It's that time of the season, when character counts. The Pirates are showing it, battling and defeating the previously very hot Mets in two successive extra inning games, after getting out of St. Louis with one out of three. Different guys are coming up big in the extras, always a good sign.
The SF Giants are definitely showing it. Shorthanded, the players on the field rise to the occasion against a Washington team that seemed punch drunk on Saturday, during their third straight loss to the Giants. At minimum, the Giants proved opportunistic hitters against the Nationals' top pitchers, winning 8-5 and 12-6 Friday and Saturday.
Buster Posey got his key hits, Brandon Belt stayed hot, and Matt Duffy--the rookie who already seems like one of these vets--continued outstanding play in the field and at the plate.
But one of Saturday's surprise heroes was Kelby Tomlinson, with the leadoff triple that started the 6 run rally in the third, and a double that drove in two. He also looks more comfortable at second. With his Clark Kent glasses and movie star profile, he could soon turn into a fan favorite. He's certainly won the position until Joe Panik gets back.
The other hero Saturday was also a hero Friday: Gregor Blanco got three hits each night, and played a mean center field. Blanco has come off the bench for stretches to help Giants pennant drives before, and a couple of the Giants announcers said that he's never looked better than right now.
Watching the hits, the Giants look sharp and smart at the plate, and relentless, no letting down with a lead on Saturday, they kept smacking those singles, doubles and triples. Character.
These games featured hitting and outstanding bullpen pitching that made up for subpar starts by Peavy and especially Matt Cain. Despite a booming homer on Friday, Hunter Pence remains slumped at the plate and he lost a ball in the field Saturday--if the Giants weren't shorthanded, he'd be due for a rest.
However, the Dodgers have also been winning so the Giants aren't gaining ground in the division. The Cubs keep winning, too. Coming off a strong game that got the Giants started on winning again, and with recent lack of success against Washington, Madison Bumgarner starts on Sunday afternoon, while Giants hitters face a rookie pitcher they've never seen before. A hot day is forecast, and so the ball may be jumping all over the yard again.
Before Thursday night's game, the San Francisco Giants were shut out twice in three games. In the game they won between, they scored only three runs.
On Thursday, they scored three runs again, and won again, beating Washington 3-1 behind magnificent pitching, which is the only way scoring just three runs is going to get you wins.
The Giants wasted an excellent start by Chris Heston Wednesday but not an ultimately excellent start by Ryan Vogelsong Thursday night, who struck out eight in five innings. The bullpen was even better: two terrific innings by Hunter Strickland, one very sharp inning by Sergio Romo, and a final inning with the dramatic uncertainty that's become all too prevalent with closer Casilla. All together, Giants pitchers struck out 14, all (as Mike Krukow pointed out) by swinging strikes.
Note some of the names that get game balls: Vogelsong, who lost his spot in the starting rotation through no fault of his own; Gregor Blanco, the utility and these days starting outfielder whose first inning triple got the Giants back on track, rookie Matt Duffy and very rookie Tomlinson (also a triple), as well as Posey who is having an amazing late summer.
The Giants need heroics from players like these if they are to get through the month even or better. Aoki was placed on the 7 day concussion DL, so that's two starting outfielders on the DL (and the only starter, Hunter Pence, is slumping.) The linchpin of the infield and the batting lineup, Joe Panik, is out. Meanwhile, Washington is fighting for its playoff life for the next 3 games at SF, and in the Giants near future there's a road trip to St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
Elsewhere, the Pirates got one of three in St. Louis (losing ground in the division but enough to keep them firmly at Wild Card #1), and the Cubs and Mets stay hot. The remaining schedule tends to favor the Cubs and Mets continuing to win, but the Giants schedule is pretty tough. So the possibility of the Giants backing into a second Wild Card slot is fading fast.
So the Giants' best chance may be the division. The Dodger bullpen that got scorched in Pittsburgh, got scorched at home on Thursday by the Reds. Their big trade, Matt Latos, again got shelled, and was loudly booed at his new home park. The Dodgers always seem capable of imploding, and they are on the edge of it now.
