Search

Upon the Shoulders Of Giants (And Lilliputians)

Nov. 05, 2012
Nov. 05, 2012

Table of Contents
Nov. 5, 2012

THE MAIL
LEADING OFF
NFL MIDSEASON REPORT
WORLD SERIES
COLLEGE FOOTBALL
MMA
RORY MCILROY
  • NOW THAT HE HAS ASCENDED TO THE TOP OF THE GOLF WORLD—IN THE RANKINGS AND OUTSIDE THE ROPES—GLOBE-TROTTING RORY MCILROY IS QUICKLY LEARNING WHAT LIFE'S LIKE AS THE GAME'S MOST MARKETABLE PLAYER

Departments

Upon the Shoulders Of Giants (And Lilliputians)

LUCKY BOUNCES AND REDEMPTION TALES MADE SAN FRANCISCO'S SECOND TITLE IN THREE YEARS FEEL LIKE SOME COSMIC HOT STREAK. BUT THE OCTOBER MAGIC WAS BIRTHED FROM A MORE PROSAIC, EVEN NOSTALGIC, FORMULA

Somehow, like a fullback fighting for yardage, Giants manager Bruce Bochy made his way into the middle of the small visiting clubhouse at Comerica Park on Sunday night, the World Series trophy cradled in his arms and the room already thick with the unmistakable sweetness of champagne and joy. Bochy, a large, lumbering man with the stubbled countenance of an old Western sheriff and a baritone to match, grabbed his team's attention with a simple, "Hey!" When enough quiet fell over the room, he held the gleaming gold trophy high over his head and said simply, "This is ours!"

This is an article from the Nov. 5, 2012 issue

With that, his players let out a huge cheer and bathed him in great cascades of champagne and beer. They had responded to his lead one more time. After being down three games to one to St. Louis in the National League Championship Series, the Giants pulled off one of the greatest runs to a world championship ever witnessed. They rattled off seven straight wins against the Cardinals and the Tigers while allowing just seven runs. Their starting pitchers went 6--0 with a 0.99 ERA and their bullpen never lost a lead.

After a World Series sweep was completed with a 4--3 win in 10 innings, the Giants could bask in the way their pitching carried them to a second championship in three years—a rare bundling of titles that defines San Francisco as the preeminent franchise of this era. "Everybody else is surprised," general manager Brian Sabean said. "We're not."

So masterful was the Giants' pitching that it left little room for drama, at least until the very end. The Series-winning run was built on the kind of textbook execution that permeated their streak to the championship. "Slingshots and rocks," is how third base coach Tim Flannery defined the San Francisco attack. Designated hitter Ryan Theriot, starting his first game of the postseason, singled to begin the 10th inning, advanced to second on a perfect bunt by Brandon Crawford and scored on a two-out hit by Marco Scutaro.

Pitching, however, is the DNA of the franchise's three-year window of dominance. The Giants blanked the Tigers in Games 2 and 3 while allowing seven hits combined. Only one previous team had tossed back-to-back World Series shutouts while allowing fewer hits: the 1919 Reds, who did it against a White Sox team later found to have thrown the series. San Francisco did it with the help of a two-time Cy Young Award winner, Tim Lincecum, deployed out of the bullpen. He got seven outs in Game 3, after which he caught the attention of Giants vice president of player personnel Dick Tidrow and, with a gleam in his eye, said, "Ninja!"

Lincecum, after a year in which he led the league in losses, vacated his rotation spot to become a relief ninja while his team handed postseason starts to a pair of thirtysomethings who weren't good enough to make an active roster when the Giants won it all two years ago. Formerly woebegone lefthander Barry Zito, 34, was so bad in 2010 that San Francisco left him off its postseason roster. Righthander Ryan Vogelsong, 35, was so lost that he was in Venezuela—"pitching for my baseball life," he says—with the La Guaira Tiburones, his 15th professional team in 13 years. "I caught a few parts of the [2010] World Series on TV," Vogelsong says, "but we were playing games at the same time."

The Giants swept through the Tigers with one turn of the rotation: Zito, Madison Bumgarner, Vogelsong and Matt Cain, who started his third clincher of this postseason. Such are the pitching riches of the Giants, who have used the oldest and simplest of tactics to win in the complex modern game. Championships in this age of parity, revenue sharing and labryinthine expanded playoffs were not supposed to come this easy. In 2010 the Giants became the ninth franchise to win a title in 10 years. Teams came and went, rose and fell, and monopolies on October success became harder and harder to build. Every round was a crapshoot or a coin flip, depending on your preferred game of chance.

Now we know what works. What works is the Giant Way.

There was a subtle but telling scene on the day before the World Series began. The Tigers were taking batting practice at AT&T Park, the rollicking roadhouse of a ballpark the Giants call home. Detroit's great righthanded slugger, Miguel Cabrera, one of the best opposite-field hitters in the game and baseball's first Triple Crown winner in 45 years, took his turn in the cage and began shooting high, majestic drives toward rightfield. He gave the appearance of a pro golfer taking the measure of a tournament course during a practice round, shaping drives and judging carry.

