Thursday, October 21, 2010
Giants know how to play the classics
By Jayson Stark
SAN FRANCISCO -- They'd just spent 3 hours and 40 minutes playing the greatest baseball game of their lives, and their hearts were still thumping.
How were they supposed to explain what had just happened to them -- a team their manager describes as a bunch of "castoffs and misfits," going out and finding a way to win one of those certified October classics they'd spent a lifetime watching someone else play?
"That's what the postseason is all about," said Giants closer Brian Wilson, on the day his team moved to within one win of a truly improbable journey to the World Series with a remarkable 6-5 walk-off win over the Phillies in Game 4 of the NLCS.
"To be honest," The Beard went on, "I wouldn't know, because I've just watched it a lot. But
And then he paused. He laughed. He let that sentence hang there in the night for just a moment, for perfect dramatic effect. And then he was ready for the big punch line.
"But," Wilson chuckled, "I'm an observant watcher."
Well, you don't have to be Derek Jeter to know what an epic October baseball game looks like when it busts out in front of your eyeballs. So Wilson and his misfit buddies were well aware Wednesday night that something special and unforgettable had just happened to them.
They were up. They were down. They were in a mess of trouble. And then they weren't.
Their starting pitcher didn't make it through the fifth inning. The guy who got the game-tying hit had essentially just gotten released from the witness-protection program. The guy who got the game-winning hit was supposed to be too hurt to play.
But that, friends, sums up the team that won this game, the team that has been doing the un-doable for weeks now.
If you run their roster through your favorite computer program, if you plug all the numbers into the nearest spreadsheet, the San Francisco Giants shouldn't be leading this National League Championship Series, three games to one, against the two-time defending NL champs. But those spreadsheets don't play these games.
And the team that is playing them keeps finding ways to edge ever closer to living the dream that, until this moment, always came true for everybody but them.
They've now won three games in this series. And the losing pitchers were three men named Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt -- the three biggest reasons the other team was supposed to be on its way to the World Series. Clearly, the Giants never got that memo.
"We're here to win this thing," infielder Mark DeRosa said. "And I'm proud of that fact. We easily could have come in here, seen Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels, and we easily could easily have been in awe of the situation. But obviously, that's not the case."
A team in awe of the big names across the field wouldn't have recovered from watching two different leads disappear.
A team in awe wouldn't have watched the Phillies tie this game on back-to-back no-out eighth-inning doubles and found a way to strand the winning run on second base.
And a team in awe wouldn't have watched Oswalt come jogging in from the bullpen in the ninth inning and then concocted a magical game-winning plot line straight out of Hollywood:
A ground-ball single by Aubrey Huff that barely eluded a Ryan Howard dive. A heroic at-bat by a burgeoning superstar that turned into the fourth hit of the night for the great Buster Posey. And a walk-off sacrifice fly by Juan Uribe, a guy with a wrist so sore he'd been forced to sit there and watch the first eight innings of this heart-pounder.
But as Uribe lofted that baseball into the night and it began to dawn on everyone in the ballpark what was about to happen, the scene that unfolded by the shores of McCovey Cove looked like a "This is what October feels like" commercial come to life:
Huff raced back to the third-base bag to tag up, already pumping his fist. A giant smile spread across the face of Uribe, a man so overcome by emotion he would say later, "I've got a lot of happy right now."
Orange towels and pom-poms were gyrating everywhere you looked. A rumble swept through AT&T Park that had to register a 9.8 on the Richter scale. And then Huff came sprinting home, racing a throw from left with no chance of catching him. And Giants players were flying out of the dugout in all directions, not sure who to embrace.
"I want to hug Uribe. I want to hug Posey. I want to hug everyone," Andres Torres said. "Everyone did their job, so I tried to hug everybody. It was great. It was a great feeling."
And it's those feelings that make these October moments so special -- especially to a team full of guys who had only watched them, not lived them.
"I've watched this my whole life," said Torres, a man dumped by six different teams before he wound up in this spot. "It's like a dream come true. It's amazing to be out there in a game like this."
We would have looked back on this game as an all-timer no matter what was at stake. But as the momentum ebbed and flowed, everyone on both teams knew exactly what was at stake. This entire series might very well be hanging on this outcome.
A win by the Phillies meant the series was tied, two wins apiece, with Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels all lined up to pitch the next three games. But a win by the Giants would shove the Phillies to the edge of the October cliff, with three win-or-else baseball games riding on the arms of their three aces.
So as the innings rolled on, Huff stood on that field, his pulse racing, merely trying to figure out how he was going to live through the evening.
"I used to find myself at home, watching games like this, wondering how these guys have the energy to do it," said the Giants' first baseman, a fellow who had played more games (1,479) without reaching the postseason than all but one player, Randy Winn, in the sport -- until now. "But now I get it, man. It's pure adrenaline.
"I'm standing there in the eighth inning, and those guys [score] the fifth run [to tie the game]. And it's no out, man on second. And I'm thinking, 'How do people handle it?' I'm doing everything I can to take deep breaths and stay as calm as I can, because that game was huge. It's either 2-2 or 3-1. That's a big swing right there."
So to the men in the middle of this thing, every run, every lead change, every critical at-bat, every runner stranded, felt like a tsunami crashing toward their shores. But nothing, on this night, could wash away the relentless Giants.
In the sixth, an inning after the Phillies had sprung a four-run uprising on them, they would take back the lead on a stunning two-run double by a man who had gone from Face of Their Franchise to Forgotten Man almost overnight.
