Friday, October 24, 2014

The San Francisco Giants face the Kansas City Royals in Game Three of the World Series tonight at AT&T Park. Game time is slated for 5 PM local time (8 PM EDT).  The Series is all knotted up, as they say, at one game apiece after the Royals sliced and diced their way to an impressive 7-2 victory in Game Two Wednesday night.

In case anyone was wondering what "Royals baseball" looks like, it was on full display from the bottom of the sixth inning onward the other night: a sustained fusillade of run-scoring hits followed by shutdown-style high-heat relief pitching. A tight game turned suddenly into a runaway, and seeing it happen makes it easy to understand why the Royals' eight-game momentum impressed so many people. They have the ability to make good teams look bad, even foolish-- Bruce Bochy, hailed from all corners as a bullpen magician, used five pitchers in one inning, and none of them escaped the 32-minute ordeal unscathed.  Had the Giants won Game Two, we'd likely be looking at a Series sweep; should KC end up winning this thing, that one inning will likely be remembered as the pivotal moment. 

It didn't start out that way. Fans were still settling into their seats as Gregor Blanco worked Royals starter Yordano Ventura through an eight-pitch at-bat, fouling off three, before launching a no-doubt-about-it homer into the right-field stands, the nineteenth leadoff homer in Series history and the first by any Giant. It was one run, not three, but it had the look of a tone-setter, and "Here we go again" had to be on the minds of many. The Royals themselves had other ideas. Alcides Escobar opened with a single off Jake Peavy in the bottom of the first. Nori Aoki couldn't advance him, so Escobar uncorked the vaunted KC running game with Lorenzo Cain up. Buster Posey fired a one-hop throw to Joe Panik, who tagged Escobar out, and so much for all that. The cost of a caught stealing became apparent after Cain whacked a 3-2 pitch for a double; instead of one run in, one out, and one in scoring position, KC had a man on second with two out. Peavy threw nothing resembling a strike to Eric Hosmer, and DH Billy Butler drove in Cain with a single to left. Travis Ishikawa's throw home was not cut off, and Hosmer took third, but Peavy got Alex Gordon to pop up for the third out. What could have been a big inning ended as a 1-1 tie.

Peavy's 20-pitch first inning had everyone worried. He needed only 11 for the second, but doubles by Omar "Bad Penny" Infante and Escobar put the Royals up 2-1 and had Giants fans looking toward the bullpen for a hint of activity. But after a thorough talking-to delivered to Peavy by Peavy, the veteran showed his poise over the next three, retiring nine in a row through the fifth as the game settled down to an uneasy pitchers' duel. Young Ventura, he of the 100-MPH fastball, relied on his curve more than usual as the Giants started to wait on the heat the second time around. Pablo Sandoval led off the fourth with a towering drive to center that had Cain zigzagging across the sward; he made a noble attempt at an over-the-shoulder catch but the ball bounced off his glove for a stand-up double. Brandon Belt got a rare changeup from Ventura and drilled it past the stumbling Aoki in right for another double to tie the game. Two innings later, Cain would replace Aoki as Ned Yost sent glove man Jarrod Dyson into center.

Both starters were lifted in the sixth. Posey and Hunter Pence chased Ventura with base hits, first and second with one out. Kelvin Herrera came in and got Belt on a fly ball. Mike Morse shattered his bat on a foul ball, then scorched a drive toward left which Escobar speared and converted into a bingo-bango inning-ending forceout at second. Given what happened a few minutes later, this was the Giants woulda-coulda-shoulda moment.   

Did "Boch" pull Peavy too early? These inevitable second-guessing questions arise when meltdowns occur, and it's hard to see how Jake could have fared any worse than the legion of relievers who followed him. Had he gotten at least one out, it may have been different, but Cain singled, again, and Hosmer walked, again, and that was enough. With nobody out and Butler at the plate, here came stout Jean Machi-- with, we have to admit, a palpable sense of dread alongside.  Machi has not done his job since the second game of the division series against Washington; his last three appearances have yielded hits in each and runs in two. Chalk up another one: Butler singled over short, driving in Cain to break the tie, Hosmer was held at second. Out goes Machi, in comes Javier Lopez. As usual, he did his job, getting Gordon on a weak fly ball, no advance, one out. Boch, what if you'd left him in? We'll never know. 

