Giants winning the game of inches
SAN FRANCISCO -- This was the moment in this World Series when those who believe in concepts such as luck and karma became certain that both are on the side of the San Francisco Giants. Due to masterful performances by both starting pitchers -- by the Giants' Madison Bumgarner, who rebounded from a string of ineffective outings that more or less stretched back to late August, and by the Detroit Tigers' Doug Fister, who persevered after having been struck in the head with a line drive in the second inning -- Game 2 remained scoreless into the bottom of the seventh inning. Then, with men on first and second and no outs, Gregor Blanco, the Giants' diminutive left fielder and No. 7 hitter, dropped a bunt down the third-base line.
It was supposed to be a sacrifice, called for from the bench by manager Bruce Bochy -- though Blanco revealed he planned to bunt no matter what -- and the intention was to move both runners into scoring position with one out. As the bunt rolled down the dirt surrounding the line, it seemed certain to go foul. We have seen such bunts clip the edge of the infield grass and be redirected foul hundreds of times. And that is what the converging Tigers defenders -- third baseman Miguel Cabrera, catcher Gerald Laird and reliever Drew Smily -- were sure was going to happen. It did not. The ball rolled to a stop, a few inches inside the line. The trio of Tigers stood around it, as if it might regain some flicker of momentum, which never came. The bases were loaded, with no outs. A double play grounder by the next batter, Brandon Crawford, was enough to give the Giants a 1-0 lead, and to propel them on to a 2-0 victory and a 2-0 advantage in the World Series.
Blanco, after the game, admitted that perhaps he had gotten a bit lucky. He said it was the best bunt of his life, that he could not have even with his hand rolled it in such a perfect position, unreachable by any defender even in a drawn-in infield. But there was more to it than that. There was skill, and there was preparation. Each day during the postseason, in batting practice and in the batting cage too, Blanco has been practicing his bunting -- 10, 15 bunts per session -- in anticipation of a moment such as this. "Situations like that can happen, and I've been doing it every single game since the playoffs started, every day," he said. "Every day," he repeated, for emphasis.
So, yes, the Giants had put themselves in position to win thanks to a matter of inches, but those inches were not simply the result of a twist of fate, but earned. Despite their uncharacteristic Pablo Sandoval-led power binge in Game 1, the Giants are a team of nuance, a team focused doing the little things and doing them well, like hitting for contact and taking the extra base and playing solid defense and, yes, bunting. Their opponent relies on brute force: the home run, the strikeout. Games as tensely played, and as well pitched, as Game 2 are often -- if not mostly -- decided not on a knockout blow, but on the skilled seizing of even the slightest advantage. That the Giants are able to consistently do the latter is a central reason for their unexpected series lead.
The game's second most significant play -- one that might have tilted its result in the favor of the Tigers -- was also decided by a matter of inches. Once again, some would have attributed its outcome to luck, but it was mostly the Giants' ability to work with a scalpel, and not with a sledgehammer, that gave them the advantage.
Bumgarner struck Prince Fielder with a pitch to lead off the top of the second inning, and, two pitches later, Delmon Young ripped a double down the left-field line. The ball ricocheted around in the corner, giving Blanco some trouble in picking it up. That convinced third-base coach Gene Lamont to wave Fielder home, in an attempt to score from first base that seemed very likely to turn out well for Detroit.
Fielder is prodigiously talented in certain ways -- mostly in that he is one of the game's most powerful sluggers -- but he is not gifted with speed nor agility, as are so many of the Giants. The 275-pound Fielder rounded third and chugged for home, in the direction of catcher Buster Posey, who early last season suffered a broken leg in a home plate collision with the Marlins' Scott Cousins, and who now assiduously attempts to avoid such collisions. As Posey saw the hefty Fielder was headed his way -- "I don't know, you just have to be there to know what it's like," Posey would say of that experience -- he set up in front of the plate, not on top of it, and watched as Blanco finally gloved the ball, and then fired it to cutoff man Marco Scutaro. The remarkable Scutaro then wheeled and made a pinpoint relay throw from shallow left field, on a line directly to Posey's glove.
The laconic Fielder would say that his thoughts, as he approached Posey, were simple. "Try to be safe," he explained. "That's as specific as I can be: try to be safe." Were Fielder just a bit faster, or a bit more agile, he would have been safe. But he arrived as the ball did, and the very significant momentum he had built up forced him to slide not away from Posey, nor even directly into the plate, but just in front of it -- to where Posey was positioned -- and without his leg entirely extended. Posey applied a sweep tag to Fielder, and umpire Dan Iassogna signaled him out, to Fielder's chagrin. "Yeah, yeah," Fielder would say, when asked if he at the time thought that he had been safe. "I guess I wasn't."
He wasn't, just barely, replays showed. As it would later, on Blanco's bunt, the Giants' skill set -- their mastery of the nuances, in this case of the relay throw to home, and of the application of a sweep tag there -- proved superior to the Tigers' brute force. Luck had little to do with it. The Tigers' style, to be sure, has taken them far, and might yet carry them farther still. But now they return to Detroit, for Game 3 on Saturday, trailing two games to none, which is a deficit that only 11 of 52 teams in the history of the World Series have overcome.