Karmic energy and great pitching put Giants in the World Series
SAN FRANCISCO -- If you didn't think something powerful was happening with this Giants team, borrowing from the same karmic energy of the 2011 Cardinals, you must be convinced after Hunter Pence broke open the seventh game of the NLCS with a groundball double to centerfield that hit his bat as many as three times -- once when the bat was intact and once or twice after the first impact cracked it. It was as ridiculous as a clown spraying a bottle of seltzer water on the audience. It was slapstick come to the NLCS. It was pure Pence, the Ichabod Crane of a rightfielder who seems to play baseball as if guided by a calliope in his head.
"They got a lot of bounces," losing pitcher Kyle Lohse said, shaking his head. "I mean, weird things happened. I don't know."
Cardinals first baseman Lance Berkman called Pence's hit "illegal" -- but even the rule book provided the Giants with a break there. A batter is ruled out and the runners cannot advance if the ball hits his bat twice -- Rule 6.05 (h) -- but there is a special provision under "comment" in which the ball is permitted to hit the bat twice when the bat breaks. The rule was designed to cover "a part" of the bat that flies off when the bat breaks apart, but it's vague enough to cover what happened to Pence's bat: it splintered but did not break apart after the ball hit the handle. The ball bounced slightly and then the barrel contacted it solidly.
One moment shortstop Pete Kozma is breaking to his right to field a grounder that could be a double play, and the next moment the baseball is suddenly moving fast to his left and with so much spin that centerfielder John Jay could not catch it cleanly even after it had traveled 300 feet. Three runs scored on the weirdest hit you will ever see.
"I've never seen anything like it," said Kozma, who looked and sounded as if he was trying to describe a UFO to a highway trooper.
Said Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens, "There's something going on with this team."
In NLCS Game 5 Barry Zito threw the game of his life. In Game 6 one routine grounder suddenly bounced over the head of St. Louis first baseman Matt Carpenter and another smacked second baseman Daniel Descalso in the face. In Game 1 of the NLDS, the Reds' best pitcher, Johnny Cueto, left with an oblique injury after throwing just eight pitches to the Giants and was unable to start the decisive Game 5. In NLDS Game 3, when all the elimination-defying stunts began for San Francisco, Brandon Phillips made the foolish mistake of getting thrown out at third base for the Reds' first out of the game while trying to advance two bases on a wild pitch. (The Giants won, 2-1, in extra innings, the first of winning six straight elimination games this postseason.) Marco Scutaro has turned into Ty Cobb, only with a sweet disposition. The dude was catching raindrops on his tongue in the ninth inning on Monday night.
It's crazy what's happening with this team. But don't forget this: in those six elimination games the San Francisco pitchers have allowed nine runs. (The team has scored 36 in those games on playoff death's door.) Nothing like strong pitching and defense to get the planets into alignment. Berkman nailed it when he said Zito turned this series around.
"That was the game we had to have," Berkman said. "We're at home, we're a predominantly righthanded hitting team that does better against lefthanders. ... It was there for the taking.
"We had second and third and no outs [in the second] and didn't score. That was the turning point. Zito pitched a great game. Now they were back in their place, which is not a good offensive park, with their two best pitchers on the mound, [Ryan] Vogelsong and [Matt] Cain."
It's all so surreal, like the Serat painting of a tableau in the ninth inning of Game 7: rain falling, the crowd delighting in the soaking, the infield shimmering as if a mountaintop lake, a moat of runoff water ringing the pitcher's mound. ... It was the rain version of a giant snow globe -- a moment a Giants fan can put on their mantle, something to cherish on the worst days of some future sour season or the worst cold snap in the middle of winter when baseball seems far away. But the time to reflect has not dawned yet in San Francisco. The Giants, turning back elimination six times, are alive. Very much alive. The World Series starts here tomorrow. Rain gear is optional. Suspending logic is not.
"Since he got here," said Meulens, "it's been like having another hitting coach. The approach for a lot of guys has gotten a lot better because of how he does it and what he shares with them."