But something odd happened to Cabrera's big flies to right: None of them left the park. They died from exhaustion on the warning track or bounced off the 25-foot-high wall, as if they were spent fighting the cool air, waterfront breeze and epic distance, which stretches to 421 feet in right center. Upon the death of his last fly, Cabrera walked out of the cage and gave a dismissive wave to all things AT&T.

It was a prophetic moment: Cabrera went just 1 for 5 with a walk and a harmless RBI single in Games 1 and 2 in San Francisco and ended up batting .231 (3 for 13) with one home run, three RBIs and four strikeouts in the series. In AT&T Park's 13-year history, righthanded batters have hit only 25 opposite-field home runs, and overall no ballpark this year yielded fewer homers (84). Sabean has learned not to waste money on power in such a humbling place. "In our park and in our division," says the G.M., "you'd be crazy not to build a pitching staff."

San Francisco believes in stability on the mound, in the dugout and in the front office. Everything else is malleable. The Giants began the World Series with one player in the starting lineup who was also there for the start of the 2010 Fall Classic: catcher Buster Posey. They flipped the other seven nonmound positions, including four additions in just the past 11 months: leftfielder Gregor Blanco, acquired as a minor league free agent, and centerfielder Angel Pagan, second baseman Marco Scutaro and rightfielder Hunter Pence, who arrived in trades. Behind the scenes, however, all is comfortably familiar. Bochy has been in place six years. Pitching coach Dave Righetti has held his post for 13. Most key front-office players have logged more than a decade in San Francisco: Sabean (16 years), Tidrow (19), vice president of baseball operations Bobby Evans (19), director of player development Fred Stanley (12). And so it goes.

The most notable thread between the 2010 and '12 Giants is the marriage between pitching and AT&T Park. It wasn't always so. For its first eight seasons at AT&T, which opened in '00, the franchise was stuck in a shotgun marriage to the outsized excitement and embarrassment that was Barry Bonds. But once the Giants were done with the steroid-tainted alltime home run leader, who left after the 2007 season, Sabean could build a team to take full advantage of the beautiful expanse of AT&T.

As Bonds skulked away from the game, a core of young, homegrown pitchers arrived to flourish in the forgiving ballpark. Over the past three years Lincecum, Cain and Bumgarner, all first-round picks, have made 280 starts, while never landing on the disabled list. They have put together a 116--96 record, including 60--47 at home, with a combined postseason record of 12--6 with a 2.61 ERA. They were joined last year by Vogelsong, a Giants fifth-round pick in 1998 who found his way back to the franchise after being out of the majors for five years.

Since the beginning of 2008 the Giants lead all starting staffs in strikeouts (4,336) and opponents' batting average (.241) and have the second-best ERA (3.69). Between the ballpark and such superior pitching, mediocrity—or less—will do for San Francisco's offense. The franchise's highest-paid position player this year didn't even play for it (outfielder Aaron Rowand, who was released in September 2011, was still owed $12 million). The front office isn't paying any active starting position player more than $4.8 million (Pagan).

You get what you pay for in baseball's power-based economy, and the Giants finished last in the majors in home runs. (The 1982 Cardinals were the last such power-starved team to win the World Series.) They won 32 games at home without hitting a home run (the most in baseball since 1991), and they won another championship despite hitting .236 in the postseason. "When you have pitching, it takes pressure off the hitters individually," Sabean says. "Buster had an MVP kind of year, but we don't ask for power, and we don't ask for one guy to carry us. It's more about the lineup playing as a unit and feeding off each other. They know if they get early runs there's a good chance this staff will make them hold up."

A game at AT&T Park can feel like a happy, nondenominational ritual in which weird amulets (panda hats, rally rags, Steve Perry), dance ("Gangnam Style") and song (When the lights go down in the city ...) are invoked to appease the gods of baseball. It seems to work, judging by the things that went bump in the night—at home and on the road—during the Giants' seven-game postseason streak. They benefited from a pitcher throwing a ball off a base (Lance Lynn of St. Louis in NLCS Game 5), a batter hitting the same pitch three times with a broken bat (Pence in NLCS Game 7), a two-out grounder striking third base to ignite a three-run rally (Pagan in World Series Game 1) and a bunt, like an obedient dog, that somehow refused to go foul, setting up the tiebreaking run of a scoreless game (Blanco in Game 2).

The baseball-wisdom-defying tone of the World Series was set in the Giants' first at bat, when third baseman Pablo Sandoval turned around a chest-high, 95-mph fastball from Tigers ace Justin Verlander on an 0-and-2 count for a stunner of a home run. It was the first of a trio of homers by Sandoval, who joined Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols as the only players to go deep three times in a World Series game. "Man, I still can't believe it," said Sandoval, who had all of 12 home runs during the regular season. "When you're a little kid, you dream of being in the World Series, but I wasn't thinking of being in this situation, three homers in one game."

There is no better atmosphere in baseball than the joyful, smart noise at AT&T Park, where the fans are so on point that they erupted in cheers over a mid-at-bat mound visit in the third inning of Game 1, knowing that the sight of Detroit pitching coach Jeff Jones holding the hand of an ace like Verlander was a sign of vulnerability. (Sandoval promptly whacked home run number 2 on the next pitch, prompting Verlander to mouth, "Wow.")

