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Pitching continues to rule NLCS, though not quite as we expected

SAN FRANCISCO -- Yes, absolutely, we've been over it a hundred times, a thousand times, how ridiculous it is to repeat that cliche: "Pitching is 90 percent of baseball." Pitching cannot be 90 percent of baseball. For one it is, as Bill James has written, a basically meaningless phrase since "baseball" could mean a thousand different things.

Two, whatever meaning is locked into the words is clearly wrong. Nothing is 90 percent of baseball. In baseball, there's pitching. There's hitting. There's fielding. There's base running. There's managing. There's the ballpark effect. There's the weather effect. There's the fan effect. There's the umpire effect. There is altitude. There are injuries, bad hops, balls lost in the sun, bunts that stay fair, bunts that roll foul, fans that lean over fences, fans that smack at gloves, umpires that refuse to use replay, absurd intentional walks, a million things. Pitching is not 90 percent of baseball.

But it's so tempting to say so ... because of days like Tuesday. Let's be realistic: The San Francisco Giants had virtually no chance to beat the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday, Game 3 of this National League Championship Series. We were talking about it before the game started. How were the Giants going to win? Their leadoff hitter and shortstop was 33-year-old Edgar Renteria, who has not hit much for three years now and, oh by the way, has a completely torn left bicep muscle. Their third baseman, Juan Uribe, busted up his wrist so badly that he had to miss Game 2. Their cleanup hitter, Pat Burrell was released by Tampa Bay this year, and their No. 5 hitter, Cody Ross -- hot as he has been -- was released by Florida this year. Their best hitter all year, Aubrey Huff, was moved all the way down to No. 6 in the lineup. Why? Because Philadelphia was starting lefty Cole Hamels, and Huff had faced Hamels seven times in his career. He struck out five of those times.

Reporter: "How are they going to win? You tell me."

Me: "I guess Cain could throw a shutout."

Reporter: "Then they would have to win in extra innings."

The Giants were absolutely not going to win Tuesday ... and then Matt Cain walked out to start the game for San Francisco. And the Giants did win, 3-0. And Cain was overwhelming. In a postseason that has featured the pure genius of Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay and Cain's much more recognized teammate, Tim Lincecum, Cain's game Tuesday will not stand out. He did not throw a no-hitter. He did not throw a complete game. He did not strike out double digits. What he did, though, was throw seven shutout innings against a lineup that had beaten him up pretty good in previous games. What he did was pitch his way out of jams and semi-jams in the third inning, the fourth inning, the fifth inning and the seventh inning.

"When he got in trouble, he got even better, seemed like," Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel said in his own inimitable way. "He made good pitches. Like we always talk about, he made the pitch at the right time to get people out. And we couldn't score on him. We didn't ht him. We didn't hit many balls hard."

No, Cain didn't win the game by himself. He was not 90 percent responsible either. The Giants scraped three runs together -- one big hit coming from the irrepressible Ross, who somehow pulled a down-and-away fastball over third to drive in a run ("He's hitting pitches right now that most normal guys can't hit," Hamels said after the game) and another from Huff, who somehow pulled an RBI single to right against Hamels. The Giants bullpen also pitched two scoreless innings. There was a wicked hop that Philadelphia's Chase Utley could not handle. Like always, it took a team and luck and all the other things.

But Cain was the focal point. Matt Cain lives the perfectly underrated pitching life, which fits him well. There are people in this world who seem content to do a good job even while few notice. Cain seems like one of those people. For the last five years, he has thrown more than 1,000 very solid innings without ever leading the league in anything substantial. Only 13 pitchers have thrown 1,000 innings the last five years. Among those pitchers, Cain's 3.50 ERA ranks fifth, he's tied for fourth in complete games, he's second only to Johan Santana with a .233 batting average against. Solid.

Still, few notice him. Matt Cain (remarkably) has a losing career record. He does the bulk of his pitching after two-thirds of America goes to sleep. The attention tilts toward his teammate, two-time Cy Young winner Lincecum. He seems fine with all this, happy with it even. The thing everyone notices about Cain is how utterly unflappable he is both as a pitcher and as a person.

"The guy's a pro," is what his manager Bruce Bochy and everyone else says about him.

What they mean is that he says the right stuff, he does the right stuff, he is selfless ... the image of Cain I think of and wrote about is generally meaningless, but it still strikes me. It happened after the Giants clinched the National League West. There was Cain doing a TV interview while teammates poured champagne on him. And he spoke calmly, clearly, without even the slightest hint of what was happening around him. This guy could do a weather report in a hurricane. This is the guy you want pitching in the biggest games.

"He's just fearless," says Ross, who is a connoisseur of fearlessness since, as you have now heard 10,000 times, he wanted to be a rodeo clown when he was a boy.

I'm not sure fearlessness is what it takes to pitch well in a big game. But it does take the ability to shrink the moment, focus on what you're doing, throw the right pitch to the right spot when you have to get an out.

• In the third inning, with runners on first and second, Cain threw a perfect change-up, down and away, to Utley, who grounded out to shortstop.

• In the fourth, with runners on first and second, he threw a high fastball past Raul Ibanez for the inning-ending strikeout.

• In the fifth, with a man on second, he threw the same perfect change-up, down and away, to Utley and got the groundout to second base.

• In the seventh, with a man on first and second, Bochy jogged out to the mound to talk to Cain. The jog was a pretty good sign that Bochy didn't want to take Cain out, just wanted to check on him. "He was just asking how I was feeling," Cain would say. On a full count, Cain threw a fastball on the outside corner, Shane Victorino grounded out to second, and the final threat was extinguished.

Baseball people don't spend a lot of time thinking about the English language, and so they figure everyone will know what they mean when they use those baseball codewords, when they call a player a gamer, a good teammate, a winner, a battler, whatever. Cain was all those things Tuesday. He took the heart out of the Phillies. And when asked about it, he refused to make too much of it.

"I was just trying to keep the ball down," he said.

The Giants victory Tuesday makes this series absolutely fascinating. The Phillies clearly have the better lineup, even if they are slumping offensively. They still have one of the best 1-2-3 pitching punches in recent memory. They are, in a bar argument, the better team. But the Phillies have now thrown Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hamels at the Giants mediocre lineup, and they trail the series 2-1. They're throwing Joe Blanton Wednesday night, and he has not started a game in more than three weeks. The next two games are in San Francisco, where the atmosphere is buzzing.

And these Giants are set up with a ridiculous amount of confidence, and some pretty powerful pitching, including 21-year-old phenom Madison Bumgarner going Wednesday night. Pitching is not 90 percent of baseball, but it certainly can shape a game and shape a series. It IS shaping this series, only not quite as many expected. When someone asked Manuel if he was worried about his team not hitting, he laughed somewhat bitterly.

"We don't score runs, I'm always concerned," he said.

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