ST. LOUIS – The Giants arrived at Game 2 in Busch Stadium clutching five victories in six postseason games. They came into those by chewing nails on the mound and gripping horseshoes at the plate.
Wild pitches. Errors. RBI grounders. Put a pitch into play, something good has a chance to happen. Sometimes you scratch a Lotto ticket and your prize is a free ticket, so you rub that one with a nickel, and … well, you might not turn in your notice at work. But you might come out ahead.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Giants lose Game 2 on Wong's walk-off]
The Giants drove up pitch counts against the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals, fouled off put-away strikes, made a general nuisance of themselves and felt good about it. They also entered Sunday night with a .177 average with runners in scoring position this postseason. Manager Bruce Bochy acknowledged the obvious: “Well, it probably has to turn around a little bit.”
Bochy also said this: “I can’t say luck is the reason we’re doing what we’re doing.”
There is a stat called BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, and it’s helpful to an extent. This season, the National League average was .299 on pitches put in play. Sport a BABIP way above that and, in theory, you’ve got a mean regression in your future. Hit way below and you’ve got every right to grouse about bad luck.
There is an exception, though, and the Cardinals hit four of them in a 5-4 victory that electrified Busch Stadium and featured more back-and-forth than Charlie Brown’s yellow shirt.
Matt Carpenter off Jake Peavy. Oscar Taveras off Jean Machi. Matt Adams off Hunter Strickland. And finally, with a mad prance around the bases and a helmet flung like a discus, Kolten Wong off Sergio Romo.
Home runs, unless they involve a sudden jet stream or Jeffrey Maier, do not involve luck. They are expressly written out of the BABIP equation. The Cardinals hit 105 of them during the regular season, the fewest among all NL clubs. They’ve struck thunder 11 times in six postseason games.
Whether the Giants were winning in October with luck or the residue of tough at-bats, they did not shovel enough of it Sunday night. And as a result, they come home for Game 3 with the series tied, needing to sweep all three games at AT&T Park to avoid returning to Missouri – or the side of it that borders Illinois, anyway.
“We’re putting pressure on them and that’s a good thing,” said Buster Posey, who bristled a bit when asked about the middle of the order not getting it done. “But as a group, we’ve just gotta come up with that big two-out hit to put us over the edge there.”
The Giants lived on the edge again. They scratched a run in the fifth when pinch hitter Joaquin Arias hit an RBI ground out. They took a lead in the seventh when Brandon Crawford walked, advanced on a passed ball, took third on a sacrifice and scored on Gregor Blanco’s single past a drawn-in infield.
They even tied it with two outs in the ninth in remarkable and admirable Scrappy-Doo fashion when rookie Joe Panik, geared up for Trevor Rosenthal’s 100 mph fastball, somehow held up on four 0-2 pitches out of the zone. The last one skipped in the dirt and away from catcher Tony Cruz, who was playing because Gold Glover Yadier Molina had strained his left oblique. Matt Duffy, showing just as much rookie moxie as Panik, did not hesitate as he scored from second base on the wild pitch to stun the sellout crowd. Nosferatu did not play to horror this silent.
Then came the bottom of the ninth, and Wong sang the fastest recessional hymn in history. It took two pitches from Romo. The second one slipped over the right field fence.
It was a foggy night, and although you couldn't see the top of the Gateway Arch, you knew it was there. Just like those four home runs, the crown isn't so important. Just how it soars up and where it lands.
“Everyone’s hitting bombs,” said Romo, who hadn’t allowed a postseason homer since Eric Hinske, who’s now a big league coach, took him deep in Atlanta in 2010. “It is what it is when you don’t make your pitches, when you don’t execute. It hurts, but there’s a real good chance (in Game 3) I’ll get the ball again.
“Does this hurt a little? Of course. We had opportunities to win this game and fell short. Now it’s back to our park and we like being there.”
All four of the Cardinals’ home runs came on left vs. right matchups, although in fairness, these same hitters did plenty of left-on-left damage against the Dodgers – and Clayton Kershaw – to get this far.
Romo threw Wong a changeup – the pitch he worked on all spring in an effort to expand his choices against left-handed hitters. He was facing one in the ninth because Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt already had been used.
