Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Singin’ in the Rain
The baseball gods to whom former star first baseman Will Clark referred after Game 2 sketched poetic justice for the last National League Championship Series out. But the gods don't play baseball games, mortal men do. And a very mortal St. Louis Cardinals manager made a very mortal decision in the bottom of the third Monday night. It finished what the San Francisco Giants started two games earlier and cost him a trip to the World Series in his first major league managing season ever.
And the Giants locked down a pennant in a ferocious ninth inning rain, through which no Giant or Cardinal would back away from playing, when Sergio Romo's fastball got popped up by Matt Holliday to the man he plowed on a double play-breaking late slide in Game 2. Marco Scutaro circled beneath the ball on the swampy infield dirt, clapped his glove around it, and the second baseman whose esteem in the clubhouse had every last Giant bent toward getting him to his first World Series at age 36 avenged his earlier train-wreck in the noblest manner.
Okay, now and then the baseball gods do play a game or two in there, somewhere.
"This great experience," Scutaro puffed, as he accepted the NLCS Most Valuable Player award on the field as the rain continued falling. "This rain never felt so good." His fourteen series hits tied him with Hideki Matsui (2004 American League Championship Series), Albert Pujols (2004 NLCS), and Kevin Youkilis (2007 ALCS) for the most in any League Championship Series.
The man who wanted so badly to get to a World Series at last, the man who helped the Giants shake off the Melky Cabrera disgrace down the stretch, went above and beyond the call of duty to help himself get there.
Scutaro himself opened the fateful third inning with a first pitch single into right center field off St. Louis starter Kyle Lohse, establishing him as 13-for-26 in the set to that point, before Pablo Sandoval hit a first pitch double down the right field line. Inexplicably, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny got Joe Kelly up in the bullpen and not Trevor Rosenthal, his howitzer rookie who seemed to strike out every other batter he faced in the set thus far.
But Lohse walked Posey to load the pads with nobody out, the Giants up 2-0, and Matheny brought in Kelly. Like Rosenthal, he'd been impossible to reach for runs in the set, but unlike Rosenthal he wasn't exactly a slammer. Still, Kelly would be Matheny's man. What happened next, however, was above and beyond his, Matheny's or just about anybody's control.
Maybe Rosenthal would have silenced Hunter Pence post haste. But Kelly fed Pence a swingable first pitch, and Pence swung. His bat seemed to crack in three different places as the head hit the ball, and the ball in turn seemed to do some crazed mashup between the samba and the twist on its way to the shortstop side of second base.
Pete Kozma — the rookie Cardinal who stepped in during the season, when ancient Rafael Furcal went down with an injury — started to break to his right as the ball seemed to dance that way. In a nanosecond the ball seemed to twist back left, and Kozma couldn't twist back with it. The ball got into the outfield, bounding toward slight left center, Scutaro and Sandoval bounded home in a hurry, and St. Louis center fielder Jon Jay, inexplicably, dropped the ball the moment he picked it up, allowing Posey home with the fifth run of the game.
"The read I got," Kozma told reporters after the game, "it was going toward the hole. I thought he came around it. The ball made like a banana and went up the middle. I just reacted to the ball and had no chance at it."
On a night Matt Cain didn't necessarily have his top of the line stuff if he had his top of the line will, and Lohse didn't have much of anything quite that good, despite top of the line pitching from both men earlier in the set and the postseason, Kelly shook off the surrealism to get Brandon Belt to bounce one to the right side of the mound, off his glove. Second baseman Daniel Descalso lunged futilely to make a play. With Belt safe on the infield hit, San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford at the plate, and the Cardinal infield at double play depth, Crawford slashed one right to Kozma, who threw home despite his positional depth and Pence — who hadn't driven a teammate home in 55 at-bats until playing "Let's Twist Again" two batters earlier — beat the play home fairly enough.
Kelly finally struck out Cain, who'd hit a hanging curve ball from Lohse up the pipe to drive in the second Giant run in the second, and got Angel Pagan to ground a full-count pitch to shortstop. Kozma picked it cleanly but flipped high to Descalso, who threw low in turn and not in time to double up Pagan, as Belt scored the seventh San Francisco run. Matheny brought in Edward Mujica to get Sandoval on a first pitch line out to Descalso for the side at last.
The Giants sent eleven men to the plate in the third, the Cardinals threw thirty-five pitches in the frame. As Yahoo! Sports's Jeff Passan tweeted, "5 R, 4 H, 2 BB, 1 crazy swing, 1 whopping mental error. NLCS blown."
