength as he went. A timely double play erased a two-on no-out second-inning pickle, and Hudson retired nine in a row over the third, fourth and fifth. Meanwhile Guthrie was doing the same on his side. Two singles, by Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt, came to naught in the second because Pence was caught stealing. That was it for the Giants' offense until the sixth.

Hudson's night came to an end as he faced the KC lineup for the third time. With one out Escobar singled and Gordon doubled him home. Hudson got Cain on a grounder to Sandoval, but even with two out "Boch" was unwilling to let him face either Hosmer or Moustakas. Looking to avoid the big inning at all costs, Bochy called on Lopez, and regardless of what the record says, the lefty did his job. Taking the loss, Hudson has nothing to apologize for. He pitched well enough to win, or perhaps more accurately, well enough to tie, and his teammates were limited to three strikes per man in their attempts to rally and score. 

Ryan Vogelsong takes the ball for the Giants tonight with lefthander Jason Vargas opposing. Mum for now is Bochy regarding who will start in left field in place of Travis Ishikawa, who is likely to sit against the portsider. Obviously the lineup could use Morse's bat, but he hasn't played the outfield since August 25 and might be a liability out there, especially against the speedy, gap-hitting Royals. Of course, "Boch" could pull a rabbit out of his hat and try Brandon Belt out there with Morse at first, and given that the Giants have lost two games in a row for the first time since late September, radical moves are justifiable. But we fear it will be Juan Perez, or perhaps Joaquin Arias, starting in left, and no matter how you cut it, that just doesn't give the Giants their best chance to score runs against this opportunistic team.  We'll have to hope Vogelsong  can emulate Hudson and keep the Giants in the game through the middle innings, giving our lineup, bench, and bullpen the best chance to win this game and even the Series.

Well, the Giants, if they do win this World Series, will have to celebrate on the other team's field, again. A win tonight means we're going back to Kansas City to finish it... In defeat, Sandoval made the defensive play of the game: a barehand pickup-and-throw on a broken-bat squibber from Hosmer in the ninth. Go watch the highlight reel if you haven't seen it... Yost benched Nori Aoki in favor of Jarrod Dyson last night. Moved from center to right, Cain made one, and possibly two, running catches of line drives that likely would have eluded Aoki. The underrated Gordon in left gives KC perhaps the best outfield defense in the game... Joe Montana and George Brett both attended last night's game. No word on whether they met... Vargas, 31, has been all around this world, pitching for the Marlins and the Mets, for Seattle, the Angels, and now KC. Like a lot of these guys, he pitches to contact, with low strikeout and walk numbers. His postseason starts have been good, keeping his team in the game both times, though he did give up three homers in 11 innings... Vogelsong, you'll recall, pitched well against Washington, not so well against St Louis, giving up four runs in three innings. He's on nine days' rest, as is Vargas... Media talk about "Boch" hitting the panic button and summoning Madison Bumgarner to start tonight on short rest was just that-- talk. "We're not going to change things because we lost," said Bochy. Perhaps that will apply to the lineup as well, so will Ishikawa be in there after all?  With this team, there's always hope.   

Friday, October 24, 2014

The San Francisco Giants face the Kansas City Royals in Game Three of the World Series tonight at AT&T Park. Game time is slated for 5 PM local time (8 PM EDT).  The Series is all knotted up, as they say, at one game apiece after the Royals sliced and diced their way to an impressive 7-2 victory in Game Two Wednesday night.

In case anyone was wondering what "Royals baseball" looks like, it was on full display from the bottom of the sixth inning onward the other night: a sustained fusillade of run-scoring hits followed by shutdown-style high-heat relief pitching. A tight game turned suddenly into a runaway, and seeing it happen makes it easy to understand why the Royals' eight-game momentum impressed so many people. They have the ability to make good teams look bad, even foolish-- Bruce Bochy, hailed from all corners as a bullpen magician, used five pitchers in one inning, and none of them escaped the 32-minute ordeal unscathed.  Had the Giants won Game Two, we'd likely be looking at a Series sweep; should KC end up winning this thing, that one inning will likely be remembered as the pivotal moment. 

It didn't start out that way. Fans were still settling into their seats as Gregor Blanco worked Royals starter Yordano Ventura through an eight-pitch at-bat, fouling off three, before launching a no-doubt-about-it homer into the right-field stands, the nineteenth leadoff homer in Series history and the first by any Giant. It was one run, not three, but it had the look of a tone-setter, and "Here we go again" had to be on the minds of many. The Royals themselves had other ideas. Alcides Escobar opened with a single off Jake Peavy in the bottom of the first. Nori Aoki couldn't advance him, so Escobar uncorked the vaunted KC running game with Lorenzo Cain up. Buster Posey fired a one-hop throw to Joe Panik, who tagged Escobar out, and so much for all that. The cost of a caught stealing became apparent after Cain whacked a 3-2 pitch for a double; instead of one run in, one out, and one in scoring position, KC had a man on second with two out. Peavy threw nothing resembling a strike to Eric Hosmer, and DH Billy Butler drove in Cain with a single to left. Travis Ishikawa's throw home was not cut off, and Hosmer took third, but Peavy got Alex Gordon to pop up for the third out. What could have been a big inning ended as a 1-1 tie.

