By Ben Reiter
October 23, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO -- Here, they will always remember the bottom of the third inning of Game 7 of the 2012 NLCS, in which 11 Giants batters turned four hits, two walks, one swing during which Hunter Pence's broken bat somehow hit the ball three separate times, and one crushing mental gaffe by the Cardinals shortstop, Pete Kozma -- who turned out to have been Pete Kozma all along -- into five runs and an insurmountable 7-0 lead.

They will remember how the game ended, in a driving downpour that seemed to send not one of them rushing for cover, as they celebrated a 9-0 win, and a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit and the clinching of San Francisco's second World Series appearance in three years. They will remember how the Giants then ran a lap around the field, high-fiving them, waving flags that represented their various countries and their team.

But the key moment in the Giants' Game 7 win was delivered by the smallest man on the diamond -- the man who looked to the sky, minutes before he would advance to the first World Series of his 11-year career, and insouciantly caught the raindrops in his mouth -- and it came well before that downpour, and that lap of the field and even that wild third inning.

In the minutes after Sunday night's Game 6 win, Angel Pagan, the Giants' leadoff man, explained the impact that Marco Scutaro -- who now officially represents one of the most valuable mid-season acquisitions any team has ever made -- has had during his three months in San Francisco. "He's one of the best second hitters, to me, in the game," Pagan said. "He puts the ball in play a lot. Whenever the runners are in motion, hit and run, he'll put it in play. He's going to hit that hole, a lot of times it's going to be first and third. That's going to create a lot of chances for us to score."

First inning runs are a boon to any club. This year, major league teams had a winning percentage of .700 when they produced at least one of them. But they were particularly crucial to the Giants, who won more than four out of five games -- 81.2 percent of them, precisely -- when they scored that early. During the regular season, the Giants crossed the plate in a game's opening frame 118 times, more often than any other team save the Rockies, and the frequency with which they did so spiked after they elevated Scutaro to the No. 2 spot in the order behind Pagan, on Aug. 7. In their 53 games thereafter, the Giants scored 48 runs in the first inning and went 35-18.

In Game 7, the first inning played out precisely in the way Pagan had described the evening before. Pagan led off the game with a single. Then manager Bruce Bochy put on the hit-and-run, and Scutaro -- who virtually never swings and misses -- drove Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse to right field for a single, allowing Pagan to reach third. From there, it was academic. No. 3 hitter Pablo Sandoval grounded out. Pagan scored. The Giants had once again manufactured a run in the first, as they have so many times since Scutaro's arrival, and, once again, it set the stage for an NLCS victory. Three of their four wins in the series ended up coming in games in which they had scored in the first, and just once in seven games did the team that struck the first blow end up losing.

Of course, Scutaro's influence on the NLCS extended far beyond his early game exploits. Despite the fact that he missed half of Game 2 after falling victim to Matt Holliday's now-famous takeout slide, and then played the next five with lingering pain in his left hip, he had 14 hits -- tying the all-time record for hits in a single playoff series -- and was named the series' MVP, as players who bat .500 usually are. In that five-run third inning, it was he who started the onslaught, leading it off with another single to right, and scoring the first run on Pence's improbable triple-contact double.

After the game in the Giants' champagne-soaked clubhouse, as the inescapable 'Gangnam Style' played on the stereo, Scutaro -- wearing, for protection, reflective ski goggles and two hats, one on top of the other -- endeavored to explain how he had done what he had done. "I was just focused on trying to do my job, help the team go to the next round," he said. "Just try to do my job, and win, man. Win, it's very, very nice."

Not every Giant did his job in this series. For instance, Buster Posey -- the Giants' catcher, cleanup hitter and the likely NL MVP -- batted .154, and drove in just one of the club's 35 runs, and Pence, despite his bizarre double, hit just .179. San Francisco did have its share of heroes, including Ryan Vogelsong, who won both of his starts and pitched to an ERA of 1.29, and Matt Cain, who delivered 5.2 shutout innings Monday, in the biggest game of his life.

Scutaro's job is less flashy, but he did it better than anyone, and it is difficult to imagine that the Giants would be preparing to host Detroit in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday were it not for him. He never stopped hitting, but never hit better than he did early in games, when it mattered most. No matter what happens next, and no matter what the soon-to-be 37-year-old does for the remainder of his career, Scutaro's NLCS performance will ensure that he, too, will always be remembered in San Francisco.

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