The Giants are 2.5 back, which is within striking distance if they can maintain that margin through the month. It will take games with heroics like tonight to do so.
It will also help to have the acknowledged best manager in baseball. Bochy reconfigured his lineup on Thursday, with Blanco leading off and Belt moved up to third, and it worked.
But it won't be easy--starting Friday, with what was once a marquee matchup but these days has Giants fans awfully nervous--Scherzer against Cain.
Everybody is heading for the hills, but the stern tall marshal is going to defend the town. The Madison Bumgarner of last autumn came fully back on Tuesday when his team needed him most--a four game losing streak, a depleted bullpen. Bumgarner took on the mighty Astros, pitched a complete game, striking out 12 and walking none, for a 3-1 victory at home.
The strikeouts included 7 in a row in the early innings, a team record. He also took the record for the number of games with more than 10 strikeouts and no walks.
Did I mention a complete game? Nine innings for the starting pitcher? Pretty close to a miracle these days, and just what the Giants needed.
Brandon Belt hit two home runs, after a road trip during which he hit 5. In a very streaky year in which he didn't seem to be showing a lot of power, he's now equaled his season high of 17 homers.
And the defense was stellar yet again, with two nice line drive grabs by Belt and Crawford to end the game.
Off-field news wasn't so good, at least in the short term: Angel Pagan went on the DL for his knee, Joe Panik will still be rehabbing when he gets off the DL, Andrew Susak is not ready either, and neither is Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum or especially Mike Leake. But Leake at least is showing good progress, and Aoki passed his concussion tests. This is critical time for the Giants, with all these injuries, and before rosters get expanded.
Now what the team needs is a rebound performance by Chris Heston tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the Pirates fell to the Cards in St. Louis, in one of those one run games that the home team usually wins. The Dodgers lost one, won one.
On the big stage of ESPN Sunday Night Baseball, in a sold-out PNC Park, the Pittsburgh Pirates completed a sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers with a spectacular come from behind win. Down 5-1, they clawed back until the 7th, when they scored 9--count 'em NINE--runs, one on a sacrifice fly, one on an infield hit, two on a single by Cutch (who'd homered to center with one on in the 5th) and a titanic 3-run homer by Jung Ho Kang, who'd been hit by pitches in his previous two at-bats. Francisco Cervelli' s single in that 7th started the deluge by making it a 5-4 game, and he capped the victory in the 8th with a titanic home run into the upper deck in left.
The Pirates sweep of the Dodgers was about the best news the Giants got on Sunday. They were swept in Chicago--and it was a 4 game sweep--with a biting 2-0 loss. They had great chances all game to score runs, including in the 8th, and in the 9th they had the bases loaded with no outs. Jake Peavy pitched pretty well, though he threw a lot of pitches, and the bullpen held the line, but this time the injury-riddled lineup (losing Aoki during the game, and perhaps for longer) couldn't push over those runs against a dominant starter and closer.
So though the Giants lost no ground to the Dodgers, thanks to the Pirates, they fell way behind in the Wild Card race. The Cubs on the other hand have to feel great, and super-confident. They beat the World Champions four games straight, the kind of confidence-builder that a young team needs. They had plenty of good fortune as well, especially on Sunday when the game came down to a couple of feet shy of the center field wall for Hunter Pence's blast, and a disputed strike three on a 3-2 count to end the game.
Though the Giants come home for a day off, the games won't get any easier--they'll be playing good teams for awhile. Houston and Washington come in, then a perhaps fateful road trip to St. Louis and Pittsburgh--with the two best records in baseball--and then guess who comes to SF? The Cubs.
Aoki got beaned Sunday and his availability won't be known until Tuesday. The Giants won't get Joe Panik and Mike Leake back until the series in St. Louis. Lots of speculation, bordering on panic, about quick acquisitions before things get completely out of hand.
Meanwhile, the Pirates have been doing a lot of winning without two key players, Jody Mercer and Harrison, and they both are off to rehab assignments early. The Pirates have a tough road trip coming up, starting with their nemesis St. Louis and then the currently high flying New York Mets.