ST. LOUIS -- Before the doors to the Giants' clubhouse opened to the media after a 3-1 St. Louis win in NLCS Game 3, a small figure dressed in jeans and a gray hoodie -- with the hoodie pulled over his head and the requisite fashionable headphones in place -- walked alone down the hallway from the clubhouse and out of Busch Stadium virtually unnoticed. That figure happens to be the most important person in whatever is left of the Giants' season: Tim Lincecum.
Lincecum is San Francisco's Game 4 starter. The Giants did not announce that until after yesterday's rain-delayed Game 3, when, by every indication, they had been all but locked in to Lincecum for days. Because they withheld the announcement, Lincecum avoided the usual press conference for starting pitchers on the day before their start. And by booking out of the Giants' clubhouse before the water in the showers had enough time to get hot, Lincecum avoided questions altogether. Nice move.
Lincecum needs to do his talking on the mound anyway, because as catcher Buster Posey said about Game 4, and the specter of the Giants going down 3-games-to-1, "It's really big. We don't want to do that."
In all best-of-seven series, the team leading 3-games-to-1 wins the series 86 percent of the time (65-11).
It's hard to imagine that Lincecum will not pitch well. In his three relief appearances this postseason he has allowed one run in 8 1/3 innings while allowing only three hits and striking out nine. His confidence and -- with the help of pitching exclusively out of the stretch -- his mechanics have returned. Lincecum has returned to swinging the ball behind his buttocks after taking it out of his glove, rather than letting it drop to his side. This move has kept him in rhythm and on time as he delivers the ball.
Would Lincecum return to the windup because he knows he is starting? That would seem to represent a risk, seeing that he hasn't thrown a pitch from the windup in 18 days and has been so locked in from the stretch.
"Someone mentioned that he's pitching with a lot of confidence," Posey said. "I agree. There's a lot more life on [his pitches], yes."
And so we might get the pitcher with one of the most famous windups of all time junking it for the most important start of the San Francisco season. Lincecum always is great theatre, but perhaps never more so than tonight.
Want to know the biggest play in Game 4? It's easy to say it was the two-run homer by St. Louis' Matt Carpenter, but the game still had six innings to play and with multiple scoring opportunities.
It was this: the Giants not scoring the tying run when Matt Cain bunted in the fourth inning with runners at first and third and one out. Standard procedure for that situation -- pitcher up, first and third, less than two outs -- has become the safety squeeze play. That's exactly what Giants manager Bruce Bochy had in mind, especially with speedy Gregor Blanco on third and Cain at bat.
"Cain's our best bunter," Bochy said.
But Cain could not get a bunt down on his first two attempts. With two strikes on Cain, Bochy left the bunt play on. This time Cain bunted the ball exactly as called for: to the glove side of the pitcher, which makes for a more difficult play to execute a quick throw home.
But the replay showed that Blanco was in poor position to read the bunt and score the run. (The runner takes off for home only upon reading that the bunt is down and decent enough to give him time to score.) Blanco had a short lead at third base and then a lousy secondary lead. When the bunt hit the ground, Blanco played it very passively and decided to stay put.
"He thought the ball was back to the mound," Bochy said.
The safety squeeze was the right play. When executed properly, there is no defense for it. But Cain needed three tries to get the bunt down and Blanco played it safe on third base on the third try. When the next batter, Angel Pagan, flied out, the Giants' inability to execute the play took on even larger implications.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has a weapon available to too few managers in baseball: a closer who can get six outs. The worst thing to happen in this era of bullpen specialization is that managers lined up like herded sheep to give their best arm less work. The more teams wait to use their closer to start the ninth inning, the more advantage goes to teams like the Yankees when they had Mariano Rivera closing all those postseason games with more than three outs to go, and now the Cardinals, who have Jason Motte, who is more old-school than pampered closer.
Motte nailed down the last six outs of the Game 3 St. Louis win. Just how rare is to see a six-out save in the postseason? No National League pitcher has done it since Brad Lidge, then with Houston, seven years ago.
