SAN FRANCISCO — No matter what they do to separate themselves early, the Giants and Cardinals always seem to find each other late, locked together on the scoreboard, with every move, every pitch a potential game-changer. That's the way it often happens with teams so closely matched in talent and temperament, in resilience and resourcefulness. It’s why this National League Championship Series may well be decided by the relievers, the men who take the mound after the starting pitchers have set the stage.
"Could it be our bullpen against theirs?" Giants reliever Sergio Romo said after the Giants 5-4 victory in Game 3 on Tuesday. "That's the way it seems right now. We're getting our chances to take shots at each other, so it's kind of crazy."
It was especially insane at AT&T Park when Cardinals reliever Randy Choate threw away Gregor Blanco's bunt attempt in the bottom of the 10th inning, allowing Brandon Crawford to score the winning run, which gave the Giants a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Score one for the San Francisco bullpen, which had been out-dueled on Sunday in Game 2, when Hunter Strickland gave up a game-tying home run to Matt Adams in the eighth and Romo coughed up a walk-off homer to the Cardinals’ Kolten Wong.
What's crazier still is that these teams' hopes of getting to the World Series depend so heavily on the men in the 'pen, many of whom are among the least known players on their rosters. Among the relievers who got key outs in Game 3 were Javier Lopez for the Giants, and Marco Gonzales, Pat Neshek and Seth Maness for the Cardinals. And then there was Choate, a 39-year-old journeyman who made the crucial mistake. None of these guys' jerseys are exactly hot-sellers, but the closer this series gets, the more important their roles become.
Relief pitchers are in many ways the best examples of the randomness of baseball. They can be dominant one season and all too hittable the next. The best of them often emerge unexpectedly, and if they last long enough, their careers often include periods of significant failure. Neshek, for instance, nearly couldn't find a job as a free agent last spring. The Mets, Tigers, Phillies and Twins were among the teams that said no thanks, and the best offer he had was a minor-league invite from Milwaukee until the Cards finally called.
"That made no sense to me, with all the relievers they had," Neshek said. "I thought it was career suicide."
But he signed and eventually became the Cardinals' lights-out eighth-inning man. After Randal Grichuk's seventh-inning homer tied the score at four on Tuesday, Neshek held the fort for the Cards at a critical time by tossing a scoreless eighth.
The bullpens matched zeroes into the 10th, when Romo came on with two outs and Jon Jay on first. He got the big out, retiring Matt Holliday on a groundout to third. It was redemption of a sort for Romo after giving up the walk-off homer to Wong two nights earlier, not that he was thinking of it that way.
"By the time [the media] started asking me about it after the game, I was already over it," Romo said. "It was over. On to the next one."
Maybe that's because Romo already had experience in dealing with disappointment. As a dominant closer, he was one of the Giants' biggest heroes in their 2012 World Series. This season, his signature slider lost its bite and Romo lost his job, eventually becoming the set-up man for closer Santiago Casilla.
"Part of the nature of the business," Romo said. "You’re going to have ups and downs when you come out of the 'pen. If you can’t deal with the bad as well as the good, you won’t be doing this very long."
If the Giants had turned to their bullpen one batter earlier, they might not have needed the ninth-inning dramatics to get the victory. They built a 4-0 lead — thanks largely to Travis Ishikawa’s wind-blown, three-run double — that the Cardinals had reduced to 4-3 with one out in the seventh, when manager Bruce Bochy left starter Tim Hudson in to face Grichuk despite having Jeremy Affeldt ready in the bullpen.
"He was still throwing the ball well," Bochy said of Hudson. "He was going to see the first two hitters and then I had Jeremy ready. But that first pitch got away from him and went for a home run."
But in this charmed postseason for the Giants, even the rare move that backfires on them doesn't seem to doom them. The relievers came on to shut down St. Louis until their luck could turn again, and it did. After Crawford walked, Juan Perez failed twice to get a bunt down, so of course, because these are the Giants, he singled with two strikes. Then Blanco sacrificed to Choate, who apparently forgot that there's no need to throw a sidearm, tailing fastball when you’re just trying to get the easy out at first. The throw went into foul territory while Crawford raced home with the run, and now the Cards will have to beat the Giants three out of the next four games to win this NLCS.
It felt like a series turning point, and the Cardinals understood the magnitude of the turn of events, though they tried not to think too deeply about it.
"When it's all over, I'll probably go back and think about when things did switch," manager Mike Matheny said. "But right now, that doesn't help us do what we need to do."
The Giants continue to find quirky ways to score runs that Abner Doubleday probably never envisioned. They had only two hits after Ishikawa's first-inning double, for instance, but they're two games away from the World Series anyway.
"That's just the way we do things," Affeldt said. "We grind and we grind, and the starters do their job, and the bullpen comes in and tries to hold the line and keep it close and give us a chance to win. Are we going to be perfect every time? No. But it's been a pretty successful formula."
To say the least. None of the Giants' magical comebacks and late-inning wins would be possible without the clutch performances they have gotten from so many of their relievers. Rather coincidentally, when the Cardinals made the mistake that cost them the game, Choate's errant throw to first went bouncing crazily into what is becoming the most important area of this series — the bullpen.