Giants and A's got one crucial win. Here's how they get two more
CINCINNATI -- Bay Area baseball lives another day. The Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants won elimination games on the same night by scoring just two runs each and playing the kind of baseball that has defined them: Oakland using the energy of a loopy home crowd, getting a timely home run and riding great pitching, especially from its strikeout bullpen, while San Francisco used one of its patented keep-it-close-and-we'll-figure-something out scripts.
And as long as those elements stay in place -- Oakland gets the next two games at home and San Francisco has to blanket the Cincinnati offense -- the two teams have a fighting chance to mount historic comebacks. The Giants face the far greater task. While four teams have come back from 0-2 deficits to win a best-of-five series (1995 Mariners, 1984 Padres, 1982 Brewers and 1981 Dodgers) nobody has done it with three straight wins on the road.
The Athletics, after an Oakland-styled 2-0 win in ALDS Game 3, have the better chance if only because of the nuttiness at O.co Coliseum and, more importantly, because the home ballpark plays more to their strength than being on the road. Their pitching is extremely deep, especially because relievers Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and Grant Balfour, with that dirty cap of his, have been nearly unhittable in the past two weeks.
The Giants have almost no offense to speak of right now, so it's likely that nothing will come easy for them. "I'd rather win 10-0," manager Bruce Bochy said with a laugh when asked if he enjoyed managing every last drop out of their 2-1 win last night. "That's something I would enjoy."
Not going to happen. San Francisco needs Barry Zito to keep the Reds to three runs or less, with Tim Lincecum behind him. Lincecum truly is The Freak. He was lights out in Game 2 in relief after throwing only two pitches in the bullpen to get loose. "There was some, uh, confusion," he said. Lincecum typically needs only 12-15 pitches before a start, so two pitches in the pen and 8-10 on the game mound were plenty for him. Look for him to have an influence on Game 4.
No pitching staff in baseball was better than Cincinnati at retiring the leadoff hitter of innings. The Reds allowed only a .275 OBP to the first batter of an inning. What that means is that Cincinnati is better than anybody else at giving you only two outs to score a run -- and that has proved to be a tourniquet around the offense of the Giants, the worst team in baseball at hitting home runs that, consequently, needs to string together hits and outs to score.
Through 28 innings of the NLDS, Reds pitchers have retired the leadoff hitter 23 times. And here is the Giants' cumulative run total in this series when they don't get the leadoff man on: zero.
The Giants have scored four runs in three games, with only one of them scoring on an honest to goodness hit (a home run by Buster Posey). The other runs scored on a wild pitch, a fly ball and an error. In other words, the Giants still haven't knocked in anybody from the bases with a hit.
Give the Giants this much: they managed to stay alive in the series by winning Game 3 while punching out 16 times and without getting an extra-base hit. Only one other team in postseason history managed to win a game with so many strikeouts and nothing better than a single: the 1997 Indians in the ALCS against Baltimore.
The Giants' pitching and the aggressive managing of Bochy helped win the game, which ultimately turned on a tough error by Reds third baseman Scott Rolen. San Francisco managed to score a run in two innings, the third and the 10th. They were the only two innings when the Giants put a leadoff man on: once by Gregor Blanco getting hit by a pitch and, in the 10th, a hard opposite field single by Buster Posey.
The Reds had a chance to win their first postseason series in 17 years while in a tie game in extra innings at home with their best pitcher on the mound. So what do they do? They took their best pitcher out of the game.
This is no knock on manager Dusty Baker for taking closer Aroldis Chapman out of the game after 15 pitches. As a prototypical modern closer, Chapman is a one-inning guy. He has lasted only long enough to get two or three outs in 19 appearances in a row.
The problem is the modern convention of how teams use closers. Chapman cannot pitch another inning after throwing 15 pitches -- all fastballs -- because he's not trained to do it. And the modern manager always manages tomorrow's game while managing tonight's game; Baker didn't want to have Chapman unavailable for Game 4. Well, now he has Game 4. In a way, Bochy has an edge over Baker because without a prototypical closer he has more flexibility with how he uses his best arms.
The next time you want to talk about how valuable closers are and how they can be Cy Young Award winners, just think about how the job has devolved into such a specialty position that the Reds' closer can't throw more than 15 pitches with an NLCS berth at play and nobody even blinks. This is the way it's done now.
By the way, in consecutive games in the 1972 World Series, Oakland closer Rollie Fingers entered consecutive games in the sixth, ninth, eighth, ninth and fifth innings -- throwing 3 2/3 innings in the last appearance.
Baker knew before Game 3 that the game loomed large for the Reds because he wasn't sure who would pitch Game 4, based on Johnny Cueto's spasms in his right oblique. Rarely does a team up 2-0 in a best-of-five series face pregame anxiety, but that's where the Reds stood because of what to do about their starting pitchers. The 3-2 loss brought that anxiety to a higher level. And now Baker has to deal once again with his own anxiety about the difficulty of closing out a postseason series.
Baker is now 3-7 in the postseason when his team has a chance to close out a series, including a 1-7 record with three teams since Game 6 of the 2002 World Series. Baker's Giants lost 2002 World Series Games 6 and 7 to the Angels, his 2003 Cubs lost NLDS Game 4 to Atlanta (before winning Game 5) and lost NLCS Games 5, 6 and 7 to the Marlins, and now his 2012 Reds lost NLDS Game 4 to San Francisco.
The biggest play of Game 3 might have been Brandon Phillips of the Reds getting thrown out at third base by Posey while trying to advance two bases on a stolen base/wild pitch combination in the first inning. San Francisco starter Ryan Vogelsong did not retire four of the first five batters, but somehow got out of the inning with only one run worth of damage. He could thank Phillips for making the first out of the game for the Reds at third base -- something you almost never see.
"I'm an aggressive baserunner," Phillips said. "If I was safe it would have been beautiful. Would I do it again? Yes, I would."