Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The San Francisco Giants defeated the Chicago Cubs, 6-5, at AT&T Park last night, staving off elimination in their National League division series and cutting the Cubs' series lead to 2-1. It was the Giants' tenth consecutive win in a do-or-die elimination game, which is a record, or oughta be.

It was a thirteen-inning, five-hour, thirteen-pitcher exhaust-o-rama, with more twists and turns and ups and downs and reversals than the Nurburgring. It was also one of the most exciting postseason games in recent memory, as almost none of the 43,571 in attendance left before the finish despite the lateness of the hour. And it ended with a bang, as Joe Panik's towering drive to the deepest part of the ballpark caromed off the wall and Brandon Crawford came sprinting home with the winning run. This only after the Giants had been knocked around, gotten up, pulled off a rally for the ages, and then been knocked down again, before squandering several opportunities that blossomed and died as the innings advanced. The last man was off the bench for the Giants, and there was a catcher in left field for the Cubs. It was that kind of night.

And so there will be a Game Four, at 5:30 PM local time (8:30 PM EDT) this evening at the 'Bell. Matt Moore will make his postseason debut against seasoned veteran John Lackey as the Giants try to square up this series and send it back to Chicago for the finale.

Asked to play Superman one more time, Madison Bumgarner proved merely mortal. Without the razor-sharp command he'd shown in New York, Bum labored like a draft horse over five innings as the patient Cubs fouled off pitch after pitch and worked deep into counts. "Bum" threw 37 pitches just in the second inning, which for a time looked as if it would be the Giants' undoing. Eight pitches to Addison Russell, and the Cubs' shortstop took one off his bicep. Seven pitches to the ubiquitous Javier Baez, and the Cubs' second baseman lined one down the third-base line that Conor Gallaspie knocked down for a single. One out later, Bumgarner hung one in front of his opposite number, Jake Arrieta, and the big righthander, like "Bum" a legitimate hitter, turned on it and belted it into the left-field seats. Three runs came in as the Cubs' bench and the large Chicago contingent in the stands went absolutely crazy, and given the way this series had gone, it was hard not to see this latest blow as a message from above. It made six RBI by Cubs pitchers in the three games; everyone else on both sides had totaled only 5.

The notion that Bumgarner, rather than dominating into the late innings, might actually have to be pulled had to be a huge stressor on Bruce Bochy and Dave Righetti. But the big guy manfully finished the inning, struggled before stranding two runners in the third, and then "pitched like Bum" for his final two frames. He left for a pinch-hitter in the fifth after 101 pitches, with a most un-"Bum"-like game score of 43. And thus the game, the series, and the season was placed into the hands of the Giants' much-maligned bullpen, where it remained for the next eight innings.

It was a 3-1 game by that point, thanks to Denard Span, who had doubled in the third and scored on Buster (3-for-5) Posey's single. And it was Span who made it a one-run game in the fifth with a triple into the deepest part of right field, coming in to score on a sacrifice fly by Brandon Belt. Those little one-run rallies didn't look like much in the wake of that three-run homer, but thanks to some good old-fashioned relief pitching, the game tightened up considerably through the sixth and the seventh and into the eighth. "Boch" and "Rags" know by now who's getting it done and who isn't, and it showed. Derek Law worked two scoreless innings, followed by Hunter Strickland with two strikeouts in the eighth. On the other side, Joe Maddon had lifted Arrieta after six in favor of Pedro Strop and Travis Wood. The Giants had a possibe rally snuffed out on a bad call (and the mistake grotesquely confirmed by replay) in the sixth, but overall it had quieted down on both sides, and as the eighth approached the Cubs had to be counting the outs standing between them and the NLCS. The Giants likewise, though theirs was pointing toward oblivion.

Belt singled off the lefthander Wood, and Maddon called on righty Hector Rondon. Posey, 3-for-3 at the time, earned a critical base on balls as he checked his swing in a manner reminiscent of Gorkys Hernandez in Game One. He went to first with the tying run, and Maddon pulled the trigger on Aroldis Chapman, asking the ace lefty with the 100-MPH stuff to deliver a two-inning save. Gillaspie, standing in against Chapman for the first time, looked at strike one, then hammered a 101-MPH screamer over the leaping, diving Albert Almora in right-center. The 'Bell erupted in a Richter Scale-worthy frenzy as Belt and Posey came around to score and the Giants took their first lead of the series. Brandon Crawford followed with a clean single up the middle for a 5-3 lead, and after Panik walked and Crawford stole third, Maddon dragged himself out to the mound and removed Chapman, tacitly acknowledging he needed to save the big guy for a likely Game Four, and perhaps for his own good as well.  Justin Grimm came in to face Gregor Blanco, and catcher Willson Contreras nearly brought Crawford home with a wild attempted-pickoff throw to third. It glanced off "Craw's" left elbow and was corralled by Kris Bryant, and after several anxious moments, Crawford dismissed the Giants trainers and stayed in. Blanco then topped a slow grounder toward first, Grimm covering-- but inexplicably, from our perspective, Crawford held third on the difficult play. Pinch-hitter Hernandez, the eighth man to bat in the inning, made the third out and the 5-3 lead held.

