With a dominate 9-0 victory yesterday against the St. Louis Cardinals, the San Francisco Giants became just the 6th team in baseball history to overcome a 3 games to 1 deficit in a League Championship Series. Matt Cain helped lead the way, throwing the 3rd consecutive shutdown start in a row for Giants. Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval rapped a couple more hits a piece, and the baseball Gods smiled once again on the zany Hunter Pence, who’s gutty efforts have come to define San Francisco’s comeback mentality. When all the smoke had cleared and Matt Holliday’s infield pop up was sitting safely in the glove of NLCS MVP Marco Scutaro, the celebration was on in San Francisco. By edging out the Cardinals for National League supremacy, the Giants improbably clinched their 2nd World Series berth in 3 seasons, and they have given themselves a shot at another ring. I’ll look ahead to the World Series tomorrow but for now I want to analyze how San Francisco was able advance pass the Cardinals against the odds, and it all goes back to the mid-season pickup of a 36-year-old journeyman shortstop.
Marco Scutaro killed the Cardinals this series
When San Francisco rescued Marco Scutaro from the carnage known as the Colorado Rockies on July 27th, it was a move that was overlooked amid all the noise being emitted by the rival Los Angeles Dodgers. Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and company were supposed to be the former Red Sox turning pennant races in their teams favor, not the lighty regarded smooth fielding, slap-hitting 36-year-old infielder. But it’s Scutaro and the Giants who have the last laugh now. The 2nd baseman racked up 14 hits in the NLCS, tying him for the most all-time with the likes of Hideki Matsui and Kevin Youkilis. He struck out just once in the series and got on base at a .533 clip. Images of Scutaro slapping base hits all over the diamond must be etched into the brains of St. Louis pitchers at this point, and that’s not even mentioning the solid defense he provided as well. Scutaro has been playing great as a Giant and there is no reason to expect that play to end any time soon. It will be interesting to see how his contact-heavy approach matches up against the overpowering Justin Verlander, but we will get to that later.
Hunter Pence, Baseball’s Triple-Double, and Joe Kelly
His trade deadline teammate in crime for the Giants in this series, and the hitter who struck the critical blow this series for the Giants was Hunter Pence. With the bases loaded in a 2-0 game in the 3rd inning, Pence stepped to the plate with a raucous San Francisco audience ready to explode. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny decided to yank struggling starter Kyle Lohse, instead opting for long reliever Joe Kelly. Kelly had been excellent up to this point, throwing 3.1 innings without allowing a run, but it was worth asking if Matheny was making the right move.
In a 2-0 game on the road with the bases loaded and nobody out it’s safe to say the Cardinals needed a strikeout more than anything else outside of a rare triple play at this juncture in the game. The game and series already appeared to be slipping away from St. Louis and Matheny needed to make the bleeding stop. Kelly has been an excellent pitcher for St. Louis this season, posting a 3.53 ERA in a little over 100 innings, but he’s not much of a strikeout pitcher. He whiffed just 6.3 batters per 9 innings in the regular season and the opposing hitter, Hunter Pence, had a decent track record, albeit a small sample size against Kelly.
Matheny instead should have turned to Trevor Rosenthal, a pitcher who has thus far proven to be a strikeout machine at the Major League level, particularly in relief. If Rosenthal could have generated a strikeout, it would have set the Cardinals up with the potential to turn an inning-ending, rally-killing double play that could have kept the game at 2-0, which is still a manageable deficit.
It probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because Lady Luck was with Hunter Pence yesterday. Kelly was able to shatter Hunter Pence’s bat on the very first pitch he threw, which would normally be an excellent outcome for a pitcher. But in this one particular instance, Pence’s shattered bat actually worked in his favor, making contact with the ball two more times, which was enough to produce an apparently wicked amount of spin. Pence’s triple-hit baffled shortstop Pete Kozma and ended up in centerfield, where it was misplayed by Jon Jay, which allowed all three base runners to scamper home. The Giants had their 5-0 lead and never looked back.Pence’s triple-double is now a part of playoff lore, up their with Derek Jeter’s flip, David Freese’s triple (or Nelson Cruz’s misplay, depending on your perspective), Sid Bream’s slide, and many other great baseball moments.
The Giants Starters Stepped Up
Over the final 3 games of the NLCS, the Giants starting pitchers (Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong, and Matt Cain) combined to allow just 1 run in 20.1 innings while striking out 19 Cardinal batters, which is no small feat. That’s good for a minuscule 0.45 ERA out of your rotation and that’s going to win you a lot of ball games. And what’s even more remarkable is that each starting pitcher was able to carve through the Cardinals’ lineup in their own unique way.
In Game 5, Barry Zito threw just 2 pitches that topped 85 mph and kept the Cardinals’ hitters out on their front foot and off-balance by using a variety of Bugs Bunny curveballs and change-ups. Ryan Vogelsongs’s Game 6 was an ode to the rise of the cut fastball. The Giants well-traveled righty was dialed in, striking out a career-high 9 batters with an array of darting 92-94 mph fastballs. And in Game 7 Matt Cain proved that he’s a true Major League ace, showing that he can keep a strong opposing lineup in check even when he doesn’t have his best stuff. Cain battled Cardinal hitters all night while struggling to find his normally pinpoint command. It didn’t matter because he kept the ball in the park, which plays right into the hands of the Giant’s strong defense. Great starting pitching is the biggest reason the Giants are going back to the World Series.
What Happened to the bats St. Louis? And the gloves too for that matter?
For most of 2012 the St. Louis offense had been humming to the tune of the 2nd most runs in the National League. Their hot bats continued through the first round of the playoffs, as they outscored every other team left in contention, and through the first 4 games of the NLCS the trend continued as the Cardinals piled up 18 runs. The final 3 games of this series were a different story however, as the Cardinals managed just 1 run and 18 hits over their last 27 innings of baseball. Allen Craig went 2 for his last 12. David Freese was 1 for his last 11 while whiffing 5 times. Matt Holliday was 1-8 with 3 strikeouts while dealing with some back issues. The had just 3 extra base hits as a team over the final 3 games of the series. That’s a rough way to finish your season, but most of these players are still young and will have plenty of productive years ahead of them, so at least the Cardinals can take solace in that fact. It’s also a testament to how well the Giants pitched over the last 3 games, and it all began with the starting pitchers, Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong, and Matt Cain.
The defense on the other hand may be an issue. Yadier Molina and Jon Jay are excellent at their respective positions, which also double as two of the most important on the field, but the rest of the defense leaves a lot to be desired. Pete Kozma looked overwhelmed at shortstop for most of the series, and is a .236 hitter in the minors over 6 seasons. The Cardinals will probably need to shore up that position in the offseason. Matt Holliday’s odd route running and general oafishness in getting to the baseball are tough to watch in left field and Carlos Beltran’s range isn’t what it used to be in right, although he still has a strong arm. A good defensive shortstop should be the priority this offseason if Rafael Furcal can’t successful recover in time from his injured elbow, because it would greatly help St. Louis.
The Giants and their fans can now take pride in their 2nd National League championship in 3 seasons while setting their eyes on another World Series title. This team has proven it’s resilience all season and although they may not appear to match up well with the Tigers on paper, it would be wise not to count the Giants out. They have an excellent manager in Bruce Bochey, a strong bullpen, a wicked rotation, and an offense that’s hitting all the right gears at all the right times. With just a little bit more of that Hunter Pence magic, the Giants could be looking at creating a dynasty. As it stands right now, baseball immortality is just 4 more wins away for this fun bunch from San Francisco.