Wednesday, October 8, 2014

We Know You Guys Like "Small Ball," But This Is Ridiculous

The San Francisco Giants defeated the Washington Nationals, 3-2, at AT&T Park last night, and thereby won their National League division series, three games to one.

Reducto ad infinitum. Last night the Giants showed just how small "small ball" can be, scoring all of their runs without benefit of a RBI hit. Two unearned runs arrived via bases-loaded walk and groundout, and the game-winner scored on the first of two consecutive wild pitches (with another nearly scoring on the next). While managing to strand an appalling ten runners over eight innings of play, the Giants owe this win (and, indeed, this series) to the stoutest, most resilient pitching staff in baseball. It was Ryan Vogelsong who set the tone last night, Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla who protected the most fragile lead imaginable, and these representatives of a most outstanding group deserve first mention as the champagne flows. Once again, baseball's unlikeliest dynasty is on the move.

And so it will be the San Francisco Giants and the St Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series beginning Saturday at Busch Stadium in St Louis. The Cardinals earned their fourth straight trip to the league's big dance with a tight, 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers yesterday afternoon, giving them a 3-1 division series win.

Vogelsong, pitching on ten days' rest, was both rested and tenacious, and his fastball consistently popped in the mid-90s, the way it did back in April when everyone was fresh. He carried a no-hitter into the fifth, just as teammate Jake Peavy did in Game One, on only 56 pitches. FSN commentator John Smoltz went out of his way to praise "Vogey's" pitch selection, something the former Atlanta ace knows a few things about. Meanwhile, opposite number Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals' lefty starter, had issues with his control, his glove, and his concentration. In just four innings of work, Gonzalez got better as he went along, but his early struggles were enough to force Matt Williams' hand sooner than he'd have liked.

Gonzalez gave up two first-inning singles to Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, but stranded them by getting Pablo Sandoval, who has not been hitting well from the right side.  Then in the second, Brandon Crawford (.294 for the series) singled with one out. "Babe" Perez slapped a grounder to Gonzalez that the pitcher fumbled like a loose football, and both runners were safe. Vogelsong dropped a perfect sac bunt up the third base line that Gonzalez charged, freezing third baseman Anthony Rendon-- but Gio then inexplicably pulled up and the ball lay untouched for a bases-loading single. Clearly off his game, Gonzalez then walked "Babe" Blanco on four pitches to force in the game's first run. Joe Panik followed with a grounder to first that Adam LaRoche fielded, but he had no chance for a throw home. The only play was at first, and Perez scored to make it 2-0. Posey had a shot a breaking it open, but Gonzalez got him on a sharp grounder to third to end it.

Having retired ten in a row, "Vogey" lost the no-hitter opening the fifth as Ian Desmond singled. Bryce Harper, emerging as the Nats' putative MVP, then sliced a double down the left-field line, Desmond scoring to make it 2-1. Vogelsong made his best pitches of the night to Wilson Ramos and Asdrubal Cabrera, retiring both as Harper waited at second. When our old friend Nate Schierholz walked pinch-hitting for Gonzalez, Yusmeiro Petit began warming up in the bullpen; but "Vogey" got Denard (2-for-19) Span to end it and Harper never moved.

Opportunity arose fresh in the bottom of the fifth as Blanco and Panik greeted Tanner Roark with singles. Posey belted one to deep center, where they go to die, but it was far enough to advance Blanco to third with one out. Pence grounded to LaRoche, and the sure-handed first basemen fell victim to what an old friend of ours referred to as a "brain fart." He fired the ball home-- where there was no force, and no play on Blanco, who wisely held third-- and Pence was safe to load the bases for Sandoval, now swinging from the left side. Or not. Williams called for southpaw Joe Blevins, and he handled the bases-loaded one-out threat with aplomb, getting both Panda and Brandon Belt. It stayed 2-1.

