Monday, October 25, 2010

How the Giants Won the Pennant (in just 2,800 words)

Inning 1:

At the beginning of the first inning (after Torres singled to lead off the game), I was feeling very good. The Giants’ speedy leadoff hitter was reemerging as a serious offensive threat. By the end of the first, it felt like the Giants were going to be routed. After Sanchez was out in the third with two on and none out in a must-get shutdown inning (more on this later), it would have been reasonable to believe the Giants were going to get Uber-routed.

It seemed pretty clear that Sanchez didn’t have it after he walked Polanco on four pitches and promptly flung a wild pitch to advance him to second. Utley then doubled him home and the flood gates appeared to be opening early. Luckily, Sanchez managed to minimize the damage to a 2-0 Philly advantage after giving up a single to Howard and a sacrifice fly to Werth. So, at the end of one, it was pretty obvious Oswalt was dealing and throwing darts and Sanchez was all over the place. It sure felt like Giants fans would be in for a long night.

Inning 2:

The second inning was largely uneventful, but after Burrell managed to reach on an infield single, it was a good sign the Giants were getting on base. Moments later, Ross hit into a double play on the first pitch and I thought (or screamed aloud): “Seen that before!”

In the bottom half, Sanchez appeared to regain his arm slot and retired the Phillies in order. Maybe he’d pull it together after all, much like he did in game 2.

Inning 3:

The third was quite possibly the most eventful of the entire game if not the series. Time and time again, the Giants get knocked down only to get right back up again, and after the first couple of innings there was probably cause to panic. The Giants disagreed.

Jonathan Sanchez didn’t bring much to the table with his arm, but much like against the Padres in the NL West clinching game, Sanchez got a rally going with his bat – he singled to center to start the third. Torres nearly pumped one out to center which would have tied the game – the FOX announcers acted like it was a infield pop fly, right on cue – but only got a single out of it after Sanchez ran the bases as if he’d been blindfolded and spun in circles. Frustrating, yes, but the Orange and Black had something going. After a sac bunt by Freddy, Huff singled softly to center and I thought the game would be tied. Torres apparently didn’t get a good jump and was thrown out by 10 feet despite the ball bouncing off the mound and slowly making its way to Ruiz. I was livid, because Torres was out by a mile on a poor throw. I couldn’t fathom how Flannery would send him on that. Anyway, Posey hit a swinging bunt and Polanco kind of threw it up the line, and the official scorer inexplicably gave Howard the error. It was a Polanco error or hit all the way. More importantly: new ballgame.

It was pivotal the Giants receive a shut down inning from Sanchez. They sort of did and sort of didn’t in the turning point of the game. Sanchez walked Polanco again (this time on five pitches) and up came Utley. Despite the double in the first, Utley had been terrible all series long. He’d played poor defense at times and hit worse. But Utley was still Utley. Just last year at AT&T, Sanchez buzzed one by Utley’s head and Utley took him deep pitches later. I have a lot of admiration for Utley as a player and expressed it here earlier this year. Sanchez dotted Utley in the back with an 87 mph 2-0 fastball, the wheels were falling off and things started to get weird.

The ball remarkably bounced almost directly into Utley’s hand and probably in the heat of the moment, he flipped the ball towards Sanchez in bush league manner. This is my opinion only, and it was pretty harmless. Anyway, Sanchez stared Utley down and they exchanged words, and before long every player headed toward the diamond as the benches cleared. Every player except for one: Jeremy Affeldt. And why did he stay? He stayed because a man who pitched for the Giants at the end of his career told him to, Mark Gardner*.

*Mark Gardner is the perfect man to lead the Giants’ bullpen and he and Brian Wilson have a lot in common. They both know loss. Gardner didn’t have the greatest career, but he fell in love with an organization and has been there almost ever since he arrived. While at CSU, Fresno, Gardner met his wife Lori, an All-American softball pitcher. Lori would get liver cancer during his playing career and Gardner would retire after 2001 to fight to the bitter end with his wife. Lori would finally succumb to it in 2003. Gardner immediately became the Giants’ bullpen coach in 2003 and has held that position ever since. Brian Wilson lost his father at a critical age of his life, he was just 17. Suffice to say, both the leader in that bunch and the man slated with closing out the gut wrenching, torturous games know a thing or two about bouncing back.

For me, this was the very moment the game was won. I’d wanted to write about it as soon as they won, but the great Joe Posnanski beat me to it. Who better to? Here’s my take on it with some quote help from Joe. Gardner would say to Affeldt: "You stay here," and "You warm up." Not to my surprise after reading it from Joe, the Phillies fans had less than flattering things to say to Affeldt for not joining the boys on the field. Affeldt would ignore them and keep warming. When he came in I showed a tweet to my fiancé that Affeldt had sent out after they lost game five. It read: “To lose patience is to lose the battle.” – Mahatma Gandhi. And before game six, he tweeted: “Anyone who angers you conquers you.” – Elizabeth Kenny. I guess the Phillies fans didn’t conquer the lefty.

