The Giants' victory over the Texas Rangers in last night's game capped a Cinderella season for our home boys. As I noted in last week's response to the defeat of the Phillies in the NLCS, this was a ragtag team of improbables, cast-offs and rookies. Traditionally, a great major league team will have at least two sluggers, two fast base runners, two great fielders, two great starting pitchers, a great closer. Often the sluggers or base stealers will also be the great fielders. But the traditional wisdom also says that great pitching can prevail in a short series of games (5-7 games), to overcome the shortcomings of not having a good balanced offensive attack, or mediocre fielding abilities.
Since the Bonds Era, the Giants have struggled to come up with more power. Each year they haunt the free agency market, and their own farm teams, looking for guys who can supply it. Pedro Feliz, Moises Alou, Ray Durham, Bengie Molina, Aaron Rowand, among others, was each brought in over the last few years by Giants' GM Brian Sabean to, in effect, beef up the offense. Nothing worked. Each year Sabean would be criticized either for not signing enough talent, or for hiring the wrong guys. Sabean has always believed that the key to a great team is pitching. He's correct of course. Which is why he refused to trade any of his glorious promising rookie pitchers for anyone else's version of Harry "Suitcase" Simpson. Smart teams know how hard it is to find power hitters who can clout 25-35 homers, drive in 100, score 100, and hit when it counts. Most teams treat pitchers as if they were replaceable cogs, and will shop the bargain stalls for third and fourth rotation men, middle relievers, and mediocre closers. (Closing, of course, for those of you under the age of 40, is still a relatively modern phenomenon, a role that once--in the remote past when starters typically put in 275-325 innings per year and routinely finished their own starts--didn't even exist; pitchers who "relieved" were usually regarded as frustrated starters, an attitude which has today been carried to the opposite extreme, with pitchers who are specifically designated to get only one or two men out in a new role referred to as "situation" pitching.)
In any case, this year's Giants team looked superficially rather like another version of each of the last five years' squads, with a couple of good young arms, and a collection of promising fielders (Sandoval, Torres, Ishkawa, Schierholtz, Bowker), mixed with a group of aging journeymen (Renteria, Huff, Sanchez, Uribe, Burrell, Rowand, Molina, Guillen). The team had a great starter in Lincecum (2 Cy Youngs at age 24 & 25, but "fragile"), Matt Cain (hard luck case extraordinaire, a work horse rather in the old-fashioned mode), Jonathan Sanchez (the perennial "unfulfilled" star), Barry Zito (a player with steadily diminishing strength and focus who probably won't survive another year here, with the arrival of Madison Bumgarner, unless, of course, we give up on Sanchez instead--very unlikely), a bullpen full of "situation" men, and the excellent Brian Wilson.
You could have predicted a solid third place finish for this team and you wouldn't have had any arguments from anyone. Even if the team ERA could be as low as 3.00, it seemed unlikely that the Giants could average as many runs as they did (4.302 per game this year). But the offense still lacked punch. Huff and Uribe had better than average offensive years, and Torres blossomed (late, at age 32) into the great lead-off man he was born to be, Burrell provided a good shot in the arm (18 homers), and Sanchez finally recovered from his ills to be the spark-plug 2nd baseman of his past. The decline of Sandoval, which many had predicted, given Pablo's fondness for tacos (reports had him polishing off 20 at a sitting), was counterbalanced by the arrival of Buster Posey, a young catcher who may win the ROY honors in 2010 (unless they give it to that Braves outfielder). At various times during the year, Huff, Uribe, Burrell, Torres, and Posey each "carried" the team offensively. You'd have to go back several decades to find a team with this little punch, having so much success in scoring runs when they had to. It was referred to at times as "ground" ball, "scratching," "manufacturing" runs, with a different "hero" stepping up in each game.
