WASHINGTON, D.C. -- He pounds his glove, he curses, he mutters to himself, he yells at baseballs, he yells at teammates. He struts around the mound like a gunslinger waiting for high noon. There are few pitchers as intense as Jake Peavy. His old White Sox teammates love to talk about how in his very first bullpen session with his former team, it took Peavy about five pitches before he started screaming at himself like a mad man. It was spring training.
Friday night at Nationals Park, Game 1 of the NLDS between the Nats and Giants, was a vintage Peavy performance. He is 33 now, with more creases in his face and a scraggly beard this postseason, and with his velocity and stuff diminished, he is not the pitcher he was seven years ago when he won his Cy Young in San Diego. But facing the NL’s third highest-scoring offense during the regular season, and one of the hottest set of bats down the stretch, Peavy allowed just two hits over 5 2/3 shutout innings, dominating with an assortment of cutters and sliders, “throwing the ball to both corners, breaking balls in fastball counts, and vice versa,” said Washington manager Matt Williams. He wasn’t exactly efficient, but he was wildly effective, and yes, muttering to himself and yelling at teammates and baseballs all afternoon long.
“The slider was clearly working tonight,” Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt said after the game, “But Jake also had that look in his eye, where it’s like, get out of his way. The guy is a different kind of animal, and that’s why we love him. There aren’t too many guys who yell at baseballs midair. He’s one of the most competitive guys you’ll ever play with, and that’s why we love him here. He gives this team a little more edge, and you saw that tonight.”
The Giants’ trade for Peavy in July was criticized by some and overlooked by most, but of all the pitchers moved at the trade deadline -- David Price, Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija -- no one has had a bigger impact than the longtime Padre, who went 6-4 with a 2.17 ERA in 12 starts after his arrival in San Francisco.
“He saved us,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said of Peavy’s importance. The right-hander has struggled in past Octobers. He entered the game with a 9.27 ERA over five postseason starts. But he delivered the best playoff start of his career on Friday. The big October question for the Giants is, Beyond Bumgarner, Who? If Peavy can deliver performances like this, the Giants -- who have now won nine straight postseason games -- and, after their shellacking of the Pirates in the Wild Card Game and now their opening statement against the Nats, look like they could have another postseason run in them. Something about these Giants and October.
“I don’t know if there is another gear with this team, but this team has got a lot of experience in the postseason,” said Peavy. “We understand that we might not be man-for-man the favorites. We are not given a lot of credit. We take a lot of pride being a team, and I think it really translates in the postseason, because you have to play that way.”
For the Nats, the juggernaut that strutted into the postseason as a World Series favorite, it was not a good day. Under an oatmeal colored sky, Stephen Strasburg unleashed the first pitch, a 97-mph missile down the middle, and the crowd inside the shimmering ballpark, dressed in red and waving their white towels, roared. It was 3:09 p.m., a cool, windswept afternoon in the nation’s capital, and they’d all been waiting two years for this moment -- the city still scarred from the team’s 2012 postseason, the players on the team humbled by their bust of a season a year ago, the pitcher on the mound who was shut down two Octobers ago.
Strasburg was solid in his first career postseason start, allowing two runs over five innings. "Stras was good, he gave us a chance,” said Williams. But he was far from great. While he had a very good season (14-11, 3.14 ERA, league-leading 242 strikeouts) there is a sense that Strasburg hasn’t quite been the dominator we’d all expected he’d be by now, and on Friday, he again left us feeling somewhat underwhelmed.
Strasburg was lifted after just 89 pitches when he allowed singles to Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford to start the sixth. Williams turned to Jerry Blevins with two men on and Travis Ishikawa at the plate. In the lefty-lefty matchup, Blevins struck out Ishikawa and got Peavy to fly out to right. Gregor Blanco flied out to center, and the Nationals escaped the inning, down by just two runs. But other than a pair of solo home runs from Bryce Harper and Asdrubal Cabrera, the Nats could not come up with the big hit against Peavy and the Giants’ pen. Washington had an opportunity in the eighth, down 3-2 with two men on and one out, but Sergio Romo struck out Ian Desmond and Harper grounded out to first.
The thing about this Nats team is that Strasburg may be their third-best starter. Saturday afternoon, Jordan Zimmermann takes the mound six days after throwing the first no-hitter in Nats history. Doug Fister, who posted an ERA over half a run lower than Strasburg’s during the season, will go in Game 3.
But after this loss, suddenly Game 2 feels almost like a must-win for Washington with Madison Bumgarner waiting for them in a Game 3 start in San Francisco. This is the thing, the beauty and cruelty, of the Division Series: one game can change everything. And after one game, it feels like the Giants are in control of the series, and perhaps on their way to another postseason run that no one saw coming.