Peavy's 20-pitch first inning had everyone worried. He needed only 11 for the second, but doubles by Omar "Bad Penny" Infante and Escobar put the Royals up 2-1 and had Giants fans looking toward the bullpen for a hint of activity. But after a thorough talking-to delivered to Peavy by Peavy, the veteran showed his poise over the next three, retiring nine in a row through the fifth as the game settled down to an uneasy pitchers' duel. Young Ventura, he of the 100-MPH fastball, relied on his curve more than usual as the Giants started to wait on the heat the second time around. Pablo Sandoval led off the fourth with a towering drive to center that had Cain zigzagging across the sward; he made a noble attempt at an over-the-shoulder catch but the ball bounced off his glove for a stand-up double. Brandon Belt got a rare changeup from Ventura and drilled it past the stumbling Aoki in right for another double to tie the game. Two innings later, Cain would replace Aoki as Ned Yost sent glove man Jarrod Dyson into center.

Both starters were lifted in the sixth. Posey and Hunter Pence chased Ventura with base hits, first and second with one out. Kelvin Herrera came in and got Belt on a fly ball. Mike Morse shattered his bat on a foul ball, then scorched a drive toward left which Escobar speared and converted into a bingo-bango inning-ending forceout at second. Given what happened a few minutes later, this was the Giants woulda-coulda-shoulda moment.   

Did "Boch" pull Peavy too early? These inevitable second-guessing questions arise when meltdowns occur, and it's hard to see how Jake could have fared any worse than the legion of relievers who followed him. Had he gotten at least one out, it may have been different, but Cain singled, again, and Hosmer walked, again, and that was enough. With nobody out and Butler at the plate, here came stout Jean Machi-- with, we have to admit, a palpable sense of dread alongside.  Machi has not done his job since the second game of the division series against Washington; his last three appearances have yielded hits in each and runs in two. Chalk up another one: Butler singled over short, driving in Cain to break the tie, Hosmer was held at second. Out goes Machi, in comes Javier Lopez. As usual, he did his job, getting Gordon on a weak fly ball, no advance, one out. Boch, what if you'd left him in? We'll never know. 

Hunter Strickland was summoned from the bullpen to face Salvador Perez and Omar Infante, both right-handed hitters, representing outs two and three and a continued one-run game. It didn't quite work out that way. First was the wild pitch-- who needs a running game?-- to eliminate the double-play chance. Perez then made the hit of the day, a loud, ringing double to the gap in left-center, two runs scoring, now 5-2. Infante had a 1-0 count when he turned on a 97-MPH fastball and pounded it into the left-field bullpen. The rout was on, and as Perez and Infante circled the bases, Strickland strode around the mound cursing at himself, acutely aware he'd just allowed his fifth homer of the postseason and that his brief Game One success, buoyed as it was by a six-run lead, now meant less than nothing. A heavy load for a 23-year-old, and not all that much different from Ventura's petulant exit a few minutes earlier, but Ventura sanely let his emotions run loose in the dugout. Strickland's on-field outburst seemed to annoy Perez as he rounded third; the big catcher answered back as he stood at the plate waiting for Infante. Strickland immediately got in Perez's face: "OKAY, LET'S GO!" he clearly shouted, advancing toward the plate. Buster Posey and Infante quickly got in between their teammates, both benches emptied, but the flareup died almost immediately. Bochy got Strickland out of there posthaste; Jeremy Affeldt came in, gave up a single to Mike Moustakas, and just as quickly got Escobar to hit into a double play, ending the debacle. 

Brandon Crawford and Blanco worked Herrera for back-to-back walks with one out in the seventh, but the young reliever didn't "pull a Strickland" (there's a term we'd just as soon not enter into common usage), instead he got Joe Panik and Posey to end the mild threat. Against Wade Davis and Greg Holland, KC's setup-closer tag team, the Giants managed one hit over the final two frames and nothing more. That leaves Tim Lincecum as our last point of interest. It's hard to describe exactly how we felt, watching the Giants' one-time ace, two-time Cy Young Award winner, master of the 2010 postseason, now relegated to mop-up duty.  But there he was, competitive fire intact, pitching as though it were still a 2-2 game.  The Royals had never seen anyone like him; they managed one ball out of the infield in the eighth and ninth as Harold Reynolds on FOX noted they were all taking "defensive swings." On a 1-2 changeup in the dirt to Perez, Lincecum lost his balance; regaining his feet, he waved for the trainer and moments later left the field with what was described as a "stiff back." Santiago Casilla came on to strike out Perez on one pitch, but the focus remained, and remains, on Lincecum, his back, and his sudden status as a guy the Giants are going to need, seriously need, going forward.

Bochy cannot depend on Machi or Strickland any more. Those guys can't be allowed near the mound in a close game, whether it's lefty, righty, or man-from-Mars. We believe that had Lopez remained in the game, the score would have remained 3-2. It's a given that Lopez and Affeldt are several orders of magnitude more reliable than are Machi and Strickland. Either the lefty-righty two-step must go, which means Lopez and Affeldt get the call for innings six and seven regardless of who's at bat, or else Yusmeiro Petit and, we hope, Lincecum, will have to take over the right-handed duty in those spots. It's a tough call, but we lean toward abandoning the one-pitcher one-batter move altogether, and trusting the two lefties to get the job done. It may also be time to consider Sergio Romo as more than a setup man; whatever else might happen, he ain't gonna melt down on the mound when things don't go his way.

It's Tim Hudson tonight against veteran Jeremy Guthrie; Yost is holding lefty Jason Vargas back for Game Four. Guthrie, like Jake Peavy, is a battler and a guy who's been around a few years. Twice a loser of 17 games in a season for Baltimore when they were bad, he pitched well against the O's in the ALCS, allowing one run on three hits in five innings. He's a contact pitcher who gets fly balls and will allow his share of home runs. As for Hudson, he's had nine days of rest since his last start in game three of the NLCS. With his deliberate motion, he's known as a pitcher easy to run on, and this has led to some concern about the Royals' speed on the basepaths.  But there's no indication this tendency has ever affected Hudson; he knows that as long as he focuses on the batter, and executes, the running game can't beat him. If Tim Hudson can keep the ball down and the hits to a minimum, he'll be fine-- and given the state of the bullpen at the moment, we need him to be fine.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The San Francisco Giants defeated the Kansas City Royals, 7-1, in Game One of the World Series last night at Kauffmann Stadium.

