The San Francisco Giants got past the Bryce Harpers in four games, or maybe it just seems that way. Technically, the Giants beat the Nationals 3-2 in Game 4, clinching yet another postseason series where beforehand it seemed like the only folks who thought they’d prevail reside in their clubhouse.
“I think we were the underdog in this series,” said Buster Posey. “We’ll probably be the underdog in the Cardinals series, too.”
A team with two championships in the last five years in just about any other sport would almost certainly play the role of favorites more often than not in the playoffs. But baseball is so numbers-based, and it’s easy to seize on the individual battles. Batter vs. pitcher. Manager vs. manager. Right fielder vs. fence.
The Giants held no “on paper” edge against Washington, other than past postseason success. Each team scored nine runs in the 2014 NLDS. But the Giants won their seventh consecutive postseason series, and it wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t luck. The Giants were a team of players and coaches who picked each other up when they failed, took advantage when given chances to contribute, and stayed calm — even during a clinching game that was full of redemption, frustration, and ultimately celebration.
Vogelsong vs. Gonzalez
Ryan Vogelsong was able to lead the team in a rousing “YES! YES! YES!” chant after the game in large part because he was the better starting pitcher. He came out throwing 95 mph in the first inning. It was a long first inning, but that set the stage for yet another postseason start where Vogelsong stifled the opposition. This time it was to the tune of two hits, two walks and just one run over 5 2/3 innings.
“I just had this crazy feeling going in that it was going to come down to me in Game 4,” said Vogelsong. “I knew if I got a chance, I was going to show up and throw the ball the way I knew how to, and I was able to do it.”
The only run came in the fifth inning, when Ian Desmond led off with the Nationals’ first hit and Harper drove him in with a double to left. That was it, and Vogelsong’s most important pitch may have been the one that got Denard Span to ground out to first after walking Nate Schierholtz.
Vogelsong was the team’s best pitcher during the 2012 postseason run, but it’s been anything but easy since. He didn’t pitch well in an injury-marred 2013, and the Giants didn’t pick up his option for this season. After some time, the team and Vogelsong agreed to give it a go for one more year, and in some ways it was a strong one. He made every start, which in itself meant he surpassed the expectations of many. But his season wasn’t complete until Tuesday night, when he got a chance to remind everyone what made him such a vital component of this team in 2011-12.
“There was some gratification going on. You guys know it was a pretty tough year on me mentally, with throwing the ball pretty good at times and not getting the results I wanted, and not throwing the ball very good and getting good results,” he said.
“To come out here tonight and be able to throw the ball like that and give us a chance to win, get us into the next round, it’s very gratifying.”
Posey, who deftly handed the staff in a four-game series that had five game’s worth of innings, sensed that Vogelsong had a little extra in the tank for this one. “I could tell in the bullpen that the fastball was coming in and had a lot of life on it,” said the Giants catcher. “I wouldn’t have guessed 95, but it’s funny what adrenaline can do for you.”
Ground attack strikes back
The Giants seemed to get away with letting several potential big innings turn into dust. They should’ve scored more than two runs against Gonzalez, but those runs were created in the most Giants-y of ways.
In the second inning, Brandon Crawford singled. Juan Perez reached on a fielding error by Gonzalez. Ryan Vogelsong dropped a great bunt down the third base line that was made even better when Gonzalez trotted in front of Anthony Rendon and no play was made. If the way Gonzalez ran to that bunt looked familiar, it’s because that’s how Tim Hudson ran out slow grounders all season. Gonzalez walked in a run with Gregor Blanco at the plate, and Joe Panik hit a grounder to first. That was it.
Their run in the seventh inning came on a wild pitch by Aaron Barrett, which scored Joe Panik. The scene looked like this from my vantage point.
