2012 World Series: No one always overcomes pressure, but everyone tries


Tigers starter Justin Verlander watches from the dugout in the seventh inning during Game 1 of the World Series against the Giants in San Francisco. (LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist October 27, 2012

Somewhere there is a vial of secret serum that inoculates ballplayers against the pressures of the playoffs. Maybe it is hidden under a loose plank in Carlos Beltran’s back porch or disguised as motor oil for one of Reggie Jackson’s vintage automobiles. Above all, let’s check the locker of Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti since his pitchers, both in 2010 and in this World Series that San Francisco now leads three-games-to-none over Detroit, seem to know secrets of inner peace that escape the rest of us.

Nobody, of course, has found that potion. It is a mixture of calm and intensity, focus and fun, rally rituals and groundballs that hit third base. The concoction is an unstable isotope just waiting to decay. A walk-off homer by Jayson Werth turns into a blown six-run lead to end the season the very next night. Or, in one series, the Cardinals score four runs in the ninth inning to advance; then, in the next round, the choke is on the other throat as they lose three games by a combined score of 20-1 to the Giants to incinerate their pennant.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

The antonym for pressure is confidence. When one team finds its groove, as the Giants pitchers have ever since Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, then pity the poor, stress-torn team it faces.

The Tigers have now lost twice in a row by identical 2-0 scores. In Game 2, they got only two hits. In Game 3 on Saturday, only one Giants outfielder had to take a step backwards all night, for a routine catch on a long fly. Once, the Tigers loaded the bases. Ryan Vogelsong took Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera up the ladder with a high-and-tight fastball. Popup. After that, this crowd was quieter than snow falling in Dearborn.

“We couldn’t get the killer hit or the killer blow,” said Tigers Manager Jim Leyland, who identified the split identity of his team, which is fairly tame when Cabrera and Prince Fielder aren’t hitting. “We’ve been hot and cold all year, and cold more. We’ve been fighting all year long with our offense.”

Nobody wants to crack under pressure in the World Series, an event that creates emotions that perform a Cirque du Soleil act in your stomach. But it looks like the verdict is almost in. There is no action to describe because what matters most takes place in the minds of the Giants’ buoyant pitchers and the Tigers’ lunging hitters. San Francisco’s hurlers perform as they might in May, throwing good pitches to good spots. The Tigers do the rest, rarely even forcing the Giants to make a good defensive play. Prince and Miggy sure aren’t makin’ ’em look back 20 rows into the bleachers.

The Tigers’ plight is part anxiety, part rust from their pre-Series layoff, but mostly the constant attack by a focused Giants pitching staff that now includes a relief pitcher with two Cy Young Awards, Tim Lincecum, who added seven outs of Freak work to 52 / 3 innings by Vogelsong.

“I’ve been waiting for this since I was 5 years old,” Vogelsong said. “I wasn’t going to give up without a fight.”

No World Series team had suffered back-to-back shutouts since the Orioles blanked the Dodgers three straight times and allowed Los Angeles only two runs in the entire 1966 series. Few sights are more common than the power-hitting pennant winner that reaches the World Series, then plummets, gasping, into a one-through-nine slump.

Sometimes the paralyzed loser starts the series decently before “it” strikes. But once the line of zeroes on the scoreboard starts its march, you almost never see a team escape. You think, “The same thing can’t happen again.” But it does. The final streak of losses mirror each other, with two runs constituting a huge breakout. If you feel ghoulish, look up World Series scores for  ’76, ’78, ’79, ’83, ’85, ’88, ’90, ’99, ’04 (105-win Cards), ’06 (Tigers) and ’07 as well as the 0, 0 and 1-run totals to which these same Giants held the power-crazed Rangers in their last three World Series wins two years ago.

Perhaps the shape of this series began in the placid state of Barry Zito’s mind before Game 1, when he had to face his eminence, Justin Verlander. The lefty altered every movement, every gesture, of his day from the time he woke up “because you can’t let your nerves get you.

“I was just very adamant on keeping everything slow pretty much from when I got up,” Zito said. “When we’re nice and calm, we always play our best baseball. Our talent is able to come out. But when you start buying into all the hype, you lose yourself a little bit.”

Statisticians debate whether there is such a thing as clutch. But there is no doubt that there is such a thing as choke. If you can’t control your heartbeat, your breathing or your focus as well as you have for 162 normal games, there is no way you can perform as well. So, those who can simply achieve “normal” will rise relative to a large group of their peers.

One reason these Giants have faced pressure so well, winning six elimination games in this postseason, is because they aspire to “normal” — their normal — not to some special playoff greatness.

“You try to trick yourself into thinking it is another game,” said Matt Cain. “But you know. Your mind and your body, they know what’s going on. They know it’s going to be a big game in the World Series.”

In games he doesn’t start, Cain can be seen next to Brian Wilson, the Giants’ injured reliever and a dedicated eccentric. When the Giants need a rally, Wilson stands behind two teammates, one of them often Cain, and while they stand stone-faced, he pretends to play the drums on the tops of their hats. In June, it would be ridiculous, pretentious. In the World Series, you’ve got to do whatever it takes to feel even slightly relaxed.

“Brian’s loose, always making jokes. He’s the guy you want right now in the clubhouse when you’ve got the pressure on,” said Pablo Sandoval, who hit three home runs in Game 1. “In the first couple of games [against the Cards in the NLCS], we were not having fun. We had too much pressure.

“So we enjoy the moment right now. We’re going day by day. I want to see Barry Zito every single day,” Sandoval said. “That’s what we say to each other: ‘Tomorrow is another day. I want to see you tomorrow.’ All the guys say that.”

Purge the last game and your own performance. We need you here — really here — tomorrow.

The most pressure-plagued players in postseason are usually hitters. “I don’t try to get excited because when you get excited, that’s when you get in trouble,” said Sandoval, who insisted that he had the same thought during all three of his homers, as well as during his fourth at-bat in Game 1, when he singled: “ ‘Ball on the barrel of the bat.’ That’s all.”

The Tigers look like they’re trying to barrel the ball to Dearborn.

Perhaps no one truly gets acclimated to this torture chamber. “You know,” said Giants Manager Bruce Bochy — who speaks so calmly it seems he’s just awakened — “it’s hard to figure this game sometimes.”

It’s hard to figure where that anti-pressure serum is hidden. But the Giants’ clubhouse would be a great place to start the search.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell
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