There is no guaranteed formula for winning a baseball game, but if you wanted to devise one, it might go like this: score three runs in the first inning, then hand the ball over to Madison Bumgarner. That right there was enough to ensure the Giants' seventh consecutive World Series win, and to snap the red-hot Royals' postseason winning streak at eight. "Bum" allowed three hits over seven innings, walking one and striking out five, and just as he did five days ago in the NLCS clincher against St Louis, he got stronger as the game went on. And the Giants' lineup continued its late trend, which is to break out early, take the lead, and keep swinging. Bruce Bochy's team made it through one postseason series and most of another with just enough runs to win. If the Giants keep scoring six or seven runs a game now, this Series might not survive the upcoming weekend.

The first-inning eruption came at the expense of KC starter James Shields, whose postseason struggles (7.11 ERA) present yet another dilemma going forward for manager Ned Yost. It actually could have been worse. Gregor Blanco, who despite a .170 mark is becoming a force in this postseason, opened the game with a single to center. Buster Posey singled to right with one out, runners at the corners. Pablo Sandoval, who is really becoming a force in this postseason, ripped a double down the right field line. Blanco trotted home, but a fine relay-- Nori Aoki to Omar Infante to catcher Salvador Perez-- got Posey at the plate for the third time this October. Hunter Pence then sat back on a 3-2 fastball and drilled it 413 feet over the wall in right center. Good old Doctor Longball's latest house call made it 3-0, and Brandon Belt did his best to keep it going with the Giants' fifth hit of the frame, but Shields struck out Mike Morse to escape further damage.

The reprieve was short-lived; Shields never got into a rhythm and would be gone by the fourth. Bumgarner, meanwhile, started off as he had the last time-- plenty of stuff, but searching for command. The Royals are a lot like the Anaheim Angels of 2002 in one respect: while they put the ball in play and don't walk much, they do work the count, fouling off pitches until they get the one they want. We saw this in the first after Lorenzo Cain was hit on the foot by a Bumgarner pitch he barely tried to avoid. Slugger Eric Hosmer stepped in; "Bum" had already thrown 15 pitches and Cain had fouled off five. Hosmer jumped on a 94-MPH fastball and whacked it to deepest right-center, a sure double in most parks against most teams-- but Blanco (a force, remember) ran it down with a tremendous effort that Yost later recalled in his postgame interview. Saved for the moment anyway, Bumgarner was not yet out of trouble. Leading off the bottom of the third Brandon Crawford couldn't handle Omar Infante's grounder up the middle, and Mike Moustakas, there to add a little punch in the nine-spot, did so with a sharp double into the corner in right. Pence played the carom perfectly, as though he'd grown up at Royals Stadium, and his throw held Infante at third. Top of the order now, "Bum" in a pickle, the crowd going wild as their Royals were on the verge of doing what they've done all month. Seven strikes later, the fury had abated as both Alcides Escobar and Aoki batted the breeze; the last a 67-MPH curve that seemed to flop  down in front of the plate as Aoki flailed at it.  That brought up Cain, and "Bum" appeared to flinch after a loud foul, walking the bases loaded and bringing up Hosmer as the crowd resumed full howl. The book says you take the first pitch after a walk; Hosmer, writing his own material, grounded meekly to Joe Panik. Having survived the toughest defensive situation in baseball without allowing a run, Bumgarner was in no mood to continue the charade. He retired the next twelve batters he faced, from the fourth through the seventh, and the home crowd gradually became graveyard-whispering quiet as the snoozefest went on.

Having turned back KC's most promising rally, the Giants promptly added two runs to remove the remaining drama from the game. Pence (2-for-3 with two walks, two runs, two RBI) doubled to open the fourth. Rattled, Shields flung one past catcher Perez, advancing Pence to third; that was ball three to Belt anyway and ball four soon followed. Morse ripped a RBI single to left and that was all for Shields. Yost chose his fifth starter, lefty Danny Duffy, to pick up the pieces and, he hoped, save his bullpen. Well, he got one of his wishes. As Duffy warmed up, we entertained the living-room throng with a digression dating back to the days of Robb Nen and Dusty Baker. There are pitchers, we said, who thrive on the edge, who come in with men on base and the house on fire and love to save the day. Then there are those who prefer to start an inning fresh, nobody on and nobody out. It's critical, we opined, that a manager know which type each of his relievers is, and we added that Bruce Bochy most certainly does know, which is one key to his bullpen success. Now Duffy, who started 25 games this year, we believe would have preferred to open the fourth or wait until the top of the fifth, based on subsequent events. To greet Duffy, "Boch" pulled a late-inning trigger, sending up Juan Perez to bat for Travis Ishikawa. Knowing "Bum" had a 4-0 lead with a good chance for more, Bochy was already inserting his defensive specialist into the game, in the fourth inning. And Perez, an accomplished bunter, did just that, moving the runners up, second and third with one out. Now, Duffy may have preferred to walk Crawford on 3-2 rather than challenge him, but with the bases loaded he all of a sudden found the strike zone elusive. Blanco, who has walked six times in 47 ABs this postseason, drew the RBI base-on-balls with only five pitches. It was 5-0 and the wheels were wobbling; they stayed on thanks mostly to Duffy himself, who got Panik and Posey to end the inning. He then settled down and pitched his game over the fifth and sixth, retiring all six and keeping KC in it a while longer.

