SAN FRANCISCO – Hunter Pence was discussing meteorology, not baseball.
“This is not a normal day,” he said.
Well, maybe it was, and the Giants just didn’t know any better. After all, how many early afternoon games do they play in October? That unusually powerful breeze, the one that pushed every fly ball from right field toward center on Tuesday, was unlike anything they had seen here in China Basin. A few more hot dog wrappers, a little less mercury and a lot more orange seats and it could’ve been Candlestick Park.
As for the baseball portion of the day’s itinerary, unless you have a fetish for manufactured debate, there’s no point in arguing it. The Giants’ 5-4, 10-inning victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the NLCS was as absolutely, scoop-of-vanilla, plain Jane, nuclear-family normal as it gets.
For this team, anyway.
“A walkoff RTI,” said third base coach Tim Flannery, who helpfully defined his homemade acronym.
“Run Thrown In.”
Well, of course it was. But there was real skill involved in the Giants’ winning rally as well, including Brandon Crawford drawing an eight-pitch leadoff walk off left-hander Randy Choate, who throws from an arm slot somewhere between the mound and Livermore. There was the dash of fortune, the Kosher salt in any Giants playoff win, when Juan Perez fouled off two bunt attempts only to line a single to left field. And there was Gregor Blanco, deadening the ball on his second bunt attempt, and perfectly setting up an RBI situation the Giants ended up not having nor needing.
That’s because Choate fielded the bunt, spun toward first base and threw the ball at least to Livermore, and maybe into the Tuolumne River, as Crawford raced home with the winning run.
See? The bunt is alive and well and very much in style. It’s more than a Member’s Only jacket modeled by Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost. Some days, it’s swell for keeping the wind out.
And it has the Giants leading 2-1 in this best-of-7 fight for the NL pennant.
“I’m a little delirious, I guess,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “Man, these are hard fought games. But it’s something you’re used to. It’s our way.”
It’s why Bochy did not ease up after the Giants took a 4-0 lead in the first inning off John Lackey, with Travis Ishikawa’s bases-clearing double the rising agent in their biggest dough haul since Pittsburgh.
If you’ll recall, Bochy had moved Crawford ahead of Ishikawa, to seventh, for that wild card game against the Pirates. Crawford turned up in the right place at the right time at PNC Park, and hit a grand slam.
Bochy moved Ishikawa back to seventh on Tuesday, explaining that he was more likely to double-switch with that spot and leaving out the fact that Crawford was riding a 2 for 20 and stranded scads of baserunners in the two games at St. Louis.
This time, it was Ishikawa who stepped into the right place at the right time.
“That’s as good as I can hit a ball,” said Ishikawa, who posed in the box before realizing his grand slam would more closely resemble a three-run double, or something less than that if he didn’t hurry. “I guess I forgot how much the wind can push it to the biggest part of the field.”
But an easy victory is not the Giants’ way, and so of course, Lackey allowed no runs and just one hit – to pitcher Tim Hudson, who had two hits all season – over his final five innings. And Hudson, for as well as his sinker was sinking, had trouble retiring Jon Jay and Kolten Wong, the two hottest hitters in the Cardinals lineup.
Wong, who won Game 2 with a walk-off home run against Sergio Romo, hit a two-out triple off the right field wall in the fourth that served two purposes. It cut the Giants’ lead in half, and, given the way the ball’s kite-dipping flight fooled Pence, it provided some context to critics for poor Randal Grichuk’s misadventures on Ishikawa’s drive in the first.
Outfielders did not camp under fly balls Tuesday. They chased after them like they were zipped in sleeping bags.
Bochy showed faith in Hudson in the sixth after third baseman Pablo Sandoval couldn’t knock down Jhonny Peralta’s RBI single, which took a bad but not devastating hop. Hudson rewarded his manager, retiring Wong for the first time all game on a fly ball.
Bochy wanted Hudson to make it through the first two hitters in the seventh, too, but Grichuk connected on a cutter – the worst one Hudson threw all day, he said – and the right-hander lost the last shred of his lead on the 89th and final pitch he threw.
Meanwhile, the Giants had wandered so hitlessly far away from Hudson’s single in the fourth that it became rumor. So it was up to the bullpen to preserve the tie, and Bochy, after tapping Jeremy Affeldt to get through the seventh and eighth, used his home-field edge. He emptied his bullpen from the back end, summoning closer Santiago Casilla in the ninth (batters are 0 for 33 against him in his last 10 appearances) and then took advantage of his last shot to play matchups in the 10th.
After Javier Lopez gave up a single to Jay, Bochy did not hesitate to go back to Romo against Matt Holliday. As it turned out, the pitcher who gave up a walk-off shot on Game 2 became the winning pitcher in Game 3.
Romo fell behind Holliday but got him to hit a sharp grounder to third base. Jay was running with the pitch and probably would have scored if Sandoval didn’t at least knock it down. The Panda did more than that, spearing the ball while diving behind third base and then making a strong throw across the diamond to end the inning.
As a result, a dangerous left-handed hitter, Matt Adams, didn’t make it past the on-deck circle. And his chance to enjoy a right-handed matchup never came.
“You can save the game with your defense,” Sandoval said. “I just tried to stop that ball no matter what. I know he can hit the ball down the line so I moved to no-doubles.”
Sandoval reacted with at least as much energy and enthusiasm as to any defensive play he’s ever made as a Giant.
“Because,” he said, smiling. “I thought that play was going to get the team going.”
Blanco had the same thought: “I said that to him, `This is going to be the game right here.’ Pablo showed us something.”
Blanco made a quiet impact in the field, too. Not only did he snare a diving catch on Adams in the eighth, but he was vocal both in between batters and innings, positioning Ishikawa and Pence and reminding them not to quit on anything hit high or deep.
“If you ever have a kid and want to teach him how to play the outfield, watch Blanco,” Pence said. “He takes a lot of pride in it. That’s the first thing I noticed when I got traded here, how much he talks. After the ball Ishi hit, he said, `Hey, If they hit a high one, don’t give up on it. Stay with it no matter how hard they hit it.’”
Maybe that explains how the Giants are leading a series in which they’ve been outhomered 5-0.
Blanco sure as heck tried to touch all four bases, though. As Flannery noted, he was still running to second base as Crawford scored. The game was over, and there was Blanco, rounding toward third.
“The momentum of the game. Just the momentum of the game,” Blanco said, laughing. “I just said to myself, `Run the fastest you can and put pressure on the defense,’ and I did.”
Even Crawford, so proud of his programmer-coded stoicism, yelled and pumped his arms. It was an emotional moment. It was a winning moment.
For the Giants, it was most certainly this: a normal day.