Monday, October 10, 2016

The San Francisco Giants face the Chicago Cubs in Game Three of their National League division series tonight at AT&T Park. Game time is slated for 6:30 PM local time (9:30 PM EDT). For the tenth time since 2012, the Giants are playing an elimination game. Saturday's 5-2 loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field put the Giants behind in the series, 2-0; they need to sweep the remaining three games to survive.

The last three times the Giants faced an elimination game, it was Madison Bumgarner to the rescue, and it will be he who is tasked with winning tonight and keeping this series alive. That's no small order, even given "Bum's" stellar postseason record, because the 2016 Chicago Cubs are as formidable an opponent as the Giants have faced since this postseason run began in 2010. Just for starters, Bumgarner's opponent is 18-game-winner Jake Arrieta, as good a pitcher as there is in the league, and that the Cubs were able to make him their third starter in this series further testifies to their excellence.

We breathed a sigh of relief when Jeff Samardzija was tabbed to start Game Two instead of Matt Moore; we needn't have bothered. Unable to "separate," in the words of John Smoltz, his fastball from his breaking pitches, "Shark" was hit hard, early, and often by the robust Cubs lineup, lasted only two innings, and took the loss. Dexter Fowler opened the first with a double, and after Samardzija got the next two outs, Ben Zobrist blooped a RBI single to right. An inning later, Jason Heyward opened the second as Fowler had the first, with a ringing double past Hunter Pence in right. "Shark" walked the dangerous Javier Baez, and catcher Willson Contreras scorched a single to right, hit so hard Heyward had to stop at third. That loaded 'em up for pitcher Kyle Hendricks, but any thoughts of escaping the jam evaporated when Hendricks dumped a Texas Leaguer in front of Denard Span in center for two runs. One out later, Kris Bryant made it 4-0 with another bullet to right. Samardzija got out of it, but knew his night was done.

The Giants desperately needing to answer back, Bruce Bochy pinch-hit Gregor Blanco for "Shark" after Joe Panik opened the third with a leadoff double to left. Blanco came through big-time: he smacked Hendricks' first pitch off the wall in left-center, and one out later scored on Brandon Belt's sacrifice fly, the third time in three games Belt has sent one to the warning track in deepest center. When George Kontos retired the Cubs in order in the third, we had a ballgame. And then the Giants got Hendricks, the league ERA leader, out of the game in the fourth, though not by design. Angel Pagan's line drive  back up the middle appeared to "punch" Hendriks right in the chest, but it turned out the ball deflected off his pitching arm and left a "stinger." With his deep bullpen, Joe Maddon took no chances and removed Hendricks in favor of veteran Travis Wood, the first of five relievers who would stifle the Giants on the night. Wood got the third out and then, in the bottom of the fourth, he took a Kontos fastball high and deep over the left-field fence for a 5-2 lead, and the scoring was done. Perhaps the most pungent explanation of the way this series has gone so far is to note that Cubs pitchers have driven in more runs (3) than has the entire Giants team (2).

Yes, we still had a ballgame, but it was the Cubs' game. Opportunities were meager against Wood, Carl Edwards, Mike Montgomery, Hector Rondon, and the inevitable Aroldis Chapman over the final five. Bumgarner caused a minor stir when he pinch-hit for Kontos in the fifth, scorched a grounder that Bryant couldn't handle, and eventually reached third before being stranded. Singles by Belt in the eighth and Brandon Crawford in the sixth likewise went nowhere. On a positive note, the Giants' bullpen performed well, especially Ty Blach, Javier Lopez, and Hunter Strickland. Then again there was no lead to protect. In this series, there hasn't been one yet.

The Giants have won nine consecutive elimination games, dating back to the division series against Cincinnati in 2012. There, they lost the first two at home, had to win three on the road, and did it. The following week, down 3-1 to St Louis in the NLCS, they won three straight, one on the road and two at home. Then there was the winner-take-all wild-card playoff in 2014, Game Seven of the World Series that year, and, most recently, Wednesday night last's victory over the Mets. And, of course, it was Madison Bumgarner who shut out the Pirates on four hits in 2014, memorably pitched that shutout five-inning save in Game Seven, and just completed the shutout in New York. The last time "Bum" pitched a postseason game at home, it was another shutout, over Kansas City in Game Five of the 2014 World Series. Will it take yet another shutout to turn the tables on Chicago?

This is an awful lot to hang on one man, even one as imperturbable as Bumgarner. Christy Mathewson had Game Eight of the 1912 World Series, Sandy Koufax Game Two of the 1966 Series, and Bob Gibson Game Seven in 1968.  "Bum" is already in their league, or they in his. If he shuts down the Cubs-- and, just as importantly, if the Giants score some runs, preferably early-- this series will be wide open once again. If he doesn't, well, that's baseball. But it's also the San Francisco Giants, who are never out of any game, or any series, until the last out is made.

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