Programming note: For comprehensive Giants-Nationals coverage from Washington, watch ‘October Quest’ tonight at 6:30 p.m on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.
WASHINGTON –- Maybe Jack Nicholson didn’t set out to play crazy. Perhaps Vincent Price longed to be a Hollywood leading man instead of an icy-voiced villain. Mickey Rourke might have terrific comedic timing, for all we know.
There comes a time when a ringing phone is louder than an inner voice. The steady paycheck is more important, and hey, being good at the work is its own reinforcement.
So go ahead and tell the Giants they are underdogs in this best-of-five NL Division Series against the Washington Nationals. Tell them their pitching can’t possibly measure up to Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez. Point out the Nats’ NL-best 96 victories, or hearken back to a season series in which the Giants lost five of seven.
The Giants can play crazy as easily as an axe can split a door.
“I don't think anybody is picking us, at this point in time, to do much of anything,” said right-hander Jake Peavy, who will oppose Strasburg, his friend and one-time San Diego protégé, in Game 1 on Friday at Nationals Park.
“You know, this bunch, we believe in ourselves. You have to respect who (the Nationals) are and what they’ve done. But you’ve got to see yourself going in there and winning.
“If you don’t believe, you got nothing.”
The casinos didn’t favor the Giants against the Braves, Phillies or Rangers when they won rings in 2010, or the Reds, Cardinals or Tigers when they did it again in 2012. This series against the Nats, though, has the strongest whiff of fait accompli since the Giants’ buses turned down Broad Street in South Philly four years ago.
The Phillies had the league’s best record that year, just as the Nationals do now. They had a pitcher, Roy Halladay, coming off a no-hitter, just as the Nats have with Game 2 starter Jordan Zimmermann now. They had a deep and unassailable rotation and a dangerous, veteran lineup that included Jayson Werth, just as …
Well, it won’t be random when you hear Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” at Nationals Park Friday night.
As if you need reminding, the Giants claimed an NL pennant in Philadelphia four years ago, upsetting baseball’s world order as umpire Tom Hallion punched a roundhouse strike three from Brian Wilson on Ryan Howard.
It doesn’t seem nearly as daunting a role when you’ve rehearsed the lines.
“You know, they have such a balanced club, starting pitching, bullpen, their lineup,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said of the Nationals. “They have been tough on us. Their record is what it is. They are a good, solid club and you have to play your best ball to beat them. They really don't have a weakness. I just think that when you have the best record in the league, you have to be considered the best in the National League. They should feel like that.”
The Nationals are operating with Strasburg now. That wasn’t the case two years ago, when they put a cap on his innings and could not escape an NL Division Series with a St. Louis Cardinals club that survived a dozen down-to-their-last-strike moments.
His innings leash now cut, Strasburg will make his first postseason start. And the San Diego native will oppose the pitcher he idolized as a kid. Strasburg and Peavy owned houses in the same development.
They worked out together a bit in the offseason.
“I am a Stephen Strasburg fan,” said Peavy, who has proven to be baseball’s best midseason trade acquisition while taking Matt Cain’s place in the rotation. “For tomorrow, I will be trying to beat him with everything I’ve got. He’ll be doing the same.”
Peavy posted a 1.15 ERA in his last six starts. Strasburg had a 1.13 ERA in his last six. Prior to that, though, he was prone to occasional fits of early-start distress, including a four-inning, five-run start against the Giants here on Aug. 24. Travis Ishikawa and Gregor Blanco took him deep in that game, although the Nationals rallied from a five-run deficit to win.
Strasburg, as plus-plus as his three-pitch arsenal might be, has a lot to prove. He still wears the residue of a two-year-old controversy, and pundits with a point to prove seldom look away. The Giants’ ability to get to him early could become the difference in the series.
I mean, I don’t know,” said Strasburg, asked again about the decision to shut him down in 2012. “I’ve been asked that question so many times, and I try not to look back on what it was like two years ago. I’m just trying to live in the present, and I’m excited for getting the chance now.
“Just talking to guys who have been in this position before, obviously, this is brand new to me,” Strasburg said. “They all say it’s still the same game. You’ve got to focus on the things that you can control, and that’s making sure that before you throw each pitch, you’re locked in and you know what you want to do.”
It’ll be Zimmermann against Tim Hudson in Game 2, and a familiar rematch back at AT&T Park when Madison Bumgarner opposes Fister in Game 3. Those two pitchers squared off in Game 2 of the 2012 World Series, when Bumgarner beat Fister’s Detroit Tigers.
Although neither Bochy nor Nationals first-year manager Matt Williams would announce a Game 4 starter, it’s shaping up to be Ryan Vogelsong vs. left-hander Gio Gonzalez.
“We are very excited about being here, trust me,” said Bochy, one day after his club overwhelmed the Pittsburgh Pirates behind Bumgarner in an 8-0 victory at PNC Park to advance as the NL wild card.
“It was great to wake up this morning knowing we are still playing baseball. I've always liked Washington in October. I used to live here, so it is good to be here.”
Bochy’s father was stationed at the Pentagon. He played little league at Bailey’s Crossroads, lived in Falls Church, went through a basketball phase, had a paper route.
“I was an Evening Star guy,” he said. “I couldn’t get up early in the morning.”
The family moved to Melbourne, Fla., but not before Bochy formed a baseball bond with the Washington Senators –- “I was a Frank Howard guy” –- and spent his paper route earnings on 15-cent bus fares to see them play at RFK Stadium.
Now Bochy will stand at the top step and put his faith in Peavy, the intense, self-critical, God-bless-it swearing right-hander he’s known since he was a pup in San Diego.
“I promise you, I will do everything that I can do not to say a cuss word tomorrow,” Peavy said. “I can't promise I won't. … It is who I am. I can't apologize for the passion and emotion that I will show tomorrow.
“It is going to be honest, I promise you that.”
An honest performance. Isn’t that what every great actor delivers, regardless of role?