Seeing Blanco again to open the seventh evidently brought back bad memories for our friend Duffy; Blanco drew his second walk of the night. Joe Panik followed with s scorcher to right center that bounded past Aoki for a RBI triple and brought in another lefty, Tim Collins. He too found trouble quickly; Sandoval's second hit and second RBI of the night, followed by a wild pitch and a walk to Pence. Then, like his predecessor, Collins righted the ship and got the final two outs without incident. In the bottom of the frame, Bumgarner was cruising along when Perez got hold of a 1-2 fastball and belted it into the Giants' bullpen for the Royals' first and only run. After eight shutout innings against Texas in Game Four 2010, and seven shutout innings in Game Two 2012, and six and two-thirds shutout innings tonight, "Bum's" World Series scoreless streak of 21-2/3 was already the second-longest in history, behind only Giant Hall-of-Fame legend Christy Mathewson's 28. "Matty," who pitched three complete-game shutouts in the 1905 Series, remains safe for now. Perez' homer ended the streak, and Bumgarner's night was over after he completed the seventh. Javier Lopez allowed a hit in the eighth that was quickly wiped out by a double play-- executed smartly enough to double up the speedy Aoki, by the way-- and for the ninth out came Hunter Strickland.  The "Four Homer Kid" has spent the last week working on his timing and his motion; there was concern he was tipping his pitches. Strickland's one-out confrontation with lefty slugger Hosmer was the acid test: it resulted in neither a tape-measure home run nor an emphatic strikeout, but a routine grounder on a 2-2 pitch. Pinch-hitter Josh Willingham then struck out on a nasty curveball to end it. Welcome back, kid.  

Jake Peavy takes the mound for the Giants tonight against 23-year-old Yordano Ventura. Roll out the hoariest cliches you can find, people; it's the flame-throwing youngster, winner of 14 in his first full season, against the archetypal wily veteran, who's lost miles off his fastball but gained savvy, poise, and mental toughness in its place. (Oh, Lord, we're already goin' off the rails.) Interestingly, despite his 100-MPH heat Ventura didn't come close to a record strikeout rate; he fanned 159 in 183 innings, which is excellent but not newsworthy. He did also walk 69 men in those 183 innings, which gave the league a .308 OBP against him. He averaged six innings per start and didn't complete a game; of course, if we had the Royals' bullpen we wouldn't let him complete any games, either. And he was outstanding against the Angels in the division series two weeks ago, though he didn't fare as well against Baltimore. As with Shields, his teammates picked him up.

They'll need to do the same tonight. We'll say it: if the Giants win this game tonight, they will win this World Series, and they will win it in San Francisco, before the home crowd for the first time. The only chance at a "classic" series rests on the shoulders of the Kansas City Royals tonight. As the Giants do and have done, again and again, they have gotten off first-- literally, in the first inning last night, and in this first game, as they have done all postseason and in every postseason series since the 2012 NLCS. KC's best chance depends on getting to Peavy early and getting him out of there, establishing their aggressive hit-and-run game from the start. So far, the band is playing the Giants' tune, and we've already seen how that one ends up. When, or whether, it will conclude with a third world championship in five years will become apparent about twelve hours from now.



Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The San Francisco Giants face the Kansas City Royals in Game One of the 2014 World Series this evening at Kauffmann Stadium in Independence, Mo. Game time is slated for 7 PM local time (8 PM EDT).

They're talking about a dynasty out there in media-land, and we confess that back in 2012, in the giddy aftermath of Detroit, we dropped the term ourselves. Should the Giants win their third Series in five years, they'd join the, uh, New York Yankees (1996-2000, actually four out of five) as the only team to do so in 40 years. Go back a few more years to the beginning of the division era, and only the Oakland A's, with three straight from 1972-1974, join the list. Both those teams, of course, are certified dynasties, and while three in a row has tended to be the standard, in this age of wild cards and 43-game postseasons three out of five beats anything anyone has done for over a decade.

In that case, nine players on the Giants' 40-man roster are officially dynastic candidates, having played on all three teams--  Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, and Madison Bumgarner.   As we all remember, there was a lot of turnover between 2010 and 2012. Between 2012 and today, the change rate is lower. Fourteen of the 25 active Giants-- the above nine (minus DL denizen Cain) plus Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Gregor Blanco, Hunter Pence, Joaquin Arias, and Ryan Vogelsong-- were with us two years ago. Travis Ishikawa stands alone; he was on the 2010 team but not the 2012 squad. That leaves ten newcomers. They are Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson, Yusmeiro Petit, Jean Machi, Hunter Strickland, Joe Panik, Matt Duffy, Andrew Susac, Juan Perez, and Mike Morse. Peavy has played in a World Series before; the others are making their first appearance. How sweet it is for veterans Morse and, especially, Hudson; and how exciting for rookies Panik, Susac, Duffy, and Strickland. Yes, Bruce Bochy is going with the same 25-man, twelve-pitcher roster that won the division series and NLCS. If it ain't broke, "Boch" ain't about to fix it.

