The San Francisco Giants defeated the Washington Nationals, 3-2, at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., yesterday to take the first game of the National League division series.
Starter Jake Peavy pitched five and two-thirds innings of the gutsiest ball you'll ever see, taking a no-hitter into the fifth, allowing just five baserunners, and outdueling-- barely-- the mega-talented Stephen Strasburg. The 2010 top draft pick won most of his own battles, but gave up just enough to lose, and to give the hard-luck Peavy his first post-season win after a dozen years in the major leagues. Meanwhile, three youngsters provided the game's drama. Rookie Joe Panik, 23, drove in the Giants' first run in the third, and tripled in the seventh, scoring the game's winning run on a single by Buster Posey. Rookie Hunter Strickland, 24, faced a two-on two-out situation in the bottom of the sixth, and struck out slugger Ian Desmond to end the threat. But he was also tagged for two seventh-inning solo homers that brought the Nationals to the brink of comeback-- one of them a monster third-deck shot by 21-year-old Bryce Harper.
"Get off first." That's been a Giants trademark in the postseason under Bruce Bochy, and for the fifth time in seven playoff series since 2010, the Giants have taken the opener. The win negates Washington's home-field advantage; the Nationals now have to win a game in San Francisco to win the series while the Giants can win out at home. And once again the game's learned commentators are singing the same tune: they don't have the numbers or the names, but in the postseason the San Francisco Giants do tend to get the wins.
The Peavy-Strasburg matchup was fascinating; the archetypal wily veteran against the youngster (more on that later) with the multi-million-dollar arm. There was no doubt Strasburg, in his first postseason start, brought the 99-MPH heat, but he gave up eight singles, struck out only two, and had to battle through every inning. And battle he did as he stranded ten Giants in his six innings of work. Peavy, meanwhile, went deep in almost every count-- he was over 90 pitches through five-- but again and again hit his spots. And when Harper broke up the no-hitter opening the fifth with an infield single, Panik, Brandon Crawford, and Brandon Belt killed the budding rally with a tricky, unorthodox double play that turned Peavy into a finger-pointing fist-pumping cheerleader: "THAT'S WHAT I'M TALKIN' ABOUT!" he roared at his infielders.
The yearly debate about rest versus rust and its effect on the division winners surfaced again in the third inning as two Nationals mistakes produced the Giants' first run. Adam LaRoche's attempt to throw out Travis Ishikawa at second on Peavy's sacrifice bunt resulted in a two-on nobody-out pickle for Strasburg-- albeit only after Bruce Bochy challenged the initial "out" call at second and had it reversed. Strasburg got Gregor Blanco on a liner to center which froze the runners, but then catcher Wilson Ramos suffered what appeared to be a simple lack of concentration as Strasburg's pitch glanced off his glove for a passed ball. The runners moved up, and Joe Panik brought Ishi home with a single, Peavy holding third. Strasburg then forced Buster Posey to ground into a double play, ending the inning, but the Giants had the lead. And a little small-ball brought a second run in the fourth. Hunter Pence legged out what should have been another DP, then stole second and came flying in on Belt's single. Again Strasburg had to battle: after Brandon Crawford followed with yet another single, the tall young righthander got Ishikawa and Peavy-- on a fine diving stop by Anthony Rendon-- to end the threat.
The Brandons, Belt and Crawford, opened the sixth with singles, and that was all for Strasburg, Matt Williams brought in lefty veteran Jerry Blevins, who retired the side without incident, marking the fourth straight inning the Giants left two men on base. Then came Peavy's final crucible. Our old buddy, Nate Schierholz, pinch-hit for Blevins and ripped a double off the wall in right. Bearing down and determined to stay the course, Peavy faced the top of the order and got Denard Span and Rendon-- but then he walked Jayson Werth and out came Bochy. Defiant, shouting encouragement to his teammates, Peavy left the mound in favor of Javier Lopez and the lefty-lefty matchup with LaRoche. But the normally-reliable Lopez walked the slugger on five pitches, and he left the mound in grim silence. Here came Strickland, with all of seven major-league games behind him, and he struck out Desmond on a 100-MPH fastball. "Giants closer of the future!!!" texted an ebullient fan to us after that memorable moment.
The other side of that 100-MPH heat tested Strickland in the seventh. After Panik and Posey had extended the lead to 3-0 in the top, Harper's titanic blast awakened the somnambulant crowd, and Asdrubal Cabrera's laser shot-- shorter in distance but no less hard-hit-- made it a one-run game and sent the 44,035 back into their pregame frenzy. But Strickland calmed the seas a bit by retiring pinch-hitter Ryan Zimmerman-- they'll DH him in the World Series if they should get there-- before Bochy summoned Jeremy Affeldt to retire Span in a lefty-lefty matchup that worked this time.
Sergio Romo took over in the eighth, but not until the Giants had lost another runner in scoring position-- Brandon Crawford ran himself into a rundown after his one-out double. And Romo had to do some stranding himself, as both Rendon and LaRoche singled around Werth's popup. But Romo fanned Desmond (0-for-4, 5 LOB) and got Harper on a sharp grounder to Belt, who flipped to Crawford for a just-in-time force. Gregor Blanco, with a walk and a steal, became the last Giant left in scoring position in the top of the ninth, and as the announcers revived Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow's 2010 adage about "Giants torture," Santiago Casilla came in and finished off an agony-free ninth, retiring the side without incident on seven pitches.