That man would be Pablo Sandoval, finally back in the lineup, on this night, for the first time in 12 days. And to pound this game-changing hit, he would actually have to, in his words, "hit TWO doubles" in the same at-bat.
|Juan Uribe was thought to be too hurt to play. Well, he was healthy enough to drive home the winning run.|
The first was a hooking liner that seemed to plunk, just barely, on the right-field chalk. But right-field ump Ted Barrett was too busy scrambling out of the way to see it clearly. First-base ump Jeff Nelson then ruled it foul, and an agitated Sandoval froze on the basepaths in disbelief, trying to convince someone, anyone, to change that call.
When that didn't work, he returned to the box and "just calmed myself down, count to 10, breathe," he said. And four pitches of counting, inhaling and exhaling later, he would find a way to smoke a shoulder-high Chad Durbin fastball up the alley in left-center for the two-run double that changed the score from Phillies 4, Giants 3 to Giants 5, Phillies 4.
"The Panda," DeRosa gushed, with nothing but admiration. "The Panda. Only guy in the game who can hit that pitch."
Sandoval stomped into second, waving his arms, as the ballpark shook around him. And why not?
"Probably," DeRosa said, "the biggest hit of our season right there."
After the Phillies had put up that four-spot to take the lead, it meant the Giants were going to have to score more than four runs for the first time in 3½ weeks if they wanted to win this thing. But Sandoval's hit meant that was exactly what they'd just done. Of course. Because that's exactly what it took.
"I was in here watching on TV, and they came up with a stat that we hadn't scored more than four runs since Sept. 25, UNTIL that inning happened," Wilson reported later. "They should keep talking like that. It's working."
But the work wasn't over -- because Ryan Howard (previously 0-for-6, with six strikeouts, against left-handed relievers in this postseason) led off the eighth with a double off left-handed submarineballer Javier Lopez. And then Jayson Werth, a guy who hit .186 with runners in scoring position this year, doubled him home. And this game was tied one more time at 5-5.
Giants reliever Sergio Romo would wriggle out of this inning. But in the Phillies' dugout, the plot line was taking another dramatic turn. Oswalt -- whose last meaningful relief appearance was more than four years ago -- could see that Phillies bullpen emptying fast. So he approached pitching coach Rich Dubee and said: "If you need a guy to eat an inning up, I can throw. I threw a bullpen [session] today, but it's the playoffs. Gotta play."
Dubee's response: "Go get your spikes on."
After obeying those orders, he sprinted to the bullpen. By the top of the ninth, he was warming up hard. And when the Phillies failed to score, and the game remained tied, here he came.
He got Freddy Sanchez to line to right for one out. But then Huff slapped a slider barely beyond Howard's glove. And at that point, the tremors in this house had nothing to do with the San Andreas Fault.
Next was Posey. He'd already become the first Giants rookie to get three hits and drive in two runs in a postseason game since Freddie Lindstrom did it in the 1924 World Series. But he wasn't through.
|Aubrey Huff felt the full drama of October as he scored the winning run in Game 4.|
He got down, 0-and-2, fouled off two ferocious pitches, took a changeup barely off the plate and then found a way to shorten up, slap a slider into right and get the tying run to within 90 feet of glory. That hit made him only the second rookie catcher ever to cram four hits and two RBIs into the same postseason box score. The other, Joe Garagiola, did it 64 years ago.
Asked later if Posey had a Jeter-esque quality to him, Huff would quip: "Well, Jeter's definitely got more money. And he's a lot skinnier. And he runs better. But I don't think there's a better right-handed swing in baseball for a young player."
Albert Pujols might want to contest that. But we can stage that debate some other time. Because the Giants had a game for the ages they needed to win.
And the rest would be up to Uribe, who had just entered this game in the Giants' third double-switch of the night. In the top of the ninth, about 30 seconds after he'd gone out there, he'd made a fabulous throw from the shortstop hole to rob Ross Gload of a leadoff hit. And now here he was, in the bottom of the inning, about to etch his name in postseason walk-off lore.
Five pitches later, he sent the most memorable fly ball of his career soaring into left field. And as he watched it fly, he noticed his aching left wrist had mysteriously stopped throbbing.
"No pain on that ball," he laughed. "I feel too good."
Let's just say he wasn't the only one. It was just the Giants' second walk-off postseason win since Dusty Rhodes' famed walk-off homer in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series (aka the game of Willie Mays' fabled catch). It was the Phillies' first walk-off postseason loss since The Joe Carter Game that ended the '93 World Series. And it set the stage for a night of not-to-be-missed October theater Thursday.
Roy Halladay versus Tim Lincecum. One more time.
"It's do-or-die tomorrow," the Phillies' Brad Lidge said. "But we're looking at it as, we've got Roy Halladay on the mound, and we like our chances."
"This is when he's at his best," Jimmy Rollins said of Halladay, "when the whole thing is on the line. I am expecting Roy to go out there and be great. And I bet HE'S expecting to go out there and be great."
Even the Giants, for that matter, expect Halladay to be great.
"We've got to win one more game," Huff said. "And we've got a big battle with Roy Halladay. And he's one of the best out there. But so is our guy."
So you know Lincecum will be firing. And you know Halladay will be dealing. And there just might be a few occupants of AT&T Park who can taste exactly what one more win might mean -- for a city that has never had a World Series champ pass through town, and for a baseball team full of men who have spent their careers watching other teams spray that Moet & Chandon.
Asked what he expects this night at the old ballyard to feel like, Brian Wilson smiled one more time.
"I hope," he said, "it's mayhem."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
I've watched this my whole life. It's like a dream come true. It's amazing to be out there in a game like this.
-- Giants CF Andres Torres