The Royals, by contrast, are stocked with players nobody's ever heard of, or at least so until now. But this team has won eight consecutive postseason games, sweeping the Angels and the Orioles after beating Oakland in the playoff. There's always the chance KC is a reprise of the 2007 Colorado Rockies, who won seven straight postseason games to cap a 17-game overall streak, and then were swept themselves in the Fall Classic by Boston. But nobody with any sense is talking about sweeps here.  Kansas City and the Giants are hitting and pitching at about the same level in the postseason (when you allow for the DH). KC outscored their opponents 42-26 in eight games, the Giants 41-25 in ten. One outstanding number is the 12 homers allowed by the Giants' pitchers; another is the same pitchers' 0.95 WHIP. Solo homers aren't going to beat us-- not often, that is. By any measure, the Royals' most dangerous hitter is first baseman Eric Hosmer, 25; he has a 1.314 OPS in the postseason, hitting .448 with eight RBI and seven walks in 29 at-bats. He strikes out a lot but doesn't hit into double plays, which is impressive considering the number of men they've gotten on base.

Looking at the stats, we immediately see the one thing that sets the Royals apart from all others: they've stolen 13 bases in eight games, and have been caught only three times, a healthy 81% success rate. Most impressive is that seven different Royals have swiped at least one base without being caught. Much is being made of this in the pregame buildup, and while we're adamant (along with noted Royals fan Bill James) about stolen bases being a minor offensive weapon, the effect that a stolen base, or even the threat of one (or two or three), may have on a pitcher's confidence is not to be disregarded. Stolen bases can cause small innings to escalate into big innings if they force mistakes by the pitcher or the defense. What's often overlooked, though, is the disastrous effect of a caught stealing, which is a true double whammy for the offense (lose a baserunner and lose an out). Buster Posey averages 29% throwing out baserunners. If the Royals run and he can maintain that average, the running game will probably cost KC more than they gain from it.

Mike Morse will be in the lineup as the designated hitter for the games in Kansas City, whether facing righty or lefty. If he gets hot, it's always possible he might start ahead of Ishi in left field against southpaw Jason Vargas when the series returns to San Francisco. The young, hundred-mile-an-hour righty Yordano Ventura has been tabbed by Ned Yost to start tomorrow night against Jake Peavy: what a contrast in pitchers! Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong round out Bochy's quartet for Games Three and Four; Yost has not tipped his hand yet, but Vargas and veteran Jeremy Guthrie would seem the likely candidates.

Getting back to the dynasty thing, let's note that of the nine Giants who've played on all three World Series teams, four of them are the core of the current bullpen: Affeldt, Lopez, Romo, Casilla. Among the comings and goings and changes and such, these four have been the unseen bedrock upon which Bochy depends in close games. They were the difference-makers in the St Louis series, in which the two teams were essentially even everywhere else. These four give "Boch" the absolute confidence with which he makes his in-game decisions, at times when other managers may hesitate or make an impulsive move. No, they're not perfect; each had his moment of crisis over the past two weeks, one lost a game and another nearly gave one away. No matter. They are four, and when one can't deliver, another will. There is no reason to doubt that this under-the-radar advantage can tip the series in our favor one more time.

Tonight it will be Madison Bumgarner, the Giants' unquestioned ace, NLCS MVP, and last ace standing for the National League, against James Shields, the 33-year-old veteran who won 14 games this year. Shields is a consistent, hard-working right-hander who's been a steady, quality starter for eight years now, six with Tampa and the last two in KC. Oddly, Shields was a lot more effective on the road than at home this year, to the tune of  half a run a game and a 4-6 mark, compared to 10-2 away. He did cut down on his walks this season, and he doesn't trend strongly toward either flyouts or groundouts. He pitched his best game of the postseason in the division series against the Angels, a powerhouse lineup whom he limited to six hits and two runs over six. He does that tonight, he'll give his team a chance to win. If he pitches as he did against Baltimore-- five innings, ten hits, four runs-- it'll be up to his teammates to do the same against "Bum," and what's the chance of that? Nothing is ever for sure in baseball, but Madison Bumgarner on the mound in the World Series tends to promote a strong sense of well-being for those of us who follow the San Francisco Giants!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Big Joe Turner Got Nothing On Me (We're Going to Kansas City!)

The San Francisco Giants defeated the St Louis Cardinals, 6-3, at AT&T Park last night to win the National League Championship Series, four games to one, and thereby advance to the World Series, their third in the last five years.  HAWWWWWWWWNNNNNNNNK!

With a mighty blast-- Travis Ishikawa's three-run walk-off home run onto the right field promenade in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game-- the Giants concluded this scratching, clawing, biting, game-of-inches series in a blaze of glory. No wild pitches, no passed balls, no fielder's choices or bases-loaded walks; not this time. All six San Francisco runs scored via the long ball, three home runs, and two of them have already passed into legend. Having already won three games in the "any which way you can" manner, the Giants won this one in a manner reminiscent of Bobby Thomson and the Miracle of Coogan's Bluff. Is there anything this group of 25 men can't do on a baseball field? Don't bet on it.

And so it will be the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals meeting in the 110th World Series beginning next Tuesday night at Kauffmann Stadium in Independence, Missouri. For the second time since the baseball postseason was expanded, it will be a "Wild Card World Series." The other was in 2002, and we all know how that turned out, but to quote the late Lou Reed this morning, "Those were different times."

As are these. The Cardinals may have lost in five, but they put up seven games' worth of battle to do so. This Cadillac of major-league franchises has no reason to cry. If there was a significant difference between the teams, it was probably found in the bullpen, where too often Mike Matheny was unable to find the answer he needed, while Bruce Bochy usually was. Last night featured a pitching duel between aces Madison Bumgarner and Adam Wainwright, and it was Wainwright who got the better of the deal, Wainwright who reminded all the recent doubters that he is, after all, a 20-game winner, and Wainwright was the one who left  the game with a chance to win it. That he didn't-- well, again, if there's a difference between these clubs, it's found along the margins, at the very end of things where games have to be finished.

