Commentary

A vintage work of Giants baseball

Old-school pitching and defense have S.F. one win from another championship

Updated: October 28, 2012, 1:07 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- So here they are, one win away.

Just as we all expected, it's those San Francisco Giants -- one win away from completing another October journey that just about no one saw coming but themselves.

One win from sweeping a World Series from a Detroit Tigers team that was supposed to be spending this week flashing its thunder, its rotation and its star power.

One win from winning a second World Series in three years -- a feat accomplished by exactly two National League teams in the past 68 years.

[+] EnlargeRyan Vogelsong
H. Darr Beiser-USA TODAY SportsDespite walking four batters, Ryan Vogelsong left the game after throwing 5 2/3 scoreless innings.

And, especially, one win from popularizing a way to win baseball games that most people thought had gone out of style in, like, 1992:

Throw the ball. … Catch the ball.

Pitching. … And defense.

Whaddaya know. They're back. Except for one thing: With this team, they never left.

"Everybody wants to see the homer," the Giants' Jeremy Affeldt said on Saturday night, after his team's second World Series shutout in a row, a 2-0 Game 3 blanking of the Tigers. "Homers -- those are fun to watch. And offense is fun to have. When you're putting up lots of runs, it's great. … But I think it's the defense and the pitching that's going to get you to the playoffs and win in the playoffs. We say it all the time."

Yeah, sure. Everybody says it all the time. But this team doesn't just say it. For the Giants, this is a way of life.

It's how they build their team. It's how they play the games. Especially the games that matter. Especially these vintage October baseball games that are shaping their legacy.

And here are just some of the astounding elements that are beginning to define that legacy:

• The Giants have now thrown back-to-back shutouts (against a Tigers team that got shut out only twice during the entire regular season, by the way). Before this outbreak of zeroes, exactly one team had twirled two straight World Series shutouts in the past 90 years. And that was a legendary 1966 Orioles staff that allowed two runs in an entire four-game Series against the Dodgers.

• But even that Baltimore Orioles team didn't do what this Giants team has done -- stringing together a two-hit shutout, followed by a five-hit shutout. To find the most recent team to throw two straight shutouts while allowing five hits or fewer, you have to go all the way back to 1921, when Carl Mays and Waite Hoyt were blanking the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds.

• Those '66 Orioles didn't do this, either: The three Giants starting pitchers in this Series -- Barry Zito in Game 1, Madison Bumgarner in Game 2 and Ryan Vogelsong in Game 3 -- have won three consecutive games while giving up a total of one run. So how long has it been since any team's starters won Games 1, 2 and 3 of a World Series while allowing no more than one run in any game? How about 75 years, since the 1937 New York Yankees did that behind Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing and Monte Pearson.

• But hang on. This gets better. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Giants are only the second National League team whose starters allowed a total of one run (or none) in any three-game stretch of any single World Series. And the other team pulled it off a mere 107 years ago -- when the 1905 Giants did it in Games 3, 4 and 5, with Christy Mathewson throwing two shutouts and "Iron Man" Joe McGinnity tossing a third.

• Because their starters almost never give up a run, these Giants haven't trailed at any point in this World Series. And if you go back to the National League Championship Series, they have now have played 54 straight innings without trailing at the end of any of them. That ties them with the 1989 Oakland A's for the second-longest streak of all time within a single postseason -- second only to a 60-inning streak by the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

• And if the Giants should win this thing -- whether it's on Sunday, or Monday, or in any of the last four games -- they'll find themselves in rarified company. It would be their second World Series triumph in the three years. And among franchises not known as "the Yankees," we sure haven't seen that much. Just two National League teams -- the 1975-76 edition of the Big Red Machine and the 1963-65 Dodgers -- have done that since World War II. Only one other NL team -- the 1942-44 Cardinals -- has done it in the past nine decades.

So this is a feat out of a whole 'nother era. And that's fitting in this team's case -- because these Giants play baseball like a team built for a whole 'nother era.

"That's the old saying: Pitching and defense wins championships," said their ultra-smooth, leather-working shortstop, Brandon Crawford. "And that's what we try to work off of."

Five teams hit more home runs this season after the All-Star break than this Giants team hit all season (103). But you know what we've noticed? None of those teams are still playing. The Giants, on the other hand, play on -- even with an offense built around what coach Tim Flannery likes to describe as "slingshots and pebbles."

What you saw in Game 3 in Detroit is what they are and what they do.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Crawford
Scott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsGiants shortstop Brandon Crawford was stellar on defense, turning two double plays and making a diving play to prevent a hit.

They run a starter like Vogelsong out there to dot the corners with pitchers' pitches for 104 pitches and 17 outs.

Then look out -- it's their surprise bullpen hero, Tim Lincecum, who roars in and spins another 2 1/3 hitless innings.

Then here comes their unlikely closer, 5-foot-10, 185-pound slider machine Sergio Romo, to fire off his fourth 1-2-3 ninth inning of this postseason.

