There really wasn’t any doubt last night. From the first pitch to the final rain soaked out, the San Francisco Giants were going to win game seven. They scored a run in the first, added another in the second inning. But, it was that third inning when everything came together. Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse showed signs of tiring in his last start. That third inning was a bizarre combination of his tiring and the Giants just really being locked in. The Giants were also helped by the bounce of the ball.
That third inning resulted in five runs, giving the Giants an insurmountable lead. It made the rest of the night simply a countdown to 27 outs.
That third inning was, quite obviously, the turning point. The Giants decisive third inning was started by their two best offensive players in this series. Marco Scutaro singled to lead off the inning. Pablo Sandoval followed with a double. Buster Posey drew a walk. Cardinals’ Manager finally came to take Lohse out.
It was this decision that broke the game open. Some can debate that Matheny waited too long to remove Lohse. Perhaps, but his decision to replace Lohse with rookie Joe Kelly was the deciding factor. Kelly has compiled a fine season and hadn’t given up a run in the postseason. But, with no outs in an elimination game, that situation called for a strikeout pitcher. Trevor Rosenthal has been one of the reasons why the Cardinals were a win away from the World Series. Although it was just the third inning, that was the moment he needed to enter, probably against the struggling Posey. It is unclear if Matheny was saving Rosenthal for later in the game and hoped to get some length out of Kelly, but that was a situation to attempt to save the season with a high strikeout pitcher.
Matheny did, however, have a reason for bringing in Kelly. He was going for the double play. “Right there we needed a ground ball, exactly what Joe Kelly got us. A pitcher would have been up 5th, which we would have risked losing Trevor Rosenthal for a partial inning instead of being able to stretch him out a bit. But we wanted the ground balls, and Joe Kelly came in and did what we asked him to do. He did a very nice job all through this run of answering the bell and really having great composure for a young pitcher,” said Matheny.
He did get the groundball, but it the spin on the baseball made it get by shortstop Pete Kozma. From there, the Giants piled on and the Cardinals wilted. Kozma made a couple of bizarre plays, ending the season in such stark contrast from when he first came to the big leagues just a month ago.
The Giants finished off the series with Sergio Romo getting Matt Holliday to pop out to Series MVP Marco Scutaro. It was their sixth win of the postseason in an elimination game setting. They join the 1985 Kansas City Royals as the only other team to win six elimination games.
The difference in the series came down to the two areas. There is always an expectation of the Giants pitching well and the final three games fulfilled those expectations. The Giants got a big start from Barry Zito in game five. Ryan Vogelsong followed in game six and Matt Cain pitched well enough in game seven. Although he didn’t have his best stuff, Cain shut down the struggling Cardinals for 5.2 innings. He allowed 5 hits and struck out four. Giants’ pitching held the Cardinals to just 1 run in their final 29 innings of the series.
The offense exploded for 20 runs during the last three games to put the series away. Scutaro would lead the way again, getting 3 more hits to raise his series average to .500. Hunter Pence, who has taken a leadership role this postseason, had two hits, including that bizarre, winding groundball in the third inning that actually looked like it hit his bat three times before heading out of the infield.
With the win, the Giants head back to the World Series for the second time in three years, having won the 2010 series. They head into the series with their rotation in a less than ideal state. Cain won’t likely pitch until game four. But, they head into the series against the Tigers with a mindset that has been cultivated this postseason. With seven elimination game wins, there has to be a calmness about them. No game is too big; no moment too great. It seems ridiculous to write, but the playoffs can get like that. A team just gets on a roll and believes. Of all the teams in the National playoffs, the Giants were the least talented. They had the worst offense and the thinnest pitching. Yet, they are now waiting for the Tigers to come to town.
“I’m still numb. How many times we faced that, and it was ‑‑ this team ‑‑ these guys deserve all the credit. They were determined not to go home. They had that never say die attitude. And Hunter did a great job of keeping them pumped up. They were playing for each other. And of course our fans, they just did not want to go home. They were determined and it showed in their playing,” said Bruce Bochy.
Bochy also showed that kind of attitude in the sixth inning. The Giants had the game well in hand, but Cardinals had two runners on with two outs. Cain had just struck out David Freese for the second out to bring his pitch count to 102. Instead of letting his ace face Daniel Descalso, Bochy brought in southpaw Jeremy Affeldt to face the lefty hitter. Rather than perhaps give the Cardinals some hope–they are a team that was on their own amazing comeback streak–Bochy finished the inning with a strong reliever on a good match up.
The 2012 National League Championship Series was the best Major League Baseball could offer. It featured the previous two World Series winners battling for another chance at a title. The Giants pitched better, kept the Cardinals off the scoreboard, and fielding better than the defending champs. And, their Manager had a better series. The back and forth of the series coupled with some of the great performances by some of the game’s most underappreciated stars–Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina–and baseball lifers like Marco Scutaro was a showcase for Baseball.
Now, the Giants wait for their opponents who have more elite players and more power to come into their park. On paper, the Tigers present a big mismatch for the Giants, especially with the Tigers able to line up their ace and difference maker Justin Verlander for game one. No Giants batter is even in the same league as Miguel Cabrera or even Prince Fielder. The Tigers have a rested bullpen. Everything is lined up for them and against the Giants. The Giants look to be underdogs.
Maybe they have the Tigers right where they want them.