For openers, Giants shatter Lee's aura of invincibility
SAN FRANCISCO -- You never want to make too much out of one game. After all, Texas lost Game 1 of the American League Championship Series in catastrophic fashion, blowing a five-run lead at home and looking utterly overmatched by the moment. They promptly rolled the New York Yankees in four of the next five games. It's always tempting, in the middle of a seven-game baseball series, to make one game mean too much.*
But ... it sure seems that something pretty important happened Wednesday night. Well, start with the obvious, something pretty important DEFINITELY happened in World Series Game 1 -- San Francisco beat Texas 11-7 in a spirited, raw, surprising, emotional, sometimes fun and sometimes dreadful game that featured 26 hits, six defensive errors, one rather remarkable "fielder's choice," several base-running blunders, 12 pitchers (twelve pitchers!) and countless red-faced FOX executives. The Giants, after falling behind early, battered the Rangers. The Giants had not scored double-digit runs in more than a month. It hardly seemed likely they would break out of that offensive streak against Cliff Lee. But they did.
And that gets at the heart of why Wednesday night's game felt big: Lee got bloodied.
Lee, as you already know, has been both the touchstone and the pitching power of this amazing Rangers playoff run. In the Division Series, he pitched brilliantly in Games 1 and 5 in Tampa Bay, one of the more overpowering individual performances in recent five-game series memory. And his masterpiece against the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS was more than overpowering, it was withering. The Yankees offense never really looked especially dangerous after Lee was finished with them.
Lee, it seemed, had graduated from normal pitcher to postseason force of nature -- not unlike Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson or Curt Schilling or Christy Mathewson. It doesn't matter if a pitcher IS unhittable in the postseason as much as it matters that the opposing hitters BELIEVE he's unhittable. Gibson had some hitters beaten before he threw a pitch. That aura was beginning to glow for Lee. He entered Wednesday's game with a 7-0 record in the postseason, a 1.26 ERA, a 67-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Rangers were favored by most people in this series in part because their lineup looks better on paper, but mostly I think because it did not seem possible that the Giants could hit Lee.
And when the Rangers took a 2-0 lead in the second inning, the game might as well have been over. Two runs? Lee had allowed two runs THE WHOLE PLAYOFFS, and those were against the Rays and the Yankees, big-time hitting teams, teams that did not have a rookie hitting third in the order, and two players who were released this year hitting fourth and fifth. The game felt as over as a game can feel in the second inning, and Lee struck out two in the bottom of the inning and jogged back to the dugout looking as unbeatable as ever.
So what happened then? Well, the Giants seem convinced that they're actually a pretty good offensive team. Yes, they may have been ninth in the National League in runs scored. Yes, they have a lineup that appears slapped together (largely because, well, yeah, it's kind of slapped together). But so what? In the third inning, they got a couple of breaks. Edgar Renteria reached on Rangers' third baseman Michael Young's error. Andres Torres somehow got hit by a Cliff Lee pitch -- Lee had hit one batter all year. And Freddy Sanchez -- who seemed to be seeing Lee's pitches perfectly well -- smacked a double to left that scored one run. Torres scored on Buster Posey's bloop single. And the game was tied.
The Giants just seemed to be, well, maybe the word is "annoying" Lee. "I saw the Giants work him pretty good," Rangers manager Ron Washington would say, and it was true, Lee just never looked comfortable pitching against this Giants lineup. His command was off, but the Giants had a lot to do with that. They picked at him, made him work, fouled off pitches (18 foul balls in the first four innings). Juan Uribe would later hit a crushing home run against a reliever, but his 10-pitch at-bat against Lee in the fourth inning, one where he eventually struck out, was valuable in its own way. They were just slowly chipping away at Lee's invincibility. By the fifth inning, he already had thrown 75 pitches and though he was pitching reasonably well, he was not looking unbeatable. And maybe that was the thing: The Giants never seemed to think he was unbeatable in the first place.
"Obviously he's one of the best pitchers in the postseason," Sanchez would say, "and he's been unhittable in the postseason. But I don't think there's anything psychological to that. I think we were able to put the bat on the ball today and find some holes ... As far as the psychological stuff, I don't look too far into that at all."
The Giants wrecked Lee in the fifth. It was stunning. With one out, Torres ripped a double to left. Sanchez ripped another double, his third straight, first player in World Series history to hit three doubles in his first three at-bats. Lee settled in to strike out Posey, but that was it for him. Lee walked Pat Burrell -- it was Lee's second walk of the postseason. Cody Ross singled. Aubrey Huff singled. And Lee was taken out of the game down 5-2. The Giants had gotten him.
And then reliever Darren O'Day came into the game, promptly gave up a three-run homer to Uribe, and the Giants led 8-2, and the ballgame was in all important respects over though it would take roughly another two hours and nine more pitchers to finally put the thing to bed.
It's only one game. The Rangers players said this afterward, and they were right to say it. If the Rangers can come back on Thursday, win in San Francisco, they will go home with an advantage and feeling really good about themselves. It is only one game.
But the Giants were playing with overwhelming confidence anyway, and taking out Lee only adds to that. As a baseball fan, I tend to believe in what feels real, but there's something unreal about this Giants team. When you look at them, outside looking in, they look like a team without stars. But when the Giants look at themselves, they seem to see a team where, each game, ANYONE can be the star.
"It's a powerful thing," Jeremy Affeldt said after the Giants won the National League Championship Series, "when every night players say to themselves, 'tonight's my night.'" Well, yeah, it was powerful enough to take down Cliff Lee. The Rangers might recover. But after just one game, they are definitely in the recovery room.