And once that's out of the way, it's time again to shake hands. How 'bout that.

Meanwhile, you find Crawford making a sprawling play on a Miguel Cabrera bouncer up the middle. And Gregor Blanco slamming off the wall to make a dazzling ninth-inning catch in left. And even Pablo Sandoval flopping in the dirt to backhand a Jhonny Peralta laser beam.

Then mix in a couple of runs, all generated by the bottom of the order, in the second inning. And that's all it takes. It's all it ever seems to take for this outfit.

"That's how our team is," Crawford said. "We just kind of do what we have to do to win."

But that's not just something that happened to break out in the past three weeks. It's by design -- pretty much all of it.

It's the reason it's so easy for so many Americans to make it through the summer without having the Giants dent their radar screen -- that, laughed Buster Posey, and the fact that "our games don't start till 10:15 at night back East."

In reality, though, teams that do it the way the Giants do it aren't exactly made-for-"SportsCenter" material. But in October, when those human-highlight-video teams start disappearing, the Giants arise again to remind us that, contrary to rumor, that unsexy pitching-and-defense thing never really goes out of style.

"No, because we've proven it hasn't," said their longtime GM, Brian Sabean. "At the right time, in the biggest games, you're going to have to pitch and play defense. And have timely hitting.

"In our park and our division," Sabean went on, "you're crazy not to build a pitching staff. You've got to win the games you're supposed to win."

But if that's true in May in Petco Park, it's extra true in Comerica in October. So when those big, game-turning moments come along, it doesn't hurt that this is a team that's been dealing with those moments, playing in those types of games, for seven months.

Maybe after the World Series, maybe when I get back home and I sit in my house in a chair, I'll say, 'You know what? I think I was in the World Series.' But right now, I feel like I'm in a dream.

-- Giants left fielder Gregor Blanco

And so, in the bottom of the fifth inning, when Miguel Cabrera is rocking in the box with two outs and the bases loaded, Ryan Vogelsong isn't out there thinking he needs to make The Greatest Pitch of His Lifetime.

"I was just trying to make a pitch," he said, "and the way we were playing defense, really just trying to get him to put a ball in play somewhere -- because I had a good feeling we were going to catch it if he did."

Which, naturally, is exactly what happened. Vogelsong pumped an 0-1 fastball in on Cabrera's hands. The Triple Crown popped it to short. Crawford camped under it. And the biggest crisis of the night passed.

But it was hardly the only crisis. On the way to becoming the first pitcher since Curt Schilling in 2001 to allow one run or none in four straight starts in the same postseason, Vogelsong walked five and ripped off only one 1-2-3 inning. But he did what these Giants pitchers have done throughout this entire World Series: He never gave in - and let the Tigers get themselves out.

"You know, it's my first World Series," Vogelsong said. "I've been waiting for this since I was 5 years old. And I wasn't going to go down without a fight."

And out in left field, Gregor Blanco could relate to that, too.

Not so long ago, he was a non-roster free agent, trying to make it to Opening Day. Next thing he knew, he was tripling in the first run of Game 3 of the World Series, making a near-impossible catch to record the first out of the ninth inning of that game and then trying to comprehend that he was one win away from being a pivotal member of a team on the verge of winning the World Series.

Pence-Sandoval
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesHunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval know they need only one more win before the Giants' celebration begins.

"I feel like in a dream right now," Blanco said. "Maybe after the World Series, maybe when I get back home and I sit in my house in a chair, I'll say, 'You know what? I think I was in the World Series.' But right now, I feel like I'm in a dream."

Well, he isn't the only one. It was just a week and a half ago that he played for a team that was one loss away from getting blown out of the NLCS by the Cardinals. Now, amazingly, that same team hasn't lost since - winning six postseason games in a row, by a combined score of 32-4 and never trailing for one second.

But when asked how hard it has been to come to grips with that dramatic reversal of fortune, Affeldt could only reply: "Man, I don't know."

"Like I've said before, the stats and stuff like that - that's for the writers," he said. "For us, we're just trying to win games. I don't know how many times we haven't trailed or have trailed, or whatever. I know we've trailed a lot in this postseason and had to come back. So we're just going out there with the same mentality: Score some runs. Put up zeroes. And hope, at the end of the day, we win."

It's a mentality that's worked out perfectly six games in a row. And now here they are, one win away: One win away from going down in history as what passes for a dynasty in this day and age.

But these San Francisco Giants aren't thinking about that, either. Yet.

"I think we're just trying to win the World Series, and whatever happens after that happens," Affeldt said. "If we start thinking about all of that stuff, things can get weird. And we don't want them to get weird."

Yes, but if they just win one more baseball game, the weirdest thing of all will happen:

The San Francisco Giants -- those funky pitching-and-defense kings themselves -- will be the champions of baseball. And most of America will still be trying to figure out how the heck that happened.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com