Monday, October 6, 2014

The San Francisco Giants face the Washington Nationals in Game Three of their National League division series this afternoon at AT&T Park. Game time is slated for 2 PM PDT (5 PM EDT). The Giants are looking to sweep the Nationals and win the series outright today after taking a 2-0 lead in games following Saturday's historic, 18-inning, 2-1 victory in Washington.

Here we go again. The Giants, after an up-and-down regular season, without any big-name stars or commercial endorsements, despite a stat line best described as ordinary, unable to gain any sort of home-field advantage-- the Giants are only one game away from the NLCS while other, more powerful, popular, and bankable teams have already fallen by the wayside.

Saturday's incredible marathon game/endurance contest, which began in late afternoon and concluded, some six hours and thirty minutes later, several minutes past midnight, was a crucible of epic proportion for players, managers, fans, and even announcers. As the innings rolled on and the temperature dropped, the roll-call of heroes mounted-- Jordan Zimmermann, Tim Hudson, Anthony Rendon, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Wilson Ramos, Yusmeiro Petit, and, finally, Brandon Belt, whose 18th-inning no-doubt-about-it home run won the game. All winter long Nats fans will debate the wisdom of Matt Williams' decision to pull starter Zimmermann with one out to go and a man on base in the ninth-- a move that backfired immediately, allowing the somnambulant Giants to awaken, tie the game, force the extras, and provide a highlight-film reel for the ages on a bang-bang play at the plate that could have gone either way. (And shucks, fellas, after that there were still nine more innings of baseball left to play.) All winter long Giants fans will salute Bruce Bochy and his "second starter" of choice, Petit, who pitched six scoreless innings from the twelfth through the seventeenth, complementing the game's "first starter," Tim Hudson, who was nearly as good from innings one through seven.

Yes, the Tim Hudson who took the mound Saturday pitched like, well, like Tim Hudson. Gone were the floating fastballs and unsinkable sinkers from late in the season. Given nine days' rest, "Huddy" was his early-season borderline-Hall-of-Fame self again, dropping those sinkers out of the zone just as the Washington hitters swung, holding the Nats to one run on seven hits while striking out eight. He never even came close to walking a batter. It wasn't all Hudson's doing, but he set the tone for a night when the Giants limited the heart of Washington's order-- Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, and Bryce Harper- to two hits in 28 at-bats. Asdrubiel Cabrera's third-inning leadoff double, golfed over Travis Ishkawa's head in left, was followed by a RBI single from the redoubtable Rendon, who went 4-for-4 in regulation. Other than that, Hudson never gave an inch.

And for a long time it looked like that 1-0 score would hold up and tie the series. The game zipped briskly along thanks to Hudson and to the near-unhittable Zimmermann, who completely dominated the Giants. After stranding a baserunner in each of the first three innings, "Zim" got really serious and retired 20 in a row through the eighth inning and into the ninth. Like Madison Bumgarner back in Pittsburgh last week, there was no doubt Zimmermann was going to open the ninth, and while he didn't have "Bum's" eight-run cushion to work with, the Nats' ace made the one run he did have look like Everest.

The game was less then two and a half hours old-- and that primarily because of Bruce Bochy's patented lefty-righty two-step in the eighth, which prevented a Washington rally from bringing in another run-- as Zimmermann retired Matt Duffy and Gregor Blanco without incident to open the ninth. With two out, "Zim" gave Joe Panik nothing but heat; battling to stay alive, the rookie fouled off one fastball, took another that much of the crowd and the Nationals' bench thought was strike two, and then took ball four. Out came Williams and without hesitation he called on Drew Storen to finish the game for Zimmermann. The Nats have been up and down and in and out with their closers this year, and it hadn't hurt them much because they'd been winning so many lopsided games. The last time we'd seen Storen had been two years previous, in the 2012 NLDS, when he blew the save, and the series, in an epic ninth-inning meltdown against the Cardinals.