Whatever side one takes in the rest-versus-rust debate (no need to ask how Matt Williams feels; he rigged up an intrasquad game on Thursday to keep everyone fresh) it's unlikely to matter from here on. Jordan Zimmermann, who pitched a no-hitter his last time out in the season finale, starts tonight against Tim Hudson, whom we hope will channel his postseason persona from Oakland and Atlanta days and not his September 2014 self. The Nats know they could have won last night's game as sure as they lost it, and it's hard not to look up and down the lineups and wonder why they didn't. During the game we noted that Washington calls upon the likes of Schierholz and Zimmerman when they need a pinch-hitter; the Giants answered with Matt (.602 OPS) Duffy and Juan Perez (yes, we're afraid they did). With Michael Morse off the roster for this series, it's hard to understand why a Quiroz or a Duvall couldn't find a place, instead of a twelfth pitcher. If it comes down to bench strength, we're uncomfortably reminded of Garry Schumacher's old wisecrack about Napoleon at Waterloo.
Game Two is slated for 4:30 PM; the day has dawned bright, cool, and sunny here in the Blue Ridge, ninety minutes west of Washington. Good football weather. It is, after all, October-- and October in even-numbered years lately has been "Giants season."
A beloved family member, back in early childhood, decided to cast his lot with the fate of the Los Angeles Angels, who've gone through more name changes than the late Elizabeth Taylor. This did nothing for domestic tranquility around here back in the 2002 World Series, but since then Mike Scioscia's club has become known for regular-season success followed by quick postseason exits. The latest edition of the Angels, built up over the last four years, unfortunately seems to be following the same pattern. After two excruciating extra-inning losses to the Kansas City Royals at home, the Angels now must win out-- two at Kauffmann Stadium and one back at the Big A-- to avoid a one-and done. The great Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton-- the powerful core of this ballclub-- have been largely silent so far (Pujols has one RBI). Meanwhile KC, who have redefined the role of the "scrappy underdog" far past anything the Giants might have done, set a record with their third consecutive extra-inning postseason win. Names like Yordano Ventura (who was still bringin' it at 100 MPH in the seventh inning last night) and Eric Hosmer (who won it with a homer in the 11th) are far from household status, but they're one win away from the ALCS.
Detroit is in similar straits as LA, down 2-0 to the Baltimore Orioles, but at least they're heading home to Comerica Park, and they have David Price starting tomorrow in a last attempt to reverse the course. We earlier opined that the Orioles had a rather ordinary, if solid, lineup and pitching staff; we're obliged to reconsider after the way they pounded Matt Scherzer Thursday and then held the powerful Tiger lineup in check until they fashioned an eighth-inning rally yesterday. We well remember the Giants' back-from-the-dead rally against Cincinnati in the 2012 NLDS, but that was a rare occurrence indeed, and for it to happen twice in the same year in the same league-- well, let's just say a LA-Detroit ALCS is not in the cards.
Speakin' of Cards... Clayton Kershaw took a 6-2 lead into the seventh last night at Dodger Stadium, the only blemishes a couple of solo homers-- and then he awoke in the ER, groggily wondering, "Did anyone get the license number of that truck?" Well, of course, what really happened was an eight-run Cardinal explosion, capped by Matt Holliday's three-run blast off Pedro Baez, who had relieved Kershaw after five singles and Matt Carpenter's two-run double chased the ace. Now the game's premier pitcher holds the dubious distinction of being the first to give up seven or more runs in back-to-back postseason starts. We recall the Cards beat him twice in last year's NLCS, the last a 7-0 shellacking-- but this was unprecedented; Kershaw had never before lost a game in which his team scored six or more runs. We'll find out today whether or not this body blow has a disabling effect on the Dodgers-- or whether it was just "one of those nights," unseasonable 100-degree weather producing a climate in which no pitcher was safe. St Louis' Adam Wainwright was himself shelled, and gone by the fifth, obliviating any expectation of a legendary pitchers' duel between he and Kershaw.
That's the picturesque town we call home, and four years ago much fuss was made here about the young "phenom" from San Diego State whom the Washington Nationals had made the first player taken in the draft. That year, coach Jeff Smoot led an undermanned Strasburg High School baseball team to the State Championship and won it. Baseball fever was in the air here, at every level; the summer amateur Valley League had just landed a franchise, the Express, here in town, thanks to the efforts of local attorney/personal friend/fellow Giants fan Jay Neal. When talk turned to the possibility of young Mr Strasburg making a visit to the high school, a petition was quickly circulated encouraging the town council to rename us "Stephen Strasburg, Virginia" for the day. Fortunately, nothing came of it.
Stephen Strasburg, at 26, is a fine young pitcher, and he is remarkable for his recovery from elbow surgery without losing his electric 99-MPH fastball or his big curve. Over three full years in the majors he's developed a workable changeup, and settled into place as a solid starter. He's also the same age as Clayton Kershaw, who has won two Cy Young Awards. Yesterday John Smoltz, whose incisive commentary and intelligence resemble that of the impeccable Orel Hershiser, noted that Strasburg, until recently yoked to a pitch count so severe that the team disabled him for the 2012 postseason-- is still just a "kid" and still developing as a pitcher. We love ya, Smoltzie, but that's hard to figure. Aside from the Kershaw comparison, we note that Strasburg is a year older than Madison Bumgarner, and that by age 26 Tim Lincecum, like Kershaw, had won two CYAs. The time for Stephen Strasburg is right now, not some indefinite date in the future. Frankly, we still expect Strasburg will shortly rise to the rank of the game's best, on a level with Bum, Kershaw, Wainwright, Verlander, and the other aces. And it can be argued that having his arm rebuilt in 2011 essentially restarted his career from scratch in 2012, at age 24. In that case, he's right about where Bumgarner was two years ago and where Lincecum was in 2009. His time is now-- and we need only look at the Royals' Ventura, who just turned 24, to be reminded that time waits for no one, not even Stephen Strasburg. We wish him well-- and we hope we don't see him again in 2014!