Champions

The Giants have won the World Series.

Every year, 30 teams play toward this end goal, and every year, only one of them actually achieves it. The odds are depressingly low.

And yet, the Giants have now won two championships in the last three years.

There were so many things that could have done the Giants in this year. They were fortunate enough to avoid another barrage of injuries. They faced an uphill battle down the stretch after losing all-star Melky Cabrera (especially in light of the strong additions the Dodgers had made).

The Giants played six potential elimination games in the playoffs, and won every single one of them.

And when they got to the final stage, they wasted no time in winning a championship. Carried by the same dominant pitching that brought them a title two years ago, the Giants played four games against the Detroit Tigers, and they won them all.

The front office did a masterful job building a contending team, acquiring the likes of Angel Pagan, Melky Cabrera, and George Kontos in the offseason, reinforcing the bullpen by bringing back Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt, and adding guys like Marco Scutaro, Hunter Pence, and Jose Mijares along the way. (Not to mention Gregor Blanco and Joaquin Arias, who were both signed to minor-league contracts, and ended up playing important roles with the team.) I wasn’t ecstatic about all of these moves, but most of the front office’s decisions panned out very well, and of course, it’s because of them that the Giants are champions.

The Giants won the World Series. Savor it. Bask in it. Seize the moment. These don’t come too often.

It’s been an amazing, unpredictable, thoroughly enjoyable ride. What a season.

Madison Bumgarner Carries Giants to 2-0 Series Lead

Last night, Madison Bumgarner finally found a groove, tossing seven scoreless innings en route to a 2-0 Giants victory. You’ll hear a lot — or, scratch that, have probably already heard a lot — about how Bumgarner didn’t have his best stuff last night, and I think that’s pretty fair to say. Despite the mechanical adjustments he made prior to the outing, his fastball didn’t gain any zip, and his slider was certainly not at its best. When Bumgarner is at his best, he’s touching 93 with the fastball, and he’s throwing the slider with considerably more velocity and movement.

But Bumgarner had no trouble shutting the Tigers down yesterday, as he limited them to two hits in total while also racking up eight strikeouts. His last time out, he’d struggled to get the Cardinals to swing and miss at his stuff. In total, he only managed five swinging strikes. Last night, though, Bumgarner more than doubled that, yielding 12 swinging strikes in all. This might, as Jeff Sullivan suggested, have something to do with increased differentiation between his fastball and slider. The charts on Brooks Baseball (10/14, 10/25) make this pretty noticeable. For example, check out the horizontal movement of Bumgarner’s pitches plotted against the velocity. In his NLCS start, the pitches were somewhat clustered together, whereas there was a clear distinction in last night’s start. I tend to avoid jumping to conclusions based on pitch f/x numbers because it’s very easy to get misled, and I’m no expert on this stuff, but I’d have to think this is a pretty good sign.

Maybe Bumgarner’s stuff was “bad” last night, but if that’s the case, it’s a testament to how damn good he is. A pitcher can’t luck his way into eight strikeouts over seven innings of two-hit ball against one of the better offenses in baseball. Nope. That’s not to say that Bumgarner didn’t encounter some luck last night — he got away with some mistake pitches, and had some help from the defense — but there was definitely more to it than that. Something was working for Bumgarner, and while it remains to be seen whether he can recapture that magic if he does happen to make another start in this series, Bumgarner was dominant last night.

Bumgarner in the World Series, career: 15 innings, 14 strikeouts, five hits, four walks, 0.00 ERA.

The Giants are two victories away from a championship, by the way.

One Down, Three to Go

Yesterday’s game was all sorts of crazy, and I think that’s best illustrated by the fact that the following sentence is a perfectly valid, accurate arrangement of words: Barry Zito singled off Justin Verlander in the fourth inning to give the Giants a 1-0 lead in Game One of the World Series. Let’s see here…

  • Barry Zito started Game One of the World Series for the Giants.
  • Barry Zito outpitched Justin Verlander, Best Pitcher On The Planet™.
  • Barry Zito got a hit off Justin Verlander.

