WASHINGTON -– The Giants did round after round of interviews leading up to Game 1 of this NL Division Series, took question after question from out-of-towners, so many of them with the same threadbare preamble.
“What is it about this team …”
The questions were based on a faulty assumption. There isn’t one thing or one quality or even widespread roster continuity. Just clean baseball, poise on a hostile stage, a sense of faith in one another and not giving a damn about whether the talking heads expect them to shake hands at the end or not.
There wasn’t even a Hunter Pence speech before their 3-2 victory over the Washington Nationals in Game 1 Friday night.
“I love the sunflower seeds thrown around, and I like the slow clap we had going there,” said Brandon Belt, of the raucous dugout pep talks two Octobers ago. “But that was the past. We know what the deal was coming into this series. There’s no need for a speech today.”
It was a game in which Jake Peavy recorded his first career postseason win, Santiago Casilla recorded his first career postseason save, rookie newcomer Joe Panik contributed two huge hits along with steady defense and a September call-up, Hunter Strickland, calmly conducted a bases-loaded bomb disposal.
Those are a lot of firsts and fish-out-of-water moments for a team supposedly holding the experience card. That’s one heck of a way to extend a nine-game postseason winning streak -– a run that now stands as a National League record, by the way.
The Giants broke the previous record of eight, set by … well, gird your loins for this:
Set by the 1975-76 Big Red Machine –- as dynastic a run as the National League has ever seen -– and matched by the Reds again from 1990-95.
The Giants broke the record of one of baseball's most iconic teams by charging into two road environments, sinking the Pirates in the Wild Card game and then firing the opening salvo here at Nationals Park. They’ve outscored their opponents 47-9 over this run of postseason victories, which began with Barry Zito’s saving grace in Game 5 of the NLCS at St. Louis in 2012. They might have recorded their sixth shutout amid the nine wins, too, except for two home runs that Strickland allowed in the seventh inning.
So. “What is it…”
Give Peavy a chance to answer. He’s been a part of it for barely more than two months, God bless it.
“We understand we might not be, you know, man-for-man the favorites,” said Peavy, who held the Nats to two hits in 5 2/3 shutout innings to out-duel friend and one-time protégé Stephen Strasburg. “But we take a lot of pride in being chained together. Our strength is in who we are as a team. We have great individual players, but we have to play the game as a team.
“We have to be on the same page defensively. Offensively, we have to put at-bats together and get guys over. That type of baseball is who we try to be in the regular season, and it translates, because in the postseason you have to play that way.”
Peavy did not try to bully or shove or swim straight through the Nationals’ treacherous riptide of a lineup, like he might have done in his younger days. He did not try to strike out the world. Instead, he churned and churned his pitch assortment until the baseball nearly turned yellow, refusing to grease one when behind in a count.
“He’s a smart pitcher, and he knows not to give in,” catcher Buster Posey said. “He had a high pitch count, but that was because he wasn’t giving in and was making some really, really tough pitches.”
Peavy had thrown 104 when Bruce Bochy decided to start playing matchups with two out in the sixth. Jayson Werth, whose every October at-bat is a Wagner composition, saw 21.2 percent of them.
When Javier Lopez walked Adam LaRoche to load the bases, Bochy did not hesitate to call for Strickland, a waiver pickup from the Pirates last season and a veteran of exactly nine regular-season games. Strickland threw four pitches -– 98, 99, 99 and 100 mph.
Ian Desmond could not catch up to any of them.
“Let’s do it. Let’s get out of it,” Strickland barked at his infielders when Bochy handed him the ball. “You definitely understand the situation, but you just go for it. … It fires me up. That’s what I enjoy, the pressure. I feel I’m better under pressure.”
The pressure was palpable even to the Giants’ experienced relievers. Jeremy Affeldt said he felt more adrenaline than he expected, so much so that he couldn’t see straight.
Strickland gave up an upper-tank shot to Bryce Harper (for which Posey shouldered blame, citing a bad pitch selection) and another solo homer to Asdrubal Cabrera in the seventh. So Peavy sought out the rookie right-hander in the dugout to ensure the two shots wouldn’t be rattling around his head when he left the park.
“He saved the game,” said Peavy, “and I wanted to make sure he understands that.”
Said Affeldt: "That was the game changer, to be able to do that. The two home runs, he’ll fix that. What he did with the bases loaded, that showed me who he is and what he’ll be, and I look forward to seeing him for a long time.”
The Giants still held a 3-2 lead after the home runs because their lineup had executed a simple but effective game plan against Strasburg, not flinching even when he came out hurling 99 mph fuel that the local beat writers claimed they hadn’t seen since his rookie season.