Now it was the Giants' closer, venerable Sergio Romo, three outs away from victory. Dexter Fowler, who had set the tone for the Cubs early by fouling off multiple pitches and working Bumgarner deep into the count, did the same to Romo and drew a walk. Bryant had other ideas. He took a strike, then launched one high into the air and deep to left. Blanco appeared to have a play on it, but the ball hit the very top of the wall and bounced into the stands, a two-run homer. Shocked into silence, Giants fans watched numbly as Bryant circled the bases, the lead gone and the game now tied. Romo, to his credit, recovered and retired the side, and Mike Montgomery, Maddon's last reliever plus one, came out for the bottom of the ninth.

Buster Posey hit the all hard all night, and none harder than the line drive he scorched into the right-field corner after Belt had walked with one out. But Almora, who couldn't reach Gillaspie's shot, got this one with a full-out sacrifice-the-body dive, then got up and easily doubled Belt, who had sold out with the winning run and was already rounding third, off first. Extra innings.

Hail now the Giants' bullpen; gentlemen, we hardly knew ye! Romo with a perfect tenth, Will Smith likewise in the eleventh, and rookie Ty Blach with two scoreless frames and, ultimately, the win. Span made a fine catch to save a base in the twelfth; initially ruled a trap, the call was overturned by replay ("Finally! They got one right!"). Baez and Contreras singled with one out on the thirteenth, but Blach then got what he needed, an expertly turned 6-4-3 double play that took unconscionably long to uphold after Maddon challenged the call at first.  Bryant's homer remains the only blemish on eight innings of relief work, a prospect that would have terrified all of us had the news been leaked in advance. 

For his part, Mike Montgonery was equally heroic, right up until it was too late. Maddon having burned all his players and all but one of this relievers (Carl Edwards remained), the veteran lefthander went four innings, surviving a leadoff single by Panik and a sacrifice bunt by Blanco in the 11th. In the thirteenth it was Crawford leading off, lefty against lefty, and "Craw" ripped an 0-2 pitch down the right-field line and hustled into second ahead of Almora's strong throw. Now Panik. Sometimes benched against lefties, he'd singled off Montgonery two innings earlier. On a 2-1 pitch the young All-Star belted one high and deep to right-center, the crowd rising as one in full roar as the ball hit the bricks far above Almora, who slowed to a resigned jog as he realized the inevitable-- which was Crawford coming in with the winning run. Exhaustion never had a chance against exhilaration as the Giants swarmed onto the field in mass congratulation.

Fowler... Arrieta... Span... Belt... Posey... Law... Strickland... Gillaspie... Bryant... Montgomery... Blach... Crawford... Panik.   The list of game-changers, game-savers, and just plain gamers could encompass almost everyone on both sides. If Maddon had played the part of the mad genius back in Chicago, this night was Bochy's turn-- the patient, determined, implacable skipper riding out the storm. "Bochy is not a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of manager," noted John Smoltz as Romo, battered but unbowed, came out to work the tenth after allowing Bryant's homer. The man who loves the lefty-righty matchups had his best lefty reliever face down three right-handed hitters in the eleventh, and saw the game-winning rally generated by two lefty batters against a lefty pitcher. It was a night of extremes, of carefully-laid plans being chucked out the window, of bold, unorthodox moves and some extremely questionable "further reviews" by the unseen arbiters in New York. All in all, it was as entertaining as baseball can be, and with two of the three games in this series already certifiable classics, the inevitable question remains: what about now?

"Now" is John Lackey, 37 years old, veteran of two world champions, 11-8 on the year with a 3.35 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP, and 180 strikeouts in 188 inings. It's Matt Moore, ten years younger, not exactly a postseason neophyte but lacking Lackey's pedigree, with a record of being either very, very good or very, very bad in his starts. It says here, with absolutely nothing to base it on but gut instinct, that tonight's game will be decided with the bats, not the arms, and that the Giants best be prepared to do what they did last night. That is, score runs, especially when it counts the most.

Giants. GIANTS! GIANTS!!!!  


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