Phil Coke took care of a six-out save for the Tigers in ALCS Game 2, but that was an appearance by a setup reliever pressed into duty because of the struggles of closer Jose Valverde, the prototypical modern closer who doesn't do eighth innings. If you made a list of true closers with six-out postseason saves in the past decade, it would look like this:
1. Mariano Rivera: 8
2. Brad Lidge: 3
3. Jason Motte, Jonathan Papelbon, Bobby Jenks: 1
Motte gave Matheny six outs five times this year, so this was nothing new. Last night Motte pitched as if he remembered he left the iron on at home. He threw only 19 pitches to get the six outs. So you bet he will be available again tonight for Game 4.
Bochy already had a lineup change in mind for Game 4, but it's not what you think. He likely will play Hector Sanchez at catcher and slide Buster Posey over to first base. (Sanchez caught Lincecum 16 times, with a 4.87 ERA; Posey caught him 15 times with a 5.46 ERA.) And what about Hunter Pence in the five hole as protection for Posey? No change is planned there.
"I'm pretty firm on my lineup," Bochy said.
It's obvious that the Cardinals are not going to let Posey beat them. St. Louis' Game 3 starter, Kyle Lohse -- who walked five batters for the first time in four years -- pitched around Posey twice, once intentionally and once semi-intentionally. Pence is hitting .161 this postseason, with five hits in 31 at-bats. Always a bundle of energy, Pence appears even more hyper than usual at the plate. He has seen only 39 balls in 32 plate appearances while averaging just 3.46 pitches per plate appearance. He certainly doesn't lack for confidence.
"Every time I go up there," he said after Game 3, "I feel like I'm on fire. That's the way I feel no matter what happens."
Why not bat Posey third? It makes the most sense -- with Pablo Sandoval behind him -- but only in a vacuum. Posey prefers hitting fourth, and the Giants don't want to take him out of his comfort zone. (He has started only 13 games in the third spot in his career and hit .365 in that small sample.) It was a similar story a few years ago with another best hitter on past Giants teams: Barry Bonds never liked hitting third, and so the Giants gave up the chance to have him hit in the first inning every game and the extra 18-19 plate appearances per year that they would have received from Bonds if he batted one spot higher in the order.
Then, as now, it was a lesson in dealing with the human element.
How many millions are the Yankees willing to eat to rid themselves of Alex Rodriguez? That is the question that is now in play after the Yankees have embarrassed him by continuing to pinch-hit and bench him in the postseason. It may be the right baseball move because Rodriguez is useless against righthanded pitching (0-for-18), but it's not a move done when you want to protect a long-term relationship. Rodriguez is owed $114 million over the next five seasons, not including another $30 million in incentives based on hollow "milestones" made possible by years of steroid use.
Rodriguez isn't getting traded to the Marlins during the ALCS, but let's remember two things: New York GM Brian Cashman started trade discussions with Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski about Curtis Granderson as soon as he submitted his roster for the 2009 World Series; and the Yankees would do cartwheels to free themselves of Rodriguez's expensive decline and negative energy. So though a trade isn't happening now, it's on the table for the postseason depending on how much money the Yankees will have to eat -- and assuming Rodriguez would agree to play in his home city in Miami after getting the message in the past two series that the Yankees aren't exactly standing behind him these days.
The Marlins are in no position to take on much money, not after their plans to jumpstart revenues with a new ballpark and high-priced team this year were an abject failure. Attendance will fall off a cliff quickly in Miami. Ownership there is unpredictable but smitten by the public relation value of moves.
How much could the Marlins pay Rodriguez? Does he have the value of Michael Cuddyer at $10 million a year? Adam Dunn at $14 million a year? Let's say the Marlins could carry Rodriguez at $14 million a year. That would leave the Yankees in a spot to pay him $44 million not to play for them.
Eight years ago, the Rangers were so done with Rodriguez that they paid him $71 million to go away. Here we are with yet another team trying to figure out the price of being done with him.