Thursday, October 11, 2012

Giant Bats Get Their Freak On

By Jeff Kallman

When Brandon Phillips ran the Cincinnati Reds out of what should have been a bigger first inning Tuesday, and Scott Rolen got so eager trying to field a short hop he chested the San Francisco Giants into a 10th-inning, life-saving Game Three win, I must have said somewhere that those would loom large and loud.

If I didn't quite say that, though Game Four may compel its saying yet. With Pablo Sandoval tacking on the exclamation point with his mammoth 2-run bomb in the top of the eighth, and Tim Lincecum merely signing off on what may yet prove these Reds' death sentence.

Add to that sad blend the Reds having lost Johnny Cueto for the rest of the division series at least, and the National League Championship Series at most, the Reds pulling him from the roster at last following the back spasms that drove him out of Game One when it was barely underway.

Cueto would have started Game 4 otherwise. Instead, the Reds replaced Cueto on the roster with Mike Leake, turning to Leake and his .287 regular season batting average against, to the mound to start Wednesday. The compelling reason: Leake had only surrendered 3 runs to the Giants in his previous three gigs against them.

On paper, it looked like an excellent choice. On the field, the Giants made it look like a red flag. They turned on Leake and the Reds, bludgeoning them 8-3, in a game in which the Giants made good and bloody sure the Reds didn't get any advantage above and beyond a tie at any time.

Until Wednesday, Sandoval had been one of the Giants more sedate bats. He awoke with a first inning double and a fifth-inning sacrifice fly, scoring the Giants' fifth run of the day, before standing in against Cincinnati reliever Jose Arredondo.

Marco Scutaro was aboard already, having doubled home Joaquin Arias, who'd come in to play shortstop in the fourth-inning double switch that also brought in Lincecum. With the lead 6-3, Kung Fu Panda squared up and hit a 2-1 service that flew right past the right field foul pole and missed sailing into the Ohio River by a measly 15 feet or thereabout.

All that Christmas in October was a gift to Lincecum, the Giants' erstwhile ace who'd spent most of 2012 sending a search party south to find his apparently kidnapped stuff. He came in in the aforesaid double switch, spelling George Kontos, who'd spelled redemptive starter Barry Zito, after Zito's shaky third inning merely began with Ryan Ludwick's leadoff deposit over the left center field fence.

And all of a sudden it was Lincecum being the Freak he was, once upon a time. He served prompt notice on the Reds when, with first and second and two out, he fell behind 2-0 on Ludwick before dispatching him with three straight strikes, all swinging. Then, he mistreated the Reds to a 1-2-3 fifth and seventh, gifted them one measly sacrifice fly in the sixth for the last Red score of the afternoon, and shook off a 1-out hit (catcher Dioner Navarro) and a pickoff error (his own, allowing Navarro second) to strike out pinch-hitter Chris Heisey.

Six punchouts in four and a third innings work was about as close to vintage Lincecum as the Giants could hope, even if he came in with a one-run lead to protect to begin, the Giants padded his cushion with four more runs as he pitched on, and left him able to dare the Reds to take a swing or three on him by the time Sandoval nearly hit the river.

"It's a little different experience," said Lincecum of coming out of the bullpen, a role he embraced quietly but surely after that shaky regular season, "but this is what it is. It's not about me gettin' my starts, it's not about me being the number one starter, it's about us gettin' our wins."

Leake got slapped silly on the second pitch of the afternoon, Angel Pagan hitting a strike one offering over the right field fence post haste. He dodged further damage by stranding Sandoval (the double), and the Reds gave him some oxygen in the bottom of the first when Todd Frazier, starting in Rolen's stead, wrung a bases-loaded walk out of Zito before Navarro stranded the pads full with an inning-ending swishout.

Then Leake ran promptly into fresh terror opening the top of the second, when Hector Sanchez beat out an infield hit and Gregor Blanco cleared the right center field fence. He managed to pitch well enough over the next two innings, but when Arias and Pagan greeted him with back-to-back doubles opening the top of the fifth, and Scutaro sacrificed Pagan to third, Dusty Baker lifted him for Sam LeClure, and Sandoval promptly lifted his sacrifice fly.

Zito, for his part, didn't pitch terribly, even with the specter of his spectacular gazillion-dollar contract failure and his exclusion from the Giants' World Series-winning postseason roster on his resume. He might have walked the bases loaded in the first after Votto's two-out single up the pipe, but he squirmed out of that with just one run against him with that magnificent strikeout. He opened the second with a pair of swishouts, surrendered a pair of infield hits, then got Votto to fly out to left.

But Bruce Bochy was taking no chances after Ludwick said hello to open the third with a 398-foot launch and Zito handed Navarro the two-out walk. It was almost as though Kontos and Jose Mijares were his holding-pattern shooters until Lincecum was ready, willing, and more than able.

Now the question becomes whether the Reds will be ready, willing, and more than able to stop a sudden Giant uprising. Matt Latos, who pitched so magnificently in the earlier going, gets to face Matt Cain, who stepped into the Giants' ace role when Lincecum continued faltering.

Right now, it only seems advantage, Giants. Lincecum is proving himself a bullpen stopper, Cain was one of the National League's most unhittable pitchers even if the Reds did manage to slap him for his first-ever postseason runs, and the bats that looked so fruitless until the 10th inning Tuesday seem to have found some circulation.

But Latos did shrug off a measly three days' rest to enter in the Game One second and pitch unblemished but for Buster Posey's belt over his four innings' work. The Reds' season-long-vaunted bullpen has been known to shake off the occasional shaky day. They'll have to Thursday, just in case.

Kidnapping Lincecum might not hurt the Reds' chances, either. He half hinted that he'd even make himself available to pinch hit if absolutely necessary. Right now, even if his manager has no known intention of even thinking in that direction, it'd be impossible to bet against him.

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