It is good to be a Wild Card team in baseball’s playoff format. It is better to face a top-flight pitcher when he isn’t in possession of his top-flight stuff.
And more than anything else, it is good in October to have a bullpen that has built up sufficient scar tissue over the years that nothing fazes it.
Thus it is that the San Francisco Giants are a game to the good in their first-to-three National League series with the Washington Nationals -- because of all the things that worked out well for the Giants, the thing that worked out best was the fact that their bullpen does not faze easily.
There were plenty of turns in the Giants’ 3-2 win -- Stephen Strasburg’s discomfort with anything that wasn’t a fastball or changeup, Jake Peavy’s scotch-in-old-tumblers pitching approach, the continued improbability of the pun-tastic Joe Panik and the ongoing Brandon fetish, the Bryce Harper solo home run that surely should have counted for two runs.
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But Game 1 really boiled down to San Francisco’s well-weathered relief staff -- the sublime and the long-distance.
Of the Giants’ 3-0 lead, Comrade Baggarly will discuss in subatomic detail. Panik is, at this point, about one more single from getting a few fastballs up and in, just to teach him a little religion, and the next good pitch either Belt or Crawford sees should cause Washington manager Matt Williams to remove his own skullcap in aggravation.
But the Giants, even with their allegedly depleted starting rotation, still have plenty of cards to play in the bullpen and a master of playing them in Bruce Bochy. He long ago showed how waiting for the bullpen to get to its preferred roles is often too late in the postseason, so he performed his usual series of right-now-and-how moves to keep the Nationals from doing to them what the Baltimore Orioles have done to the Detroit Tigers.
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Peavy gets wonky in the sixth, giving up a leadoff double to Nate Schierholtz (yes, that Nate Schierholtz) and then walks Jayson Werth with two outs. Peavy wants a crack at Adam LaRoche but Bochy intervenes because, well, this is what Bochy knows to do. He doesn’t let Peavy talk him out of his choice, and even though Javier Lopez walks LaRoche, Bochy has only begun.
He goes to rookie Hunter Strickland, the Giants’ sole member of the 100-mph Club, because he needs to overpower Ian Desmond and get out of a potential game-changing rally. Strickland goes 98-99-100, Desmond flails, and the rally is quelled.
Bochy then decides to see how long Strickland can continue to do that, using his three-run lead as a shield. This is where he gambles wrong, because he sends a straight-as-a-string 97-mph two-seamer to Harper, who takes to the upper deck in right in about the time it took for Strickland to get it to him. One hitter later, Strickland provides the same service for Asdrubal Cabrera, and suddenly the game is an open sore again.
Only Bochy has done this too many times to do anything other than what he has trained himself to do. He stays with Strickland to get pinch-hitter Ryan Zimmerman because he needs to save his most experienced relievers for the eighth and ninth. Then he plugs in his last left-hander, Jeremy Affeldt, for Denard Span, and finishes with Sergio Romo in the eighth and Santiago Casilla in the ninth.
Even then, though, it isn’t quite according to plan. Romo’s slider stinks, at least to Anthony Rendon and LaRoche, but again, rather than panic (with a “C”, you rubes), he stays with Romo to strike out the overmatched Desmond and then gets Harper to offer at a 1-1 slide piece for the final out, and Casilla goes through the ninth in order.
Easy? Of course not. Strickland showed he isn’t fully ready for an extended stay in a postseason game without a greater repertoire. Romo was not a comforting figure. Both times, Bochy sweated out an extra hitter because he was already thinking beyond the moment, knowing that extra innings were a very real possibility and that there was still a lead to protect.
Mostly, he invested in his pitchers’ hearts, and sometimes that goes bad. It did not Friday, which is why the Giants have one and the Nationals none. Saturday is another day, like it or not, and the same moves made the same way could go hideously wrong. Not every team has the consistent performances Brad Ausmus is getting from his bullpen in Detroit.
And don’t think Bruce Bochy doesn’t know it.