With some assistance from the defense, Zito kept the Tigers at bay for 5.2 innings. Zito’s last two starts have been crucial, and he’s delivered. It’s not a matter of whether Zito has earned his $126M with these performances, though these last two starts have definitely brought that question to light, and it’s one worth pondering. I mean, if he ends up having played an integral role in bringing the Giants another championship, does that make up for the years of mediocrity?

For me, though, these last two starts have had sort of an opposite effect, in that I’ve been able to forget about the Zito of the last six years — you know, the one that was left off the postseason roster in 2010 — and everything he’s come to represent. His last two outings have brought pure, unequivocal joy. I’ll say, I came into both outings with the lowest of expectations. I anticipated that we’d all see the Zito that showed up in the NLDS. We didn’t. Baseball. Wonderful, wonderful baseball.

And then there’s Pablo Sandoval. Between July 13 and September 18, a span of 43 games and 180 plate appearances, Sandoval did not homer once. For two months, when Sandoval was on the field and healthy, the Giants got a .331 slugging percentage. They saw Ryan Theriot-esque production out of third base for most of the second half up until the final two weeks of the season; but Sandoval turned it on at the end of the year, and he’s really come alive in the postseason.

Last night, Sandoval took the toughest pitcher in baseball deep on an 0-2 count. Then he took him deep again in the fourth inning. And in the fifth, he took Al Alburquerque deep. Three homers, two of ‘em off the reigning AL MVP, each of them in a different part of the strike zone, and this happened at AT&T Park — where there hadn’t been a three-homer game in more than a decade. (Oh, and by the way, Sandoval singled in his fourth and final at-bat).

Only three other players, throughout history, have homered three times in a World Series game. Babe Ruth did it twice. Reggie Jackson did it. And Albert Pujols did it last year. That’s three Hall of Famers right there. And Pablo Sandoval.

Oh yeah, and two of the homers landed in center field. Sandoval only had two such homers during the regular season. The other homer was opposite field. Sandoval had no such homers during the regular season. His timing at the plate looks perfect, and that means he’s a force to be reckoned with.

What a performance.

Hunter Pence struck out three times last night. He swung and missed seven times, which is the equivalent of a month for Marco Scutaro. He’s struggling mightily, and after 300 plate appearances with the Giants, it’s fair to be concerned. We can save this talk for after the World Series, but Pence is going to make a good chunk of money next season, and there’s been a frightening resemblance to Aaron Rowand in a lot of the at-bats he takes. Color me worried.

Can we have a moratorium on the Melky Cabrera talk for the next week?

The Giants are three victories away from winning the World Series. Three to go. That’s it. And then they’re champions. Heh.

National League Champions

I had a defibrillator on standby for this game, you know. That sure turned out to be unnecessary. The Giants made it easy. An early lead, a boatload of insurance by the third inning, and an eventual nine-to-nothing final score. The Cardinals took a beating today — and I’m okay with that because it was them or me.

Some brief thoughts, as we all still digest this…

– THE GIANTS ARE GOING TO THE WORLD SERIES!!!!!!!

– No, seriously, National League Champions. Has a nice ring to it, eh? Awesome, awesome, awesome.

– The Giants won this game in the third inning, the big blow coming off the bat of Hunter Pence. He cleared the bases with a double to bring the Giants’ lead up to 5-0. The hit was…weird. Pence’s bat snapped mid-swing, and he ended up making contact with the ball three times. Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma misjudged the ball, which potentially made the difference between “three-run double” and “double play.” I’m not sure if he should get the blame for that; I’m not certain, for instance, that Brandon Crawford would have made that play. The fact that Pence hit the ball three times might have had something to do with Kozma’s bad first step.

Whatever the case, it worked out for the Giants. That’s all that really matters in the end, right?

– NLCS MVP Marco Scutaro played in all seven games, collecting a hit in each of ‘em; he had multiple hits in six of ‘em — a new LCS record. Overall, he had 28 at-bats in this series. He collected a hit in half of them. Dude’s a hit machine. Not to mention the fact that his defense has been superb.

Obligatory reminder: Charlie Culberson — who had a .283 OBP in the PCL at the time — was all it took for the Giants to acquire Scutaro. I think I’ve mentioned that a good seventeen times by now, but I mean, wow.

