Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The San Francisco Giants face the Washington Nationals in Game Four of their National League division series tonight at AT&T Park. Game time is slated for 6 PM PDT (9 PM EDT). Thanks to pitcher Doug Fister and some questionable defense by the home team, Washington pounced on the opportunity to stay alive in the series yesterday with a solid 4-1 victory on a beautiful day at the 'Bell.

Without question, one of the lowest-percentage plays in baseball is the attempt to throw out the lead runner on a sacrifice bunt. It was this play that turned the game, and perhaps the series, yesterday. Madison Bumgarner, so brilliant against Pittsburgh in the wild-card playoff last week, pitched well again yesterday, matching his opponent, Fister, out for out and zero for zero through six splendid scoreless innings. But it was his decision to make a throw to third ahead of a sacrifice attempt that everyone will remember from yesterday, not his excellent pitching-- because that decision may have cost the Giants the win and a sweep of the three-game series.

It happened this way. Leading off the seventh, Ian Desmond singled for the Nats' fifth hit, all singles. At that point "Bum" was working on a personal 22-inning postseason scoreless streak dating back to Game Two of the 2012 Series, in which he also opposed Doug Fister. Then, facing Bryce Harper, Bumgarner really struggled for the first time since-- when? He couldn't get his slider over, and he walked the Nats' young phenom on five pitches. Wilson Ramos then laid down a good bunt to the right side of the mound-- a tough play for left-handed "Bum", requiring him to wheel around 180 degrees and throw to first to get the slow-moving Ramos. Perhaps because of this, Buster Posey shouted "Three!" Bum's hard throw to third would not have been in time to get Desmond regardless, but it went appallingly wide of the bag and ricocheted through the bullpen down the left-field line. Harper followed Desmond home, Ramos taking second, and the Nationals' bench let loose in celebration for the first time, really, in the entire series. They had "Bum" wobbling now, and the perennially-annoying Asdrubal Cabrera then singled through short, bringing Ramos home with a most critical third run.

The worm had turned. Fister, already on top of his game through six, shrugged off a leadoff single by Brandon (.357 for the series) Belt and retired the side, then turned things over to Washington's solid bullpen. Tyler Clippard handled the eighth without a ball leaving the infield, and manager Matt Williams brought out Drew Storen, he of the nightmare ninth on Saturday, to get a little redemption. For a moment, it looked like The Blunder II: Pablo Sandoval dropped a Texas Leaguer into left, and Hunter Pence hammered one off the fence in center to set up second and third with one out. But Storen had room to trade runs for outs, due in no small part to young Harper. Having helped open the floodgates in the seventh, Harper had capped his day in the top of the ninth against Jean Machi with a titanic home run onto the promenade behind the right-field wall, mere yards from McCovey Cove. Now leading 4-0, Storen got the most critical out by fanning Belt, then was more than happy to yield Brandon Crawford's sacrifice fly, which broke the shutout but also left the Giants desperate. Travis Ishikawa's groundout ended it moments later.

At the risk of belaboring a point well past acceptability, it's critical that coaches across the land understand the importance of OUTS in a defensive context. Once a man is already on base, the single biggest determinant of whether he, or others, will score is not whether he advances, but how many outs there are. That is, a team has a greater chance of scoring with a man on first and nobody out, than they do with a man on third and two out. This ought to be obvious, but evidently many in decision-making positions don't see it. The only way Bumgarner's fielder's choice works is if the out is made at third. What is the probability of that happening? It's very, very low. And any other result is disaster, because the out has not been made. The reward is not worth the risk.  It ought to be baseball gospel from Little League on up: on a sacrifice bunt, make the play at first, period. Take the out being given. Second and third with one out is a tough situation, yes; but it's better than bases loaded, nobody out-- and it's far, far better than a man on second, nobody out, and two runs scored.

Ryan Vogelsong takes the baton for the team tonight. Like Tim Hudson, Vogelsong had some shudder-to-think starts in the second half, but his last real awful outing was the four-homer barrage on September 3. In five of his last 17 starts the Giants were shut out, including three in a row back in July; in eight of those last 17 starts he allowed three or fewer runs. "Vogey" has't pitched since September 26; ten days' full rest may work wonders for him the way it did for Hudson. Opposing is Gio Gonzalez, the first lefty the Giants have faced this postseason. As we documented awhile back, the Giants faced more southpaws than any other team in the majors and did not do especially well against them. They didn't see Gonzalez in any of the seven games they played against Washington in the regular season, but regardless it may be time to tweak the lineup. The Giants have scored five runs in 36 innings of this series, and Gregor (1-for-14, no runs) Blanco has been a boat-anchor in the lineup, let alone the leadoff spot. It couldn't hurt to put Gary Brown and his right-handed bat in center, move Hunter Pence to the leadoff spot, and start Andrew Susac at catcher with Posey at first. Who starts in left under such arrangement is open to debate, or desperation, depending on your point of view. None of the right-handed candidates-- Juan Perez, Joaquin Arias-- are hitting at all, and the best-hitting candidate, Belt, has played left but not lately. Absent trying Belt there, it'd probably be best to stay with Travis Ishikawa and bat him eighth.

There's a level of import going into this game that the last two contests lacked; having won the opener the Giants were playing, in a sense, with "house money" in games two and three. Now no such nonsense prevails. The Nationals have shown their pitching depth, their excellent defense (check out Harper's diving catch on a drive hit by Ishikawa with a man aboard in the seventh), their suddenly opportunistic hitting, and their no-longer-latent power (after Harper's blast, both Ramos and Cabrera ripped scorchers off Machi that Blanco and Pence had to run down in a hurry). There's a reason they finished with the league's best record, and now we all have seen it. The Giants have been in this spot before against good teams; lately they've risen to the challenge and won these showdowns, right here and right now. It's time to do it again.


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