Before a single pitch was thrown, the National League Division Series was billed as a thematic showdown, heart vs. talent. It was to be a referendum bigger than baseball or October: What does it take to win?
Tim Hudson, San Francisco’s Game 2 starter, caught some flak around Washington last week for saying “talent can take you a long ways, but what do you have between your legs?” But in the first two games of the series, the Giants illustrated exactly what he meant. Sure, Stephen Strasburg could hit 99 mph on the radar gun and Bryce Harper could blast a homer that stays airborne for the entirety of Yom Kippur. But the Giants play patiently, deliberately, simply.
“We don’t try to up go up and do too much, get that big home run,” first baseman Brandon Belt said before Game 2. “It is not necessarily about being a hero — it is about being a team.”
To be sure, heroics don’t hurt. After his team trailed for much of the game Saturday, Belt blasted a homer over the right field wall in the 18th inning, a scorching dagger on a cold Washington night, giving the Giants a dramatic 2-1 win. Heart? Talent? Add patience and resilience to that list. They were one out from a loss in the ninth inning, and three hours later they were one game away from advancing in these playoffs. The best-of-five series heads to San Francisco, where the Giants will send their ace, Madison Bumgarner, to the hill Monday.
“It’s a tough group,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said of his squad. “They are relentless. They don’t quit.”
Inning after inning and pitch after pitch, the Giants strolled to the plate and watched Jordan Zimmermann zip the ball just about anywhere he pleased. San Francisco batters looked to be mere observers in Zimmermann’s masterpiece on the mound. But there was no fretting and no sense of panic. If nothing else, two World Series titles in four years teaches a team to be patient because one opportunity is often enough.
“I don’t think the moment ever gets too big for us,” Belt said. “We don’t get ahead of ourselves. We don’t try to do too much. It seems like we play our best baseball when it gets into playoff time.”
They had poked out just three singles through the first eight innings but were determined to play until the final out — and to be fair, Zimmermann left them no other option. He notched two quick outs in the ninth before walking Joe Panik on five pitches. The Nats pulled Zimmermann, much to the relief of the Giants’ dugout.
“They probably could’ve brought in Sandy Koufax and we would’ve had a smile on our face,” Hudson said.
Drew Storen came out of the bullpen for Washington and immediately gave up a single to Buster Posey. Pablo Sandoval followed with a double that scored the tying run.
Suddenly, the pressure seemed to exist on only one side of the field. That was a Nats reliever who blew the lead in the ninth. A Nats batter who got tossed arguing balls and strikes. And a Nats manager who also was sent to the showers early. The Giants, meanwhile, sat and waited.
“You have to have that emotional control, we say, you know, performing under pressure,” Bochy said before the game. “That goes with the next thing, the mental toughness. That is what helps you do that.”
The extra innings flew by. The game passed the six-hour mark. Pitchers came and went — eight for the Giants, nine for the Nats. Batters swung and missed. Yusmeiro Petit, a Giants starter late in the regular season, came out of the bullpen and strung together six strong innings — 80 pitches in all — allowing just one hit and no runs.
All the while, the Giants never pressed, never tried to end it with a single swing or pitch. Belt was 0 for 6 when he came up to face Tanner Roark in the 18th, looking like it was his first at-bat of the night. He fell behind in the count 0-2 and still didn’t flinch. Belt let the bad pitches pass and fouled off a couple more. Finally with the count full, he drilled the eighth pitch of the at-bat — a 94-mph fastball — deep into the Nats’ empty bullpen.
“It is something you dream about your entire life,” Belt said.
With a lead or with a deficit, facing the Pirates in the wild card or the Nats in this division series, the stakes never seem too big for the Giants, who’ve now won 10 straight postseason games, tied for the third longest ever. Rookies like Panik and Hunter Strickland look as comfortable in October as their veteran teammates who already have two rings sitting at home on nightstands.
“I think we know how to play in these games,” Belt said. “Whether we are underdogs or not, we are going to go out there and play the same way.”
So heart? Talent? What does it take to win?
“I think these first two games kind of speak for itself,” Hudson said following Game 2. “We have a lot of guys who go out there and lay it out all on the line every night.”
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