Same thing with Strickland, who was facing his 16th hitter of the postseason and yielded his fourth home run when Adams took him deep to put the Cardinals in front in the eighth. All four homers Strickland has allowed – two to Bryce Harper, one to Asdrubal Cabrera and now Adams – have come against lefties. This time, he started Adams with curve-curve-curve, two of them taken for strikes. Adams did not lose the scent of a fastball, and eventually, he got what he hunted.
Strickland did not linger long in the postgame clubhouse. Peavy said he would make it a point to do some head shrinking with the rookie.
“He’s starting this off on a tough note and that would play on anybody’s mind,” Peavy said. “But the veteran leadership, the guys in the bullpen with him, we’ll make sure he’s ready to go. He’s going to get some big outs down the stretch if we’re going to win this thing.”
Said Bochy, of the Strickland-Adams matchup: “At that time, I didn’t have another lefty and he’s got great stuff. This kid’s going to be just fine. He has a power arm and he made mistakes, and he’ll learn from them. If you have another option, yeah, you may rethink it. But these guys are the reason we’re in this position.”
Two years ago, Bochy did have another option: a right-handed reliever who threw 13 innings, yielded one run on three hits, walked two and struck out 17. But it might as well be on a blimp in flashing lights: The Giants, and Bochy, do not have the same confidence in Tim Lincecum right now.
Perhaps they shouldn’t, and so this is not a second-guess as much as a general point of discussion. But if they do trust Lincecum, he’s the one out there pitching with a 2-1 deficit after Peavy exhausted himself in four innings. He’s the one plowing through the fifth and sixth instead of Affeldt, which would’ve given Bochy at least one or two of those left-handed matchups. And because Affeldt yields home runs just about as often as he blows out birthday candles, you can be confident he’ll keep the ball in the park.
Instead, you had this: Four Giants pitchers allowing home runs. The last time that happened? Well, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had a very good view that day, too. He was behind the plate on Sept. 9, 2005, at Dodger Stadium when Jason Schmidt, Jeff Fassero, Scott Eyre and Armando Benitez all got taken deep.
Sunday’s loss was just the second time in Bochy’s eight seasons as Giants manager that he had three relievers give up homers. The other time came just last month, in that 17-0 drubbing to the Dodgers.
"We used our bullpen pretty much how we wanted," said Bochy, who didn't bring in Lopez in the seventh until after Machi gave up a tying, pinch homer to Taveras. "Machi, we wouldn't be here without him. He's had a great year for us. He made a mistake. Strickland, since he's come up, he's done a good job. He made a mistake. And of course, Romo. ... It's a good ballgame and these guys battled back. We were just missing a hit to put the game away."
Bochy had to know entering Game 2 that the bullpen would be a factor. Peavy, as unyielding as he’s been as a Giant, hasn’t completed six innings in any of his seven postseason starts.
“Buster battled today with me,” said Peavy, who rewarded Bochy’s faith by retiring Carpenter, who homered off him earlier, to strand the bases loaded in the fourth inning and keep a 2-0 deficit from becoming a death spiral.
“It wasn’t pretty but at the same time, we gave our team everything we could. Any time you tie the game up, with our bullpen, you take it. That’s uncharacteristic and these guys will bounce back. … And Game 6 comes around, I promise you, I expect to get out there and win.”
At some point, though, the offense must begin to rely on more than fortunate bounces. Pablo Sandoval had a 2-0 count and a chance to land a kill shot with the bases loaded in the ninth, but he went into chase mode against Seth Maness and tapped back to the mound.
They nearly won the game with mosquito bites. They needed to sting a little deeper.
“Oh yeah, we’re right there,” said Panik, asked about the team-wide approach. “We’re getting guys on base. We’re doing the little things. It’s only a matter of time before you get the big home run or that double to drive in three. We’ll just continue our approach, and take the good signs.”
Back at Nationals Park in Game 2 of their NLDS, the Giants received nine extra chances before Brandon Belt’s homer won it in the 18th inning. This time, it was left-on-right in the bottom of the ninth, and marching orders off the field.
“It’s the postseason,” Wong said. “You have so much adrenaline, so much excitement at this stage, that things are going to happen. That’s the beauty of baseball. Things you never expect to happen, happen.”
Including your heart and soul, standing in the batter's box, unable to run because of an injured side. Time will tell just what kind of impact Molina's injury will have on this series. The Giants would never admit to it, but they might have come away with the luckiest break of the night.
There is a difference, though, between a fluke and luck. And as a ballpark roared to life on Sunday, that difference could be measured in the air speed of a thrown helmet into a thick and cold night.