It was no meltdown this time, but Storen did give up a clean single to Posey, moving Panik and the tying run into scoring position, Then came the ineffable Sandoval. John Smoltz on FSN was expounding on the Panda's postseason exploits as Sandoval fouled off a pitch. Then-- it wasn't three homers in a game, nothing that spectacular, it was just what the pros call "a good job of hitting." Panda went with the pitch and sliced one down the left-field line. Panik scored the tying run as Harper corralled the ball and fired a throw in to Desmond; third-base coach Tim Flannery was already windmilling the grimly hard-charging Posey around third as the ball hit Desmond's glove. The shortstop fired a perfect one-hop throw to the plate; Ramos had to lunge forward to make the tag, which he did as Buster's front foot crossed the plate. A heartbeat, two; then the "OUT" call by umpire Vic Carapazza. The crowd roared and Posey howled in protest; out came Bochy; a flurry of blue coats surrounded the scene; then the place fell silent as everyone waited for the judgment from above. It came: Carapazza reprised his "out" gesture and it was time for extra innings. Lots of them.

We can pontificate that it was already lost for Washington at that point; removing Zimmermann had broken the spell, allowed the tie, and guaranteed the inevitable. Of course we know no such thing. Williams' move was the book move, the percentage play, the plan all along. And yet... we Giants fans need only remember Dusty Baker, Russ Ortiz, Felix Rodriguez, and Game Six of the 2002 World Series to feel a certain sympathy for our red-uniformed friends. Because when these things go wrong, they really go wrong... as they did for the Nats in the top of the tenth. Called out on strikes by Carapazza, whose strike zone judgment during Panik's at-bat had made him a marked man in the Washington dugout, Cabrera became unhinged, slamming his bat down and screaming into the ump's face. Immediate ejection was followed by Williams himself charging in, shoving his second baseman aside before Cabrera earned himself a suspension, and treating Carapazza to a second colorful aria of abuse. Soon he too was tossed, and the crowd vented its frustration in full roar. Chaos loomed, but order was eventually restored, with coach Randy Knorr taking over for Williams.

Nobody hit in extra innings, not for either side. For the Giants, Jeremy Affeldt handled the tenth, Santiago Casilla the eleventh; when it became apparent to Bochy that this one might require a long haul, out came Petit, who up until that moment was a candidate to start Game Four if needed. The big guy pitched his way into history and into the heart of every Giants fan with six innings of yeoman work, allowing three walks while striking out seven; the lone hit was by Werth, who broke an 0-for-7 slump. After the game Posey tried to describe the strength and courage of Petit's performance in words; he couldn't. We'll just say it stands on its own-- right now Yusmeiro Petit holds title to the greatest relief appearance in San Francisco Giants history.

Through twelve, Knorr plowed through his bullpen as if it were an inexhaustible resource; he even yanked Aaron Barrett in the twelfth after a single batter when Hunter Pence bombed one off the center-field wall. But lefty Joe Blevins rose to the challenge, retiring lefty hitters Belt and Brandon Crawford, then getting Andrew Susac to pop up as Bochy nearly emptied his entire bench. Then Craig Stammen was brought in and emulated Petit for three scoreless innings. Unlike Petit, however, Stammen wasn't allowed to bat for himself.  After former Giant Kevin Frandsen pinch-hit in the fifteenth, Knorr was out of relievers and on came the Nats' fifth starter, Tanner Roark. It was he who served up the homer to Belt. After getting two quick strikes, Roark battled Belt with fastballs; Brandon fouled off two, then launched the eighth pitch of the at-bat into the upper deck in right.

The final act was left up to Hunter Strickland, the rookie with the high heat. With two out, Rendon drew a walk on a full count, bringing the home folks to the brink of hope one last time. Strickland got Werth into a two-strike hole, then worked the count to 2-2 before the bearded slugger hit one hard but right at Pence to end one of the most exhausting but exhilarating nights in franchise history.

Madison Bumgarner takes the mound this afternoon with Doug Fister opposing. It's true "Bum" has done much better on the road than at home this year; on the other hand he's also done better in the day than at night. But those considerations pale in the light of what the Giants' ace has done over three Octobers. The Giants know well that a 2-0 division series lead, even a home, is not bulletproof: they themselves disproved it two years ago in Cincinnati. But it says here the Giants will win this series, tonight or tomorrow or, if that's what it takes, back in Washington Thursday. This team is moving on-- and who out there is equipped to stop them?


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