Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The San Francisco Giants face the St Louis Cardinals in Game Three of the National League Championship Series today at AT&T Park. Game time is slated for 1 PM PDT (4 PM EDT).  The series is tied at one game each after the Cardinals' exciting 5-4 walk-off win at Busch Stadium Sunday night, in one of the best and most colorful baseball games we've seen in a long time.

Second baseman Kelton Wong's solo home run leading off the bottom of the ninth against Sergio Romo sent the St Louis fans into wild delirium and ended the Giants postseason road winning streak at seven. Six times over the final four innings the lead changed hands or the score was tied, with unlikely heroes (Wong? Juan freakin' Perez???), unlikelier failures (Romo, Trevor Rosenthal), and a few guys (Matt Carpenter, Hunter Strickland) who did more or less what everyone expected them to do, for good or for bad. After three hours and forty-one minutes of drama, not everyone went home happy, but all went home knowing they'd witnessed a game for the ages.

Over eight postseason series since their 2010 apotheosis, one constant for the San Francisco Giants has been their unnaturally effective bullpen. Starters have struggled, sluggers have whiffed, but the Giants' relief pitchers have gone on and on, a bulwark never failing. Sunday night, that all changed. The Cardinals hit three solo home runs over the final three innings off three Giants' relievers, first tying the game, then taking a short-lived lead, and finally winning the game. The team that hit a league-low 105 homers during the regular season totaled four on this night, from Matt Carpenter's third-inning shot off Giants starter Jake Peavy to the diminutive Wong's unlikely finale. Jean Machi, asked to hold a 3-2 lead in the seventh, was taken deep by pinch-hitter Oscar (Who?) Taveras, which wiped out a lead the Giants had taken moments earlier. An inning later, Hunter Strickland, who had gotten the last out in the seventh, faced slugger Matt Adams, St Louis' answer to Washington's Bryce Harper, evidently. We say "evidently" because Adams, emulating Harper of late, crushed a 1-2 Strickland 97-MPH special halfway to Jefferson City, giving the Cards a temporary 4-3 advantage. Young Strickland has now pitched four innings this postseason and surrendered four homers, all of them to left-handed batters. Finally, after the Giants had moved heaven, earth and a few asteroids to get a run across in the top of the ninth, Romo, who's been lights-out for a month, came in to force extra innings, and on two pitches Wong turned the lights out on him.

Peavy battled through four and left trailing 2-0. He didn't have the same effectiveness he'd shown against the Nationals, just the same spirit. Carpenter's homer opened the scoring in the third; the Giants had already stranded one in each of the first two against Lance Lynn, and lost another to a double play. Twice before, in the 2012 NLCS, the Giants had chased Lynn in the fourth inning, but this time the big guy worked a 1-2-3 frame with no balls leaving the infield. In the bottom, the Cards manufactured a run on a leadoff walk, a single, a sacrifice bunt, an intentional walk, and a RBI single by Randal Grichuk. (Oh, those bases on balls, as Jack Buck, whose son Joe ably called this game with commentary by Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci, used to say.) Peavy toughened up and got the final two, but there was no way he was going to bat for himself in the fifth, and Jeremy Affeldt began warming up.

Brandon Belt did his part to take Peavy off the hook with a leadoff single against Lynn. Travis Ishikawa then ripped a sinking opposite-field drive that centerfielder John Jay speared with a full-out dive-- only to see the ball pop out as he hit the ground. Twice in two days! Second and third with one out, and Joaquin Arias, batting for  Peavy, did his job with a bat-shattering grounder to the right side, enough to score Belt and cut the lead to 2-1.

On a night where the bullpen was conspicuous for its failures, let's hear it for the tall, quiet Affeldt and his two shutout innings of impeccable work. And the Giants had a chance to make a winner out of Affeldt in the top of the sixth. Pablo Sandoval fouled off three straight fastballs, then drove a curveball down the left-field line for a double. Hunter Pence battled Lynn power-against-power; on a 3-2 count he lined Lynn's seventh straight heater into center field for a game-tying RBI single. That was it for Lynn; lefty Randy Choate came in to get Belt and end the threat.

St Louis' only baserunner off Affeldt was Jhonny Peralta, who walked leading off the sixth. Then followed a play that may have massive implications for the remainder of the series. Yadier Molina, the Cardinals' All-World catcher, captain, and on-field leader, grounded weakly-- too weakly-- into a double play, and Molina himself doubled up in agony one step out of the batters' box. Forced out of the game, it was later revealed he had strained his left oblique-- the exact same injury which sidelined Michael Morse for two full months. Whatever advantage this provides to the Giants, no sportsman wants to see a warrior like Molina go down; at the moment he is unlikely to play this afternoon and remains day-to-day. Backup Tony Cruz replaced him, a move that would have significant impact on the game, as we shall soon see.

The bullpen battle entered the seventh. Brandon Crawford, who bucks the platoon advantage with his success against southpaws, drew a four-pitch walk to open the frame. That brought up, at long last, Michael Morse, making his first postseason appearance as he batted for Ishikawa. Cards manager Mike Matheny countered with righty Carlos Martinez. Visions of a mammoth, cathartic Morse home run gave way to a passed ball that got away from catcher Cruz, Crawford moving up. Morse then grounded an infield single past short, Crawford holding second, and somewhat surprisingly, Morse stayed in-- Bruce Bochy was watching his bench closely and couldn't afford a pinch-runner this early. Up came Perez, batting for-- or, more properly, bunting for-- Affeldt, and the man we've called "Useless" in the recent past laid it down, moving up the runners. Then came his partner in uselessness, Gregor Blanco-- who drilled a first-pitch single to right, driving in Crawford and giving the Giants their first lead of the night. Martinez had his own brand of tough, though, and he got Joe Panik and Buster Posey, avoiding the big inning. True to type, the Giants stranded nine men in this game; none were bigger than those.

