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November 2, 2010

World Series Prospectus

Game Five Analysis

by Christina Kahrl

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Fandom of the game itself provides a few reliable rewards. If you love baseball, you can simultaneously enjoy the beauty of a well-pitched ballgame and a game-winning three-run shot. Indeed, both things represent classic features, the stuff of victory and of defeat, now and forever. We all inevitably happen upon other elements, of course, and sample and promote them as a matter of discretion: bullpen hyper-specialization, little ball, the speed game, even the virtual oxymoronics of "productive outs." But the mechanics of the game reward the same things now that it did five years ago or 50: great starting pitching and three-run homers.

So Monday night, we got those things and essentially only those things. There was little space for some dubious feat of scraptitude, almost nothing for the "little things." Just the big things, showing up across a canvas painted blank by matching zeroes through six. This was not a game determined by bunts or boners, umpiring or in-game options. It was simple, short, and decisive, and whatever your rooting interest, in its zen-like simplicity, it was glorious. Tim Lincecum was all that, a pitch shy of an entirely regret-free ballgame.

Cliff Lee wasn't really just one pitch away, but he wasn't that far from it, and a lot closer to putting this series back in San Francisco than history is likely to remember.* At least until he faced Edgar Renteria, perhaps one batter Lee particularly didn't want to see with two men on, because Renteria had managed three extra-base hits in 20 career at-bats against the power lefty, while striking out just twice. But Renteria was merely the hero of the moment in a lineup in which just one of the batters in Monday night's lineup had a historical track record for struggling against Lee in his career.

Indeed, if you want to move beyond the classical elements of brilliant moundsmanship and a decisive three-run homer, the leitmotiv of adaptability that you'll find threaded throughout the Giants' season showed up in Monday night's lineup card as well. Pat Burrell might have been a critical component to the Giants getting there, and even as the one batter who had struggled in his very few at-bats against Lee, he belonged in the lineup against this or any lefty. But Bruce Bochy didn't pretend the rest of the series hadn't happened—Burrell's track record mattered, so he was batting seventh in Game Five, as opposed to cleanup in Game One—as important as Burrell had been, even against a lefty, even with a career .237 ISO against southpaws.

Instead, hero-come-lately Cody Ross batted cleanup, and for as much as some brands of sabermetric orthodoxy preaches that lineup order doesn't matter, guess who wound up initiating the seventh-inning sequence? Admittedly, "good enough" and ex post facto rationalization makes for a fairly low standard by which to judge success. Even so, consider how the frame played out. If you were frightened of a double play in the seventh inning, little-ball fiends might take their satisfaction from Aubrey Huff dropping his first successful sac bunt with runners on first and second, and that's swell, but keep in mind, Bochy had already risked the chance of scoring any runs by having Juan Uribe hit away after Cody Ross' leadoff single. Uribe ranked among baseball's 20 deadliest rally killers when it came to delivering the deuce from the dish. Instead, Bochy did not get insipidly, prematurely tactical, and instead, he played for more than one run, even when taking his chances and having Huff sacrifice. The in-inning tactic was not to get one run, but to create a lead that was safe from a bases-empty mistake. That it was a mistake Lincecum would indeed make in the bottom half of the inning against Nelson Cruz only made Bochy's risk seem that much better in retrospect.

So, Burrell might have been seen as the more likely guy to generate the big inning, but Renteria's track record for making contact, and particularly for making hard contact against Lee, could be taken as confirmation of the value of taking the chance. Subsequently fretting over whether Renteria should have been given a free pass would ignore that Aaron Rowand also had a good measure of career success against Lee, having hit .280/.379/.560 against him in 29 at-bats. It would be fair to observe that Rowand isn't the same player today as the younger version who accumulated a track record against Lee, but you could say much the same about Renteria.

In the end, I'd suggest that the Giants' lineup had the virtue of its interchangeability. In picking heroes for a week or a month, a series or a season, whether you want to nominate Ross or Burrell, Renteria or Rowand, or players as fundamentally different yet simultaneously valuable as Juan Uribe and Buster Posey, the Giants had enough power up and down the order that there was no shortage of potentially dangerous matchups, because whatever the Giants' lineup lacked in terms of overpowering greatness, it made up for with an absence of easy outs.