Scutaro has a very unique way of hitting. He takes his hands to the ball in the same way as all hitters: with the palm of his top hand up and the palm of his bottom hand down. But most hitters begin turning the top hand over -- with the palm turning down -- fairly soon after contact with the ball as the bat begins to wrap around the body. But Scutaro keeps the palm of his top hand up for an extraordinarily long time -- through contact and well after contact. This approach allows him to keep the bat on plane longer.
"Which is why he almost never rolls over on a pitch or pops it up," Meulens said. "It's all line drives and hard groundballs."
It's the most efficient approach to make consistent contact and to hit the ball squarely: a short path to the ball and then long through it.
Giants GM Brian Sabean caught me off guard a bit before the postseason when he identified "our two best hitters: [Buster] and [Marco] Scutaro." Now I get it. Meulens told me before the playoffs began that, "I've never seen anybody like him" -- not because Scutaro almost never swings and misses (just 17 times in three months as a Giant) but because he hits the ball squarely more often than anybody else.
Scutaro put on a clinic in the NLCS and was named the Most Valuable Player. His 14 hits tied the postseason record for any series, matching the 14 of Hideki Matsui (2004 Yankees), Albert Pujols (2004 Cardinals) and Kevin Youkilis (2007 Red Sox) -- all done in LCS play.
Scutaro has become the heartbeat of this team. How fitting that the last out that clinched the pennant for the Giants was a pop-up hit by Matt Holliday into the glove of Scutaro. Holliday became the chief protagonist to Giants fans because of the harsh takeout slide he put on Scutaro in Game 2. Scutaro even handled that with aplomb. He had no harsh words for Holliday and the Cardinals, only more lessons for them in his ongoing clinic of how to get the barrel on the baseball.
"I would have to say the Tigers have it set up perfectly," Berkman said. "They're going to miss the Giants' two best pitchers, [Ryan] Vogelsong and [Matt] Cain, in the first two games in this ballpark. They get them in Detroit with the DH and American League lineups. The Tigers have [Justin] Verlander and [Doug] Fister to take advantage of this place.
"I see the Tigers winning in five or six games. I just don't see it for the Giants, not with the way the rotation is set up. I'm a National League guy and my heart tells me National League. But my head tells me it's going to be tough for them."
Game 7 is played under special rules of engagement. There is a reason they talk about "all hands on deck" when it comes to pitcher usage in such sudden death games. Any bullpen "formulas" no longer apply. It's any pitcher at any time.
With his team one key hit away from essentially being eliminated, Matheny had multiple veteran options in his bullpen -- Edward Mujica and Mitchell Boggs to name two -- or his best power arm lately, rookie strikeout machine Trevor Rosenthal. It was time for Matheny to use his best relief option. That was not Joe Kelly.
"Right there we needed a groundball, exactly what Joe Kelly got us," said Matheny, who added he also was concerned about the pitcher's spot coming up fifth -- fifth! -- the next inning. The game was on fire. Worrying about the pitcher's spot had no play in such urgency.
The next four batters all reached base against Kelly, and by the time the inning was not quite over, Mujica was in the game with the score 7-0, not 2-0. Yes, the groundball double by Pence was a freak accident or Giant karma, depending on your rooting interest. But the one thing you cannot do in a sudden death game is let the game get out of hand without using your best pitchers. That's what happened to St. Louis.
Bochy's record certainly is held down by some lean years in San Diego. He is only 10 games over .500 in a career that spans 2,898 games.
But what if he wins another World Series? Indeed, you might say this World Series brings Cooperstown into play for the winner, be it Leyland (1,676 wins and 17 games over .500 in a 21-year managerial career with one World Series championship) or Bochy, who also looks to get his second title.
One of them will become the 14th manager to win more than 1,400 games and multiple World Series. All of them are in the Hall or assured of going in except Houk.
Bochy is far from wrapping up his career. He's only 57. The point is that he has quietly amassed a resume that is headed toward some serious Hall of Fame consideration.