After Taveras took Machi deep with one out to tie it up again, Javier Lopez came in to strike out Carpenter. And after Jay singled, Strickland came in to face Matt Holliday-- but instead picked Jay off first to end the inning. The frenetic, hyperactive sidearmer Pat Neshek made his first NLCS appearance in a 1-2-3 eighth, and then it was time for Strickland, Adams, and the 1-2 fastball that ended up in the seats. Though he's pledged support for and confidence in the young flamethrower, Bochy, with his habitual affinity for the lefty-righty platoon matchup, has to consider from now on whether Strickland can be allowed to face any left-handed hitters. The ripple effect of this situation may affect how Affeldt and Lopez are used over the remainder of the series-- or whether "Boch" might consider unwrapping Tim Lincecum from cold storage the next time he needs an inning-plus from the 'pen.

Trailing 4-3 entering the ninth, the Giants faced closer Rosenthal, who's been known to hit 100 MPH on the radar gun. Crawford got ahead 3-0, then saw Rosenthal battle back and strike him out on nothing but heat, the last clocking in at 99.  Andrew Susac pinch-hit for Strickland, sat back on the fastball, and lined a single to center. Bochy then pulled his last move, sending in the speedy Matt Duffy to run for Susac. Perez-- hey, the bench was empty, and yes, we considered hollering for Madison Bumgarner, but figured Bochy was saving him for outfield duty in case of extra innings and/or injury-- hit the first pitch he saw right up the middle for a clean single. Babe Perez! Blanco nearly continued the unlikeliest of rallies with a laser shot toward left-- but Peralta leaped high and speared it, Duffy diving back into second. That brought up Panik, who fell into a quick 0-2 hole. ("Giants are down to their last strike," Buck intoned.) The rookie, however, failed to bite on three heaters up and out of the zone. With the count now full, Rosenthal bounced ball four in front of the plate. It caromed wildly past the left side of the plate -- and Cruz, shedding his mask, started toward his right! ("He can't find it!") Another wild pitch-- and here came Duffy, flying around third as coach Tim Flannery comically windmilled his arms, sliding in safely with the tying run, all the way from second base!

Clearly rattled, Rosenthal endured a mound visit intended to calm him down, but the patient Posey made short work of that, forcing a full-count walk as Panik kept agitating the pitcher by bluffing toward second. That was enough for Matheny; he brought in Seth Maness, who earned the win by inducing a comebacker from Sandoval and preserving the tie. As we said before, the Giants left nine men on base, and when you lose by one run, those numbers are hard to ignore.

To a man, the Giants shrugged off Wong'g game-winner as "just one of those things," preferring to focus on how they'd battled back three times to tie or lead, and how they'd already taken care of business by winning one game on the road. Certainly no one expected a series sweep here, and the Giants remain in position to win out at the 'Bell and go on to the World Series without returning to St Louis. But the continuing hunt-and-peck offense, and the suddenly-vulnerable bullpen-- how long has it been since the Giants had any relief pitcher about whom we might think, "Oh, no, not again"-- are legitimate areas of real concern, since we are facing a ballclub that is every bit as resilient, every bit as willing and able to win in the unlikeliest manner, as are the Giants themselves.

It's Tim Hudson this afternoon against the well-traveled veteran, John Lackey. Both pitchers were outstanding in their respective NLDS starts. "Huddy" is working on nine days' full rest, which did him a world of good in that last start. Lackey's had a week off himself, so there's no built-in advantage there. Looking down the road, "Boch" has tabbed Ryan Vogelsong, with his string of recent strong starts and his stellar history against St Louis, to start tomorrow night's fourth game against young Shelby Miller. And since there will indeed be a fifth game, right now we expect Madison Bumgarner to be ready Thursday on normal rest. Whether Matheny will go back to Adam Wainwright, or perhaps turn to young Michael Wacha, will likely depend on how these next two games play out.

Wong's homer was the first walk-off Giants loss in the postseason since Benny Agbayani's thirteenth-inning homer off Aaron Fultz back in the 2000 NLDS. ... Hudson, after years of unrewarded toil in the LDS, will finally start his first LCS game. Let's get him a World Series start too, shall we, boys?...   Belt leads the club with a .949 postseason OPS, including a .360 average, 6 RBI and six walks in 31 plate appearances. Crawford, second on the team with 5 postseasn RBI, has also struck out 8 times in 29 at-bats... It would likely cripple the team's outfield defense beyond repair, but we'd sure like to see Morse and Ishikawa in the same lineup. Pence in center, Ishi in right? Yikes. Pray for ground balls, lots of them... In the Oh, Dear, Whatever Shall We Do? department, we note that if this thing goes the full seven, the ultimato will be played on Sunday night at 8 PM EDT in St Louis, half an hour before the San Francisco 49ers tee it up against the Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football... With the unbelievable Kansas City Royals holding a 2-0 ALCS lead after taking the first two at Camden Yards, last night's third game was rained out in Independence, Mo. The series thus continues tonight with a 8 PM EDT start. If it goes five, that one will be a day game on Thursday, and if it goes six that one will be Friday night back in Baltimore, with no day off in between. Either way, the World Series kicks off a week from tonight, either at KC or at Baltimore, and unless there's a flood we'll finish the 2014 postseason before Halloween. Woohoo!

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