There’s a running joke out there that Hunter Pence must be an alien because of the awkward way he plays baseball, a unique style not replicated by any other major leaguer.
I say awkward, but others might term it ugly. He hits from a stance so wide it makes you pull your groin just looking at it. He chokes up on the bat, and swings his arms back and forth as the pitcher gets set to deliver the baseball, his back leg bent at the knee, his front leg angled away from home plate. He can be so hyper-aggressive that he’ll swing at pitches off the plate that he has no chance of reaching.
When he throws, he corkscrews his right shoulder backward almost like he’s heaving a shot put instead of a baseball. He sometimes circles under fly balls like a squirrel weaving between cars on a busy highway. He does all this with his uniform pant legs cupped just below his knees, showing off his sanitary socks more in the style of the 1930s than 2012.
You can almost see his sunburned, weather-creased face, a relic of the past transported into the future, before everyone was taught to play the game the “right” way, as if they all learned to play from a Tom Emanski instructional video.
So maybe it’s fitting that the key hit in the Giants’ 9-0 victory over the Cardinals in Game 7 on Monday came off Pence's bat, and it wasn’t a classic line drive in the gap off the barrel of the bat but a broken-bat infield grounder that somehow plated three runs.
In the bottom of the third inning, already leading 2-0, the Giants loaded the bases with no outs off St. Louis starter Kyle Lohse, knocking him from the game and forcing Mike Matheny to turn to his bullpen. In came rookie Joe Kelly; not surprisingly, Pence hacked at the first offering, a 95 mph fastball. The pitch jammed Pence on the handle, splintering the bat into shreds of wood. The ball looked like a routine one-hopper to shortstop Pete Kozma, but Kozma had broken to his right and the ball went to his left. Instead of a double play, the ball bounded softly into center field, scoring two runs, and when Jon Jay bobbled the ball, Buster Posey scored all the way from first base.
Fox announcer Tim McCarver immediately mentioned the weird English that must have been on the ball, causing Kozma to misread its flight. While the super-duper slow-motion camera showed the ball actually -- remarkably! -- hit Pence’s bat three times, the overhead camera didn’t appear to show a ball that suddenly veered in a different direction.
Did Kozma misread the play? In real time, the multiple contacts between bat and ball would have happened simultaneously, so I think it would have been impossible for Kozma to react to “first” contact. I think he was reacting to the pitch and the way Pence was swinging, not the ball. He just overplayed the pull and paid big time. In effect, Pence’s swing was so ugly, the contact on such a bad part of the bat, it caused Kozma to miss the play.
Pence’s hit -- it was scored a double -- made it 5-0. The Giants would add two more in the inning. Matt Cain, who scuffled a bit early, settled down and pitched into the sixth inning. The stadium was loud and electric. In a series without a really good game (five games decided by at least five runs, no one-run games), the seventh game turned into an anticlimactic blowout.
But for Giants fans, it was a victory as beautiful as Pence’s idiosyncrasies.
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I had mentioned Sunday night that defense could play a key part in this game. The Giants' advantage here did play out. Kozma made two more mistakes in that third inning, failing to get an out on Brandon Crawford's ground ball and then making a poor flip to Daniel Descalso on what should have been a double play. In the first inning, Lohse might have had a chance to get Angel Pagan at home plate on Pablo Sandoval's tapper between the mound and first but couldn't get a grip on the ball. (With no outs, he probably made the right play to get the sure out as is.)
Meanwhile, the Giants made three nice plays early in the game. The first two Cardinals hitters reached in the second, but first baseman Brandon Belt, playing in expecting a bunt, made a diving stop on Descalso's hard grounder to record the force at second. Crawford made a leaping grab of Lohse's soft liner with two on for the third out. In the third with two outs and a runner on third, left fielder Gregor Blanco made a nice running grab of Allen Craig's liner in the gap.
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Did Matheny wait too long to pull Lohse? Not really. He had a pretty quick hook as is, just three batters into the third. With runners at second and third, Lohse carefully pitched around Buster Posey to load the bases. You can make the case that Matheny should have gone to the 'pen for Posey -- at that point, Lohse already had allowed six hits while recording just six outs. With Posey struggling in the series, I would have brought in one of those hard-throwing relievers to face him, rather than bringing in a new pitcher with the bases loaded. I also would have brought in Trevor Rosenthal over Kelly. Neither had been scored on during the postseason, but Rosenthal had been much more dominant with 11 strikeouts and just one hit allowed in 6.2 innings. Kelly had four K's in seven innings. That situation called for a strikeout pitcher, but Kelly had been the designated long man, so that's who Matheny went to. Have to adjust your thinking in a game such as this.
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Cain didn't have his best stuff early on, and the Cards missed some chances. David Freese was visibly ticked off after missing a juicy 1-1 fastball over the middle of the plate in the second inning. Later in that inning, Kozma fouled off a flat 1-0 slider. Cain had piled up 56 pitches through three innings, so you knew he wasn't going to pitch deep into the game. He did settle down after the Giants got the big lead, but give Bruce Bochy credit for not trying to eke a few extra outs from Cain even with a seven-run cushion. With two outs and two on in the sixth, Bochy brought in lefty Jeremy Affeldt to face Descalso. Cain's pitch count -- 102 at the time -- made it an easier decision, but it was a good move to not give the Cardinals any air of hope.