Saturday, October 25, 2014

The San Francisco Giants face the Kansas City Royals in Game Four of the World Series tonight at AT&T Park. Game time is slated for 5 PM local time (8 PM EDT).  The Royals now hold a two-games-to-one edge in the Series with last night's 3-2 victory on the Giants' home field. 

After two games in Kauffmann Stadium where each team showed off its best baseball at the expense of the other, last night's nail-biter emphasized how close the two clubs are in all phases of the game. It was a pitchers' duel all the way, first between starters, then between relievers, long strings of zeroes interspersed with brief scoring rallies. Ultimately the difference was that Jeremy Guthrie, the Royals' veteran starter, fared just a little better than did Tim Hudson, his Giants' counterpart. And how we got there underscores the unique quality of baseball; how the littlest things in this "game of inches" can move the biggest things, can turn the advantage one way or the other, can make the difference between winning and losing.

It happened in the top of the sixth, with Lorenzo Cain on second, one out, and Eric Hosmer with a 2-2 count at the plate. Javier Lopez, on in relief of Hudson, delivered a two-seam fastball on the outside corner, as good a pitch as he can make. It was strike three to Lopez, to Buster Posey, and even to Hosmer, who had battled Lopez over ten pitches, fouling off six in an epic at-bat. But to umpire Jim Reynolds, it was ball three. While the entire ballpark sagged in disappointment and disbelief, Hosmer, his life renewed, reset himself in the box with a confident air. Lopez was unwilling to walk him even with another left-handed hitter, Mike Moustakas, on deck, and so it was power versus power one more time. Hosmer drilled a clean single to center for an RBI, capping a two-run rally for a 3-0 Kansas City lead.  That third run would be the difference.

Having followed the Giants over 162 regular-season games and a dozen postseason contests, we knew two things: one, the Giants would not be shut out, and two, they'd rally to make a game of it. The rally came quick, in the very next half-inning, the bottom of the sixth being played by both teams as if it were the last of the ninth. It started with a single by Brandon Crawford off Guthrie to open the frame. Here came Mike Morse to bat for Lopez. The big guy has hit the ball hard in every single at-bat since his return from the DL. He turned on an 0-2 four-seamer and belted it high and far, reminiscent of his pinch hit blast against St Louis, except this one was twenty feet foul. Morse fouled off another, waited patiently as three low ones went by, then scorched a shot past Moustakas at third, all the way into the corner in left as Crawford came hustling around with the Giants' first run. That was it for Guthrie, and on came Kelvin Herrera, whom the Giants saw in Game Two. Manager Ned Yost's seventh-inning specialist was now asked to get five outs instead of the customary three. He was wild facing the patient Gregor Blanco, walking him; then Joe Panik bounced a Baltimore chop high off the plate, enough to advance the runners to second and third with one out. Buster Posey grounded to the right side, enough to score Morse with two out. Pablo Sandoval stood in, his 25-game consecutive on-base postseason streak on the line. He hit it hard but right at Hosmer, and that, in effect, was the ballgame.  The Giants would manage one baserunner over the final three against Herrera, rookie southpaw Brandon Finnegan, and the setup-closer team of Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Sergio Romo, Jerermy Affeldt, and Santiago Casilla would do likewise for the home team, but that only served to keep it a one-run game.

Hudson, starting his first World Series game at age 39, gave an effort similar to, though better than, Jake Peavy's in Game Two. In Bruce Bochy's words, Hudson was "ambushed" by leadoff batter Alcides Escobar. Normally one to take a couple pitches as leadoff man, Escobar drilled the game's first pitch, a high and hittable fastball, off the left-field wall for a double. He advanced to third on Alex Gordon's grounder, and came home on Lorenzo Cain's. From there, "Huddy" settled down and pitched well through five, gaining strength as he went. A timely double play erased a two-on no-out second-inning pickle, and Hudson retired nine in a row over the third, fourth and fifth. Meanwhile Guthrie was doing the same on his side. Two singles, by Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt, came to naught in the second because Pence was caught stealing. That was it for the Giants' offense until the sixth.

Hudson's night came to an end as he faced the KC lineup for the third time. With one out Escobar singled and Gordon doubled him home. Hudson got Cain on a grounder to Sandoval, but even with two out "Boch" was unwilling to let him face either Hosmer or Moustakas. Looking to avoid the big inning at all costs, Bochy called on Lopez, and regardless of what the record says, the lefty did his job. Taking the loss, Hudson has nothing to apologize for. He pitched well enough to win, or perhaps more accurately, well enough to tie, and his teammates were limited to three strikes per man in their attempts to rally and score. 

Ryan Vogelsong takes the ball for the Giants tonight with lefthander Jason Vargas opposing. Mum for now is Bochy regarding who will start in left field in place of Travis Ishikawa, who is likely to sit against the portsider. Obviously the lineup could use Morse's bat, but he hasn't played the outfield since August 25 and might be a liability out there, especially against the speedy, gap-hitting Royals. Of course, "Boch" could pull a rabbit out of his hat and try Brandon Belt out there with Morse at first, and given that the Giants have lost two games in a row for the first time since late September, radical moves are justifiable. But we fear it will be Juan Perez, or perhaps Joaquin Arias, starting in left, and no matter how you cut it, that just doesn't give the Giants their best chance to score runs against this opportunistic team.  We'll have to hope Vogelsong  can emulate Hudson and keep the Giants in the game through the middle innings, giving our lineup, bench, and bullpen the best chance to win this game and even the Series.

Well, the Giants, if they do win this World Series, will have to celebrate on the other team's field, again. A win tonight means we're going back to Kansas City to finish it... In defeat, Sandoval made the defensive play of the game: a barehand pickup-and-throw on a broken-bat squibber from Hosmer in the ninth. Go watch the highlight reel if you haven't seen it... Yost benched Nori Aoki in favor of Jarrod Dyson last night. Moved from center to right, Cain made one, and possibly two, running catches of line drives that likely would have eluded Aoki. The underrated Gordon in left gives KC perhaps the best outfield defense in the game... Joe Montana and George Brett both attended last night's game. No word on whether they met... Vargas, 31, has been all around this world, pitching for the Marlins and the Mets, for Seattle, the Angels, and now KC. Like a lot of these guys, he pitches to contact, with low strikeout and walk numbers. His postseason starts have been good, keeping his team in the game both times, though he did give up three homers in 11 innings... Vogelsong, you'll recall, pitched well against Washington, not so well against St Louis, giving up four runs in three innings. He's on nine days' rest, as is Vargas... Media talk about "Boch" hitting the panic button and summoning Madison Bumgarner to start tonight on short rest was just that-- talk. "We're not going to change things because we lost," said Bochy. Perhaps that will apply to the lineup as well, so will Ishikawa be in there after all?  With this team, there's always hope.   

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