Thursday, October 6, 2016

Here We Go Again!

The San Francisco Giants defeated the New York Mets, 3-0, at Citi Feld in New York last night, winning the wild-card playoff and launching themselves squarely into the middle of the National League 2016 postseason fracas.

Once again, it was the unflappable, historically impenetrable Madison Bumgarner, pitching a complete-game four-hit shutout and running his consecutive scoreless inning streak to 23. Once again, it was an overlooked Giant reserve player, forced into the starting role by circumstance, delivering a game-winning three-run homer in the clutch. And once again it was the San Francisco Giants, waiting out a superb performance by the opposition starter, and taking merciless advantage once that ace had left the game. In short, it was Giants postseason baseball... and as the crypto-mysto fog rolls in yet again as it seems to do every other year, the rest of the baseball world is put on notice: they're back, folks. Whatever it is the Giants do in the postseason, they're doing it. Again.

And so it will be the San Francisco Giants against the Chicago Cubs on Friday night at Wrigley Field, opening their division series with a matchless pitching matchup-- Johnny Cueto and Jon Lester.  The Giants have faced down, and beaten, the team with the league's best record-- Philadelphia in 2010 and Washington in 2014-- before in these situations. They'll have to do it again, before another loud, hostile crowd thirsty for a postseason payoff-- and who's to say they can't do it?

A hostile crowd and a matchless pitching matchup-- that describes last night's game to a "T", at least up until the eighth inning when the tide began to turn. It was "Bum" against "Thor," the Mets' brilliant young righthander Noah Syndergaard, and both were near-perfect through seven. Bumgarner needed only 21 pitches total to retire the first nine Mets he faced through three. Syndergaard took a no-hitter into the sixth and struck out ten Giants on the night. "Bum" worked his way out of one tough inning, the fourth, and never looked back. "Thor" wasn't hassled at all until the seventh, when the Giants finally got a runner to second base. Brandon Crawford walked with two out and Angel Pagan beat out just the Giants' second hit off Syndergaard, a slow infield chopper. But Joe Panik grounded back to the box and the game stayed scoreless.

That was a 17-pitch inning, and 108 total, for the young ace, and manager Terry Collins went to his bullpen. The Giants have done this so many times to opposition relievers that it really came as a surprise to see Addison Reed, instead of Syndergaard, starting the eighth. Regardless of skill-- and both Reed and his successor, Jeurys Familia, are good ones-- getting the near-unhittable "Thor" out of there was all the Giants wanted, and it showed right away. Conor Gillaspie-- more on him later, you bet!-- greeted Reed with a base hit to right (and the crypto-mysto fog began rising....) . "Bum" laid down an exquisite sacrifice bunt, and after Denard Span popped up, Brandon Belt watched two excruciatingly close pitches go by and drew a walk. Reed bounced one past catcher Rene Rivera as the runners moved up, which occasioned a bases-loading walk to Buster Posey. Reed then reached back for his best stuff and fanned Hunter Pence to end it, but the Giants had, in some undefinable but definite way, broken the spell. "Bum" allowed his fourth, and last, hit in the bottom of the eighth, and Familia came out for the ninth.

Commentator Buster Olney warned presciently that the base on balls was the one chink in the closer's 51-save arsenal. Familia promptly fell behind Crawford 2-1, and Brandon ripped a double up the alley in left-center to lead it off. After Pagan, seeing nothing but high heat, struck out, Joe Panik worked, and worked, and worked some more to draw a critical walk, which seemed to unbalance Familia just a bit. Up stepped Gillaspie, who had flailed helplessly in two-at-bats against Syndergaard. A one-time first-round pick-- he was drafted right after Buster Posey in 2008-- Gillaspie again and again failed to establish himself as a starter while the likes of Crawford, Panik, and Matt Duffy passed him by. He spent a year with the Chicago White Sox but didn't stick, and a year ago was DFA'd by the LA Angels. Now 29 and back with the Giants, he made it as a spring NRI, and began to see some regular action when Duffy went on the DL. After the trade, though, it was Eduardo Nunez, and not Gillaspie, who took the regular third-base job. Like Kelby Tomlinson, Gillaspie played well enough to make the postseason roster as a backup, but only Nunez' nagging injury, which disabled him for last night, got Gillaspie into the lineup. If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it should-- Travis Ishikawa brought a similar resume to the plate in Game Five of the 2012 NLCS.

Here, Gillaspie looked at two pitches, then drove the third-- a sinker that stayed up-- high and deep over the right-center-field wall, and the raucous crowd fell deathly silent. They saw what all of us saw-- not only had Gillaspie broken the scoreless tie with a three-run shot, but Jarrett Parker, on deck to bat for Bumgarner, was called back to the dugout. "Bum" batted for himself, flied out to deep left, then strolled out to the mound and allowed three harmless fly balls to close it out on the bottom of the ninth. Raucousness at that point was limited to the Giants, who boiled out onto the field in fervent, if characteristically restrained, celebration, and the small number of  'Frisco fans who congregated above the dugout and pounded enthusiastically on its roof. The Mets, players and fans, stared at the scene for some time before their quiet departure.

The combination of Bumgarner, an unlikely late-inning hero, and the entire team's uncanny ability to wait out a close game and then pounce at the first hint of vulnerability-- that's become the Giants' own unique signature. Of course, "Bum" can't pitch every night, and Conor Gillaspie is not Babe Ruth, and there are pitchers aplenty on the Cubs, Nationals, and Dodgers who have the ability to hold the Giants' lineup harmless. But, as we asked four, and two, years ago about this time-- given what we know, and given what we've seen, who, exactly, is willing to bet against the San Francisco Giants in any postseason series?

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