That's a worthwhile takeaway, because the contrast with what, among several things, went wrong for the Rangers shouldn't be ignored. Josh Hamilton's opportunity to shine on the national stage with everything at stake was decisively eclipsed by Giants pitching. If Vladimir Guerrero wanted to add a ring to a career already laden with highlights, he had to settle for joining Hamilton on the list of missing men. The Rangers batter determined to do the most damage was rookie Mitch Moreland, buried at the bottom of the order between the guy with the sub-.300 OBP and the leadoff man who barely slugged .300. Where Bochy was tailoring his lineup cards game by game, the Rangers' Ron Washington rode his convictions to their bitter ending, another minor source of disappointment among a series in which so many elective decisions didn't work out very well for Texas. It was bittersweet to see Neftali Feliz finally come into a tight game before the ninth, but perhaps you can take his appearance at the last instant as evidence of a hard lesson learned.

Despite all that, Rangers fans should keep their hope and faith invested in the likelihood that this first World Series loss represents just the first of what should be several years' worth of bites at the post-season apple. However much winning in the postseason is a crapshoot (or not), this was a risky venture to exploit the initial breakthrough of what could and should be a brilliant future. Getting Lee in July, to capitalize on this moment and this opportunity, and then not realizing it, is not cause for despair. Instead, it was the action of an organization with the guts to go for it, but also one armed with the capacity to keep going for it. As much as you can anticipate that some of this season's Rangers heroes are just passing through, this is a team worth rooting for. The present belongs to the Giants, but in the competitive dynamics of the present, it's easy to see how tomorrow more likely belongs to the Rangers.

But here and now, whether you're a Giants exec or a Giants fan, there's no cause for regret. Certainly, a future populated with this rotation and Buster Posey is going to be cause for joy in the city by the bay for years to come. The fact that this happiness will forever be flavored with the memory of a season populated with little, successful risks and strokes of wire-related good fortune, some might call destiny. I'll settle for describing it as good fun, and evidence that however many preconceived notions—like the old lesson about winning with three-run homers and good pitching—can be confirmed in any one ballgame, and any one season can teach you to look at any one player, manager, or general manager in a different way.

Which is to say, for men as different as Bochy and Brian Sabean, or Renteria and Uribe and Ross, I expect we all look at them somewhat differently now. To Sabean, credit is due for lining up the elements of success, either via the draft or his scrabbling desperation in shoring up his roster as frequently as he did. Maybe history would have been different if Jose Guillen hadn't hurt himself, keeping Ross from his Gene Tenace-like star turn in the postseason; we will never know. Bochy will forever be the skipper who tried almost anything in the pursuit of victory, despite a roster not exactly replete with tactical options; it's easy to offer the aside that a starting rotation this good affords a skipper all sorts of freedom to take chances on offense, but not everyone would, and this was somewhat consistent with his demonstrated capacity for risk from the regular season. Whether his actions in October inform how he uses or structures his rosters in the future will make for interesting watching.

But most of all, as Casey put it best, they couldn'a dunnit without the players, and while that rotation deserves pride of place, and Ross' October phenomenon may rank with Tenace's '72 or Ray Knight's '86, the guys I can't help thinking about are Uribe and Renteria. If Renteria was once a great player while Uribe never earned that label, there's something simple and rewarding in seeing both of them play critical roles in one improbable team's success, and provide ready reminders that not every player who performs past-peak in his career has anything to apologize for, and that there's value to be found in players who wind up somewhere short of stardom. People will take their symbols where they can find them, but where the 2010 Giants are concerned, I probably found mine on the left side of their infield. To both of them, I feel a debt of thanks for the reminder that mere greatness isn't necessary to do great things, and perhaps that, if anything, is the Giants' legacy.

* Leave it to his representation to provide reminders to Lee's suitors this winter. You can weep for Texas, if not for Marse Cliff.

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

Related Content:  A's,  Cody Ross,  The Who,  Juan Uribe,  The Call-up

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