Thursday, December 10, 2015

Best Postseason Win: San Francisco Giants

There's only so much room in sports narrative for talk about championship droughts - and for most of recent baseball history, that storytelling role has been filled by the Red Sox and Cubs, with an honorary mention for the pre-1980 Phillies. But there have been plenty of other noteworthy droughts; the White Sox went two years longer than their crimson counterparts between titles, the Indians haven't won in nearly 7 decades, and over half of baseball's expansion teams have yet to win a title at all (the Rangers, Astros, Padres, Nationals, Brewers, Mariners, Rockies, and Rays).

And then you have the Giants. As mentioned in the last post, they won the World Series in 1954, and moved to San Francisco three years later. They had Willie Mays, and Willie McCovey, and Juan Marichal, and Gaylord Perry, and Orlando Cepeda... and didn't win a title. They lost the Series in 7 in 1962, and then went on a long run of not-good-enough finishes (four straight second place efforts from 1965-68, with a bonus #2 spot in the newly-formed NL West in '69). They made the playoffs again in 1971 but lost the NLCS, and after that, Mays and McCovey were gone or aging and the team backslid for a decade and a half until Will Clark showed up in the late '80s. They lost a close NLCS in 1987, then won the pennant but got swept in the earthquake Series of 1989, and then slipped again for a bit.

In 1993, the Giants brought in one of the best free agent acquisitions ever in Barry Bonds, and promptly won 103 games - but since it was the last year before baseball revamped its playoff structure, the team with the game's second-best record finished one back of the Braves, who lost the NLCS to the 97-win Phillies, who lost the World Series to the 95-win Blue Jays. That season kicked off another stretch of intermittent competitiveness, with more playoff appearances (because more were available) but not more success. The Giants lost three of their four division series between 1997-03; in 2002, they made the World Series, carried by a torrid October from Bonds, but blew a 5-0 lead in Game 6 and went down in seven. And after a second-place finish in 2004, Bonds finally aged and the team slipped again, posting four straight losing records.

You probably already know what happened next, since we're getting into very recent events. The '09 Giants won 88 games, and in 2010, San Francisco assembled a terrific collection of young pitchers, and cobbled together an offense out of players who, with two notable exceptions, were better-traveled than the Harlem Globetrotters. They won 92 games, and beat the Braves in four games in the NLDS, advancing to face the Phillies, who were the winners of the last two NL pennants and were led by a still-excellent offense and a marvelous starting trio of their own.

The teams split the first two games in Philadelphia, and the Giants took the third, which brings us to the topic here:

2010 NLCS Game 4: Giants 6, Phillies 5. Philly's veteran Joe Blanton face off against Giant rookie Madison Bumgarner. This matchup was not yet as lopsided as it would look later... but it didn't exactly favor the Phillies, either.

Bumgarner worked around plunking Placido Polanco in the top of the first, and the Giants put up the game's first run in the bottom of the inning, as Freddy Sanchez singled, moved up on a pair of wild pitches, and scored on a single by Buster Posey, who at 23 and about to be awarded the NL's Rookie of the Year, was one of the earlier-mentioned exceptions in the Giants' vagabond lineup. Jimmy Rollins singled and was caught stealing in the second; Cody Ross was hit by a pitch and moved to second on a groundout, but was left there in the bottom of the inning. And after a spotless third from Bumgarner, Posey struck again, doubling home Aubrey Huff with two outs to increase the lead to 2-0.

Polanco singled and Ryan Howard walked in the fourth, but Bumgarner stranded both of them. However, in the top of the fifth, the Phillies finally converted. Ben Francisco and Carlos Ruiz opened the inning with singles. Blanton bunted them to second and third, and Shane Victorino singled; Francisco scored, but Ruiz was thrown out at home trying to tally the tying run. However, Chase Utley singled as well, and Bumgarner's day was done. Santiago Casilla relieved and promptly served up a two-run double to Polanco, putting the Phils in front. Howard was intentionally walked, Werth was hit by a pitch to load the bases, and Casilla then uncorked a wild pitch to make it a 4-2 game.

San Francisco got a run back in the bottom of the fifth when Andres Torres walked, moved to second on a groundout, and scored on a Huff single, chasing Blanton from the game. Casilla was flawless in the sixth; Chad Durbin was not, as he walked Pat Burrell and allowed consecutive doubles to Ross and Pablo Sandoval (the other homegrown Giant), putting the home team back in front 5-4. Durbin got three of the next four hitters to keep the game within a run.

Javier Lopez worked around a walk in the seventh, and the Giants had a golden opportunity to widen their lead in the bottom of the inning. Posey doubled with one out against Antonio Bastardo, Ryan Madson walked Burrell, and Ross reached on an error by Rollins to load the bases, but Sandoval then hit into a double play to end the inning. The Phillies capitalized on the extra chance in the top of the eighth, as Howard doubled against Lopez, and Sergio Romo relieved and gave up a game-tying double to Werth. Romo settled in to retire the next three hitters on a popup and two strikeouts; Madson allowed a Torres single in the bottom of the inning, but saw him caught stealing and allowed no other baserunners, and the game progressed to the ninth in a 5-5 tie.

Brian Wilson threw a 1-2-3 top of the ninth, and the Phillies turned to Roy Oswalt in the bottom of the inning. With one out, Huff and Posey singled to put runners on the corners. Up next was Juan Uribe, who flied to left, allowing Huff to tag and score the winning run.

The Giants would finish off the NLCS in six, then take the World Series from the Rangers in five to lock up their first title since the cross-country move over half a century earlier.

Most of the attention on the 2010 Giants went to the pitching staff; two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum had slipped a little, but the difference was more than made up by Matt Cain and youngster Madison Bumgarner. The difference makers in this game, however, were the bats, as Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, the only two starting position players who came up with the Giants, drove in four of the six runs. Posey, in particular, was the key player, going 4 for 5 with two doubles, driving in two early runs, and singling the winning run to third in the ninth.

Posey hasn't always had great numbers in the postseason - but the Giants have won three World Series with him behind the plate anyway. And if the next six years of his career go anything like the first six, there's a decent chance this game will get passing mentions in a few "Buster Posey was just voted into the Hall of Fame" articles in a couple decades.

For a team that has spent a decent amount of time in the playoffs, the Giants have not had an overabundance of thrilling wins since moving to San Francisco. They only have one game in the top 100 in playoff WPL - and it's not this one. It's 2014 NLDS Game 2, which grades out at #24, but that's entirely because it lasted 18 innings - and I realize that saying 18 innings like it's a bad thing runs counter to both WPL's preferences and a lot of what I say in this space in general, but if a game is going to be long, it should at least keep the fans awake while being long, and neither team put a single runner in scoring position after the twelfth.

(I've toyed with an adjustment to WPL that doesn't penalize extra innings, but doesn't automatically reward them either - and using that adjustment, the 2010 game is better. So that's why I'm taking what will almost certainly be the biggest departure from a WPL selection in this series.)

Other San Fran playoff triumphs of note include a trio of clinchers: the third game of the 1962 NL playoff, in which the Giants came from two down in the ninth to beat the Dodgers, 2012 World Series Game 4, an extra-inning contest that featured homers from both the AL and NL MVPs, which is cool, and 2010 NLCS Game 6, in which Juan Uribe drove in his second winning run in three games, this one with a solo homer in the eighth.

Up next, we'll stick around the bay area and check out the Giants' AL counterparts, the Oakland A's, who certainly have a lively postseason history for us to explore.

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