As Brandon Crawford's grand-slam home run sailed into the right-field deck in the top of the fourth inning, breaking a scoreless tie, it was as if a giant door softly swung closed on the Pirates' season and the frenzied celebration of the SRO crowd that up until that moment had greeted every pitch with rowdy, cacaphonous noise. And as the score steadily mounted in one direction only, the cheers, handclaps, and "Let's Go Bucs!" chants became less frequent and less raucous, and were accompanied by decidedly fewer voices. There really was little to say or explain after Crawford's blast gave "Bum" far more support than he needed. Pitching on a week's rest, he was Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton, and Randy Johnson for a night, consistently out-thinking the hitters, getting half of his ten strikeouts on balls in the dirt (Buster Posey assisted at least four of those to first base), and brooking no dugout discussion about leaving the game. Pittsburgh didn't get a man to third until the eighth, which was also the only inning they got more than one man on, and both those mighty feats were the result of errors in the field (Crawford booted a tough grounder and Joaquin Arias-- in the game for defensive purposes, hah?-- made an errant throw). "Bum" presented the same stoic face in the ninth with which he began his pregame warmups, and while a couple of relievers may have loosened up in the bullpen during the eighth, there was no way they were getting into this game. He threw 109 pitches, 79 for strikes; and he was clearly disgusted with himself when reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen managed to draw the Pirates' lone walk.
In a way it was too bad. The Pirates, from manager Clint Hurdle to their solid lineup to their picture-postcard ballpark to their big-hearted fans and town, are a class act. But as we all know, "the only team of which to be a fan is the San Francisco Giants,"* and it's just a doggone shame the Buccos had to be the ones standing in the way.
And so it will be the San Francisco Giants against the Washington Nationals in the upcoming National League division series which opens tomorrow afternoon in Washington. Game time is slated for 3 PM EDT. The league's best team this year, and one which has had more than its share of success against San Francisco, will try to become the first team to win a postseason series against the Giants since 2003. They've got their work cut out for them.
Belt went 2-for-3 with two walks, a run scored and three RBI; his big night marks, we hope, a most welcome return to form, especially with Michael Morse out. Panda scored twice on his two leadoff hits, Pence scored twice, Gregor Blanco drew a walk and scored a run, and Buster Posey tallied the eighth RBI. "Bum" needed no help from himself on an 0-for-4 night, but he got two great catches in the field, both on twisting foul balls. Pence ran a country mile and stabbed one just as it dropped foul over the low fence along the right-field line, but the highlight-film play was Sandoval's. On one of those difficult popups that tend to drop just behind the dugout rail, he grabbed the rail, caught the ball, vaulted his ample body over top of the rail and landed, rather gracefully for all that, right on his feet! (You really have to see it to appreciate it.) Yes, it was sure enough one of those nights.
Right now "Bum" is tabbed to start Game Three of the NLDS back at A&T Park Monday. He'll have a hard time duplicating last night's performance, but not last night's effort. He's been a doggone machine in the postseason for three years now, and this gives the Giants major advantage if they can take one of the first two games in Washington. It'll be Jake Peavy starting tomorrow, with Tim Hudson scheduled for Saturday evening (a 5:30 PM EDT start, we note). Bruce Bochy likes to get off first, and Peavy gives the Giants the best chance to take a 1-0 lead and the quick advantage. It won't be easy, of course; Stephen Strasburg, who's been especially dominant against the Giants, will oppose, and waiting behind him are Jordan "No-Hit" Zimmermann, lefty Gio Gonzalez, and our old friend from 2012, Doug Fister, who's had an especially terrific season on a team that's had many of 'em. And speaking of old friends, of course it's Matt Williams calling the shots there in the other dugout. He hasn't decided yet, he says, whether to go with three starters or four. It's doubtful Bruce Bochy has, either.
Six for Seven?
"Boch" warmed our hearts when he activated only ten picthers for last night's game. Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong were absent (interestingly, Tim Linceucm and young Hunter Strickland were not), while Matt Duffy, Adam Duvall, and third catcher Guillermo Quiroz gave Bochy lots of choices in the lineup, few of which he required. All this is likely to change by tomorrow, of course. Certainly "Huddy" will return, though "Vogey" may be on the bubble. We've said it before, many times, but ten pitchers is enough and eleven is plenty. The individual lefty-righty matchup just isn't as important as keeping those extra bats on the bench and those extra players for spot duty in the field or on the bases.
The Giants' ongoing dilemma here is that after Bumgarner and Peavy, none of the starters has shown any sort of consistency (except the kind we don't want). First-inning flameouts are beyond anyone's control, and are thankfully rare, so the concern is more about what happens when Hudson, or Vogelsong, or Petit, or even Linceucm, faces the Nats' batting order the third time around, usually about the fifth inning. How many fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-inning meltdowns have these guys had this year? We're lazy tonight and we're not gonna look it up, but it seems like a lot.
What if Bochy should plan for this? He has six starters, and two starting slots to fill (presuming a four-man rotation). What if Hudson started Game Two-- with Lincecum planned for the third time through the order? Of course this presumes a tight game and it presumes Hudson's OK, but not lights-out, through four or five . Would a pre-emptive move like that work? Would following Hudson's minimalist sinkerballs with Lincecum's angular delivery and assortment of pitches provide sufficient confusion to keep the opposition spellbound for one more trip through the order? (The last time through, it's up to Romo and Casilla, as usual.) In Game Four, "Boch" could pull the same stunt with Vogelsong and Petit. Bottom line: the two "starters" would be expected to get through seven innings, six in a pinch, together-- a minimum of three each, ideally four followed by three. With all six starters on the staff, then, the bullpen would consist of Casilla, Romo, the lefthanders Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez, and either Strickland, Jean Machi, or George Kontos to round it out. That leaves Bochy with six infielders (Belt, Panik, Sandoval, Crawford, Arias, Duvall), six outfielders (Blanco, Pence, Ishikawa, Perez, Duffy, and Morse to pinch-hit if nothing else), and catchers Posey and Andrew Susac. (Sorry, Quiroz.)
Who knows what'll happen. It's unlikely to look like anything we've suggested here, but as we tick down the hours toward tomorrow's first pitch (right now we're watching the LA Angels tied 2-2 in the fifth with Kansas City, fresh off their dramatic victory over the Oakland A's in twelve; Baltimore crushed Detroit earlier today) we're letting the speculative mind run free. It beats worrying-- and the Washington Nationals are a most worrisome opponent.
But the Washington Nationals also saw last night's game, and you can bet they're worried, too.
* courtesy of Gregg Pearlman