Panik became the fifth Giants rookie to collect a postseason RBI when he lined a single in the third inning. Hunter Pence’s speed accounted for a run in the fourth when he beat out a double-play grounder, stole second base and scored without a play on Belt’s single. Panik, who had an extra-base hit taken away by Denard Span in deep center field earlier in the game, hit another drive that the speedy outfielder couldn’t grab for a triple to start the seventh. He scored when Buster Posey singled off the pitcher’s glove.
“It gets a little louder and stuff,” said Panik, shrugging when asked about the postseason environment. “When it comes down to it, it’s the same game.”
Belt shook his head.
“I don’t know why he does that,” he said. “I wonder if he’s human sometimes. He might be, but I don’t know.”
The Giants collected eight singles off Strasburg, six of them up the middle. A sellout crowd had anticipated this night from the time the Nationals drafted Strasburg first overall in 2009.
It was not the show they paid to see.
“We had a bunch of great at-bats today, and against him, we knew we had to,” Belt said. “We’re not getting too big out there. We’re doing that little game of get ‘em on, get ‘em over and get ‘em in.”
Said Bochy: “I don’t think you ever change from trying to get a good pitch to hit. That’s the way it should be. Don’t try to do too much. Don’t overanalyze anything. You start thinking too much against a good pitcher, you get yourself in trouble. We try to keep it simple.”
Yet Bochy did not credit the victory to those early runs that turned Nationals Park into a south annex of the Library of Congress.
“Our defense won us that game,” said Bochy, pointing to Panik’s diving effort in the eighth inning and his rangy stop up the middle to start a double play on Wilson Ramos in the fourth.
Shortstop Brandon Crawford initially didn’t break toward second base, apparently thinking Panik had no shot at Ramos's grounder.
Bochy also highlighted Juan Perez’s hustle in the eighth after LaRoche lunged at an outside slider from Sergio Romo and dumped it into left field – keeping runners from advancing to second and third.
Romo had the eighth all to himself, including matchups with lefty hitters LaRoche and Harper, because Lopez and Affeldt were spent casings by then.
“It was me out there,” Romo said. “That was my inning. That’s the only way I take it.”
Anthony Rendon tapped a single to right field, and after Romo made a series of pinpoint pitches to silence Werth on a pop-up, LaRoche dumped his hit to left field. Desmond struck out on three pitches. But Romo needed one more out and the next batter was Harper, fresh off getting the better of Strickland, and for a time, the earth’s gravitational pull.
“I’m sitting there thinking, 'How’s he going to work him? Sink it away?'” Lopez said. “Then you remember that Sergio was our closer. He’ll attack them like he always does. He’ll step up in the postseason like he always does.”
Ground ball. Inning over. Romo had just Jay Bruced the hell out of the Washington Nationals.
Then Casilla, the most unheralded member of the Giants bullpen, quietly rendered three batters inert in the ninth. He stepped into the role previously occupied by Brian Wilson and Romo, and smooth cheeks aside, it fit.
“Oh, watching the game, that made me very, very nervous,” Casilla said. “In the bullpen, Strickland, bases loaded, I was very nervous. Romo, same thing.”
But when he took the mound?
“I make my pitch,” he said. “Nothing different.”
Casilla saved Peavy’s first postseason victory, an achievement that might have meant more had the Boston Red Sox not found a way to overcome his struggles and win it all last year.
This was different, though. The Giants needed Peavy to be more than a rotation piece. They needed him to be Matt Cain –- a stalwart presence in their starting five for so long, finally felled by bone chips in July, who stood on the mound in all three of their series-clinching victories two years ago.
Having already ridden Madison Bumgarner’s brilliance to escape Pittsburgh, the Giants had to turn to the maniacally intense, straight-talking pitcher from Alabama with “OUTSIDER” tattooed across his forearm.
“I’ve been in situations throughout life since I first signed, even before that when … You know, I didn’t leave the South much,” Peavy explained. “I was in a lot of situations where I was uncomfortable, in fancy hotels, speaking to people maybe I didn’t have the education to speak to. ‘Outsider’ is a way to be comfortable when you are uncomfortable, if that makes any sense at all.
“I love people who do it their way. I haven’t tried to be anybody else. I tried to be true to myself and my family and do it my way. It’s a good reminder that you don’t have to be like everybody else to be right.”
On Friday night, Peavy won for them, and inspired them, and did it all without spitting a curse word. Or did he?
“You know what?” he said. “On the mound, I think … maybe. But I might have slipped in the dugout.”
The Giants did not trade for Jon Lester or David Price or Jeff Samardzija. They wanted Peavy. They ignored his 1-9 record, his 15-start winless streak and his 4.72 ERA with Boston. They targeted him, pursued him and acquired him.
Selection bias, then. Maybe that’s the answer to a question with a faulty assumption.