Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The San Francisco Giants defeated the St Louis Cardinals, 5-4, in ten innings at AT&T Park yesterday afternoon, taking a 2-games-to-1 lead in the National League Championship Series.

For those of you who've been thinking this rollercoaster ride of unlikely wins simply can't continue, please think again. This time, the Giants scored the winning run when losing pitcher Randy Choate fielded Gregor Blanco's sacrifice bunt and threw the ball into right field, allowing Brandon Crawford to score from third on the error as the home dugout and the chilly, windswept fans erupted in sudden unexpected celebration. Yes, Blanco and Juan Perez, who are fast becoming the Damon and Pythias (or perhaps the Frick and Frack) of the Giants' lineup, were key players in the winning rally, and once again a wild throw, rather than a more conventional base hit, scored the game-winner.

But convention had its place as well, with the Giants jumping on St Louis starter John Lackey for a four-run first-inning outburst capped by Travis Ishikawa's bases-loaded double off the brick wall in right field. It all happened in a most familiar setting: two out, nobody on. Buster Posey, going with the pitch, drove a high fastball the other way into right for a base hit. Pablo Sandoval ripped at a eye-high fastball and drilled another into left. Lackey was getting his pitches up where he didn't want them, but Hunter Pence sure wanted the high outside four-seamer he drove down the right-field line for a RBI double. With second and third occupied, Lackey and veteran catcher (and former Giant) A.J. Pierzynski opted to walk Brandon Belt on a 3-0 count, loading the bases. Ishikawa, moved up to seventh in the order for this game, clouted a high drive deep to right that looked for all the world like a grand slam. Right fielder Grichuk even turned to watch it go-- only to see the gusty 20-MPH wind knock the ball down. It hit the base of the wall, bounced over to Jon Jay in center, and all three runners scored standing up. This occasioned an early visit from pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, the former Atlanta star, but Lackey clearly wasn't himself, and he was fortunate Crawford's subsequent line drive was hit right at Matt Holliday in left. The crowd was celebrating as Hudson marched out to pitch the second, but hopes of a rare laugher, or even a dominating win, slowly slipped away over the next few innings. Lackey soon regained his poise and his sinking fastball, and the Giants lineup reverted to a more familiar pose-- an eight-inning snooze, time enough for the Cardinals to chip away at that promising early lead.

Chip away, they did. Starter Tim Hudson, as with Jake Peavy on Sunday, pitched reasonably well but not as well as in his division series performance. "Huddy" made it as far as the seventh, at which point he'd allowed the Cards to tie it up, and with one out in the frame Bruce Bochy brought on the bullpen. Back in form, Jeremy Affeldt, Santago Casilla, Javier Lopez, and winning pitcher Sergio Romo were uniformly excellent, allowing two singles over four innings with no runner reaching scoring position. This in turn put a lot of pressure on St Louis' own fine bullpen, and it was the visitors who eventually cracked.

Hudson might have gotten the win if not for Kelton Wong, the short but powerful second baseman who just turned 24. It was Wong whose presence allowed the Cards to trade David Freese to the Angels in return for Peter Bourjos and another St Louis Game Three hero, Randal Grichuk. And Wong, coming off his walk-off homer Sunday night, set out in pursuit of the cycle yesterday, and in the process brought his team back into the game. His double was the only hit off Hudson over the first three. In the fourth, he  came up with two on and two out, took a strike, and then belted a high drive deep to right that was a veritable cousin to Ishikawa's hit. Pence played the tricky wind and the carom off the base of the wall as best he could, which is to say Blanco fielded it and held the fleet Wong to a triple. That made it 4-2, and the slumping Jhonny Peralta made it a one -run game in the sixth with his first RBI of the series, a single that followed Jay's inning-opening single and Holliday's push-em-up groundout, A little small ball for the home-run-hitting Cards, but it worked, though.Hudson did retire Wong at that point to keep the Giants ahead, 4-3.

Had the Giants put some men on base in the bottom of the sixth, Bruce Bochy may have pulled the trigger with Michael Morse, ending Hudson's day. But over Lackey's final five innings, second through sixth, the home team's lone hit was a fourth-inning single-- by Hudson himself! So with the bottom of the order due to bat, Hudson came out for the seventh, his wife Kim (who earlier had likened watching her husband pitch to "watching a train wreck") alternately cheering and cringing in the stands. Cheers erupted when fan-unfavorite Pierzynski popped up, but it was full cringe mode when Grichuk turned on a cutter that didn't and pulled it down the left-field line, just inside the foul pole. There's your homer, Cardinals fans, and there goes your lead, Giants fans.

Affeldt came in and gave up a hit to Matt Carpenter, who can hit anybody, but retired the side and got 'em in order in the eighth. Then, somewhat surprisingly, came closer Casilla for a 1-2-3 ninth-- shades of the 18-inning Washington game. With Pence, Belt, and Morse (in the pitchers' spot) due up in the bottom of the frame, perhaps "Boch" was thinking of a save-in-advance. But the Cardinals' own procession of relievers-- Marco Gonzalez, Pat Neshek, Seth Maness-- was doing a similar job for the other side, and regulation ended with the score still 4-4. Javier Lopez came out in the tenth, got two, allowed a hit, and yielded to Romo with Holliday abat. Showing no effect whatsoever from Sunday's loss, Romo got Holliday to end the threat. As the Giants came up in the bottom of the tenth, this one had the look of a game that could go on for awhile, and we expected to see Yusmeiro Petit and possibly Tim Lincecum getting loose before long. Conspicuously absent from all the bullpen maneuvering yesterday was one Hunter Strickland.

Lefty Choate came on to face Crawford leading off, and Brandon fouled off three pitches before drawing an eight-pitch walk that had Choate fuming ("No @#$%&! way," he growled at the plate umpire after the ball-three call). Up came Perez, who'd entered as part of a double-switch in the seventh, with one simple job to do:  bunt the winning run to second. Perez, who is on the team in the first place largely because he is the best bunter on the squad, fouled off two attempts. Badly. "HCGTFBD!"* we angrily texted to a fellow fan with the count 0-2. Deep in the hole, and batting under .100 for the series, Perez then lined a clean single into left-center, and we briefly meditated on our late foolishness. Now it was Blanco, with a chance to really put the screws on with a bunt. He got his attempt down just fine, Choate's only play was to first, and his throw went several feet wide of Wong's glove, the second baseman covering, and Crawford's mad dash to third became a celebratory trot home as his teammates boiled out of the dugout to greet him and shower hugs all around.

It's Ryan Vogelsong taking the baton tonight as Shelby Miller opposes in Game Four (5 PM PDT, 8 PM EDT). "Vogey," of course, won two big games in the 2012 NLCS against St Louis, allowing only one run in each. He's coming off a gutsy start against Washington in the NLDS clincher. His only start against the Cardinals this year was a tough 2-0 loss in July when Adam Wainwright pitched a five-hit shutout. For his part Miller had a good year, a fine September, and a strong start against LA in the division series-- five and two-thirds, two runs. The Cards will gladly take that tonight, especially with Yadier Molina still sidelined, and the Giants would be more than pleased to get similar numbers from Vogelsong.


(*Texting shorthand for "He can't get the bunt down!", with a common adjective added for color... or should that be off-color?)

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