The Giants deserved to lose.

I haven’t written that kind of condemnation more than a couple of times in my life, but I have also never meant it more. The Giants played brutal baseball Friday afternoon, making poor decisions, executing routine plays poorly, and showing a complete inability to have good at-bats in game-critical situations.

In the wake of the loss, the focus is on Jose Cruz Jr., whose Little League drop of a fly ball in the 11th inning started the Marlins’ game-winning rally. When I think of Cruz, though, I think of his at-bat in the top of the inning. The Marlins intentionally walked Neifi Perez to load the bases–no, I couldn’t believe it, myself–and bring up Cruz down with the Marlins down 3-2 with one out. Cruz’s mandate in that situation was clear: find a way to bring in an insurance run. He was facing Braden Looper, whose command had been shaky from the first batter he faced, and whose only out had been recorded on a sacrifice. Given the matchups and the skills of the players involved, it seemed certain that the Giants would add to their lead.

Cruz hacked away at the first pitch and missed, then took a 1-1 cookie–the Giants took more hanging breaking balls in this game than I thought imaginable–to fall behind before chopping a grounder to Derrek Lee, who calmly got the force at home. J.T. Snow then grounded to second, ending the rally. Twenty minutes later, bedlam ensured when a winning run that perhaps should have been a tying run crossed home plate.

Cruz’s failure was the last in a long string of Giants’ offensive shortcomings. They had 12 hits, drew six walks, had one batter hit by a pitch and another reach on error, and converted all of that into three runs. Atop the list of silliness was Marquis Grissom getting thrown out while trying to steal third base with one out in the seventh. Edgardo Alfonzo was facing Chad Fox, and the caught stealing was a critical moment that allowed the Marlins to wriggle off the hook. The Giants left 18 men on base, including 13 from the fifth inning onward. That’s not an offense, it’s an offront.

I think Felipe Alou, whose immunity from criticism rivals only Dusty Baker, had a pretty bad day. Despite having just a five-man bench, Alou used a pinch-runner and a double-switch in this game. He left himself with no good right-handed option to replace Worrell in the 11th inning, which was an issue because Worrell spent himself in the tenth. After Cruz’s muff of Conine’s fly ball, Worrell made a bad situation worse by issuing walks to Alex Gonzalez and Juan Encarnacion, damning indictments of how litle stuff he had at his disposal. In losing Encarnacion after having him down 1-2, Worrell showed himself to be exhausted, yet the overaggressive bullpen management in regulation left the Giants with just three relievers–two lefties and Jim Brower–and no benchies.

The Giants’ loss was the result of a total team collapse. While they were looking for ways to lose the game, the Marlins were getting great pitching from their bullpen and just enough runs to make a miracle happen. Ivan Rodriguez added one of the things missing from his Hall of Fame career–a definining game–by hitting a two-run home run in the first inning and the game-winning single in the last. As poorly as the Giants played, for them to give the game away, the Marlins had to be prepared to take it. Their bullpen saw to that: five innings, no earned runs, giving the corps a 1.64 ERA in 11 innings in the series. Every time the Giants rallied–which was pretty much every inning from the fifth onward–the Marlins made good pitches that helped keep the Jints from putting the game away.

The Marlins were just the first underdogs to make Friday their personal playground. In Chicago, Mark Prior was once again brilliant, and the Cubs moved nine inings closer to a postseason series win, 2-1 over the Braves. Again, the Braves struggled to score against a dominant right-handed starter. Prior matched Kerry Wood in allowing just two hits to the Braves. Greg Maddux pitched well, but his teammated couldn’t overcome a first-inning single by Randall Simon that plated two runs.

I don’t know anyone who had the Cubs and Marlins playing in the LCS. It’s the baseball equivalent of those occasional funky second-round matchups in the NCAA basketball tournament, when both a #12 and a #13 seed upset teams in their mini-bracket and play for a trip to the Sweet Sixteen. We’re two wins away, maybe just a few hours away, from Southwest Missouri St. against Wisconsin-Green Bay for the right to keep playing.

There’s a full slate of games today, starting probably an hour before you see this column. Hitting each one in brief:

  • The Giants are bringing back Jason Schmidt on three days’ rest and the Marlins are throwing Dontrelle Willis into the fire. I’m torn; I think using starters unaccustomed to short rest leads to diminshed effectiveness. The Giants also need to win two games anyway, whch is best accomplished by using Schmidt in Pac Bell Park Monday on full rest. Jerome Williams the pitcher being pushed back by the decision, was effective in his rookie season and more than capable of giving the Giants seven good innings.

    (Addendum: Felipe Alou changed his mind Saturday morning, and is now starting Williams. Look for him to be effective and for the Giants to win 5-2.)

  • The Yankees and Twins meet to play Game Three of a series tied at 1-1. Clemens has been very good of late, while Kyle Lohse has been all over the place. Lohse struggles early and the Yankees win 6-3.
  • Derek Lowe was a completely different pitcher at Fenway Park this year. The Sox will need that to continue, and will need to do better at the plate than five runs in 21 innings. Look for Lowe to be very good as the Sox extend the series for one more day: 5-1, Sox.
  • The Cubs run another nasty right-hander to the mound, as this time Matt Clement starts against the Braves. Weather may yet affect this game in unforseen ways, but I’m comfortable predicting the first eliminaton of the 2003 postseason. Russ Ortiz and the Braves go down, 4-3.

One last prediction: USC 28, Arizona State 20.