Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Yow, gobba geeby, baugh!

The San Francisco Giants defeated the Kansas City Royals, 3-2, in Game Seven of the 2014 World Series at Kauffman Stadium in Independence, Mo., last night, and won their third world championship in five years. Yes! The San Francisco Giants are, once again, champions of the baseball universe, Lords of Time and Space, and Kings of the World!

"King of the World"... perhaps that's an accolade immodest enough to fit the magnificent Madison Bumgarner, who last night completed perhaps the single greatest performance in World Series history. Certainly "Most Valuable Player" doesn't cut it, true though it may be; it's shared by far too many.  Having won two games already in this Series, "Bum" entered last night's game in relief, in the fifth inning of a one-run game; and five shutout innings later, that one run was still the difference-- the difference that gave his team the championship over a most worthy and capable opponent. Bumgarner finished the Series with one run allowed in 21 innings (0.43), two wins and perhaps the greatest "save" of all time, and unparalleled status as the one-man starting rotation on a world championship team. Christy Mathewson and  Bob Gibson, move over; it's getting crowded at the top.

Looking for recent-- or any-- comparables to Bumgarner's heroics, we recall Randy Johnson in 2001, winner of two games already, entering Game Seven in relief and pitching his team to an upset win. It was the stuff of legend, but it was one and two-thirds innings, with no lead of any kind to protect, and the win came when his teammates rallied to score two runs in the bottom of the ninth off Mariano Rivera. Yes, it was great, and it was similar-- but this is even greater. This is unprecedented. Mathewson pitched three shutouts in five days, and that will never be equaled. Gibson won seven straight World Series games over three years, including two Game Sevens, before losing one heartbreaker Game Seven-- and eight of his nine starts were complete games. This is the company 25-year-old Madison Bumgarner now keeps.

A great deal of what we celebrate as pitching is in fact defense, and to our shame this is the first time in the postseason we've acknowledged the brilliantly routine work turned in by Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik, Pablo Sandoval, and Brandon Belt, all of whom make all the plays all the time to the point that we simply take it for granted-- that a ground ball will result in a perfectly-executed double play, that the batter will hit the ball exactly where the fielder has placed himself-- that the play, whatever it is, will be made. Certainly Bumgarner, and all the Giants pitchers, rely on that certainty every time they throw a pitch, and how much of "Bum's", or anyone's, unshakable confidence derives from this certainty would be impossible to quantify as well as to deny.

Every now and then a truly spectacular defensive play reminds us. In the third inning yesterday, before Bumgarner even began warming up in the bullpen, the game was tied at 2-2, starter Tim Hudson had been gone for an inning already, and Jeremy Affeldt was in a pickle, Lorenzo Cain having led off with a single. Eric Hosmer smashed one toward second base; Panik made a headlong dive to stop the ball from going through. Flat on the ground, he flipped the ball, out of his glove, high into the air toward the bag. Crawford managed both to hold his foot on the bag and snare the arching toss with his bare hand for the force, then pivoted and threw hard to Belt at first as Hosmer senselessly dove for the bag. Umpire Eric Cooper ruled Hosmer safe initially, but in the first case of replay overturning a World Series field call, the review process determined Hosmer was, indeed, out. (Another baserunner costs his team an out by diving instead of running through the bag. When will this insanity end?)  It was the play of the game, if not the Series; Affeldt got Billy Butler to end the inning and the threat, and KC would not put another runner on base until they were behind and "Bum" was on the mound.  

Hudson, the oldest man ever to start Game Seven, kept the ball down in the first inning, which is his MO. His teammates rewarded him with a spirited second against Jeremy Guthrie. Pablo Sandoval, who went 3-for-3, was nicked by an inside pitch and Hunter (.444) Pence singled. Brandon Belt drilled a sharp single through second, obliging the "Panda" to hold third. Mike Morse then began the most memorable night of his career with a long fly ball to right; Sandoval tagged up and scored the game's first run. Brandon Crawford followed with a second sacrifice fly to center as Pence came in. Making the most of what they had, the Giants handed Hudson a two-run lead.

