The San Francisco Giants can smell the pennant.
After an impressive Game 3 win behind Matt Cain and Cody Ross, San Francisco has a 2-1 edge in the 2010 NLCS against the Philadelphia Phillies. Game 4 will be played Wednesday in San Francisco, where the teams will also duel in Game 5 before (potentially) heading back to Philadelphia.
The Giants have to feel good about taking the lead for the second time in this series, after the two-time defending National League-champion Phillies rallied to rout the G-men at Citizen's Bank Park in Game 2 of the set. Manager Bruce Bochy looks like a genius for the myriad adjustments he has made as the series has progressed, and the offense has done just enough to support the stellar pitching staff.
Going into Game 4, the Giants have their foot on the throat of Charlie Manuel's crew. The series becomes a very dicey proposition with a Phillies win. But if San Francisco can pull out a victory to go up 3-1, the series is all but over. Ten things will make or break the Giants' effort to move within shouting distance of their first pennant since 2002. What are they?
Cody Ross is becoming a San Francisco sports icon really fast.
The outfielder entered the NLCS as the eighth batter in the order despite a strong division series against the Braves, during which he hit a home run, drove in three and posted a .905 OPS in 15 plate appearances. He worked his way quickly up in the order, though, by belting three solo homers in the first two games of the set. Ross batted fifth in Game 3, and drove in the go-ahead run that would be all Cain and company needed in a 3-0 shutout.
Ross probably doesn't have any more upward mobility in the batting order, but he keeps finding ways to become more popular. Here is a quote Ross recently gave when asked about his future with the team: "This team is built for years to come, and I'd love to play here longer than this run we're having," Ross said. "I'd like to stay for my career."
That will score some points with the home folks. What Ross does in Game 4 (he has a homer and a .273 average in 11 career at bats against Philadelphia starter Joe Blanton) could score him even more.
Edgar Renteria went 1-for-4 as the Giants' leadoff hitter in Game 3 and scored a run on a Ross single. Freddy Sanchez, batting second, notched an RBI single of his own.
That effort—two times on base in eight tries—may not seem like much from the table-setters in the lineup, but for San Francisco, it was a revelation. In the first two games of the set, Andres Torres and Sanchez combined for just three hits and no walks in 18 at bats.
Renteria had led off just three times all season for the Giants, and has done so fewer than 20 times in the last decade. Still, the seasoned playoff veteran stepped up, and the odds are he will be back in that top spot on Wednesday. Renteria and Sanchez could help determine the outcome of the game, especially if Buster Posey and/or Pat Burrell can get off the schneid.
It has been less than two weeks since the bullpen implosion that cost the Giants Game 2 of the NLDS against Atlanta. It seems much longer.
Though the Giants have continued to give up runs on occasion out of the bullpen, the team's true strength—starting pitching—has gotten a boost from the intimidating presence of closer Brian Wilson and nearly-unhittable set-up man Javier Lopez during this series. The numbers may still be ugly, but this group has the stuff, the poise and the sheer lunacy to shut down the Phillies' bats late in games for the rest of the series.
Having already beaten Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels in the series, the Giants might expect a bit less of a test from Phillies right-hander Joe Blanton, who has yet to even appear in the postseason due to Philly's NLDS sweep of Cincinnati. To underestimate Blanton, though, would be a mistake.
Blanton can be gotten, as witnessed by his 4.82 ERA. Still, he has good command that can sometimes be lethal, and the umpires have been liberal with the strike zone more often than not this October.
The Giants must maintain their offensive intensity, taking a base when they can (Blanton is about average when it comes to neutralizing the running game) and being aggressive. Blanton served up 1.38 homers per nine innings each of the past two seasons, so when he hangs one, the Giants should tee off.
Bochy has gotten great results from following the hot stick in this series, so here's a radical suggestion: Move Buster Posey down in the order in favor of Pat Burrell.
Posey and first baseman Aubrey Huff each hit much better on the road this season, a legitimate consideration since each drives the ball to right field often. And the right-field dimensions at AT&T Park are decidedly pitcher-friendly.