Harper vs. Strickland
It was almost like Bruce Bochy wanted to stick it to Harper, as did Strickland with that 97 mph fastball. But in talking to Strickland, one can see why Bochy felt comfortable letting him pitch to Harper in that situation, even with what happened the last time those two faced. It wasn’t exactly what Strickland said about the home run — he didn’t say much, other than Harper did his job — but how he said it, with an easy smile. If Harper got to him in this series from a mental standpoint, he’s a danged good actor.
As for how Harper stared at Strickland as he ran the bases, and the words he said after reaching the dugout …
“I’m excited about it,” Strickland said. “That makes it that much more interesting next year.”
Strickland has gone from being DFA’d to recovering fully from Tommy John surgery, to getting called up to the majors. Bochy used him in each of the three games the Giants won in this series.
“(Bochy, Dave Righetti and Mark Gardner) build your confidence. They put you in these roles. They help me off the field as far as mechanics or whatnot and just give you the opportunity to perform,” said Strickland, who has gained a season’s worth of big game experience in the last week. “I probably look like (I’ve aged) a little bit, (it was) stressful. But that’s what it’s all about. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
The home run Harper hit was a temporary break from the “we’ve got this in the bag” feeling that pervaded AT&T Park after the second inning, and the ninth inning was butt-clenching time when Harper stepped to the plate against Santiago Casilla. He didn’t collect a ton of hits, but the ones he got in this series were huge.
“He had a really good series,” said Panik. “He hit the ball well. We had to scratch across runs. We grinded out the games. That’s the type of ballclub we are.”
— Not that it seemed any other way before, but it was hard to think of impending free agent Pablo Sandoval as anything other than “all in” for this team after the game. He got off the ground pretty well on his high-five with Belt (above), he threw his arms up in the air to get the crowd going after the final out, and he was the loudest one in the clubhouse. Yes, louder than Pence.
— Overheard in the press box from a Washington-area reporter: “Bochy out-managed him, no question.” The other reporters all agreed wholeheartedly.
— Bochy had Yusmeiro Petit warming up in the fifth inning. Most people expected to see Stephen Strasburg in this game, but no dice. Matt Williams didn’t lose this series for the Nats, but it was difficult to say he helped out much.
— This team has risen, fallen and risen again with Sergio Romo, who’s looking as good as he has in two years. Santiago Casilla deserves credit for handling his first postseason as a closer like a pro.
— Panik made the final play of this series, just like he did in Tim Lincecum’s no-hitter.
“Two totally different experiences. I was five days in during Timmy’s no-hitter. That was an incredible experience in itself. But today, to be able to clinch going to the NLCS is even more special because it’s for this clubhouse and this group of guys. This is the best group of guys. I couldn’t be happier for them,” said Panik, who didn’t flinch when Ramos hit the ball in his direction.
“Honestly, everything slowed down for me. Everything slowed down, so it was just a routine ground ball I’ve done a million times.”
— I missed Bumgarner chugging five beers at once, but he sure did spray everyone around him with plenty of Bud … including yours truly.
— Lots of players pouring beer and champagne on the ladies after this one. Here’s Tim Hudson battling Madison Bumgarner’s wife, Ali.
— Michael Morse took his first pain-free batting practice on Tuesday, and said he’s hopeful he can contribute in the NLCS. He’d probably just be a pinch-hitter at this point, since he hasn’t played in the field in over a month.
— After being a part of the Nationals team that fell short in the 2012 NLDS in five games, Morse has gotten a chance to see how the Giants keep finding ways to get over the hump in the postseason.
“Once you get experience on doing this, I guess there’s a whole other switch that these guys know what to do. They’ve won two World Series. It’s in their DNA, it’s in the organization’s DNA. They know what it takes. They just said, if we get in there, we’ll win it,” said Morse.
“If you look out there, you wouldn’t know there was this much pressure on the line. It says so much about this team, this organization. It’s something I’m learning from them. Watching this team win in the past and now being a part of it, it’s a dream come true.”
— One last photo, from my walk home after Game 3. These lights will stay orange for at least another week.