"Peaking" is very important in team sports. A group of 30 men will never be playing at their best at the same time, but the team which manages to get the best out of the most, will be very competitive. These things are very temporary. The Giants could easily fall back to third place next year, whereas the Phils--a team of stars--is unlikely to relinquish their dominance for at last another 2-3 years. But peaking can put a "mediocre" team in contention, especially if they're peaking at the end of the season. This is exactly what happened to the Giants. Lincecum, for instance, had a terrible September, but picked it up thereafter. Zito started out great, then sank into a funk which lasted all the way to the end. Sanchez could be lights-out at times, then suddenly lose it. But collectively, the team was peaking from late September right through the play-offs. It became apparent, to those paying attention, that the Giants not only had the best starting rotation in the majors, but the best bull-pen too. This was a staff that could shut down the best offenses for four or five games in a row, and that's exactly what happened in October. Watching the Phillies and Rangers hitters shaking their heads and swinging at balls in the dirt, over and over again, was a reminder of how impotent a team can seem when there is superior fire power on the mound.
Ron Silliman today talks about his past as a Giants fan, going all the way back to the 1950's. I was around then, too, and have my memories. The first game I attended as a child was the Oakland Oaks, the minor league franchise, but about all I remember is spilling mustard on my lap. The first year the Giants arrived in San Francisco, I saw this game between the Giants and Cubs. Mays and Cepeda both homered, and our box seats, right alongside the Giants bull-pen, allowed my stepfather to converse a little with Felipe Alou and Ruben Gomez (in Spanish). Young Felipe looked raw-boned (with his big jaw): "Thees ye-arh I don know if thee teem bring me back, I got only fore home roans...." I can still remember this . I managed to get autographs of about 8 players that day, including Cepeda, but the program disappeared 40 years ago. We begged Mays to sign, but he refused, as was his habit. People don't talk about it anymore, but Mays was never "fan friendly" in his prime, carrying a big chip on his shoulder for the slights (both real and imagined) of being one of the first Black players to enter the Big Leagues in the late Forties/early Fifties.
The 1962 team, which lost to the Yankees "by inches" (the catch heard round the world), was really a much better balanced team than this one--in most ways, it was the best team the Giants managed to field in the post-War era. Power, speed, starting and closing. Clutch performance. But the key, as I've said, is pitching, and peaking at the right time. The Phillies this year obviously peaked just a little too early, their big push in September and early October, leaving the Braves behind. By the time the playoffs began, they had quieted down. Perhaps they were just a bit too confident. Confidence can be as dangerous as over-zealousness on the field. Add two miles per hour to a fastball, and suddenly you're missing your pitch, or the ground ball dribbles off the edge of your mitt. Great athletic skill must become to some degree "unconscious" so that, in tight situations, you respond by rote, because there isn't time to "think" through your actions, no matter how hard you press. It may be that both the Phillies and the Rangers underestimated the Giants' pitching, and began to "assume" performance even while it wasn't unfolding for them. I had that distinct impression watching the last two games, that each Rangers hitter was "depending" on his team-mates to carry the burden, but no one really believed that the team as a whole, was clearly being beaten, pitch after pitch, batter after batter. Whereas the Giants--a "no name" team for sure--knew that the outcome depended on each of them stepping up, so that each man felt the weight of the whole franchise on his shoulders, all the time. Burrell, for instance, despite the fact that he was in a typical slump (head pulling off the ball, swinging "in desperation"), still felt the whole game depended upon his performance, as--in a very real sense--it did--just as it did for each of the players.
You play as individuals, and you play as the team. In a playoff series, individual skill is concentrated on the pitchers. The law of averages says that a great hitting team will always be competitive, but in a playoff series, that goes out the window. If I'd had my way, the Giants would never have signed Renteria, a player clearly at the end of his career, with diminishing physical skills, and one eye on the hammock under the shady palm tree. But he contributed when it mattered. With their pitching intact, the Giants will be a team to be reckoned with in the coming decade, but whether or not they compete for titles will depend--as always--on their ability to obtain more offensive power. In MLB, it takes both: 162 games, and then the combination needed to prevail in play-off sets. This year, they managed, against all odds, to do and be both things. It's a little miracle.