Hunter Strickland was summoned from the bullpen to face Salvador Perez and Omar Infante, both right-handed hitters, representing outs two and three and a continued one-run game. It didn't quite work out that way. First was the wild pitch-- who needs a running game?-- to eliminate the double-play chance. Perez then made the hit of the day, a loud, ringing double to the gap in left-center, two runs scoring, now 5-2. Infante had a 1-0 count when he turned on a 97-MPH fastball and pounded it into the left-field bullpen. The rout was on, and as Perez and Infante circled the bases, Strickland strode around the mound cursing at himself, acutely aware he'd just allowed his fifth homer of the postseason and that his brief Game One success, buoyed as it was by a six-run lead, now meant less than nothing. A heavy load for a 23-year-old, and not all that much different from Ventura's petulant exit a few minutes earlier, but Ventura sanely let his emotions run loose in the dugout. Strickland's on-field outburst seemed to annoy Perez as he rounded third; the big catcher answered back as he stood at the plate waiting for Infante. Strickland immediately got in Perez's face: "OKAY, LET'S GO!" he clearly shouted, advancing toward the plate. Buster Posey and Infante quickly got in between their teammates, both benches emptied, but the flareup died almost immediately. Bochy got Strickland out of there posthaste; Jeremy Affeldt came in, gave up a single to Mike Moustakas, and just as quickly got Escobar to hit into a double play, ending the debacle. 

Brandon Crawford and Blanco worked Herrera for back-to-back walks with one out in the seventh, but the young reliever didn't "pull a Strickland" (there's a term we'd just as soon not enter into common usage), instead he got Joe Panik and Posey to end the mild threat. Against Wade Davis and Greg Holland, KC's setup-closer tag team, the Giants managed one hit over the final two frames and nothing more. That leaves Tim Lincecum as our last point of interest. It's hard to describe exactly how we felt, watching the Giants' one-time ace, two-time Cy Young Award winner, master of the 2010 postseason, now relegated to mop-up duty.  But there he was, competitive fire intact, pitching as though it were still a 2-2 game.  The Royals had never seen anyone like him; they managed one ball out of the infield in the eighth and ninth as Harold Reynolds on FOX noted they were all taking "defensive swings." On a 1-2 changeup in the dirt to Perez, Lincecum lost his balance; regaining his feet, he waved for the trainer and moments later left the field with what was described as a "stiff back." Santiago Casilla came on to strike out Perez on one pitch, but the focus remained, and remains, on Lincecum, his back, and his sudden status as a guy the Giants are going to need, seriously need, going forward.

Bochy cannot depend on Machi or Strickland any more. Those guys can't be allowed near the mound in a close game, whether it's lefty, righty, or man-from-Mars. We believe that had Lopez remained in the game, the score would have remained 3-2. It's a given that Lopez and Affeldt are several orders of magnitude more reliable than are Machi and Strickland. Either the lefty-righty two-step must go, which means Lopez and Affeldt get the call for innings six and seven regardless of who's at bat, or else Yusmeiro Petit and, we hope, Lincecum, will have to take over the right-handed duty in those spots. It's a tough call, but we lean toward abandoning the one-pitcher one-batter move altogether, and trusting the two lefties to get the job done. It may also be time to consider Sergio Romo as more than a setup man; whatever else might happen, he ain't gonna melt down on the mound when things don't go his way.

It's Tim Hudson tonight against veteran Jeremy Guthrie; Yost is holding lefty Jason Vargas back for Game Four. Guthrie, like Jake Peavy, is a battler and a guy who's been around a few years. Twice a loser of 17 games in a season for Baltimore when they were bad, he pitched well against the O's in the ALCS, allowing one run on three hits in five innings. He's a contact pitcher who gets fly balls and will allow his share of home runs. As for Hudson, he's had nine days of rest since his last start in game three of the NLCS. With his deliberate motion, he's known as a pitcher easy to run on, and this has led to some concern about the Royals' speed on the basepaths.  But there's no indication this tendency has ever affected Hudson; he knows that as long as he focuses on the batter, and executes, the running game can't beat him. If Tim Hudson can keep the ball down and the hits to a minimum, he'll be fine-- and given the state of the bullpen at the moment, we need him to be fine.


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