Baseball's best pitcher being victimized in a historic home run barrage in the majors' most homer-unfriendly park—it was as if the Giants had hit the jackpot in some cosmic casino. Yet underneath all their karma was a most conventional means of winning baseball games: the tried and true model of pitching and defense. In the seven-game winning streak that delivered the championship, the Giants trailed for all of three innings—and those didn't come until the World Series clincher. Nobody else plays quite like this in a ballpark like theirs. Muscular AL teams get sand kicked in their face in the Giants' big yard: In the 2010 and '12 World Series, the Rangers and the Tigers went 0--4 at AT&T while scoring a total of 10 runs and hitting just one home run.

Such fundamental play travels well too, as San Francisco showed in Game 3. This time the Giants gave the Tigers their daily dose of nothing behind three pitchers with redemptive stories. The starter was Vogelsong, whose travelogue of a career includes making it to the big leagues with the Giants at 22; being traded to Pittsburgh, where he blew out his elbow in his second start; pitching three years in Japan with a losing record; getting cut twice at age 32, by the Triple A Lehigh Valley IronPigs and the Salt Lake Bees; and calling the freshly minted 2010 world champion Giants looking for a job in between starts in Venezuela in winter ball.

Vogelsong says he wanted another shot with the Giants because he knew Righetti and just about everybody in the front office even though it had been almost a decade since he was in the organization. He also knew this would be his last shot. "If this was going to be the end of my time in baseball," he says, "I preferred it to end where it started."

Instead, it became a second life: Vogelsong made the All-Star team in 2011, won 14 games this year and then went 3--0 with a 1.09 ERA in the postseason. "He always had a good arm," Bobby Evans, the VP of baseball ops, says. "The difference this time is command. Pitching in Japan you see a smaller strike zone. Having to throw it into a smaller strike zone puts an emphasis on command and that means the ability to repeat your delivery."

When Vogelsong left with two outs in the sixth on Saturday, Lincecum entered. As he has done this entire postseason, Lincecum pitched exclusively out of the stretch position. Says Tidrow, "It helped him get his mechanics back. It's real simple with Timmy: When he has his mechanics, he's really good."

To close the game, Bochy gave the ball to Sergio Romo, a 5'10" erstwhile setup man who emerged as the closer late in the season as the Giants made good without Brian Wilson, who missed virtually the entire year after blowing out his elbow. Romo was a 28th-round pick by San Francisco in 2005 after throwing sidearm curveballs at four out-of-the-way colleges in four years: Orange Coast College, Arizona Western, North Alabama and Mesa State. The Giants helped him raise his arm angle and tighten his breaking ball into one of the most wicked sliders in the game. "Dick likes finding guys that give your staff a different look," Evans says of Tidrow, a former reliever who threw with a low release point. "It's close to his heart. We just don't look for guys who get it done the traditional way."

It took only three years for Romo to reach the majors. All the while, chip firmly on his small shoulders, he angrily counted the few pitchers from the 2005 draft who reached the majors before he did. Over the past three seasons Romo, like almost all San Francisco pitchers, has been durable and effective. He is one of only 25 pitchers to appear in more than 200 games in that time, and his ERA is the best of all of them, 1.85.

Romo locked down the last outs in six of the seven wins in a San Francisco streak in which it outscored the Cardinals and the Tigers 36--7. In three straight World Series wins, Games 1 through 3, the starting pitchers, Zito, Bumgarner and Vogelsong, allowed one run combined, only the second time in Fall Classic history an NL team's starters allowed one or no runs over three consecutive games. A Giants team also was responsible for that other run of such stellar pitching. It was by Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Joe McGinnity back in 1905, when the ball was dead, the World Series was held for only the second time and only four postseason wins, not 11 or 12, were required to claim the title. What worked then works today. It is the oldest way to win. It is the Giant Way.

Follow @SINow

The Giants believe in mound, dugout and front-office stability. Everything else is malleable.

SI.COM

Can the Giants repeat? The race for the 2013 World Series starts now: SI writers Tom Verducci, Ben Reiter, Albert Chen and Joe Lemire will have breaking news and coverage and analysis of every team's moves throughout the offseason at SI.com/mlb.

PHOTOPhotograph by DAMIAN STROHMEYERFUNDAMENTAL TRUTH The singles-hitting Scutaro, already a hero for his MVP performance in the NLCS, sealed his place in San Francisco lore by knocking in the run that brought the Giants the seventh world championship in franchise history.PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (SANDOVAL)ALL BASES COVERED A historic night for Sandoval (left) and ninja relief from Lincecum (right) were highlight moments, but superior shortstop D by Crawford (above) was also key to the Giants' command performance.PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (CRAWFORD)[See caption above]PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON[See caption above]PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (ROMO)PHOTOAL TIELEMANSCHAMPAGNE SUPERNOVA Flawless bullpen management by Bochy (with trophy) helped the Giants become the first NL team with two titles in three years since the '76 Reds.