It didn't last. Hudson couldn't keep his pitches down in the second, and by the time Affeldt had shed his jacket and thrown a few warmups, the Royals had "Huddy" in big trouble. Butler led off with a single and Alex Gordon doubled past Pence in right-center, Butler comically short-stepping his way around to score and cut the lead to 2-1. Hudson then lost control of an inside fastball and it struck Salvador Perez just above the left knee. Writhing in pain, the Royals' indefatigable catcher finally managed to limp his way to first. Hudson got Mike Moustakas on a fly ball to medium left for the first out, but Gordon brazenly tagged up and hustled safely to third just ahead of Juan Perez' strong throw. The move paid off as Omar Infante then lifted one to center, deep enough to score Gordon. Two innings, three sacrifice flies: it would not be the first nor the last time we were reminded of just how evenly-matched these two teams were. Hudson appeared safe for the moment, but after Alcides Escobar ripped a single through short, Bruce Bochy had seen enough. On came Affeldt, walking into history, although he didn't know it at the time.

Affeldt remarked after the game that he couldn't remember ever pitching in the second inning before. But over the second, the third, and the fourth, he kept his zero Series ERA intact and was rewarded with the most important "W" of his career. His teammates got him that winning run in the fourth. Again it was the Glimmer Twins, Sandoval and Pence, opening the frame with a single-single duet. Guthrie got Belt on a fly ball to left, but Sandoval emulated Gordon's move, tagging up and advancing to third. Who says we can't run? With Morse due up, Ned Yost called for Kelvin Herrera and his 100-MPH stuff. No mighty home runs here; Morse fouled off two pitches and drove a fastball into right field, Sandoval rumbling home for his second run and a 3-2 Giants lead. It was zeroes, nothing but zeroes, for both teams the rest of the way.

Bumgarner opened the fifth by surrendering a leadoff single to "Bad Penny" Infante. Clearly searching for his command in this unusual situation, the big lefty went 2-0 on Escobar before the Royals' shortstop dropped down a perfect sacrifice bunt. With the tying run in scoring position, Nori "Half-Pint" Aoki sliced an evil-looking drive down the left-field line. Bruce Bochy, however, had foreseen this development, or at least he can say he did. Perez, starting in place of Travis Ishikawa in left specifically for defensive purposes, glided over and speared the drive without trouble. Bumgarner's command seemed to click into place after that; twelve straight Royals went down from the sixth into the ninth, as the Giants bullpen remained empty and "Bum" grew stronger and stronger. On the KC side, Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland did likewise, but that single-run difference on the scoreboard seemed to loom larger and larger with each out methodically recorded by the Giants' ace.

Two out in the ninth now, Royals fans praying, Giants fans anticipating, Hosmer gone on strikes, Butler gone on a popup, Alex Gordon standing in as the last hope. Bumgarner hit 93 with a fastball; Gordon fouled it off.  Next a slider, and Gordon went with it, sailed it into left-center. It looked at first like a Series-ending fly ball. Gregor Blanco charged in hard; suddenly he pulled up as it dropped in front, but he'd overrun it! Horrifyingly, the ball bounced past him and past Juan Perez backing him up, the park now in total uproar as Perez fumbled the pickup at the wall, and we imagined Gordon charging around third and heading for the plate, a game-tying inside-the-park home run, all that effort suddenly wasted, extra innings, a back-from-the-dead rally Royals-style, a brand-new ballgame, in short... and then reality, sanity, relief surged back. A good throw by Perez. Gordon sensibly holding third with two out. 

Salvador Perez standing in. Lump in the throat. Panic in the air. Crowd on its feet. The tying run ninety feet away. And here's Perez, briefly felled by an injury that would have driven lesser men from the game, catching six innings on that throbbing knee. Perez, solely responsible for the only run scored against "Bum" in this Series. Perez, who if he reprises that Game One blast will pull a "Bill Mazeroski" and go down in history with the great walk-off heroes. Tension reigns everywhere-- everywhere, that is, except the pitching mound, where all is calm. Bum looks in. "C'mon, big boy, c'mon," murmers Jake Peavy in the dugout, to himself or to everybody, we can't tell. Two swinging strikes, two balls away. "Down to their last strike," whispers a voice; "Nineteen-eighty-six," responds another, searing our consciousness as we pace back and forth in front of the screen.

It's October 29, 2014, and it's time to end the baseball season. Bumgarner fires a fastball, Perez pops it up in foul territory wide of third, Sandoval hustles over, positions himself, and makes the catch, tumbling onto his back with an ecstatic grin as the dugout empties and for the third time in five years, the San Francisco Giants celebrate a world championship on the defeated team's home field.