Worked hard in the fifth, Vogelsong didn't make it through the sixth-- not after Jayson (1-for-17) Werth absolutely crushed an opposite-field drive to right. Pence turned, backpedaled, made an ungainly leap-- and caught the ball against the padded fence as he crashed into the chicken-wire
SRO section beside the scoreboard. The fielding highlight of the series, it was also "Vogey's" last pitch. He left to a standing ovation, and Javier Lopez came in to get LaRoche for the third out.

Hunter Strickland was entrusted with the one-run lead in the seventh, and with one out he faced Harper, who had hit that tape-measure homer off the young fireballer back in Washington. Trying to avoid the same mistake, Strickland fell behind 3-1-- and then made the same mistake. This one landed in McCovey Cove with an indignant splash, and Harper had a few things to say to Strickland as he rounded the bases, concluding with "Shut the @#$%&*! up!" which was yelled from the dugout. Having blown the lead, Strickland yielded a single to Ramos to put the go-ahead run on base, but after a confidence-building visit from pitching coach Dave Righetti, he recovered to get Cabrera and pinch-hitter Ryan Zimmerman.

"Answer back" is the motto when a team puts a big score on you, and the Giants' version of it in the bottom of the seventh will stand, along with Saturday's eighteen-inning marathon, as the indelible moments of this peculiar series. Big lefthander Matt Thornton gave up one-out singles to Panik and Posey, and out came Williams with the hook, calling on righty Aaron Barrett. Pence worked him hard and drew a walk to load 'em up for Sandoval, now definitely batting from the left side. Trolling for a double play, Barrett's fastballs were low, in the dirt-- and then ball three hit the front lip of home plate and caromed high over Ramos' startled head. Panik came charging in to score, putting the Giants up 3-2. Clearly rattled, with a 3-1 count and first base now open, Barrett chose to intentionally walk Panda-- but the intentional ball sailed over Ramos' startled glove! Here came Posey-- and here came Barrett, and here came the ball after Ramos grabbed the rebound off the backstop and flipped a desperate-but-perfect, throw to the pitcher covering. Again Posey slid under the tag. Again his front foot appeared to avoid taggation. Again the umpire called "OUT!" Again Bruce Bochy demanded replay. Again the huddle, the headsets, the interminable waiting-- and again the call stood. There would be no insurance run.

Barrett was excused before any more errant pitches sprang loose, and erstwhile closer Rafael Soriano ably cleaned up the mess. That set the stage for the Romo-Casilla Two-Step, a nervous dance carried on for benefit of San Francisco fans. Romo, who has shaken off whatever ailed him at midseason, was in closer form-- three popups. The Giants then stranded their obligatory runner in scoring position in the bottom of the eighth, and Casilla came on to finish the job. He got LaRoche (.056) on a soft fly ball for one.  Then it was Desmond, who's battled through a tough season. It was nothing but 95-MPH heat from Casilla; Desmond fouled off two. Then came a knee-cracking knuckle curve on the outside; Desmond hacked, then seemed to hold up-- and was called out by home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt: "HE WENT!" It was at best a questionable call, at worst a bad one, and Desmond let everyone know it, his face a portrait of frustration and disbelief.

Then it was Harper, by now the one man the Giants truly feared. He ripped a fastball foul, then saw nothing but off-speed stuff in the dirt. After swinging at one, he let four go by and took the walk. Casilla promptly brought the heat to Ramos, who tapped a 2-1 fastball right at Joe Panik, who immediately threw to first and set off the on-field celebration, capped by several joyous laps around the perimeter by the entire team, shaking hands and bumping fists with the fans.

Giants pitchers held Washington to a .164 mark for the series, striking out 39 Nats and walking twelve. MVP awards aren't given for these division series, and it's just as well, for whom would we choose? Peavy, Hudson, Vogelsong, Petit, Romo, and Casilla all deserve mention in a series where every Giants win was decided by one run and no lead ever was safe. Odd, too, that Tim Lincecum made not one appearance; we expected to see him warming up in the fifth last night, not Petit. Whether Vogelsong, Hudson, and/or Petit have now earned NLCS starting assignments will be one of Bruce Bochy's major decisions over the next two days; so too will be whether to revamp this lineup with its weak outfield and weaker bench. It's not like there are lots of options, but there may yet be some.