– You can add Jeremy Affeldt to the list of things I was wrong about; it’s sort of a long list. Affeldt was the Giants’ second best reliever this season, and he’s been outstanding in the playoffs. Through eight appearances, he still has yet to allow a run this postseason. I’d say he’s earned that $5M.

Buster Posey had a pretty disappointing NLCS, and his timing at the plate sure seems off. He’s rolling over pitches, and even the hit he had tonight — a chopper up the middle — wasn’t impressive. You know what? I’m not the least bit worried. He’s Buster Posey. He’ll figure it out.

Matt Cain was not great. He was missing spots, leaving pitches up, and running up his pitch count. He was good, though. In spite of the high pitch count and the occasional mistakes, he gave the Giants 5.2 innings’ worth of shutout ball.

But more importantly, he didn’t need to be great, or even good for that matter. The offense — and defense, too — carried the team. And the team won. And now they’re going to the World Series.

– Did I mention that the Giants are going to the World Series? Because the Giants are going to the World Series.

One Win Away From The World Series

The Giants have forced a Game Seven, thanks to phenomenal starts from Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong.

Zito, up against one of the best offenses the National League has seen in recent years, a lineup that’s been especially tough on left-handed pitching, more than held his own. For nearly eight innings, with everything on the line, he silenced the Cardinals on their own territory. Considering the match-up and what was at stake, it was probably the outing of his career.

And you could say the same about Ryan Vogelsong, who’s transformed into a postseason force to be reckoned with. Through four and two-thirds innings, he had a no-hitter going. He went on to allow one run in seven innings of work, just as he had done in the second game of this series. His nine strikeouts were a career high, and to top it all off, he only allowed one walk. I’m certain I’ve never seen Vogelsong dominate quite like he did last night.

Oh yeah, and for good measure, Zito and Vogelsong each drove in a run in their starts.

I can’t get over the craziness of all of this. Facing elimination, the Giants sent out Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong, both of whom delivered with spectacular pitching to keep the team’s World Series hopes alive. You know how weird that would’ve sounded a year and a half ago? Zito had been left off the postseason roster entirely in 2010, and Vogelsong a) hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2006, and b) was coming off a season in which he’d allowed nearly two baserunners an inning…in Triple-A.

This Giants team is doing some absolutely amazing things. With their backs against the wall in the NLDS, they fought back, nabbed three consecutive games, and advanced to the next round. And they’re on the brink of doing it again. This is unprecedented stuff.

Now, it’s World Series or bust. Whatever happens tonight, it’s been one hell of a ride. Here’s hoping it’s not over just yet. And with the Giants at home, sending Matt Cain to the mound, I have to say — I like them odds.

All Hope Rests in Barry Zito’s Arm

After finishing up my second midterm in as many as days — you can see why I’ve been swamped lately — I finally have some time to sit down and write about the Giants. The NLCS has not gone swimmingly, as you’ve surely noticed; it’s gone — ahem — drowningly? I guess you could say that. Aside from Game Two — thank you, Ryan Vogelsong — this series has been dreadful. A brief recap of what we’ve seen:

  • Madison Bumgarner continued his untimely downward trend, barely touching 90 in his latest disappointing start. The last thing the Giants needed was another starter to worry about. The good news — relatively speaking — is that it sounds like Bumgarner’s healthy. It goes without saying, but the primary concern with Bumgarner is the future, and the Giants need to protect that at all costs.
  • Kyle Lohse limited the Giants to one run, despite allowing two baserunners an inning. Another Matt Cain gem was wasted.
  • Tim Lincecum returned to 2012 form, which is to say he was positively Hochevarian. Not that it mattered all that much anyway, as the Giants’ offense didn’t do much to pitch in, either.

The Giants, once again, are facing elimination. Once again, in order to keep their season alive, they must win three games in a row. Hey, it worked before. Maybe the Giants are pressing their luck; but as I said last time, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. For now, all hope rests in Barry Zito‘s arm. And that’s kind of spooky. But as little confidence as I have in Zito, if the Giants can pull this victory off, they get to play the final two games at home.

One game at a time. Win today, Giants.

NLDS Game Five Recap: Giants 6, Reds 4

Alternate title: The Giants are going to the NLCS, baby!!!

