Friday, October 19, 2012

Look, Ma, No Atrocities!

By Jeff Kallman

Presumably, the world can breathe a little easier now that the first post-Slide confrontation between Matt Holliday and the San Francisco Giants has ended without on-field amputations, at-the-plate decapitations, or other actual or reputed disembowelings. None involving Holliday, anyway.

The nearest thing to a legitimate atrocity in the St. Louis Cardinals' 3-1 Game 3 win was the one committed by Carlos Beltran's unexpected substitute, in the third inning, in his first time at bat after stepping in for the wounded slugger. The Giants could and did beat Chris Carpenter on the mound earlier in this National League Championship Series, but they could not and did not beat Matt Carpenter stepping into the Cardinals' unexpected right field breach and hitting a go-ahead two-run homer whose advantage survived an eventual 3.5 hour rain delay.

In the top of the first the Giants went down meekly enough, a two-out single by Pablo Sandoval off St. Louis starter Kyle Lohse notwithstanding. San Francisco starter Matt Cain opened the bottom of the first by hitting Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay on a no-balls, one-strike count, a certain tip that Cain was nowhere near a thought about retaliating for the late double play takeout slide Holliday imposed upon Giants second baseman Marco Scutaro Monday.

Jay had barely measured his lanes for a possible advance when Beltran dialed Area Code 6-4-3 on a 1-2 pitch, and Holliday checked in for his first plate appearance of the day. Nothing thrown to him appeared anywhere near the inside half of the plate, never mind the specific vicinity of Holliday's flesh and bones, and you would like to think the Giants' thoughts went no further than assenting to their one-time first base star turned team executive, Will Clark, who noted Monday night that the baseball gods have their own ways with karma.

Those gods may or may not have stirred their spiritual cauldrons toward the Giants' 7-1 Game Two win. Holliday may have plowed Scutaro in the top of the first with no intent deadlier than thwarting a double play in progress, but he confessed to dropping into his slide late enough while hastening time and again to plead that he bore no malice aforethought, did not want Scutaro injured at all, and had no intent of blowing Scutaro out of the game, as happened after the sixth inning.

Scutaro in the interim had landed the key blow in response, a fourth-inning, two-run single that produced a third run when Holliday, under influence of the gods' cauldrons or no, misplayed the hit into allowing a third Giant run to come home.

On Wednesday afternoon, however, those cauldrons may or may not have stirred them in the direction of Holliday spanking an 0-2 pitch right up to Scutaro himself. Bounding as though it were chipped to reach Scutaro's glove no matter what might cross its path, including black cats or holdover rally squirrels, Scutaro merely turned, withdrew the ball from his glove, and threw to first base for the side.

And Cain lived up to his implicit promise not to seek explicit vengeance for his mate, who had suggested himself the best vengeance would be nine innings of shutout baseball at the Cardinals' expense. Cain showed no reluctance to work inside the zone if and when he needed, but he showed an equivalent lack of reluctance to take his chances on Holliday, after one called strike just off the middle and a swinging strike two on a pitch in about the same neighborhood, spanking one only slightly in off the middle and shoot it toward nothing more dangerous than a hungry infielder.

He got what he sought and neither Holliday nor Scutaro was any worse for that first inning showdown. Beltran, alas, was lost for the rest of the game, apparently straining a knee testy ever since he annoyed the New York Mets by undergoing surgery upon it in spring 2010.

So Matt Carpenter entered the game to play right field for St. Louis in the second inning. The Giants parlayed a leadoff single by center fielder Angel Pagan and Scutaro's followup double into the game's first run in the top of the third, when Pagan came home while Sandoval occupied himself with grounding out. But in the bottom of the third, with Jay aboard on a two-out single, Carpenter, 1-for-5 in previous postseason pinch hitting duty and now in his first League Championship Series plate appearance, squared up Cain's best slider on 2-2 and drove it into the seats just above the right field bullpen.

"He's a really good pitcher obviously," said Carpenter to reporters about Cain, against whom he had been 4-for-4 against the stout Giant on the regular season. "I've had some success. I just go up there and try to battle, get a good pitch to hit."

The rain delay proved to be profit for Busch Stadium's beer vendors, since it arrived after several earlier lightning sightings but before the final out of the seventh inning, which is the major league curfew on in-game beer sales. But it proved to be no help to the Giants despite play resuming with two outs, Javier Lopez relieving Cain, and Jay grounding out to first for the side, because the delay came only after David Freese whacked a one-out double to left, Daniel Descalso earned an intentional walk thanks to his prior postseason feats, Pete Kozma singled to load up the pads, and Shane Robinson — who entered the game to play right field in the top of the inning while Carpenter moved to his natural first base — pushed Freese home on an infield ground out.

Around the rain delay, though, Mitchell Boggs came in to strike out Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt with one out and two on to shove the Giants out of their own seventh-inning threat, pre-delay. Post-delay, Jason Motte came in for a two-inning save, and one and all more or less forgot that starter Lohse had managed to keep the Giants in check despite permitting five walking men in five and two third innings of husky pitching.

And Matt Holliday, who would fly out to right immediately following Carpenter's blast and strike out swinging in the sixth, would finish his day's work by grounding out to Scutaro yet again, and with no concurrent acts on either side for which angry fans might demand a human rights commission probe.

But he also stole Sandoval's shot at a damaging extra base hit when he played Kung Fu Panda's drive off the wall as if he'd been reading it from the moment it left the bat and held the big man to a single while ensuring Buster Posey's followup single couldn't send the tying run home. Holliday's Cardinals also finished their day's work of play with a two games to one series lead over the Giants.

There are limits upon the favor by which the baseball gods comfort the afflicted.

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