Meanwhile, Burrell batted about 12-percent better at home, which also makes sense given his predilection for pulling the ball to left field. Moving Burrell up to the third spot and sliding Posey down to fifth or even sixth might not be a bad idea, and it could set up the rookie catcher to hit in a lower-pressure spot with runners on base.
Andres Torres has been a part of the Giants outfield virtually all season, but that may have begun to change in Game 3. Bochy elected to start Aaron Rowand over Torres in center field after Torres went 1-for-9 with six strikeouts in the first two contests.
Rowand and Torres each had rough all-around seasons at the dish and are similarly strong defensive outfielders. But since Rowand delivered an RBI in Game 3, he figures to get the start again in Game 4. Rowand was a key cog in the 2005 Chicago White Sox World Series run, tallying 12 hits, eight runs and six doubles as the team won it all.
If Rowand hits more like the old doubles-machine who notched 72 extra-base hits during his last season in Philadelphia in 2007, the Giants not only have an excellent chance to thwart Philly's bid for a third consecutive pennant, but they could win the whole thing.
Led by Cain and Tim Lincecum, this Giants team stormed to a 20-10 finish that allowed them to pull out the division title over San Diego on the season's final day. They need another dose of that resolve right now.
Beating the Phillies will not be easy, even given the team's excellent position. The Giants have to expect Manuel and his charges to throw everything at them, to play like a semi-dynastic two-time defending champion. If San Francisco is prepared to match the intensity of Blanton and offensive stars Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, the Giants will win Game 4. If not, momentum in the series goes right back into the Phillies' corner.
Madison Bumgarner gets the start for San Francisco Wednesday, already the second postseason nod of his young career. Bumgarner's rookie campaign was stellar, as he struck out just under seven batters per nine innings and walked just over two. For a first encore, he won the clinching game of the NLDS by allowing just two runs over six innings.
Now the pressure is back on Bumgarner. This may not be the Giants' actual chance to close out the Phillies, but it is a crucial opportunity to put a stranglehold on the series. Bumgarner has certain advantages being left-handed against a Phillies lineup dominated by left-handed pop that has never faced him before. Still, he has to be aggressive, throwing strikes the same way he does against less-intimidating offenses.
If he does so, it could be another long game for the Philadelphia bats, which have scored only three runs in the Giants' two wins combined.
One of Bumgarner's more daunting tasks is one for which he is happily very well-equipped. He must keep the Phillies' running game under control.
For the fifth straight season, Manuel's Men were the best and most efficient base-running team in the league, stealing 108 bases and being caught only 21 times. It has not been a huge part of their offensive game this postseason, but in order to generate some runs after the shutout yesterday, Manuel may get aggressive.
Bumgarner is equal to the task of slowing down the Phillies. He is only average at holding runners on (although average is better than below average), but he is among the best in the league in terms of overall pitching with men on base. Whereas most starters allow more hits and walks with runners on, Bumgarner was actually 19-percent better this year when someone made their way on base.
The Phillies had not even allowed their opponents to win two games in either of their NLCS triumphs over the past two years, so the team is in uncharted waters. The Giants must take advantage by doing everything with swagger and intensity.
Numbers tell the story of baseball, and numbers are great for evaluating players. The mental games in which playoff opponents engage, however, defy quantification. The Giants have a distinct advantage over the Phillies, and it is this: Philadelphia came into this series sure of themselves. They came in as defending champions. They were heavy favorites and they knew it. Now they have their backs to the wall, and while they may believe they can come back, they cannot know for sure. There has to be some measure of hidden doubt.
To exploit that, the Giants need to be fierce. Bumgarner might be wise to brush back Utley or Howard (both of whom make their living on the outer part of the plate) early. The team must seem loose but focused. Given any chance, the Giants-—who stole the fewest bases in the NL this year—should try to swipe a bag themselves. They must show no flicker of uncertainty in their superiority.
If Bochy and his men can do all of that, they will take a 3-1 series edge and have a chance to win the pennant without leaving home.