Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Magic Number

Eleven wins.  That's what it takes to win baseball's postseason and become the champion.  Eight teams start the playoffs, and the first one to win eleven games is the big winner.  Eleven wins is really a small thing.  The regular season is 162 games long, stretching from April to October.  No eleven of those 162 can be deemed to be critical, although the difference between going to the playoffs and going home can often be just a win or two.  But when they start the postseason, it's a sprint, a race to eleven.  It's amusing how baseball analysts will decide this playoff game or that one is a 'must win' game.  Eight teams.  Eleven wins.  They're ALL must win games.  Lose just one too many and the dream ends for another year.

After the Padres imploded (interestingly dooming their season by losing ten in a row), you could begin to see the playoffs take shape.  The Giants were better than the Braves - the only real uncertainty in the NLDS was the best of five format.  In such a short series, too much depends on luck - a single good or bad break, a missed call, a bad hop can determine the outcome.  In a five game series, the best team doesn't always win - but you had to like the Giants chances.

The real obstacle, the hill that would likely prove insurmountable was the Phillies.  They were the 800 pound gorilla of the National League, with the killer pitching staff, the superstar lineup, the World Series experience.  No, sadly, the plucky Giants had little hope to win the NLCS.  The Phillies knew it.  The analysts knew it.  Hell, if I was to be honest, I knew it.  The conversation had already begun to drift to who the Phillies would play in the World Series.  Unfortunately for the Phillies and their fans, nobody told the Giants.

One of Dusty Baker's greatest failings as a pro baseball manager was his unwillingness to take his veterans out of the lineup.  He'd stick with his guys, no matter how awful they were playing, no matter what options he had available.  This is where Bruce Bochy stood tall.  Renteria made all the difference in the world, but Bochy should be MVP.  He was ruthless, dispassionately leaving Zito behind, leaving fan favorite Sandoval on the bench, moving his pieces every day without regard to feelings or seniority, but only to give his team their best chance to win.  And they were a team.  There was no bruised egos (well, one - but Bengie gets a ring anyway), no public whining, no thoughts of who deserved to be there, only of who was the best available option on any given day.  So Cain pitched at home.  Renteria and Uribe anchored the left side of the infield.  When Burrell HAD to sit, Huff was DH'd and Ishikawa got a rare start at first.

And the Giants played as advertised.  First and foremost, they PITCHED.  Two shutouts, and Game 5 was one mistake from being a third.  It's hard to remember now, but before the season started there was grave concern over the ability of this team to play defense.  Huff would be a disaster at first, Sanchez didn't have enough range at second, Renteria couldn't make the play in the hole anymore.  But the defense in the World Series was stellar.  From Torres and Ross in the outfield to Sanchez and Uribe to Buster Posey gunning down baserunners with nothing short of alacrity, the pitchers were unafraid to challenge the strike zone and put the ball in play.

In the end, it wasn't ever close.  The Rangers depended on their tremendous hitters to win games, and the Giants pitching just shut them down.  Hamilton, Guerrero, Young, great hitters made merely human by even greater pitchers.

On July 6th, one week before the All Star Game, the Giants went to Milwaukee for a three game set.  They were one game over .500, in fourth place in the Division, 7½ games out of first place.  They had just lost a 15 inning heartbreaker in Colorado.  No one was surprised, and when talk turned to potential postseason matchups, the Giants were never mentioned.  A .500 team in the middle of the pack, they had put together a terrific pitching staff and were squandering it with a limp, pathetic offense.  On April 20th, Jonathan Sanchez pitched a one hitter against San Diego and lost.  In May, after a particularly frustrating game in which the Giants lost the lead twice, broadcaster Duane Kuiper deadpanned "Giants Baseball: Torture".  And so it was.

When you hear people speak of "intangibles" and "chemistry" in sports teams, there is no longer any room for argument or debate.  Talent, grit, focus and a little bit of luck make good teams.  What makes them great is a little harder to describe.  The 2002 Giants were the most talented team they had ever put on the field, and they went to the World Series, but they lost.  Those last bits, those final pieces of the puzzle that made the Giants not just better than the Phillies but World Series Champions don't show up in box scores or lineup cards.  But without them, greatness is out of reach.

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