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.

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