Giants' brotherhood, consistency paying dividends in October
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There are two ways to look at Game 1 of this World Series. One is that the San Francisco Giants beat the Royals, 7-1, because Madison Bumgarner is the best big-game pitcher in the world at the moment, and Hunter Pence drilled a home run and a double and the first seven hitters in the lineup combined for nine hits and five walks.
The other is that the Giants won because they are the Giants, and this is what they do. If it weren't Bumgarner, it would be Jake Peavy, and if it weren't Pence, it would be Michael Morse, and if the first seven hitters had stunk, then the last two would have come through.
You can dismiss that second reason. But understand: The Giants believe it, completely.
"There is a certain way that this team goes about playing the game that is special," said Peavy, who will start Wednesday's Game 2. "That has to be recognized when you advance this far. We do play as a team, as a band of brothers, so to speak. A unit. We're not going to do anything individually. Not one person can go out there and win or lose a game."
This band-of-brothers stuff is the leading cause of eye-rolling in the United States. Analysts can't define it and sabermetricians often don't believe it. But the Giants have become a living, breathing version of their old park, Candlestick: inexplicably hotter in October than in July. They are three wins away from taking their ninth straight postseason series, and that doesn't even count the Wild-Card Game against the Pirates.
The Giants are not the best team in baseball. You could argue that they were not the best team in baseball in any of the last five seasons. But they are the best October team in the game, and it's not an accident.
So how do the Giants do it? How does a team with changing parts keep beating teams of comparable talent?
"You know, it's amazing," Morse said. "These guys are so relaxed, and when a game starts, everybody is just calm and collected, and ready to go, ready to play. No one is really playing out of their ability. Nobody is playing out of their game."
Morse let the moment get to him in his first at-bat, he said, but after that, he relaxed. It's easier to have that attitude when the best players on your team do the same. Bumgarner is arguably not the best pitcher in the game, but he may be the calmest in a big moment. Buster Posey is not the best hitter in the game, but he is one of the steadiest. They have a quality that Derek Jeter had, and that people miss when they question Jeter's clutch reputation. It's not that these guys rise to the occasion. They manage to stay exactly the same, despite the pressure, and a lot of other All-Stars don't. The Giants have a roster full of players who do that.
"I feed off of them," Morse said. "They're so professional. Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, and Brandon Belt, he has such great at-bats. Watching the way they go about it, there is a reason they have won the World Series in the past."
Several Giants talked about the confidence Bumgarner gave them because they were so sure he would keep the game close if their bats were quiet. This speaks to his emerging greatness, of course, but it also says something about the roster construction. The Giants are built on pitching and defense. The hitters know they don't have to out-slug opponents, and that knowledge is an enormous gift in October. Sometimes, just knowing you don't have to score a bunch of runs helps you do it anyway. This explains why Game 1 of the 2014 Series felt so much like Game 1 in 2012 and 2010.
In 2010, the Texas Rangers arrived in San Francisco armed with Cliff Lee's, uh, arm. At the time, Lee was considered the game's premier money pitcher, the man you would want with the ball in his hands and your inheritance on the line. Lee had pitched eight postseason games to that point. His playoff ERA was 1.26. Playoff opponents had a .427 OPS against him.
The Giants knocked Lee out in the fifth inning. They scored seven runs against him, six earned, and won 11-7. And a few days later, in Game 5, the Giants beat Lee again.
In 2012, Detroit's Justin Verlander showed up at AT&T Park as the most intimidating pitcher in the world. Pablo Sandoval hit three home runs that night, Verlander left early and the Giants swept the Tigers.
What? You thought James Shields was going to scare these guys?
"The last few years that we've gone, it just seems like we've scrapped and scrapped and scrapped, and we've found different ways to do it," Jeremy Affeldt said. "It seems like there is a different hero every night."
There is nothing mystical about this. You are more likely to have a different hero every night when your pitchers keep the game close and you have a deep, balanced roster. Guys believe in themselves when their teammates believe in each other. Peavy said manager Bruce Bochy makes it a point to have a relationship with every player on the team: "He gives you a confidence that not many guys give you." Bochy is a master at knowing what he can get out of each player.
The Yankees of the late 1990s had similar qualities: great pitching, balance, a calmness about them and a manager (Joe Torre) who gave everybody confidence. They won three out of four World Series and nearly won a fifth. The Giants have that formula now. It doesn't last forever. But it sure looks like it will last for three more wins.