"Bum" was strong from the start and was bringing his good stuff, but he didn't have the brilliant, authoritative command he'd had in Game One of this series and in the Pittsburgh playoff. He gave up two hits in the top of the first, which were wiped out by a timely double play. He walked two, an unforgivable sin in Bumgarner's world, in the third, one of whom scored the game's first run on Jon Jay's windblown fly ball to left that eluded Ishikawa. And in the fourth he was touched for two long home runs, one by Matt Adams, who regularly does this sort of thing, and one by backup catcher Ted Cruz, who doesn't. It was enough to make a jittery fan wonder if this would be a short night for the Giants' ace, and if "Bum" himself picked up any such vibe, he immediately set out to quash it. Down they went in order from the fifth through the eighth, Adams, Cruz, Kolten Wong, all of them, twelve in a row. Had he needed further motivation, all Bumgarner had to do was look across to the enemy dugout at Wainwright, who also grew stronger and more assured as the game went along. We've already noted Wainwright had something to prove, and people, he proved it.  Except for the third, Wainwright commanded the Giants' lineup. He stranded a runner in the first, and got a double play with two on and none out in the fourth-- an inning in which he uncharacteristically walked two men too. And from the fifth through the seventh he, like "Bum", was untouchable. Joe Panik's towering home run to right in the third-- mercy, Mother, he hit only one all year-- with Gregor Blanco aboard, gave the Giants a 2-1 lead; "Waino's" teammates got it back with those two homers in the fourth, and the revived St Louis ace left the game after seven, ahead 3-2.

Maybe he should have stayed in. Matheny didn't have to bat for him, not yet, but the Cards' M.O. all year had been similar to the Giants': get to the eighth, you got your setup man, get to the ninth, you got your closer. So, in the bottom of the eighth, out came herky-jerky Pat Neshek and his sidearm delivery, with Peter Bourjos taking over defense for Matt Holliday in the outfield. Hitter that he is, "Bum's" day was done and he knew it. Leading off was Michael Morse, "the kinda guy you want up there in a one-run game, the kinda guy who can tie this thing up with one swing of that ol' lumber." Yeah, sure, and how often, really, does that happen?

Well, it happens on October 16, 2014, in San Francisco, evidently. Morse absolutely crushed a 1-1 slider high and deep and far over the left-field fence, one of those no-doubt-about it cannon shots, and oh, you should have seen him, the big guy went absolutely crazy with joy. Sidelined for two months as his teammates struggled to score runs, watching his big-contract year fizzle after its great start, wanting to get into a World Series after ten up-and-down major-league seasons, and most of all, desperate just to contribute something-- fellow citizens, this was Mike Morse's moment. He rounded the bases with an ear-to-ear grin, shouting at the sky, the world, the Giants' dugout... goodness, it was a sight to see. And even though Neshek retired the side without incident, you couldn't help but notice that they looked more than a little deflated over there in the visitors' dugout.

That pity-party was over with before the between-innings commercials ended. "Boch" sent out Santiago Casilla, Mister Lights-Out himself, to hold the fort in the ninth, confident his team could mount a rally in the bottom of the frame. Working his third day in a row, something he'd not been asked to do all season, Casilla was game, but tired.  He walked a guy with one out-- "He never walks anybody!"-- and after a base hit-- "Two hits in two nights? Whussup wit' dat?"-- came the fantastic defensive play of the night, one that can't be forgotten amid the spectacle that soon followed. Designated nemesis Wong ripped a sharp grounder between short and third. Pablo Sandoval did a full-body dive, ticked the ball with his glove, and as it happened (as it was meant to happen?) the deflection went right to Brandon Crawford, who managed a contortionist's quick throw to Panik at second, just in time for the force. Nine times out of ten, that's a RBI single to left. The tenth time, it's an infield single, bases loaded, one out. This-- well, you can chalk it up to what Matheny, in his classy and gracious postgame interview, called "the breaks." A lot of people call it luck, and to quote the venerable Branch Rickey, "Luck is the residue of design."  By break or luck or design, by hook or by crook, the game was still tied, and Santiago Casilla was still in trouble. Big trouble, after he then walked Cruz to load the bases for pinch-hitter Oscar Taveras. It's rare for any manager to pull his closer, but that's what Bochy did; Casilla had simply been asked to do too much. In came Jeremy Affeldt. Bumgarner won the series MVP award, and no one can say he didn't deserve it. But over three postseasons, making appearances like this, there needs to be some sort of Jeremy Affeldt Award. Four games this series, three games against Washington, a long string of zeroes in the scoring line: Affeldt got Taveras on a comebacker. Threat over, they left 'em loaded. Time to end this thing.

Matheny called on Michael Wacha, the Cards' fifth starter, for the ninth. Not Trevor Rosenthal, not Carlos Martinez, but Wacha. A year ago he was the MVP of the NLCS; he beat Clayton Kershaw. This year he'd struggled a bit, and when he walked out on the mound it was his first appearance since September 26. It showed. He had the heat, but his command was off. Just like Casilla's had been. Who would rescue him? Three 98-MPH fastballs to Sandoval leading off, then a hard changeup, drilled into right for a single. Hunter Pence, ever eager to be the hero, hit one hard but directly at Taveras in right. Brandon Belt, the patient man with the eagle eye, looked at four low fastballs and walked to first, the winning run now in scoring position. And here's Ishikawa. He took two pitches low, as Belt had. "He's gonna walk the ballpark!" we said about Wacha; two men were warming up down in the Cards' bullpen. Would they be ready in time? "You don't swing at this pitch," said Harold Reynolds on the FOX telecast as Wacha launched the last pitch of the series. Ishikawa kept his own counsel and swung, and it was gone the moment he hit it. Foghorns blared, fake fog billowed, fans broke into tears, cheers, and open beers, and an overwhelmed family member texted our own sentiments to us exactly: "ISHI FOR MVP!!!"