"Keep this thing close," Affeldt would remember manager Bruce Bochy telling him. "Because we're going to win this game." And it was also time for me to put my foot in my mouth once again. At the beginning of the season, I admittedly didn’t have a lot of good things about to say about the Giants’ roster. Boy, was I wrong. And my one criticism of Bochy’s division series roster was Affeldt over Runzler. But Bochy knows the people and not just the numbers (I know just the numbers). And sometimes that burns him. But sometimes it rewards him. I may have even seemed correct after Affeldt didn’t throw a pitch against Atlanta. But, again in the NLCS, Boch went with Jeremy.

Affeldt came in and immediately calmed the storm. He struck out Howard on a high 93 MPH fastball. He then coaxed a Werth fly out and meek grounder to first from Victorino.

But the battle was far from over. The Giants’ pen had just been handed seven innings to win the pennant. They’d take the challenge and run with it, with a little help from the rotation.

Inning 4:

The Giants went down in order in the fourth: Ross, Uribe and Renteria. Not much to talk about here. Roy appeared to be rolling again.

Affeldt, after pitching beautifully to get out of the third, was tasked with putting up another zero. He made it look easy. He got Ibanez, Ruiz and Oswalt in order. He was so good, in fact, I wondered if Bochy might consider letting him hit to lead off the 5th.

Inning 5:

Bochy again pulled the right strings. He wasn’t too hypnotized by Affeldt’s dominant two innings and perhaps knew his guys limitations. He used Fontenot to pinch hit and he rewarded him with a single. They would put two on in the inning, but Huff and Posey would fail to capitalize. But, Oswalt would throw more stressful pitches and this would no doubt contribute to his inability to go past the sixth.

In the bottom half, the Giants would come within inches of falling behind again. In came the game four starter, Madison Bumgarner. He gave up a single to Rollins and then got two fly outs from Polanco and Utley. But Howard would hit a beautiful opposite field double that would surely score Rollins. Except, the ball caromed perfectly to Torres who quickly hit his cutoff and force the Phillies to hold Rollins, crisis averted. Bumgarner walked Werth intentionally and got another weak groundout from the “Flying Hawaiian” Victorino.

And the Giants (read Bochy) were using starters, relievers and a little luck to cobble together a chance to win, in breathtaking, impossible to predict fashion.

Inning 6:

The sixth inning started more or less promising as the eventual NLCS MVP, Cody Ross, hit his third double – to go along with his three long balls – of the series. Oswalt plunked Uribe hard in the back, and Juan didn’t look to happy about it. Uribe would take his base and, while not in that moment, find reason to flash his infectious smile later. Renteria would ground into a double play – again, seen that before – with some fancy defense by Utley. It was the usual Utley, not the Conrad Utley we’d seen a few times in the series. Oswalt had gotten out of it, but his night was over.

The bottom half didn’t start off swell for the Giants (and their nail biting fans, with them in every moment). Bumgarner gave up a double to Ibanez – a player starting to show signs of life. After a sacrifice by Ruiz, Ben Francisco came to the plate. He’d had some pretty good swings off of Bum in game four. Bochy, for what reason I can’t say, stuck with the 21 year old rookie. Perhaps it was a hunch. Bumgarner rewarded him – much like Bochy’s misfits did time and time again in the game, this series – by striking Francisco out looking and getting Rollins to fly out to center. Another crisis was averted.

Inning 7:

In came Madson and I was baffled. Earlier in the night, I’d said aloud: “if the Giants can just get into the pen in the sixth or seventh, they’ll get a chance against Not-Madson and Not-Lidge.” Why was Madson in now?! “Great,” I thought. Madson went through the Giants like a buzz saw in game five. But Ishikawa set a tone in the first at bat as if to say: “It won’t be so easy this time, Madson.” Ishi took a good at bat and eventually struck out a ball that almost hit the Torres in the on deck circle (See Below, lucky pitch number seven). Madson struck out Torres, too, and he was doing it again! But after Sanchez doubled, Huff intentionally walked, and Posey grounded out, they’d at least gotten some pitches (some juice) out of Madson.

