San Francisco Giants: 5 Things We Learned During Divisional Round
The 2012 San Francisco Giants are a resilient bunch.
We already knew that when they lost their starting second baseman, closer and left fielder during the regular season yet still managed to cruise to 94 wins and the NL West title.
However, the National League Division Series proved that this team was historically resilient. After getting outscored 14-2 in the first two games of the series at home, the Giants flew to Cincinnati one loss away from elimination against a 97-win team that had owned them all season, and hadn't lost three in a row at home all year.
No team in a best-of-five series had ever come back from a 2-0 deficit by winning three straight road games. Homer Bailey was no-hitting the Giants with electric stuff in Game 3. All was lost.
Until it wasn't. The Giants gutted out a nail biting 2-1 victory in Game 3, then pounded the Reds 8-3 in Game 4 to force a do-or-die Game 5.
Buster Posey belted a clutch grand slam to give the Giants a 6-0 lead, and the bullpen would hold on for a 6-4 victory as the Giants advanced to the NLCS for the second time in three years.
Everyone probably already knew the Giants were a resilient team, that Posey was the best player in the NL, that the starting rotation was not as good as it was two years ago, that Bruce Bochy can manage and that the team chemistry is off the charts. However, each of those things was magnified to the extreme in the NLDS.
Tim Lincecum has two Cy Young awards and a World Series on his resume. From 2008 through last season, he was arguably the best pitcher on the planet.
This season, Lincecum endured a fall from grace that led Bochy to remove him from the starting rotation for the first round of the postseason.
It's hard enough to endure failure in life, but it's got to be even more difficult to go through it with the level of scrutiny that Lincecum received, especially after becoming so accustomed to success.
Lincecum could have pouted about his role in the NLDS. Instead, he delivered 6.1 innings of dominant relief work, including an outstanding 4.1-inning performance in Game 4 that ultimately saved the season.
To fall from being the best pitcher in the game to being not good enough for your own team's rotation, then get back up and deliver when the team needs you most is taking resiliency to new heights.
Gregor Blanco was a journeyman outfielder signed to a minor league deal this winter. He made the team during spring training, earned the starting job in right field, lost it, then earned the starting job in left field when Melky Cabrera was suspended.
He hit a huge home run in Game 4, started the winning rally in Game 5 with a single, made a great diving catch and hit .286/.375/.571 for the series.
Joaquin Arias was also signed to a minor league deal this winter. He went 3-for-6 in the series with two key doubles in Game 4, and he reached on an error that scored the winning run to prolong the season in Game 3.
Whether it was a former Cy Young winner or a nondescript journeyman, the Giants had guys step and deliver with the season on the line. Their resilient performance was truly historic.
What can you say about Posey at this point?
He hit a clutch grand slam with the season on the line while handling the staff, framing pitches and throwing out runners on the bases in critical situations in Games 3 and 5. He only hit .211 for the series, but with a .318 on-base percentage, .526 slugging percentage, two home runs and five RBI.
He did that after carrying his team to the postseason with one of the best second halves in the history of baseball, which should bring him an MVP award.
The most amazing thing about Posey is how beautiful his swing is. He is short to the ball, then incredibly long through it, generating tremendous extension. He uses his lower half well, and his lower body strength seems to allow his bat to effortlessly glide through the zone.
To watch him hit is truly to watch an artist at work.
Hunter Pence & Team Chemistry
Hunter Pence hit .200 in the NLDS without a walk or an extra base hit. It was not a very good series for him by any measure.
However, his pregame speech in Game 3 inspired the team. Since that pregame speech worked, he delivered speeches before Games 4 and 5 as well, inspiring the team to three straight victories.
Normally, I'm not much for team chemistry or pregame speeches, particularly in baseball, which is an individual sport disguised as a team sport. However, the effect of Pence's motivational speeches really does seem to have brought the team closer together.
Ryan Vogelsong said of Pence's Game 3 speech, "it really touched home. It wasn't what he said. It was the intensity of it. The truth of it." (h/t Alex Pavlovic)
The chemistry oozes out of this team, much like it did two years ago when the Giants won the World Series. They beat more talented teams in 2010 partially because they were greater than the sum of their parts.
So far this season, they've slayed one dragon by coming together as a team with their backs against the wall. This team clearly plays for each other, and that makes them very easy to root for.
One guy that should get a lot more credit for all of this is the skipper.
Bruce Bochy Is a Wizard
Just about everything Bruce Bochy does in October works.
He's always been very good at handling bullpens. However, his lineup decisions have often been questionable.
In Game 4 he went with Hector Sanchez over Brandon Belt, and Sanchez delivered a hit and two walks. He then double-switched Arias and Lincecum into the game in the fourth inning only to see Arias deliver two doubles, and Lincecum shut the door on the Reds for 4.1 innings.
Despite Arias' big Game 4, Bochy stayed with Brandon Crawford at shortstop in Game 5. Crawford produced an RBI triple and a huge diving catch to stop a Reds rally.
He made thirteen pitching changes over the final three games to help the bullpen deliver 14.1 innings of two-run baseball. He completely outfoxed Dusty Baker in this series, and that's a big reason why the Giants are still playing.
However, Bochy's true strength is his ability to handle 25 different egos. If Bobby Valentine removed a star like Lincecum from the rotation, all hell would break loose. Bochy is able to make critical decisions like that without the team quitting on him because everyone in the locker room trusts that he's making moves to help the team win, not to boost his own reputation.
Bochy doesn't get portrayed as a genius in the media because he's not an egoist.
His lack of ego has allowed the Giants to build a team of unique personalities who play for each other rather than themselves. A more power-hungry manager might try to alter the free-spirited personality of this team.
But Bochy isn't trying to build a team in his own image and likeness; he's just trying to win.
The Starting Rotation Is Running on Fumes
Ryan Vogelsong gutted through five innings without his best stuff in Game 3, and that was the best performance the Giants received from a starter in the NLDS.
Barry Zito was knocked out of Game 4 after allowing four hits, four walks, a homer and two runs in 2.2 innings.
Madison Bumgarner was knocked out of Game 2 after allowing seven hits, a walk, a homer and four runs in 4.1 innings. He also faded badly in September, putting up a 5.47 ERA in five starts. He just isn't the same dominant starter right now that he was through August.
Matt Cain looked good at times in both of his starts, but he finished the NLDS with a 5.06 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and three home runs allowed in 10.2 innings, failing to get through the sixth inning in either start.
Tim Linceum delivered 6.1 innings of excellent work out of the bullpen, so the temptation might be to put him back in the rotation. However, that would weaken the bullpen, and it's unclear who exactly should be replaced given that only Vogelsong pitched well in the NLDS.
The Giants can still win the World Series again this year. The offense is better, and Bochy's mixing and matching is keeping the bullpen afloat. The question is whether the rotation has enough left in the tank to carry the team through two more rounds.
Even if the rotation doesn't round back into shape, the Giants have proven that they can win a series without so much as getting a quality start.
Right now, the Giants don't have the same dominant starting pitching that they had two years ago.
That doesn't mean they are doomed to elimination in the NLCS. It just means that Hunter Pence is going to have to find some new material for his pregame speeches, Bruce Bochy will have to continue his wizardry and Buster Posey will have to continue his MVP season.
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