I dislike Mat Latos. Strongly. Part of it is because he comes off as obnoxious. That’s just his persona. He’s the kind of player that elicits passion from fans, which is a good thing, I suppose. But I hate him. And admittedly, most of my distaste for Latos — give me some credit here for not saying “Latos intolerance” — stems from the fact that he’s really good at his job. Prior to this game, he had made 11 starts against the Giants in his career. In ten of them, he lasted six-plus innings. In ten of them, he allowed three runs or fewer. In eight of them, he allowed two runs or fewer. He’s given the Giants fits over the years, and I hate him I hate him I hate him.

And then there’s Buster Posey. 2012 NL MVP. Symbol of all things great in this world. What can I say about Posey that hasn’t already been said, that isn’t already apparent?

Anyway, let me cut to the chase. This happened, folks:

Buster  Posey's Grand Slam Off Mat  Latos

Buster Posey hit a grand slam off Mat Latos in the final game of a postseason series. And it was glorious. I’ve watched it over and over and over again, and it doesn’t get old. There’s Posey gazing at it — both hands on the bat, then just the right hand, then the casual bat flip. There’s Latos, not even bothering to look at it. Just a quick hop step, then a steady walk away from the mound. And then, perhaps my favorite part: Ryan Hanigan. You can pinpoint the second his heart rips in half. The whole thing is simply beautiful.

You know who’s made it easy to forget about Melky Cabrera? Gregor Blanco. He reached base three times in Game One, scored one of the Giants’ two runs in Game Three, and homered yesterday. Today, he got things started in that six-run fifth inning by leading off with a single. Another year, another outstanding minor-league signing for the Giants.

I’ve praised Bruce Bochy for his bullpen management in this series, but he left Matt Cain in the game too long. It worked out, thanks in large part to Buster Posey — who continues to impress on both sides of the ball. But not without making me a nervous wreck in the process. Results: good, process: meh. But it worked, so I guess there’s not much point in dwelling on it.

Matt Cain, by the way, did his job today. Surprise, surprise.

Remember when George Kontos was a “maybe” for the postseason roster? It’s a good thing that all worked out because he’s played a crucial role in this series. Four appearances, each of ‘em scoreless.

At the top of the list of things I was wrong about this season: Brandon Crawford. His performance today — and all season long, for that matter — speaks for itself.

The tying run reached base for the Reds in the sixth inning. And the seventh. And the eighth. And the ninth (in fact, the winning run reached base there). It had to be that way; I don’t know why, it just had to. The baseball gods care not about my mental health.

With the game on the line — the season on the line, really, the Giants got it done every time.

Tying run at the plate? Oh, here’s a strike-‘em-out throw-‘em-out double play.

Tying run at the plate? Oh, here’s a spectacular inning-ending catch.

Winning run at the plate? Oh, here’s an eleventy pitch at-bat, culminating in a flyout.

The Giants’ big lead in yesterday’s game enabled Bochy to rest Javier Lopez, Jeremy Affeldt, and Sergio Romo, as I mentioned. Sure came in handy today, eh? Romo threw 35 pitches. He’s only done that once in his career, and that was way back in 2008. He had made eight postseason appearances prior to today, and his previous high in pitches: 15. He exceeded his previous postseason career high by 133%. Yeesh.

I thought the Giants were toast just a few days ago. They were facing elimination, against a 97-win team, with all three remaining games on the road. Now, they’re the first team in baseball history to come back from an 0-2 deficit and win a five-game series by taking three straight road games.

Baseball, man. Baseball, baseball, baseball. This stuff is crazy, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. THE GIANTS ARE GOING TO THE NLCS!

NLDS Game Four Recap: Giants 8, Reds 3

And just like that, the Giants have evened the series at two apiece. Tomorrow’s game — Matt Cain v. Mat Latos — will decide whether the Giants go home or advance to the NLCS. Now, about today’s game…

– The Giants finally broke out on offense today, which was a relief to see. After scoring four runs over the previous three games, the Giants tallied eight runs today. Angel Pagan, Gregor Blanco, and Pablo Sandoval each homered; Joaquin Arias knocked a couple doubles; Hector Sanchez reached base three times. Giants pitching limited the Reds to three runs on the afternoon, but the eight runs the lineup produced weren’t superfluous — in building a big lead, they enabled Bochy to rest Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, and Sergio Romo.

