The San Francisco Giants have been playing enchanted baseball all season long.
There has been white magic, like when the team didn't lose a series for almost a whole month in June. There has also been a share of black magic, like the terribly umpired homestand against Cincinnati and Los Angeles.
More recently, the Giants traveled to Coors Field to start a crucial series with the Rockies, who were leading the Wild Card race at the time. San Francisco won the first game behind a stellar performance by Jonathan Sanchez, and things were looking up.
And then Coors Field went pre-Humidor on the Giants. The Rockies blasted Joe Martinez and the bullpen in a sloppy 14-11 game. The next day Tim Lincecum again ended the day without his 13th win, and San Francisco lost 4-2.
But the kicker was the epic 14-inning game on Monday. The Giants went through the whole bullpen, and the offense for both teams was stagnant until a two-run triple by Eugenio Velez in the top of the 14th. San Francisco added one more to make it a 4-1 game before heading into the bottom of the inning.
The Giants were poised to make up for the last two games and pull back to within two games of the Wild Card lead. And then, the unthinkable happened.
Walk. Pop-out. Single. Walk. Walk. Grand slam. Ballgame.
And just like that, the Giants were out of it. The bullpen was depleted, Pablo Sandoval was out with a tight calf, Freddy Sanchez was put on the DL, and Bengie Molina was also out with a sore quad.
They were four games back of the Wild Card, seven back of the division-leading Dodgers, and they had six more games before their next off day. Things were not looking very good.
Then, in the words of Jon Miller, San Francisco found the magic of the three-run homer.
In the series opener, Travis Ishikawa launched a mammoth home run off of Jon Rauch in the eighth to lift the Giants to a 5-4 win against the Diamondbacks.
On Wednesday, Bengie Molina did his best Kirk Gibson impression, limping off the bench and delivering a pinch-hit three-run blast in the eighth that powered San Francisco past Arizona, 4-3. That brought the Giants within three games of the Rockies, who ended up dropping two of three to the Dodgers before they headed to AT&T Park.
After a rough day against the D-backs where San Francisco pitching was roughed up for 11 runs and the offense looked sluggish, Colorado came into town for a replay of the most important series of the year to date.
If the Giants took two of three, they’d be a game back and, as the commercials say, in this thing. If they lost the series, it would be an emotional blow, and the five games back would look bigger and more insurmountable.
But they were going to have to take the series without their biggest offensive weapons. With Big Money out, Little Money on pinch-hit duty, Freddy Sanchez on the shelf, and the bullpen severely overworked, the spark was going to have to come from somewhere else.
Someone in the San Francisco clubhouse realized this, and once again the baseball gods smiled upon him.
Subtract Bengie Molina, and add Eli Whiteside. Whiteside, who has regularly been starting once a week or so, stepped in at the beginning of the Arizona series and started every game of the homestand.
But Whiteside is no slouch behind the plate. Remember, he was the one who called Sanchez’s no-hitter, and Giants pitchers and coaches have praised the way he works the pitching staff.
Against Colorado, he coaxed a magnificent eight-inning performance from Lincecum, a curtain call inducing almost-shutout turned unnecessarily exciting finish by Barry Zito, and a solid eight-strikeout start by Matt Cain.
Colorado also tried their hand at running on Whiteside, and he showed off another unappreciated skill set. Throwing out base-stealers is paramount in keeping games close and preventing stressful innings.
The Rockies attempted to steal second base six times. Whiteside gunned five of them down. For those keeping score at home, that’s an 83 percent score for Whiteside, or a 17 percent success rate for Colorado.
Secondly, take out the offense from Molina and a weary Sandoval, who actually hit home runs in back-to-back games but definitely did not look 100 percent, and there don’t seem to be many long-ball threats in the Giants lineup.
Insert Edgar Renteria. Plagued by bone chips in his elbow all season, Renteria recently stated that they had moved around and he was feeling better than ever. That definitely showed on Sunday.
San Francisco had already secured the series on Saturday behind Zito. But with the chance to move into a tie for the Wild Card lead, anything less than a sweep would be a disappointment.
The Giants were down in a big way. Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki had just gone back-to-back against Cain. It was 5-2 in the seventh inning, and the way the Rockies offense was going, it was a shady outlook.
And then the magic came back. Colorado lefty Franklin Morales walked Juan Uribe, gave up a single to Aaron Rowand, and hit Fred Lewis to load the bases. Eugenio Velez struck out, and Morales was replaced with right-hander Rafael Betancourt to face the right-handed Renteria.
In a year that veterans have both stepped up and been letdowns in clutch situations, feelings were mixed. Renteria was hot over the past week, but I’m sure many fans would prefer to have the Panda at the plate with the bases full.
Betancourt threw one fastball that tailed up and in for a ball. His second pitch ended up over the left-field wall for Renteria’s second grand slam of the season. For someone who has only hit four home runs, two grand slams can come up big.
That one at-bat turned the whole mood of the ballpark around. The brooms came back out, people leaving ran back to their seats, and the Giants fever that had been breaking came back hotter than ever.
For the second time in as many days, a player that has been booed and critically overpaid (Zito) has emerged as the hero. Renteria was signed because of his clutch performances with the Marlins and Cardinals in the postseason, and he showed why on Sunday.
In the top of the next inning, Jeremy Affeldt came in, and after a leadoff double, he went into a slide and caught a botched bunt by Clint Barmes. After a single put the tying runner at third base, he regained his mojo that he’s had all season long, striking out two to end the threat.
“We punched at them over in Denver, and they punched back, to their credit," Rockies manager Jim Tracy told reporters.
The Giants had probably their most stunning and deepest felt loss against Colorado little more than a week ago. Two days ago, they won a game that might well end up as the most important game of the season, and more importantly, swept the series to pull into a tie for the wild-card lead.
For a team that was expected to go .500 and given an outside chance at contending at the beginning of the season, and even more recently, 13 games over .500 and the best record in baseball at home begs the question.
Could the Giants pull a playoff rabbit out of the hat? There’s plenty more up their sleeve, and with the September roster expansion and the addition of Brad Penny allowing for key starters to get some rest, we might see a few more tricks before October.