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.


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