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October 17, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Game One

by John Perrotto

PHILADELPHIA—So you wake up Saturday morning and decide to drive from the western end of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the eastern end—a trip that takes more than five hours—because this doesn't figure to be any ordinary Game One of a League Championship Series. No sir, this opener of the NLCS features the most-hyped pitching matchup in recent memory, even counting Stephen Strasburg against the overmatched and overwhelmed Pirates back in June in his major-league debut.

Starting for the Phillies is Roy Halladay, the likely NL Cy Young Award winner this season. All Halladay did his last time out was pitch a no-hitter against the Reds in the National League Division Series, just the second no-hitter in post-season history after he waited until his 12th major-league season to make his playoff debut.

Starting for the Giants is Tim Lincecum winner of the last two NL Cy Young Awards. All Lincecum did in his first career post-season start was strike out 14 Braves in the NLDS.

Doc vs. The Freak means that seemingly any amazing pitching feat is possible. Perhaps 18 strikeouts. Perhaps a perfect game.

So, what happened Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park? A home run derby broke out, of course, featuring three bombs by No. 8 hitters, no less. Joe Garagiola wrote a book in 1960 titled Baseball is a Funny Game, and a half-century later the stories are still funny and the title still holds true.

Halladay and Lincecum both gave up two longballs in the bandbox known as a home-run haven and the Giants came away with their fourth one-run victory of the postseason, 4-3.

"Both sides hit some balls hard and you give the hitters some credit sometimes," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said.

The hero of the game was as much of a surprise as the two aces giving up two homers apiece. Cody Ross, the Giants' eighth-place hitter, hit both of his team's home runs. The first came after in the top of the third inning after Halladay had set down the first seven Giants' hitters, a drive into the left-field seats that broke a scoreless tie. The second was a liner into the left-field stands in the fifth, snapping a 1-1 tie and putting the Giants ahead for good.

Granted, Ross has a modicum of power. He hit a combined 14 home runs for the Marlins and Giants this season after going deep 24 times last season and 22 times in 2008 for Florida.

However, here's the thing about Ross: when the Marlins put him on waivers in August, the Giants claimed him in order to keep from slipping on down the wire to the NL West rival Padres. Common courtesy won't permit the Giants to say so publicly, but the truth of the matter is they really had no use for Ross at the time. They had acquired Jose Guillen from the Royals in a trade earlier in the month to fill their right-field hole.

Yet Ross is in the Giants' starting lineup in the middle of October and Guillen is a forgotten man, inactive for the NLCS as he was for the NLDS, though he is apparently over the bulging disc in his back that caused him problems late in the regular season.

"We had a lot of outfielders when I got here," Ross said.

Ross made the most of his 88 regular-season plate appearances after joining the Giants, posting a fine .289 True Average and hitting three home runs. Now Ross has that many homers in the Giants' five post-season games. He also connected for a solo shot in the sixth inning of the decisive Game Four of the NLDS, breaking Derek Lowe's no-hit bid, tying the score at 1-1 and helping propel the Giants to a 3-2 victory.

"Cody's a good hitter," Bochy said, dismissing the notion that Ross is some kind of fluky October hero. "He's been swinging the bat well. He's helped us a lot since he's been here."

Ross's third-inning home run Saturday night not only broke a scoreless tie but it erased the notion that Halladay was invincible, even if he seemed that way after starting his post-season career by pitching 11 2/3 consecutive hitless innings.

"When somebody hit a home run like that, it does a lot for a club, no question," Bochy said. "It just helps to settle the hitters down."

"It was huge for us," left fielder Pat Burrell said. "As far as momentum goes, you know everyone's familiar with how (Halladay) did in his last game. We just needed to out there and put something on the board, more than anything to just kind of calm down our offense."

It certainly wasn't a case of Ross having the secret formula of how to hit Halladay, though. Ross was 3-for-16 in his career against Halladay going into Saturday night.

"In the past, I've tried everything against him, trying to wait him out and trying to be aggressive and I guess in between there," Ross said. "I'm just trying to hit something in the hole, trying to find a hole and luckily got some good wood on it and got it up in the air."

Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, who seems to morph into Johnny Bench at this time of year, then struck a blow of his own for No. 8 hitters in the bottom of the third. Chooch's opposite-field homer to right off Lincecum tied the game at 1-1.

Ross connected for his second homer in the fifth inning and the Giants got breathing room in the sixth inning when Burrell ripped a two-out RBI double that left fielder Raul Ibanez dropped as he crashed into the fence and Juan Uribe then rolled a run-scoring single into center field to make it 4-1. The normally unflappable Halladay yelled at home-plate umpire Derryl Cousins following Burrell's hit, believing he had the former Phillies star struck out on the pitch prior, which would have ended the inning.

Lincecum was just as upset with Cousins' strike zone that was amoeba-like in the way it changed shape from pitch to pitch. Bochy rushed to the mound in the second inning to settle his ace down after Lincecum also yelled at Cousins.

Whether it was Cousins' inconsistency or good hitting, neither pitcher finished with a dominant pitching line, though Lincecum turned in a quality start by allowing three runs and six hits in seven innings with three walks and eight strikeouts. Halladay, meanwhile, was touched for four runs and eight hits in seven innings with no walks and seven strikeouts.

Jayson Werth found the first row of the right-field seats in the bottom of the sixth inning for a two-run homer that drew the Phillies within a run at 4-3 and sent the towel-waving crowd of 45,929 into a frenzy. However, the Giants' pitching staff stopped the Phillies cold the rest of the way. Lincecum got through the seventh without allowing any further damage, lefty Javier Lopez retired the first two batters in the eighth, and Brian Wilson got the last four outs, all by strikeout, for the save.

While Lincecum was the winner and Halladay was the loser, it was Ross who was the story. The kid who grew up in New Mexico tagging along with his farther to the rodeo and hoping one day to be a rodeo clown. The man who wasn't wanted by his new team but has suddenly turned into its most indispensable player of the postseason.

"I guess the reason I was drawn to the clowns so much is because those guys have no fear," Ross said. "They would put their life on the line to save a cowboy and I just thought that was pretty neat that they could do that."

Ross didn't put his life on the line Saturday night, but he dug in against the best pitcher baseball has to offer in this postseason and turned the expected duel of aces for the ages into the biggest moment of his heretofore anonymous eight-year career.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Giants,  Cody Ross,  The Who

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