Losing to the San Francisco Giants in October is like being beaten to death with wet noodles. Or, more literally, being drowned in singles slapped to center field and sound execution of every basic, boring fundamental play in baseball. Against the Giants, you get to do most of the fun stuff, like hit a third-deck home run. They focus on what’s boring. If something flashy happens by accident, they’ll take that, too.
When the score is added up, you lose, 3-2, as the Washington Nationals did Friday in this opening game of the National League Division Series. For San Francisco, that makes 23 wins in its past 31 postseason games. And the Nats, like many of their previous foes, only seem to grasp a fraction of what’s happening to them.
What was the margin of the Nats defeat? One unearned run came thanks to a misjudgment on a San Francisco sacrifice bunt attempt, plus a passed ball. Another run was scored by a Giant who wasn’t quite erased on a double-play ball. A third run was tallied by a batter who reached base on a wind-blown flyball that outfielder Denard Span admits will “haunt” him.
Like so many Giants victims, the Nats got to do the dramatic athletic deeds, like two long solo home runs in the seventh inning, one of them a monstrous third-deck blast by Bryce Harper and the other a rocket shot off the back of the Nats’ bullpen by Asdrubal Cabrera. Sometimes a Giant will hit three homers in a World Series game. But mostly they’re dull. They never forget to take out the trash. With you in it.
“That’s a Giants postseason win,” said Nats reliever Jerry Blevins. who observed them in their world title runs in ’10 and ’12 , when he pitched across the Bay for the Oakland A’s. How do you beat ‘em? “Ignore them,” Blevins said. “Focus on what you do well. And execute.” Because you know they will.
The Giants form humble, collective game plans, like slapping a half-dozen pesky singles into center off Nats starter Stephen Strasburg on a day when he touched 99 mph and may have thrown consistently harder than he has since Tommy John surgery in 2010.
“It’s not like they were really hitting me hard,” said Strasburg, who allowed two runs, one earned, in five innings and took the loss. The Giants actually took what Strasburg didn’t know he was giving them and beat him by slapping fastballs back over him or right past him, in part because he falls off the mound toward first base. That leaves more open room in the middle. The Giants accepted the RSVP.
Against elite stuff, hitting back through the box is the simplest way to make contact and avoid strikeouts. “It’s a good plan,” Span said. Of the 25 batters who faced Strasburg, only two struck out. In all, the Giants hit eight singles off him, none of which traveled more than 220 feet in the air. Enough for an “L.”
The Giants execute so precisely that you barely notice. But they force their foes, under playoff pressure, to make all the right decisions. In the third inning, Adam LaRoche fielded a well-placed bunt by winning pitcher Jake Peavy and, instead of conceding its excellence and throwing Peavy out at first, LaRoche tried for the flashy play, throwing to second base to try for a force. The peg was late — by three feet. Later in the inning, catcher Wilson Ramos muffed a basic fastball, advancing both runners.
“I was expecting a fastball inside,” Ramos said. When the pitch arrived outside,“I just missed the ball,” he said. That led to an “unearned” run. But it was the very definition of how the Giants earn wins.
The Giants’ third run began with a leadoff triple to left by Joe Panik that probably should have been only a double if Harper had hustled to the wall in case Span went for, and missed, a leaping catch. He didn’t. Again, a subtlety was decisive. “The wind was blowing across [right to left]. I was drifting, the ball kept drifting. I mistimed it,” Span said. “That’s a ball I’ve got to catch, especially in that situation.
“That’ll haunt me tonight. I won’t say I won’t sleep, but I’ll be thinking about it.”
The Giants also create a bullpen designed to have pitchers with specific strengths for late-inning matchups in tight games. Rookie Hunter Strickland, called up on Sept. 1, does one thing very well — throw hard. That works well against right-handed hitters, sometimes not so well against lefties.
With the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth, Strickland faced Ian Desmond, a .433 career hitter with the bases drunk. Three fastballs later — 98, 99, 100 — Desmond had fanned. “100’s 100,” he said.
The next inning, Harper and Cabrera, both hitting lefty, took Strickland fastballs at 97 and 96 mph halfway to the moon. But nobody was on base. Giants Manager Bruce Bochy is among the best at finding the highest leverage situations — men all over the bases — for his best matchups, even if it means less pleasant matchups with the bases empty.
In the eighth with two men on and one out, Desmond had another chance, this time against reliever Sergio Romo, whose career ERA won’t dazzle you but whose slider can turn a right-handed hitter who tends to chase them into mush. Desmond ended up as three-slider mush, fanning again. That finished a bad day for Desmond, whose feed to Cabrera wasn’t quite fast enough to get a double play on a Hunter Pence grounder in the fourth. Pence then stole second and scored. The Nats turn double plays decently, but not well and finish in the bottom half of baseball in double plays most years.
This was a game in which the losing pitcher, Strasburg, threw a change-up at 91 mph while the winning pitcher, Peavy, maxed out at 92. But Peavy nicked corners and left after 52 / 3 scoreless innings. “Stras was good. He gave us a chance. Jake was better. He was really good,” Manager Matt Williams said. “But we had chances. We take those opportunities every day of the week with guys out there, middle of our order up. Today it didn’t happen.
“We’ll try to give them a run tomorrow,” added Williams.
That’s just a slip of the tongue, but a perfect accident. The Nats lost because they “gave” the Giants little pieces of all three of their runs.
“We have to treat Game 2 like an elimination game,” Span said. “You can’t go back to San Francisco down two games.”
On Thursday, Bochy said in a five-game series even Game 1 should be seen and played as if it were “an elimination game.”
The most vivid memory of this game will be, by far, the rare titanic top-deck homer by Harper.
What will be remembered by the 44,035 fans who watched the Giants? A bunch of singles, mostly to center field. And not a mistake of any kind anywhere in sight.
Oh, yes, and a one-run victory. That’s nine in a row in postseason for the Giants. Yes, it’s the record.
Ignore them. Focus on yourself. Execute. (Soon.)
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