– Onto Hector Sanchez. I’d like to clarify a few things: I don’t think the Giants’ best lineup has Hector Sanchez at catcher, and that doesn’t mean that I hate Hector Sanchez. As a matter of fact, I actually really like Hector. And I think he’s a pretty talented player — a catcher capable of posting a 95 OPS+ in the majors at age 22 isn’t exactly easy to come by.

But again, I don’t think the Giants’ best lineup — currently — has Hector in it. Brandon Belt is quite clearly a better defender at first base than Buster Posey, and Buster Posey is quite clearly a better defender at catcher than Sanchez (Sanchez had some pretty cringe-worthy glovework at various times in today’s game, even); and Brandon Belt (118 wRC+) is quite clearly a better hitter than Hector Sanchez (86 wRC+) at this moment in time. In the postseason, I think the modus operandi should be to field the best lineup at all costs. Naturally, I want Posey at catcher and Belt at first base for every one of these games. It doesn’t make or break the Giants — and I’ve never suggested that this is the case; but every little thing makes a difference, and I think the team should capitalize on every possible advantage.

Hector hit a single and drew a couple walks today. That’s awesome. It should go without saying, but I want to see him perform well whenever he’s put in the lineup. I was pleased with his work at the plate today, and the Giants’ performance as a whole. Do today’s four plate appearances (along with shoddy defense, no less) change my opinion on the matter? Nope.

– The best part about today’s game: Tim Lincecum. 4.1 IP, 1 ER, 6 K, 0 BB, 2 H. I know the Giants’ offense is better than what they’d done over the first few games in this series. As great as it was to see them finally produce, I’d expected it. Timmy, on the other hand? I don’t really know what to expect out of him at this point. For the first time since Aaron Rowand was still a thing, Lincecum went three-plus innings without walking anybody. His only other walk-less appearance since that game back in June of 2011? His previous relief appearance in this NLDS, when he went two innings with two strikeouts. Put the two outings together, and Lincecum’s overall pitching line for the NLDS: 6.1 IP, 1 ER, 8 K, 0 BB, 3 H. In light of today’s poor showing from Barry Zito (who, in all fairness, didn’t get a whole lot of help from Hector or the home plate umpire), I think there’s no question that Lincecum has to take Zito’s spot in the playoff rotation if the Giants do happen to advance to the next round.

Oh yeah, and Bochy — once again — did an excellent job managing the bullpen today.

– Don’t forget: if Johnny Cueto doesn’t incur that injury in Game One, the Giants are stuck facing Cueto/Latos/Arroyo/Bailey this series, and there’s no Mike Leake. These things aren’t to be taken for granted. Never take Mike Leake for granted.

NLDS Game Three Recap: Giants 2, Reds 1

I can’t even begin to pretend to understand what I just watched. But I’ll tell you one thing: I was getting ready to say good-bye to the 2012 Giants — to write an end-of-season post, pointing out that despite the thrashing the Giants received to put an end to their season, we shouldn’t forget that 2012 was a great ride. No need for that. Not today, at least.

For most of the game, the score was tied. Both teams were in it. But it didn’t feel like it. For most of the game, it felt like the Giants were done, waiting for an inevitable end to their season. Like they were just going through the motions. It took them until the sixth inning to get their first hit of the game. Marco Scutaro singled to right to put an end to the no-hitter; Pablo Sandoval then came up, promptly swung at the first pitch — nowhere near the strike zone — and flied out. That’s the kind of game it was.

Through nine innings, the Giants had one hit. Had the game not been forced into extra innings, the Giants would have become the first team ever to collect fewer than three hits in back-to-back postseason games. It took the following tenth inning sequence to bring the Giants a victory: Buster Posey singles to right; Hunter Pence, with a full count, hits a grounder mere inches from Scott Rolen that goes through for a single; Brandon Belt and Xavier Nady each strike out swinging; runners advance on a passed ball from Ryan Hanigan (who had only allowed three passed balls during the regular season); Joaquin Arias hits grounder to Rolen, Rolen bobbles it, his throw to first is late — and Posey scores on the play.

