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October 25, 2012
On the Beat
Rising to Giant Occasions
Javier Lopez is one of the brightest and most articulate major-leaguers. The Giants left-handed reliever holds a psychology degree from the University of Virginia and, though he majored in a liberal arts subject, he understands sabermetrics and how they can be used to help build a championship team. Lopez was a member of the 2007 world champion Red Sox.
In a lot of ways, Lopez's background makes him uniquely qualified to try to explain the 2012 Giants and their amazing run through the postseason. San Francisco has faced elimination six times this October, yet it has won each time. The Giants rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Reds in five games in the National League Division Series, then came back from a 3-games-to-1 deficit to the Cardinals to win the National League Championship Series in seven games. Now they’re in the World Series opposite the Tigers.
So how have the Giants been able to continually play under pressure in this postseason? Lopez says there is no mathematical formula that can explain it.
"I know that almost everything in baseball can be quantified, and there has been a lot of interesting sabermetric studies done," Lopez said. "Sometimes, though, playing winning baseball goes beyond the numbers. It might not sound like a logical argument, but there are times where you have to pass the eye test, too, rather just statistical analysis. That is the way we have been in the postseason. What we have been able to do when our backs have been against the wall is shift the pressure away from. We attack it as if the pressure is on the opponent because they are the ones who still have to win one more game to clinch the series. After awhile, it just becomes second nature and you start to believe that you won't lose."
San Francisco is certainly that type of team right now. That is why right-hander Matt Cain, valedictorian of the Class of 2002 at Houston High School in Germantown, Tenn., also can't give a fact-based explanation as to why the Giants have been able to play so well in times of great duress.
"I have no idea," Cain said with a smile. "Maybe because we don't know any better?"
However, the all of the Giants players say that manager Bruce Bochy's steady hand has played a major role in their success. Bochy led the Giants to a World Series title two years ago, their first since 1954, which was four years before the franchise moved from New York to San Francisco.
Bochy doesn't always get mentioned among the game's best managers. He is an old-school type who bases his decision more on baseball acumen and gut instinct than by consulting reams of statistics. However, the 57-year-old has lasted 18 years as a major-league manager, including 12 with the Padres, before moving up the coast to the Giants. He has compiled a 1,454-1,444 record and has won three NL pennants and six division titles.
"He's the best," Giants right-handed starter Ryan Vogelsong said. "Look at how we've been able survive some pretty big blows this season."
The Giants lost closer Brian Wilson early in the season to Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. Left fielder Melky Cabrera was suspended for 50 games on Aug. 15 for testing positive for excessive testosterone, ending a breakout season in which he hit .346/.390/.516 in 501 plate appearances with 5.1 WARP and a .332 TAv.
Bochy mixed and matched his bullpen, going with Santiago Casilla as the closer for most of the season, occasionally sprinkling in Lopez and Sergio Romo in save situations. He chose to go with Romo late in the season and into the postseason. Bochy also decided to stick with Gregor Blanco in left field even though the end of Cabrera's 50-game suspension coincided with the beginning of the NLCS.
"You have to deal with injuries or things that may happen, like Melky's situation," Bochy said. "What's important, as I've said many times, is not that it happens; it's how you deal with it. These guys were like focused forward. They never talked about it, they never dwelled on it, they never made excuses. Different guys helped pick us up when something did happen. You look how the bullpen by committee worked when Wilson went down and Blanco's play out in left field. It's been fun to watch how these guys have just done a good job of picking each other up."
However, Bochy is quick to deflect any credit for guiding the Giants this far. Bochy has never been one to seek the spotlight, and he is staying true to himself in one of his finest moments.
"It's all about the players," Bochy said. "I'm not just trying to shrug that off. I mean, it's great when you hear good things said about you, I guess. The players would feel the same. But you can't believe all the good things or the bad things, and that goes with managing, too, just second‑guessing things like that. My philosophy is to let the players go out there and play to win, just leave it on the field. I don't want players to be afraid to make a mistake, and I want them to know if they do make a mistake, hey, that's fine, as long as you're doing it in the right way, and that's being aggressive and trying to win a ballgame."
The Giants have been just that in the postseason, seemingly ratcheting the intensity up tenfold when they are facing elimination.
"I think you have to say you're a little surprised to do it that many times," Bochy said. "It says a lot about the character of the club and how determined they were not to go home. They just keep fighting, and good things happen when you do that and you don't give up and you have that never-say-die attitude. That's how they hit the field every day, like there's no tomorrow."
On the excitement of pitching a World Series game in San Francisco since he grew up and lives in Merced, Calif.: "Growing up, don't tell anybody, I was a Giants fan, and being able to come to a couple games when I was little, it's always been a dream and a goal for me, and now it's happening. It's definitely special, being able to come into the ballpark and play in a World Series; it’s something that obviously is a moment that will never be forgotten. It holds a little bit more special place in my heart, I would say, but it doesn't change what we do on the field."
On the difference between pitching against the contact-hitting Giants as opposed to the power-hitting Yankees: "I think the biggest thing for us is we play to our strengths. Yes, we're aware of what the other team does and their tendencies, but at the same time, we don't want to work away from our strengths. We want to go at people with our best stuff, whether a pitcher or a hitter, and don't waver from it. As soon as you start wavering from that, you start changing your game plan and kind of get off-kilter. We really just want to stay within ourselves, play the same game that we've played all year and go take it to them."
On what it is like playing for manager Jim Leyland: "Jim obviously has been around for a long time and knows the game inside and out. He's one of those guys that never wavers. He's got our back; we've got his back the whole time. He sets a precedent for us. It's a team atmosphere; it's a family atmosphere out there in the clubhouse and on the field, and that's what he shows from first pitch to last pitch. He's always constantly thinking about what we can do to gain an edge and be able to play the best ball that we can. He's our leader, and we all respect him."
Cardinals right-hander Kyle Lohse: "Some team isn't going to look beyond his win-loss record from this season and will overpay him as a free agent. And they're going to be sorry. He's not a No. 1 starter, and he shouldn't get No. 1 money."
Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer: "I'm really surprised the Tigers didn't set him up to pitch twice in the World Series. He looks completely healthy to me now, and he can really dominate a game. It's a curious decision, because I'd want this guy to be able to pitch twice if I needed him."
Giants second baseman Marco Scutaro: "I think everyone knows he's played over his head with the Giants, but he's been a great pickup. He's not going to hit .345 for you, but he is a high-energy guy and a real professional. He brings some intangibles with him."
Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher: "I'll be interested to see how much he hurt his value on the free-agent market with another bad postseason. I know it's a small sample size and it's dangerous to evaluate someone based on a handful of games, but the fact of the matter is that what he did in the postseason is going to be the freshest thing on teams' minds."