October 24, 2010
NLCS Game Six Recap
Upsets don't leave everyone upset. When you get baseball as beautiful as Saturday night's tension-drenched contest between the Giants and the Phillies, you get an uncomplicated reminder that the game's great glory is that it can produce drama that has nothing to do with who's doing what, and everything to do with what's being done.
With Roy Oswalt's use in relief in Game Four, it was hard to know what to expect from him, and with Jonathan Sanchez's past track record for shutting down the Phillies, you might anticipate a game in which Oswalt left early, and Sanchez, however wild, might pitch his way out of trouble. With the delightful perversity the game so often provides, the opposite occurred. Oswalt put the leadoff man aboard in four of his six innings, but allowed runs in just one, aided by a pair of double plays. Sanchez was in immediate trouble with a seven-batter, two-run first, and then spiced up the game at the outset of the third with a walk and a pitch drilled into the back of Chase Utley's shoulder.
At that point, Bruce Bochy knew he had seen enough, but with a 2-2 tie while having had to hook Sanchez so soon into the night's proceedings, he didn't tank a game with reaching the World Series at stake by turning to the likes of his ignored 11th staff man. The threat of what might come if Guillermo Mota pitched was perhaps enough to inspire in-game boldness you don't see during the regular season. Instead, with seven innings' worth of outs to get, Bochy used his best to win, to win now, to win in this very ballgame. To solve matters with two men on and Sanchez starting to smolder en route to self-immolating, Bochy lucked into landing a touch of the '09 edition of Jeremy Affeldt (1.94 FRA) instead of this year's (5.82), and to keep pounding after the two makes, but also the lefty starter of Game Four, Madison Bumgarner. His best right-hander in Tim Lincecum, pitching on a day's rest and the one game he might be available for a relief chore, his Game Four starter to add a third lefty to the relief mix.
Maybe Bochy was lucky. It's certainly hard to argue that luck's the residue of design when you couldn't suggest that Bochy knew he'd use both Bumgarner and Lincecum in this game. What you can credit Bochy and the Giants with was being adaptable. If Bochy had settled for mere conventionality and used just his set middle men to get him through the game after hooking Sanchez, maybe that means using Affeldt an inning too far and Mota not at all. It's not hard to see how that might have turned out very badly indeed, but Affeldt gave the Giants six batters that should make him a new entry in the franchise's small pantheon of post-season heroes. And then, instead of making this a pen start out of necessity, Bochy made this a staff start as a matter of adaptation. His club has a pennant to show for it.
If someone succeeds, there's a zero-sum element that suggests that someone failed, but the Phillies' causes for complaint can be totted up to a very few. The first, third, and fifth innings all represented wasted opportunities, frames finished with multiple runners aboard, chances to break the game open early that passed by the wayside. The fifth might have been home to the run that got away, when third-base coach Sam Perlozzo held up Jimmy Rollins at third on Ryan Howard's two-out double.
Last night, there were those of us second-guessing that baserunning conservatism at the first instant; upon replay, with a sloppy cutoff transition in progress as Perlozzo was already putting the brakes on Rollins, it looked even more... prudent... than seemed really warranted. Betting on another base hit with two outs was already a rough risk, but when you add in Bochy's already-made decision on defense to treat the game as a matter of acquiring and winning specific individual matchups, you wound up with managing by dare: Bochy, daring the Phillies to make him pay for using the intentional pass to skip Jayson Werth and win instead with Shane Victorino.
Bochy's ballclub dodged that bullet, but it wouldn't be the last one fired at them in anger. In the bottom of the sixth, Bumgarner gave up a leadoff double to Raul Ibañez, who was advanced to third on a Carlos Ruiz sac bunt that already reflected the creeping sense of time running out on a Phillies offense that had already punted three big-inning opportunities. The subsequent decision to pinch-hit with Ben Francisco for Roy Oswalt was defensible in terms of Francisco's good work as a pinch-hitter (.275/.370/.350) and as a platoon weapon (.284/.344/.557 vs. lefties), stronger by far than Mike Sweeney's performance in either instance.
