ARLINGTON, Texas -- On Saturday, someone asked 24-year-old Tommy Hunter to pass along the best advice he'd received about how to deal with the pressure of pitching in his first World Series game.
"Take a deep breath," Hunter said.
Hunter's start, in Sunday's Game 4, lasted just four innings, and his blood undoubtedly remained well oxygenated throughout. The Giants' lineup is usually one of the league's most antsy -- during the regular season, just five clubs drew fewer pitches per plate appearances than their 3.74 -- but against Hunter, who is a pitch-to-contact type (that is, a can't-strike-many-out type), it was clear from the start that manager Bruce Bochy and hitting coach Hensley Meulens had stressed to their hitters the virtue of patience on this night. The first seven Giants batters Hunter faced let his first pitch to them sail by without swinging at it, and the Giants seemed committed to stringing together long at-bats against him, tiring what was already the weak link in the Rangers' rotation in order to get into their meaty bullpen, with its collection of recently ineffective Darrens.
Even more stress-inducing for Hunter than the Giants' taking of pitches, though, was their fouling them off. Hunter was surprised by the Giants' patience with him -- "No! That was totally unexpected," he said after the game, when asked if that matched the scouting report he had received -- but he was more agitated by the way they'd fouled off pitch after pitch. "Can't tell you how many foul balls they had," he said.
They had 22, on only 83 pitches from Hunter, a rate that not only tires a pitcher but annoys him, too, and tests his focus. C.J. Wilson explained the mindset afterwards: "It's like, dude, really? Just put it in play." It was not, certainly, the Giants' plan to foul off quite so many pitches ("They only practice that in Japan," Wilson said), but it was a byproduct of their overall strategy, and one that seemed to bear results in the third inning. Of the 22 pitches from Hunter that the Giants fouled away, nine were fouled away by No. 2 hitter Freddy Sanchez, six of those in a nine-pitch at-bat with Andres Torres on second and no outs in the second inning.
After Hunter had finally, finally induced Sanchez into grounding out to third in that at-bat, it is not difficult to imagine his state of mind: a little annoyed, a little relieved, not entirely focused on the following batter, Aubrey Huff, who probably wasn't going to take a full cut at the first pitch anyway as only one of the first 11 Giants batters had done that. So Hunter grooved an 86 mile-an-hour cutter, which didn't really cut, about belt-high over the heart of the plate, and Huff turned on it and hit it 404 feet over the right field wall. That's how far the Rangers OFFICIALLY estimated the ball traveled, anyway, but their estimator might have been trying not to hurt Hunter's feelings.
The Giants' game plan against Hunter worked. Though it was only 2-0 when Ron Washington pulled him from the game at the beginning of the fifth inning, the Giants were clearly in line to extend their damage against him -- he did not produce a swing and miss until his 79th pitch of the night, against Nate Schierholtz, the last batter he would face. And Washington made the right call by turning to Alexi Ogando -- a rookie righty with a 1.80 ERA this season whom Washington has sometimes inexplicably bypassed during the playoffs. Ogando's hard stuff seemed to fluster Giants' hitters, who had become accustomed to Hunter's fluttering meat; he retired the first five batters he faced, and seemed as if he'd give the Rangers a chance to come back.
Then, after a sixth-inning pitch to Juan Uribe, Ogando reached down and grabbed his side. Strained left oblique. "He's through," Washington said, of his prospects for the rest of the series. So were the Rangers, for Game 3 anyway.
Washington turned to his Darrens, as he had to at this point, and they performed to their recent form. Darren Oliver gave up a run in the seventh on a deep double to Torres. Darren O'Day allowed a run in the eighth, on a homer by Buster Posey. It was 4-0, more than enough for Giants starter Madison Bumgarner, and then closer Brian Wilson.
Before Game 4, Cliff Lee -- who will start tomorrow night for the Rangers -- said, "Sometimes the best go down, sometimes the worst teams win." Lee would never say so explicitly, but the inference -- that the Giants are, in this series, the worse team -- was as clear as it ought to be uncontroversial. The Giants, by most measures, are a worse team than the Rangers, with less across-the-board talent. In three of four games of this series, however, they have simply been the better team. None of their three victories has been the result of luck, or of umpiring, or of playing conditions, or even the implementation of a better strategy, really, although the Giants' hitters' patience against Hunter certainly sent them on their way on Sunday.
No, the Giants' wins have stemmed from the fact that their players -- Bumgarner, mainly, on Sunday -- have been playing better than the Rangers' players, and it is not really more complicated than that. "We scored zero runs," Wilson said, when he was asked about the loss. "We got iced out. We need to score more runs. At least, one run, technically, if we want to win."
Hunter felt confident in Monday night's starter, whom the Rangers hope will win for them the first of the three consecutive games they must now have, and who is usually the best player in any playoff games in which he plays. "We've got a guy named Cliff Lee over there," he said, nodding across the clubhouse to Lee's locker, which had been empty of its occupant long before members of the media had been allowed in. "Go get 'em, Cliff."