Time was, and very recent time at that, when the Cardinals looked like a team who could be stuck for a fourteen-run early deficit and find ways and means to overthrow it. Monday night?
They had men on base in every inning but the fifth and couldn't do a thing with them.
They had men in scoring position in the second, third, sixth, eighth, and ninth, and couldn't do a thing with them.
They had men on second and third in the eighth and the ninth and couldn't find any way to launch one of their once-vaunted uprisings.
Why, they even opened the fifth with a foolish gift when Cain, inexplicably and perhaps inexcusably, picked Game Seven to do what a lot of people thought the Giants would have done as early as Game Three, drilling Holliday on a strike two count. Even with a 7-0 lead that could be called a bush play.
Holliday hadn't exactly been one of the Cardinals' biggest boppers; he'd only driven in two runs while going 4-for-21 all set long entering Game Seven. By the time he lofted that rainy popup to Scutaro to end the game, it almost seemed as though the Cardinals had done so little hitting since winning Game Four it made the Giants' pitching wonder if they shouldn't have taken three or four days off to tune up for the World Series.
The Cardinals' usual little big men came up terribly short and sometimes disappeared entirely. The two prime time pests of 2011, Allen Craig and David Freese, hit a combined .159 between them. Daniel Descalso, arguably the hero of the division series Game Five overthrow amidst a club full of them, hit .200 for the LCS. Holliday finished hitting .207. Monday night, Holliday and Craig each left two men in scoring position with two outs, and Descalso left one.
Imagine how Yadier Molina must have felt when it ended. He's the first man in postseason history to rack up a 4-for-4 Game 7, and the first to get four hits in a Game Seven while his team lost.
Or Lohse. He'd done his best to help himself with second and third in the second, pushing a soft, rising liner out toward the left side that would have tied the game at one at least, except that Crawford timed a perfect leap and speared it for the third out.
"Beware awakening the sleeping giant," Fox broadcaster Tim McCarver purred after Holliday took one on his left arm to the delight of the AT&T Park audience.
No worries. The sleeping giants had been awakened long before. The ones who were down three games to one in this set after falling behind 2-0 to the Cincinnati Reds before overthrowing them in the division series.
They'd been awakened by Barry Zito's magnificent Game Five pitching. By Scutaro's relentless slashing, especially with a barking hip following that Game Two bulldozing, and his equally relentless infield play. By Ryan Vogelsong's virtuoso Game 6 — including his bunt defense-foiling slap up to shortstop and the shaky Kozma to send home Belt in the bottom of the second. By Sandoval's lest-you-forget bomb Game 5 bomb off Mitchell Boggs in the top of the eighth.
By the third inning Monday night.
If every Giant alive had been polled, including manager Bruce Bochy, they might have told you there was no way Matheny couldn't have Rosenthal up, throwing, and ready at the first sign of any rough stuff if Lohse was faltering. Bochy isn't holding his third pennant in 15 seasons because he shudders at the idea that, when the time comes for a stopper, you don't wait until lesser plug-ins have been popped out of the drain.
Kozma fell victim to one of the most surrealistic postseason hits on record and subsequently committed a grave rookie error after Matheny made a grave rookie manager's mistake. All Rosenthal could do when he finally got into the game was to strike out the side in the bottom of the fifth and strand a pair of one-out base-runners in the bottom of the sixth, not to mention setting an NLCS record for rookie punchouts.
And all that did was amplify Matheny's hard, harsh loss of his grip on a maiden season in which he made fools otherwise out of everyone predicting he'd be overmatched, out-thought, out-managed, and out-maneuvered long before an end in which he was simply out-played, offensively and defensively.
He'd beaten the Atlanta Braves in the first National League wild card game. He'd held fast while his charges overthrew the Washington Nationals from a 6-0 deficit in Game 5 of that division series. Now, when pinch hitter Aubrey Huff (for Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt) cashed in a seventh inning run while bouncing into a double play, and Belt drove one to the back of the right field wall pavilion with two out in the eighth, making it 9-0, Matheny must have felt as though what was won but then lost was now waved in his face.
Then the rain came hard in the bottom of the ninth. The only thing it washed away was the faintest of Cardinals hopes. The music-conscious AT&T Park public address system people forgot to cue up the most appropriate song for the end of this set. No matter. The Giants and their faithful sang in the rain, anyway.