Call the roll of champions: Tim Hudson, Michael Morse, Juan Perez, Joe Panik, Yusmeiro Petit, Jean Machi, Andrew Susac, Matt Duffy, and Hunter Strickland are World Champions, and have earned their first rings. Jake Peavy is a World Champion again, and a World Champion with the Giants for the first time.  Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Travis Ishikawa, Gregor Blanco, Hunter Pence, Ryan Vogelsong, Joaquin Arias, and Angel Pagan are World Champions, for the second time. And now we salute the core of this team, this dynasty: Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Tim Lincecum, and Matt Cain, all of whom are three-time World Champions.  Bruce Bochy, the master manager whose ticket to Cooperstown has just been validated; Brian Sabean, the emotional decision-maker who has grown from greenhorn to genius over twenty years; Larry Baer, always ready to credit others for the success he oversees-- these leaders are World Champions once more, as are Bochy's right-hand men, all of them: the incomparable Dave Righetti, good old Mark Gardner, enthusiastic Roberto Kelly and big-hearted Tim Flannery, steady Ron Wotus, reliable Hensley Meulens, and Mike Murphy, the legendary clubhouse man who's seen it all. 

How do we define a dynasty? The only NL club ever to win three Series in five years before was the St Louis Cardinals from 1942-1946; they appeared in four of those Series, playing under Billy Southworth in 1942-1944 and then Eddie Dyer in 1946. Since the division era began, only the legendary Oakland A's of the 1970s-- three straight World Championships from 1972-1974-- and Joe Torre's New York Yankees, who won four in five years from 1996-2000, have managed to do better, and no other team has done as well.  These Giants resemble the old A's more than they do the '90s Yanks: like the Giants, Oakland had a habit of beating teams who looked, on paper, to be superior, and, like the Giants, they had a most unconventional way of getting it done, with otherwise-overlooked players turning into postseason heroes. And they had an ace, Jim "Catfish" Hunter, God rest his soul, who if he were here today would undoubtedly call himself flattered to be likened to a right-handed Madison Bumgarner. Both Carolina boys, too. Well, that's enough of that.

This one wasn't like the others, the five- and four-game steamrolling of Texas and Detroit. Without question, this is the unlikeliest of the Giants' championship teams, a wild-card qualifier at the start, a team that looked dead in the water several times in the season's second half. World Series seventh-game failures from 2002, 1962, 1924, and 1912 were waved like voodoo charms by opposition fans.  By the time the Series began, the starting rotation, if you can call it that, was Madison Bumgarner and a lot of prayer. The team which clinched the Series last night started two outfielders whom we claimed, not so long ago, gave the Giants no chance of winning: "NO WAY" was how we expressed it. The Kansas City Royals, their outstanding manager Ned Yost, their resilient lineup (Lorenzo Cain, especially), and their outstanding bullpen, were and are a force to be reckoned with, and they could have won this Series as surely as they lost it. That they simply couldn't touch, or match, Bumgarner, is the difference. Expect the Royals to be back in the Series before long; and it's good for baseball, good for sportsmen and sportswomen everywhere, that winning is back in fashion in Kansas City, that the old-school new-look Royals are equipped to conquer the best Los Angeles, New York, and Boston can buy. 

So, before the homecoming parade begins (they're having one in Kansas City too, and they should), before the winter meetings and the contracts and the hard decisions, before we turn our full attention to the 49ers, before we face the chilly days of winter with secret longings for Florida and Arizona and spring training next year, before we leave this electronic fireplace and move on...  we look out, not back, but out, across the time/space continuum, across fifty years, and across fields and packed stands and empty seats and superstars and stumblebums, on-field brawls and dropped fly balls, from Candlestick to China Basin and across the land, in domed stadiums and downtown stadiums and torn-down stadiums, in fading ink on aged newsprint, on frayed and worn T-shirts and caps that have long since lost their shape, on coffee mugs and keychains and rolled-up posters, images of the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars and the bay and the fog and the wind and the skyline, and so many memories, good and bad, all part of it, indivisible, with moments of heartbreak and joy for all...

And we say to the world, "These are our guys. Our big guys. Our Giants."          

No comments:

Post a Comment