Yes, Bumgarner is the series' most valuable player, and rightly so. But if there's a Most Archetypal Player for the San Francisco Giants in 2014, it just might be Travis Ishikawa. He never has played more than 120 games in a season. He got a ring back in 2010 as Aubrey Huff's backup first baseman, and as a reward for that, he spent all of 2011 in the minor leagues. Then he went on a three-year four-team odyssey-- Brewers, Orioles, Yankees (for one game) and finally the Pirates, who were so impressed with him back in April that they gave him his unconditional release after 15 games. Offered a minor-league contract by his original team, the Giants, he signed it, and found himself in Fresno, age 31, wondering if perhaps this was the end of the line. Called up once Angel Pagan went down for the season, this career first baseman, typically used as a late-inning defensive replacement, found himself playing out of position in left field.  Earlier in the evening, he had let Jon Jay's twisting fly ball play him and go over his head for the RBI double that was the difference in the score for eight innings. Travis Ishikawa has hit 22 career home runs in 881 at-bats. Now, Travis Ishikawa joins Chris Chambless, Aaron Boone, and Magglio Ordonez as the only men to hit walk-off LCS-winning home runs, sending their team to the World Series with one swing of the bat. Call it the Bobby Thomson Award.

It was a magnificent series, one of the best, on par with the Giants' win over Philadelphia in 2010 and maybe even better. The way Bumgarner and Wainwright matched one another almost exactly, inning for inning, getting better as they went along, illustrates the way both these teams play the game and play each other. The way Matheny, standing amid the scattered mausoleum that was the Cardinals' postgame dugout, tipped his cap to the celebrating Giants on the field, reveals the class and character of the man, his team, and the St Louis organization. It's easy to talk about what's wrong with baseball these days. Sometimes you have to look a little harder to see what's right about the game, and sometimes you needn't look very hard at all.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The San Francisco Giants defeated the St Louis Cardinals, 6-4, at AT&T Park last night to take a 3-1 lead in the National League Championship Series. The Giants-- our amazing Giants-- are one game away from their third World Series in five years and a date with the remarkable Kansas City Royals, who completed a four-game ALCS sweep of the Baltimore Orioles yesterday afternoon.

If ever a baseball game could be said to resemble a chess match, that hoary old cliche had its moments of truth last night at the 'Bell. Quick flurries of decisive action interspersed with halting, analytical pauses while pitchers warmed up, pinch-hitters were called back, and lineup cards methodically turned into graffiti.  Neither the Giants' starter, Ryan Vogelsong, nor the Cardinals' Shelby Miller made it through the fourth, and by the time Santiago Casilla landed a called third strike on the outside corner of a well-worn home plate three hours and fifty-three minutes after Vogelsong fired the first ball, a total of thirteen pitchers had done their best. The Giants' seven won the battle, by unanimous decision.

It was a one-run game after three innings, the advantage to St Louis, and the bullpen wars began in force early. Vogelsong, with his stellar postseason resume and his week of rest, had velocity but hadn't control.. It's not that he was wild, it was that he couldn't locate, and was peppered, pinged, and dinged for seven hits-- four for extra bases-- over three desultory 60-pitch innings. Matt Carpenter set the tone right away in the top of the first when he grounded a single into right, then took off for second as the ball bounced off diving Joe Panik's glove and away from Hunter Pence. Jon Jay walked and Matt Adams drilled a RBI single; the big inning was averted when Jhonny Peralta obligingly grounded into a double play. Opening the home half, Gregor Blanco scorched one to deepest center. Jay got his glove on it but couldn't hold it. Credited with a double, Blanco came in to tie the game on Buster Posey's sacrifice fly after a short single by Panik.. The big inning was averted when Pablo Sandoval obligingly grounded into a double play. Opening the second, Kelton Wong scorched one to deepest center. Blanco got his glove on it but couldn't hold it. Credited with a double, Wong came in to give the Cards the lead back on A.J. Pierzynski's single. "What's this?" we texted; "They do it, so we gotta do it?"

The lockstep march ended with the Cardinals' third. Matt Holliday, awakening from his slump (3-for-5 on the day) doubled past Pence in right. Adams drilled another single, Holliday holding third. That made six hits already off "Vogey," and down the line Yusmeiro Petit hastily shed his pullover and began throwing to the bullpen catcher as Dave Righetti paid a leisurely mound visit. "Remember the double play" may have been Rags' advice; he can take credit for it anyway since Peralta promptly grounded into his second such in three innings. Holliday scored, but the big inning had been averted again-- or so we thought. Vogelsong grooved one to "Killer" Kelton Wong, who launched it in the general direction of the Oakland Navy Yard; a brick stanchion on the right-field promenade kept it out of the water. It was 4-2, and with Petit still not ready, Vogelsong managed to end his night by retiring Pierzynski.

Soon Miller was working even harder than had "Vogey." Joaquin Arias pinch-hit a single to center and was advanced by Blanco's grounder to Adams (more on his fielding adventures later). Panik moved him to third with a long fly ball and Posey brought him in with his second RBI single of the night. Free-swinging Sandoval battled through eight pitches and drew a walk; Pence then ripped a shot to center that brought Posey home. Mike Matheny hadn't gotten anyone up yet, and Cardinals fans held their breath as Miller battled Brandon Belt. The 30-pitch inning finally ended on a fly ball to spacious center-- but the Giants had made it a one-run game.