It was easy to wonder whether Sweeney might be the better choice for getting the ball in play, but doing so (as I did) loses sight of the more basic question: Why would the Phillies take the bat out of Ruiz's hands in the bottom of the sixth with nobody out? Keep in mind, this was a man who hit .327/.431/.509 against lefties, with an even better clip of putting balls in play than either bench option. It might have been better to pinch-run Francisco for Ibañez—his record for advancement on hits was in the positive, and included his scoring from second six of nine times he had the opportunity to move up on a single. With Francisco on second and Ruiz followed by Sweeney (presumably), that's a lot of work, but it doesn't involve giving up a mid-game out to acquire a single base.
With the score still tied at two heading into the eighth inning, two outs, and Ryan Madson looking like he was cruising, having retired five of his first six batters he was allowed to face. At which point the game yielded up one of its unlikely heroes: with two outs and nobody on, Madson hung a first-pitch slider to Juan Uribe, who pasted it to the opposite field to land in the second row, just beyond the fence in right. Although a fairly extreme pull hitter in a power-friendly park, it wasn't just “luck” and it wasn't just a park product—it was also a reminder of what happens when you put people with power everywhere in your lineup. Sometimes you create all the offense you need without gambit or machination, but with a man who can kill a mistake, as Uribe can.
With a one-run lead and six outs to go, the complexion of the game didn't change radically for Bochy—he was already running things with an open throttle. Bringing in Tim Lincecum in this situation was inspired, but Lincecum was also working at less than full speed, and two one-out singles took 16 pitches and used up that option. At which point Bochy did something he's done all year, and something that was a hallmark of his playing days in the '80s—he used his closer as a real fireman, bringing in Brian Wilson with the winning run on base. It's what qualifies as regular-season innovation these days in pitcher usage patterns, but it's as sensible now as it was then—the save-generating super-specialist innovation of the later '80s was adapted to players with limitations, like Dennis Eckersley and Jeff Reardon, but these were the exceptions, not the rule.
That's not to say it didn't risk trouble, but Wilson lucked out initially, getting a third-pitch lineout to first to double off the lead runner and escape the eighth, and he pitched into trouble in the ninth. But Wilson's dropping a full-count slider on Ryan Howard can be taken as brilliant closeriffic moxie, or an appreciation of the fact he'd gotten both of his outs in the inning on sliders, or recognition that he'd gotten a strike with it on Howard earlier in the at-bat. Not unlike Uribe's homer in the eighth, Wilson's ninth was about execution in the right way at the right thing at the right time.
Which leaves us where? Brian Sabean's cobbled-together club represents in its own way a testament to the actions and adaptability of a general manager who, like the Rangers' Jon Daniels, didn't sit still operating from a reasonable core of talent. If the solutions were less sabermetric in nature, they provide an important example of what can be achieved by not settling for what was already on hand. If Bochy's in-game tactics smacked of similar desperation in the series—or dependent on Cody Ross's Ray Knight-like post-season star turn—remember, this was a skipper who was willing to cobble together a Travis Ishikawa/Aaron Rowand platoon in the lineup, moving Aubrey Huff in and out of the outfield as needed, and Andres Torres from center to right and back again. If he was willing to countenance that, you can appreciate a flexibility not found in every dugout.
Well, all of that, and the fact that with one of the game's two best rotations and one of the game's three six-win relievers, all sorts of things become possible. Put that in a matchup against Cliff Lee, Josh Hamilton, and the game's best defense, and you can anticipate a World Series that won't just produce a first-ever trophy for one franchise's current incarnation or another, but one that might give us the right kind of cap to an October already amply populated with history red-hot and fresh from the mold. Games like Saturday's provide a taste of what baseball can and does give us: a postseason the game deserves, and a reward for you and I, for devotions long rendered.