DETROIT -- For more than two weeks now, since two days before the start of their N.L. Championship Series against the Cardinals, the Giants have had on their 40-man roster a left fielder who was the MVP of this year's All-Star Game, a left fielder whose batting average this season, .346, was at least ten points better than that of either league's hitting champion. But the Giants, to some public grumbling, never considered activating Melky Cabrera after his completion of a 50-game ban for testing positive for excess testosterone, opting instead to move ahead in the postseason with Gregor Blanco, a diminutive 28-year-old journeyman who did not play above Triple-A in 2011, and in the 2012 regular season batted .244. On the day before the World Series' commencement, Giants manager Bruce Bochy again patiently explained why.
"With Melky, we felt when that happened -- as far as losing him -- that the club played very well, and the guys that we had been putting out there have done the job," Bochy said. "They've earned this, and this is the way we're going to move forward."
Blanco was the central guy who had earned it, as he has been the starting left fielder in each of San Francisco's 15 playoff games. In Saturday night's World Series Game 3, the Giants' scrutinized decision yet again worked out wonderfully, in a second consecutive 2-0 win that gave them a 3-0 series lead, putting them one victory away from a championship.
Blanco had been involved in plays that significantly impacted the outcomes of each of the series' first two games. In Game 1's 8-3 win, he made a pair of magnificent diving catches, on liners by Miguel Cabrera in the third and Prince Fielder in the sixth, that served to forestall any potential Tigers' comeback. "We might have been a couple good catches by the left fielder from it being a 6-3, 6-4 ballgame," said the Tigers' exasperated manager, Jim Leyland.
In Game 2, Blanco made a perfect throw to cut-off man Marco Scutaro to initiate the play that would end with Fielder being tagged out at home with no outs in the second inning of a scoreless game. Then he put down an even more perfect bunt in the seventh to load the bases and set up the scoring of the go-ahead -- and eventual winning -- run.
In Saturday's Game 3, Blanco crushed a one-out, second-inning slider from Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez to the wall in centerfield, for a triple that drove in the game's first run -- which would, again, prove the winning one -- and put him in position to score the game's second, on Brandon Crawford's subsequent single. After the game, Blanco was humble about his triple, suggesting that the cold weather had forced Sanchez to hang that slider, even though he had little trouble otherwise. He completed seven innings, and allowed just those two second-inning, Blanco-catalyzed runs.
For good measure, with no outs in the bottom of the ninth, Blanco made a stunning catch of a Jhonny Peralta fly ball in foul territory, never running at less than full speed despite quickly approaching the wall. "I was going to smash into it, if I had to," he would say. "That was a big, big out. Always in the ninth, to be able to get that first out is huge."
Bochy and the Giants, quite obviously, knew what they had in Blanco, a man not only willing to run into lightly padded cement for them, but thankful for the opportunity to do so. "That's kind of part of my job, and I'm really thankful to the Giants for giving me the opportunity to be here, giving me their support," Blanco said. "I just don't want to make them look bad. I want to be able to say, 'You guys aren't wrong about me.'"
No matter how this series ends -- and it will likely end very soon, as 20 of the 23 teams to have taken a 3-0 lead have gone on to a sweep, and the other three won in Game 5 -- no one will be able to say that the Giants were wrong about Blanco, nor about Cabrera, either. In fact, Blanco might be in position to be named history's most unlikely World Series MVP. It will be hard to differentiate between San Francisco's stellar starting pitchers -- Ryan Vogelsong on Saturday turned in the latest gem, as he threw 5 and 2/3 scoreless innings, leading to the second straight shutout of a Tigers team that was held without a run just twice during the regular season -- and Pablo Sandoval, who is now hitting .636. He will be the favorite. But there will be no denying the sum of Blanco's smaller, though no less valuable, contributions. "It'd be hard to take it from Pablo," said Crawford, "but he'd be up there, for sure."
To reliever Jeremy Affeldt, Blanco's performance is just a part of a successful team-wide effort to move past Cabrera's suspension. Their roll might have been slowed by a late attempt to reintroduce him, despite his obvious talents. "We've had different guys step up," Affeldt said. "The way Buster hit down the stretch. Pablo, the way he's hitting in the playoffs. I think we've recovered. I think we have a team here that's just as good right now as we've been all year. Would Melky have made it better? Maybe, maybe not. Would we have loved to have him? Yeah. But obviously, we've moved on, and we're trying to win without him."
The Giants are now winning without Cabrera in large measure because of Blanco, who was steered to them by Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens, who managed last winter in the Venezuelan league, of which Blanco was the MVP. "He had a knack for hitting lefties and righties," Muelens said on Saturday of what he saw then. "He worked deep counts. He had a little bit of power, hitting some home runs and doubles. We knew he had gap power that would play in our park with a lot of doubles and triples, so that's why I was intrigued about bringing him aboard and seeing what he can do."
What he has done is to help not only the Giants to forget about Cabrera, but their fans and media to forget about him too. "That's how baseball is," Blanco said. "Nobody is going to be there forever. I think, always, somebody is going to step up, and do the things that Melky was able to do. I think he's happy for me, being able to do those things." If, indeed, Melky Cabrera, as he sits at home, is happy with how Blanco has replaced him, he is far from alone.