Ten days ago Yusmeiro Petit pitched a relief stint for the ages, a six-inning shutout in an 18-inning game. Yesterday, his three one-hit scoreless innings amounted to a certifiable "second start" for the Giants, holding the game close as the team searched for a way to battle back. And with Petit in form, the pressure mounted on the St Louis relievers. Randy Choate was first. The previous day's "goat" entered the game in the fourth after Brandon Crawford had walked. Unwilling to let Miller face the lineup a third time around, Matheny started Choate off against his personal nemesis, Blanco. Choate walked him but got out of the inning without damage, and got dugout props from his grateful manager. That Matheny viewed this game as a "must-win" became apparent when setup man Carlos Martinez was called upon to pitch the fifth. He walked both Posey and Pence, and Pence even stole the Giants' first base of the series, but it came to naught thanks to Sandoval's second GIDP of the game. (Mr Sandoval, may we introduce Mr Peralta... !)

After Petit finished the top of the sixth, the strategic moves began in earnest. Matheny, with his pitcher due to lead off the seventh, pulled a double switch, replacing Pierzynski with Tony Cruz and inserting his new pitcher, rookie lefthander Carlos Gonzalez, into the seventh spot. Petit himself had batted in the fourth, but Bruce Bochy couldn't chance it again. Michael Morse, Andrew Susac, and Matt Duffy waited, bats in hand, as Juan Perez came in for Travis Ishikawa on the front end of a double-switch. The man we sarcastically nicknamed "Babe" a few days ago may yet end up as the MVP of this crazy series, and why not? Perez, becoming the Giants' own version of the diminutive Wong, opened the inning with a walk, and you could almost see the dry-ice mist rising around the unsuspecting Gonzalez.  Crawford (what lefty-lefty disadvantage?) singled to right. Two on, none out, it's bunt time, and Duffy, the first of "The Expendables," laid down a beauty off the plate.  Blanco, who seems to be in the middle of everything lately, grounded to first. Adams scooped it but fired a low throw to the plate as Perez dove in head-first, Cruz dropping the ball and swinging an empty glove toward the runner in vain. Score tied, all hands safe, and Panik now shot another one down the line to Adams. Evidently thinking double play and out-of-the-inning, the big guy stepped on the bag for one out-- but forgot that he'd just taken the force off second base. That realization may have come to him about halfway through his throw to second, which went 20 feet inside the bag and was gloved by Peralta, who like the rest of the infield could only watch as Crawford scored with the go-ahead run.  The wheels were spinning madly on their sides as Matheny rescued the overwhelmed Gonzalez, but Seth Maness fared no better. Posey ripped his third RBI single of the night to left-center and Blanco came in to make it 6-4. Sandoval followed with the Giants' ninth single; teetering on the edge of a runaway inning, Maness got Pence on a foul popup to end it.

So much had happened already that it was something if a shock to realize we'd only completed the sixth inning and there was a lot of baseball left to play. The path for the Giants' bullpen now lay clear: Jeremy Affeldt, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, one inning each. But that road often turns rocky, and in the seventh Bochy made his only questionable move of the series so far. Affeldt, who's been a veritable Rock of Gibraltar, walked Jay with two out and "Boch" pulled him in favor of Jean Machi rather than let him face Holliday. There's been something "off" about Machi since the division series, and he immediately yielded Holliday's third hit and was excused for the night after one misbegotten pitch. In came Javier Lopez, whom Bochy may have preferred to hold back in case Wong came up in the eighth with men on base. But he was needed now, and a six-pitch battle with Adams, lefty against lefty, power against power, was resolved on a ground ball to second. For once it was the other team's fans lamenting over men left on base. But in the bottom of the frame it was out turn again: Belt singled, Crawford doubled, Morse pinch-hit and grounded to third, Carpenter threw out Belt at home.

Romo faced Wong with one out in the eighth and did what no one else has done: made him look bad at the plate. A swing in the dirt was followed by a weak comebacker, but tension rose anew when Oscar Taveras ripped a two-out single to left. Randal Grichuk, who tied the game the day before with a homer, sent one deep again, but this time to spacious center and Blanco's glove. After a perfunctory top-of-the-ninth against Pat Neshek-- we can't help but wonder why Matheny didn't use him earlier; he's awfully hard to hit-- it was time for Santiago Casilla, who is on a roll of historic proportion right now. He hasn't allowed a run in six weeks, and he was working on a long hitless streak, too, right up until Jay singled with two out, bringing up Holliday. Yes, it was only Game Four, but the entire series seemed to hang in the balance as Casilla threw nothing but high heat to the Cardinals' best. One was out of the zone, one was missed, one hit foul-- and the last hit the outside corner, freezing the slugger and ending, at long last, the ballgame.

It's Madison Bumgarner versus Adam Wainwright tonight. Game is slated for 5 PM PDT (8 PM EDT). This is a matchup Matheny expected, but did his best to avoid as the elimination game.  Wainwright is the best they've got, but his postseason starts have been underwhelming, and lingering concerns about his elbow-- vigorously denied by everyone involved-- remain. No such reservations need concern us regarding "Bum." Like so many of the greats, he assumes a detached, almost disinterested demeanor during intense competition, as if the task he's facing, however mildly distasteful it might be, is really nothing very difficult and certainly nothing to worry about.  Of course, we're Giants fans; worrying is our stock-in-trade and ever shall it be so, even if the walls of our man-caves were to become festooned with dozens of World Championship banners. Two is what we have, three is more than we ever expected, and three can't be achieved unless the entire ballclub takes care of business here first, and preferably tonight.