Any day the Giants win and the Dodgers lose is a big day for Giants fans, and when that day comes in October, well, it's all the more sweet. Yes, the chance of a Dodger-Giant showdown in the NLCS was appealing-- shades of 1951 and 1962, anyone?-- but it'll have to wait for anther year. This time, we get a reprise of 2012, and we know one team, the Cardinals, has a most important score to settle. It took the Giants seven games, and heroics from Barry Zito and Vogelsong, to turn the tide two years ago. As we look back on this Washington series, and forward to the Cardinals set, the prospect appears positively daunting-- a David-versus-Goliath matchup. But we must take confidence in the proven fact that the Giants have faced these odds before, and overcome them.

But with this team? Matt Cain goes down mid-season and needs surgery. Marco Scutaro plays one game all year. Tim Lincecum, after throwing a no-hitter, regresses so badly he's moved to the bullpen. Angel Pagan, whose presence in the lineup makes it legitimately major-league, drops out, also needing surgery. Last night the Giants started both Gregor Blanco and Juan Perez in the same outfield and lineup, and when we heard that news we'd have torn out our hair if we had any left. Our MVP catcher, who once missed most of a whole year after a collision at the plate, was thrown out at the plate-- twice, in the space of three games.  The team hit .222 for the series and left 32 men on base over four games, losing five more on the basepaths. The Cardinals, in their four games, scored twice as many runs on fewer hits. Seven of their hits were home runs and they beat Clayton Kershaw. Twice.

In other words, it appears the Giants have the Cardinals right where we want 'em. It's October!

Kershaw is now 0-4 against the Cards in two postseason series. Last night he wasn't shelled, but he surrendered a three-run homer in the seventh to Matt Adams, and that was just enough to lose. It was the same M.O., though: cruising along with a lead, then suddenly ambushed. Kershaw was pitching on three days' rest, and had the Dodgers survived, Zack Greinke would have done the same tomorrow night. This does not bespeak a lot of confidence for Don Mattingly in the rest of his pitching staff, and we have to wonder if Mattingly will take the fall for this disappointing loss... Every time we see Anthony Rendon, we're reminded of that "V for Vendetta" guy... Sign in the stands last night: "Superman Wears Hunter Pence Underwear"... Posey, Crawford, Belt, and Pence were the only Giants to hit above their own weight in the series. Joe Panik, who started like a house afire, slumped badly in games two and three, though he did perk up last night. He'll be fine... Every Giant except Lincecum played at some point, Joaquin Arias had one inning in the field, but did not bat. Andrew Susac and Gary Brown each batted once, and Matt Duffy four times, but none of them took the field... Commiseratin' a little bit with the Angels fans, who must feel a lot like the Nationals' fans about now, as in "How exactly did this happen? (Two extra-inning losses on home runs, followed by a 8-3 meltdown.) Mike Scioscia is signed through 2018, and let's hope cool heads prevail in Orange County. It's unlikely they will in Chavez Ravine...   The Giants' clincher was the tenth one-run game (out of 14 total) in the four division series... It will be the fifth straight year that either the Giants or the Cardinals represents the National League in the World Series. The two are 3-1 over that period... The AL Orioles and Royals, who open their series on Friday, are throwbacks by comparison. KC last made it in 1985 and Baltimore in '83. Both won... Adam Wainwright is already slated to start Game One of the NLCS which, we have just learned, will begin at 7 PM CDT (8 PM EDT) on Saturday. Bochy, meanwhile, must choose between Jake Peavy and Madison Bumgarner. If it's "Bum", he'll be be working on his regular rest; were Peavy then to go Sunday, he'd have a full week in between starts. Going the other way gives both extra rest. This sort of thing is one reason why managers generally appear older than their actual age.

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