Monday, November 01, 2010

They Are Giants

--and no "might be" about it. The last time they won the World Series they were the New York Giants, and there were no major league baseball teams west of the Mississippi River town of St. Louis. In some ways things haven't changed all that much--the series between two western teams, San Francisco and Texas, couldn't draw the audience that the Yankees and Red Sox can--but this Series was classic baseball, and one for the ages.

The Giants are a baseball novelist's dream: a combination of very young players and cast-off veterans. They started the season with a core of drop-dead pitchers and added position players through the year, and it all jelled at the right moment. They led their division for only a month of the season, and won it for good on the last day. Then they defeated the favored, hitter-heavy Phillies and Rangers, shutting them down with shutouts and a total of 3 wins.

The fifth game heroes come out of central casting too. Tim Lincecum, the young long-haired pitching ace, who seemed to have lost everything in August, was utterly dominant from the first pitch. He was so deadly, and speeded up his delivery so much in the late innings that the Rangers seemed stunned and demoralized in the 8th and 9th, when ace reliever Brian Wilson just fired overwhelming strikes, for an amazingly undramatic bottom of the ninth.

The other hero was the elder, Edgar Renteria, injured most of the season and riding the bench, he wound up being the Most Valuable Player of the Series, especially for two key home runs--including the 3 run shot in the 7th inning of this game. And here's the Hollywood kicker: this is the second time in his career that Renteria supplied the hit that won a World Series. And this time, it may well have been the last major league at bat of his long career.

I came fairly late to the Giants' season, but it was a treat following the end of the season through this night, that brought San Francisco its first World Series championship. (I suffered through the terrible loss snatched from certain victory of the Bonds era.) I even learned some more baseball. I was able to watch some of the Bay Area sports channel coverage of press conferences, and noted how carefully the Giants prepared for these games. Their hitting coach worked with hitters to correct new bad habits--that has to provide some confidence, if nothing else. But what impressed me especially was the game plan for how to approach specific pitchers--which ones to be aggressive with, and which ones to wait out and make them throw strikes. This team seems to really have bought into following a game plan--another feature of a team that plays like a team, that has no stars, or players who act like stars.

And I have to think they had a pretty good game plan for their own pitchers, too. In this I suspect their rookie catcher, Buster Posey, was crucial. Pitchers kept saying how he called great games, keeping the hitters off balance. As they talk about this series more, I suspect there will be more about how they handled hitters, and who was in the mix.

So I have a new appreciation for the intelligence that goes into this, the temperament to deal with bad pitches and bad at-bats and still be ready to perform the next time, to accept the bad hop that gets you on base as well as the bad hop that gets you an error. Plus the work--these guys work on their game, their mechanics--it's not a night on the town and playing with hangovers anymore.

The Giants seem to have the perfect manager in Bruce Boche--a great temperament, and a master strategist. His moves worked, whereas a few crucial ones of his opponent didn't (notably the decision to pitch to Renteria today, with first base open and a less experienced hitter coming up.)

I don't follow many World Series anymore, but I'm glad I followed this one, not only because San Franciso is where I would go to see Major League baseball (except when I'm visiting Pittsburgh of course) but because this is one of those special teams in baseball history. I also got an education in how difficult Major League baseball had made things for itself, by extending the season into early November, competing these last two classic games with Sunday Night and Monday Night Football (suicidal for ratings) as well as the start of the NBA and NHL seasons. But then the sports world is insane and can't keep this up for many more years. It's all getting to be too much for me, but while I'm still watching, this has been fun. Congrats, Giants. This was a storybook season. One for the ages.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Giant Win

So now what's up with the San Francisco Giants? Nothing, again. This time the hero has the very unsportsherolike name of Madison Bumgarner, the 21 year old pitcher who blanked the Texas Rangers for the first (or maybe second) time this year at home---and definitely for the second time in the World Series.

Texas won the game they absolutely had to win, the third. But San Francisco won the game that they probably needed to win, the fourth. They figured to have the better pitcher on the mound in that fourth game, where pitching is always a bit dicey. But even though Bumgarner has shown he's capable of a performance like this one, no one could reasonably expect it--his first World Series start, on the road, with two ex-Presidents and First Ladies in the house rooting for the home team.

But this time the Giants won it their way--getting an early lead, shutting down the opposition with stellar pitching and solid defense, then adding demoralizing runs in the late innings so the other team is looking at a few runs in the last inning or two as an insurmountable mountain.

Now the Giants have a commanding lead in the Series, needing to win just one of the next three, with two of them at home. Texas must win them all. And the next pitching match-up pits the Texas ace against the Giants', and though you have to guess that Cliff Lee is not going to have two bad outings in a row, but Lincecum is no slouch either. What did that guy on ESPN say? The Rangers could win the fifth game but they won't. I'm not sure what that means.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn't get it done at New Orleans against a Saints team that suddenly looked like last year's. Big Ben is clearly not sharp yet, but if a few key plays had gone the other way, the Steelers still could have won this game. A stripped ball late in the fourth quarter sealed the deal.

This was a big win for the Saints. As shaky as their early season was, they are now expected to win most of their remaining games against weaker opponents and get into the playoffs. The Steelers face stronger opponents and tougher road games, but while losing to this NFC team is consequential, it isn't as bad for them as it is good for New Orleans. These two teams probably suspect they may meet again in the big one.

I haven't had the opportunity to watch the Steelers on TV since the preseason, though they're coming up with several Sunday and Monday night games. This time I was switching between the Steelers game and the Giants game. Maybe that took a little sting out of it, but this was a good football game that came down to a few key plays that the Saints made and the Steelers didn't. Dru Brees was the better quarterback today, and the Saints defense was a match for the Steelers.

The Giants game was also a well-played baseball game, with terrific fielding plays by both teams, and some clutch hitting by the Giants (most of which they did while I was on the other channel, nuts!) I don't know that I'll have many more of these afternoons and evenings wasted in front of the TV watching sports, but at least this time the games were worth watching.