Thanks to Brooks Baseball PitchFX Tool

What was the biggest midseason acquisition this season in the National League? Roy Oswalt? Derek Lee? Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick? No, no, how about Javier Lopez? That’s remarkable. In came Lopez in the bottom half. I looked at every 28 seconds from June until July 31st waiting for the Giants to add a hitter. And on July 31st, I read that the Giants had acquired a lefty (a LOOGY) named Javier Lopez. I wasn’t impressed with his stats, upon reviewing them, and despite the Giants desperately needing left handed pitching help with Affledt and Runzler hurt, I wasn’t exactly ecstatic. I wanted Josh Willingham – he would end up hurt and not play for a good portion of the second half. I wanted David DeJesus – he was hurt just before the deadline and supposedly just before Sabean grabbed him. Instead, we got a LOOGY: A lefty one-out guy. What in god’s name?

In came Lopez. Lopez had been brilliant since coming over for Pittsburg. He’d been brilliant in the divisional series. He’d been brilliant in the NLCS up to this point except for one hit he’d give up to Howard. He already had five holds in the postseason. He’d given up one run but gotten huge out after huge out. He turned the heart of the Phillies’ order into mincemeat by retiring them in order and putting an exclamation point on the end with a strikeout to Howard. So much for him being a LOOGY.

Inning 8:

In the top of the eighth, Madson continued to do what he’d done to the Giants all series long. After five pitches, the Giants were down to an out and in stepped Juan Uribe. Uribe had huge hits for the Giants all year long. Actually, he’d had huge homeruns for the Giants. He hadn’t hit a homerun in the postseason since his first ever postseason game with the White Sox in 2005. Madson had thrown 22 pitches (plus 4 intentional walks balls). And Juan Uribe, “Jazz Hands” and all, went BOOM with an opposite field homerun. How improbable was that? Well, the dinger wasn’t. But, from Lookout Landing, we learn that Uribe hadn’t hit an oppo homerun all season and in at least five seasons. That’s postseason baseball in a nutshell for you, and so is this: Tim “The Freak” Lincecum was suddenly warming up, on 1 day rest.

Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus tweeted, “Again, Lincecum used to close on Sundays at U. Washington… often after throwing 130+ pitches on Fridays.” And though Lincecum didn’t throw a scoreless 8th, he did get the inning started on the right note by striking out the dangerous Jayson Werth, a hitter who hit a two-run job off of him in game 1. He gave up two singles – including a great at bat by Victorino, the first major league hitter to ever take Timmy deep way back in his major league debut in 2007 – after that and in came “Fear the Beard” Brian Wilson. Wilson would need to throw just three pitches (saving bullets for the ninth) as Ruiz hit a line-drive – but it was no screamer, as many would incorrectly posit he hit it on the screws – that would find it’s way into Huff’s glove for one and eventually to Renteria’s at second to double off Victorino.

Inning 9:

Schierholtz put together a pretty terrible at bat and struck out in the ninth, but he was in for defense anyway. Then Torres, who I’d been telling my fiancé all night wouldn’t ever bunt for some reason, bunted. And he placed it beautifully and slid in safely, but hurt his groin in doing so. Hopefully, he’s good to go by game one on Wednesday. Torres stayed in the game for the time being – he’d be replaced by Rowand in the bottom half for precautionary reasons – and after Sanchez singled and Huff struck out, Bochy tried to bluff Charlie Manuel by putting Panda in the on-deck circle while Posey batted and Wilson’s spot in the order was up after him. People would say Manuel called his bluff and walked Buster intentionally – a walk even Joe Posnanski would not have minded – but it was pretty obvious. The Giants were not going to lose their closer for the ninth with two outs and a slight chance to add on. Wilson looked goofy with his helmet on and grounded out.

The Giants were three outs from the Fall Classic, and the fans knew it wouldn’t come easy. Wilson has a penchant for never giving in to hitters, never quite giving them something to hit, and walking a few batters here and there because of it. Wilson luckily was able to get the first batter (Gload) out which certainly boded well for the rest of the inning. But then he walked Rollins and up came Polanco. Polanco had more than one huge hits in the series. This time, though, he grounded into a fielder’s choice fielded very nicely by Uribe to get Rollins out at second. And then Wilson brought the collective heart rates of Giants fans to a hummingbird proportions by walking Utley. Up came Howard, he’d had a decent series despite the strike outs and lack of an RBI – which FOX was so great at pointing out 100 times in the series. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll figure that one out. Howard fought off some tough pitches and took the count to three and two. And Wilson would fearlessly throw his slider in that spot – again, this guy never seems to give in – and after a slight hesitation home plate umpire Tom Hallion rung up Howard much to the delight of the entire Bay Area. And that, is how the GIANTS WON THE PENNANT!

My favorite quote of celebration: Q: “Brian (Wilson), what’s it like having a different person step up to win every night?”

A (Wilson): “It feels awesome, it feels like when you’re a kid, and every guy gets a chance to be a hero every night and then you get to eat orange slices and Kool-Aid after the game. Except, we’re nailing champagne right now.”

Drink up, Giants, you deserve it. But you’re not done yet.

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