That’s what it took for the Giants to win this game. They struck out 16 times. They drew only one walk. They collected only three hits, none of which drove in a run. And yet they walk away with the victory.

Not to be forgotten in all of this: the outstanding efforts from every Giants pitcher in this game, particularly Ryan Vogelsong and Sergio Romo. Vogelsong was able to move past a rough first inning, holding the Reds to one run over five innings of work. Credit Bochy as well, here — he pinch hit for Vogelsong in the sixth inning, something he probably wouldn’t do in normal circumstances; even though Aubrey Huff didn’t get a hit, the Giants went with the bullpen for the rest of the game, and the bullpen shut the Reds down.

And that’s where Sergio Romo comes in: in the ninth inning of a tied game, he set the Reds down in order. Bochy stuck with Romo after the Giants took the lead, even though a) it meant letting Romo hit and b) Romo rarely has long relief appearances. You know how many times Romo pitched two innings this season? Once. But he came out in the tenth, and once again set the Reds down 1-2-3 to seal the win. Kudos to Bochy, again, for sticking with Romo there.

So the Giants live to see another day. It wasn’t pretty. But a win’s a win. And if the Giants can somehow manage to pull off two more of these, they’ll advance to the next round. They’re still hanging by a thread, skating on thin ice — whatever you want to call it. But they’re one step closer to the NLCS. Baseball’s weird.

NLDS Game One Recap: Reds 5, Giants 2

The Giants caught an enormous break in this one when, eight pitches into his outing, Johnny Cueto was forced to exit the game with back spasms. With Matt Cain on the mound, it was as though they had been gifted Game One of the series.

Matt Cain did not pitch like Matt Cain, though. In the third inning, he served up a two-run homer to Brandon Phillips on a fat, hanging 1-2 pitch. Following the home run, he hit Zack Cozart and then walked Joey Votto on four pitches. At one point, he’d thrown eight consecutive balls, there was one out in the inning, and Ryan Ludwick was at the plate with Jay Bruce on deck. Were it not for a timely double play, he could have fallen apart at the seams right then and there. He didn’t. The very next inning, Jay Bruce led off with a solo shot, sending a decent pitch (this one was kept down in the zone, and had considerably less hang-time than the pitch to Phillips) over the wall in right-center field for the Reds’ third run.

Things didn’t go much better with the Giants’ offense — they rallied with two outs in the second inning, only to have Matt Cain come up with the bases loaded. He hit one on the screws, but it was right at Bruce. And that kind of stuff seemed to happen throughout the night — Brandon Belt struck the ball well in his only two at-bats, but was twice robbed of hits. Hunter Pence, in his final two at-bats, hit very deep flyballs — but they just weren’t deep enough.

In reflecting upon the game, though, I find myself coming back to one pitch. With two outs and a couple runners on in the eighth inning, Gregor Blanco worked the count full. Jonathan Broxton made a pitch right at the knees, on the outside corner of the strike zone, taken for a called strike three to end the inning. I’m not sure if it was a strike or ball; it was close, though I’m leaning toward “missed call.” Blanco probably should’ve been protecting on such a pitch anyway. I’m not sure what to take away from this — my instinctive reaction is just to shrug. Broxton simply got the better of the exchange. And I can’t help but feel the same about the game as a whole — the Giants made some mistakes, had some tough breaks, and ultimately lost. It sucked, but I’m just left here shrugging. I’m not entirely sure where to direct the frustration.

Not to be forgotten in all of this: George Kontos and his two perfect innings of relief. I don’t know how close the Giants were to leaving him off the NLDS roster, but they were wise to find room for him.

There was a lot more in this game: Brandon Phillips’ standout play on the basepaths, at the plate, and in the field; Santiago Casilla and his less-than-stellar inning of relief; the Giants’ almost-comeback against Aroldis Chapman.

But enough about this game. All that really needs to be said about this game is: “the Giants lost.” And now they’re two games away from elimination, with only one remaining home game in the series. The Giants really, really can’t afford to lose tomorrow.