In the baseball’s oft-ignored Looks Dept., Brian Wilson falls somewhere between Zany Reliever and Death Row Inmate. As his San Francisco Giants team tried to close out its playoff series against the Cincinnati Reds, a coach overheard Wilson in the dugout, screaming at a Reds ballboy in the ninth inning: “We’re gonna get you, ballyboy! You’re going down!”
The bearded, tatted, beloved reliever is relegated to the sideline, though. No longer the closer — Wilson underwent Tommy John surgery in the spring — he’s content to be a cheerleader this time around.
“I could puke right now, and I’ve got a raging headache,” Wilson said after the Giants ousted the Reds from postseason play. “And I wouldn’t change a damn thing.”
For the second time in three seasons, the Giants are in the National League Championship Series, but they’re the same team in name only. When the Giants take the field Sunday against against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series, their starting lineup will feature just two players from the 2010 World Series roster. While seven of the 12 pitchers are holdovers, only catcher Buster Posey, third baseman Pablo Sandoval and reserve first baseman Aubrey Huff were around two years ago. That means this Giants team has had to forge its own identity and even its newest members have played a vital role in defining why this group is wholly different from the one that broke from spring training more than six months ago.
Outfielder Hunter Pence was only 4 for 20 against the Reds in the National League Division Series last week, but coaches and teammates say he was central to the team’s comeback from a two-game deficit. Pence was acquired from Philadelphia at the trade deadline, and though he hasn’t provided the precise offensive spark the Giants sought, he’s established himself as an indispensable clubhouse leader.
“Without him and his want and will power, I’m not sure we would have done this,” said Posey, whose grand slam in Game 5 against the Reds also helped nudge the team forward. “He really rallied us. He was our rock that Game 3 and he wouldn’t let anybody stop believing.”
After dropping two games in San Francisco, the Giants traveled to Cincinnati last week knowing that no other National League team had ever come back from such a hole in a five-game series.
Before Game 3, Manager Bruce Bochy addressed the team, relaying the Old Testament tale of Gideon. Then Pence stood up and all eyes focused on him.
Players and coaches said it wasn’t necessarily what Pence said as much as how he said it.
“It was fire and brimstone,” said third base coach Tim Flannery. “He was pacing back and forth. All of a sudden, he started throwing a few [obscenities] in there. I’m going, ‘Now that’s preaching!’ ”
Pence, a sixth-year veteran and two-time all-star, called on his teammates to play for each other and to keep their faith, his voice escalating with each word and each sentence.
“We felt like warriors trying to hunt people,” said center fielder Angel Pagan.
If a turning point can take place away from the field, that was it. The Giants won the next three games in Cincinnati to advance. When it comes to October baseball, there’s nothing like momentum, and San Francisco has it.
All season they’ve used their obstacles and trials to build team character, and players say nothing will pay dividends like coming back to the beat the Reds. The key is making sure that energy and confidence carries over into the NLCS.
There’s not much that can happen now that could rattle San Francisco. The Giants have dealt with losing Wilson to injury and Melky Cabrera to suspension. Flannery laughs thinking back to what General Manager Brian Sabean told him earlier in the year.
“From Day One, he goes, ‘You’re cockroaches,’ ” the coach said. “ ‘I can put nine of you in a microwave, turn it up for 20 minutes and eight of you are still walking out.’ ”
Even before Pence walked through the clubhouse door for the first time in August, the Giants already survived so much. Eighteen players in the playoffs were on the Opening Day roster, and they say the team’s identity was a work in progress all season long.
Before games now, the Giants players all huddle together in the dugout, bouncing and shouting in a circle, not unlike a high school basketball team. The key, they say, is they’re doing it together.
“We’re just having fun,” Pence said. “That’s just kind of this group. We’re a little crazy, a little different. It’s funny. Everyone’s playing for each other, playing as a team. That’s what it’s about.”