The observations of Steven Harmon, a lifelong San Francisco Giants fan, former sports writer who covered the team during the Humm Baby years. Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter handle: @ssharmon
Friday, July 29, 2011
Edgy Giants retain edge over complacent Phils
When Ryan Howard loped casually after Michael Martinez' errant throw that bounced into foul territory behind first base Thursday night, allowing Giants catcher Chris Stewart to score all the way from first, it all became clear again why the Giants beat the Phillies in the playoffs last year. And why the Giants retain an edge on purportedly the best team in the major leagues. Yes, they do have the best record in the majors. But, against the Giants, at least, the Phillies have the look of a team that believes it is still owed, still entitled to, the respect of a World Champion two years after the fact. They couldn't stomach the notion that the Giants were the better team last year, that they actually beat them to take the Phillies' place as the reigning National League and World champions. Howard epitomized the disbelief in his refusal to accept the final call in Game 6, a third strike painted over the outside edge of the plate by Brian Wilson.
Replays clearly show that the pitch was spot on and home plate umpire Tom Hallion's emphatic call -- the upwart thrust of his right arm so apt, so in tune with the moment -- was justified. By no means was this Eric Gregg and Livan Hernandez, circa 1997. And here was Howard on Thursday night, jogging after the errant throw, coolness rather than urgency in his stride. One run had already scored from third, and third base coach Tim Flannery, picking up on the vibe, waved Stewart home. Howard's throw arrived just a bit late, and the hustle play earned the Giants a gigantic lead by their standards, 4-0, which they never relinquished en route to a 4-1 win. Now that the Giants just beat them two out of three in their home park, in front of their 179th straight sellout crowd -- breaking the Phils' streak of nine straight series victories -- now, are they convinced that the Giants are for real? ********************************************************************************** The Phillies' fans booed lustily at Carlos Beltran as he strode to the plate in the first inning, scorned wooers left at the altar, indignant that he'd been shipped to a team beneath their regard, plucked out of the Big Apple right out from beneath their noses and handed to the team that torments them. The Phillies apparently were unwilling to do what the Giants did: part with their top pitching prospect, Jarred Cosart, who ranks 45th among Baseball America's top prospects, six notches below Zack Wheeler. But the Giants reminded the Phillies of their greatest need: an offense that can solve the team they expect to face again in the playoffs. After the Giants' 2-1 win Wednesday on the shoulders of Matt Cain's brilliant seven-inning outing, a Philadelphia sportswriter deftly observed that it "reinforced a lesson the Phillies learned last October: Everything can be rendered meaningless if they do not find a way to hit San Francisco pitching when it counts."
And after the Giants' 4-1 win Thursday behind Tim Lincecum, who apparently got extra motivation to pitch after being heckled earlier in the series by fans, mocking him for the illness that kept him from pitching in the first two games, another writer opined: "If anything, the Giants held a mirror up the Phillies and showed them their most glaring blemish -- the need for another productive bat, preferably from the right side."
Philly.com asked readers to weigh in. Are the Giants better than the Phillies? Some still clung to the idea that the Giants are doing it on a wing and prayer:
"Honestly, I have no idea how the Giants are any good. Don't get me wrong, their pitching is unbelievable (but the Phillies and Braves are just as good). Their lineup is what completely baffles me. They are so bad and yet they come through with clutch hit after clutch hit. I'm still in shock that they won the World Series last year. I thought the Rangers would destroy them. I guess they are legit, but I still can't believe my eyes." -- Penfold18.
For others, the truth is slowly dawning on them:
"Our aces will need to throw shutouts because our lineup against their best starters appears overmatched. We look nursing home old at the plate. ... The Phils could wind up with the best record in baseball, win the East; however, the Giants are clearly the better at the little things. Plain and simple, San Francisco is better." -- Fan74.
Another had a straightforward strategy on how to dispose of the Giants in the post-season:
"Gotta root for the Braves to knock the Giants out of the NLDS. That's our only hope." -- Jeff1818
Lincecum's mastery over Chase Utley was pure sport, an utter phenomenon to behold.
Three times Utley came up with runners in scoring position -- in the first, third and fifth innings -- and each time, Lincecum overmatched him with his exotic assortment of offerings. The look on Utley's face was pure bafflement every time he walked dejectedly away from the plate.
Utley had a chance to strike first in the bottom of the first with a runner on third with one out -- he didn't even need a hit; just a ground ball to the middle infield would have sufficed -- but on a 2-2 fastball up, he could only muster a pop up to short. Lincecum took care of that first-inning threat by striking out Howard on a beautiful slider. In the third, the Phils, down 1-0 on Pablo Sandoval's home run, mounted a one-out threat when pitcher Kyle Kendrick slapped a single to right and Jimmy Rollins drew a walk. Lincecum got a break when Michael Martinez' drive to deep center was flagged down by Andres Torres. There was Utley again in a spot to deliver. But he immediately found himself in a two-strike hole on a pair of devastating split finger changeups, the first right down the middle till it dove eight inches out of sight; the second a nastier version that sank into the dirt but induced a swing. Then Lincecum proved genius when he threw a 91 MPH fastball belt high right by a shocked and frozen Utley for a called third strike to end the threat. Utley, who entered the series having hit .313 dating back to June 3, looked awed at the pure cunning of a fastball down the middle. Finally, in the fifth, Lincecum wobbled a bit with a pair of walks, and up came Utley with two outs. He fell behind Utley 3-and-1, but in a reprise of the third inning sequence he got him again: a belt-high splitter that jolted downward for a swing-through strike, and then a nasty payoff splitter that ate dirt -- it bounced at least six inches in front of the plate, for crissakes! Utley, utterly confounded, couldn't lay off on a pitch that would otherwise have loaded the bases, and there went that threat. Utley, one of the most accomplished hitting second basemen in the history of the game -- he has a lifetime batting average of .293 with 184 home runs in the middle of a career that may take him to the Hall of Fame -- is now 2-for-23 against Lincecum, an .087 mark. ********************************************************************************* It was rather satisfying to see the Giants win without an offensive contribution from Beltran in his debut. Beltran went 0-for-4, appearing at the mercy of Kyle Kendrick's change up with a pair of strikeouts. He never had a chance to show his run-producing assets, hitting each time with the bases empty. Three times, he led off an inning to no avail. But, no matter. The players surrounding him in the lineup appeared at ease -- the intended effect of a new offensive shot in the arm, right? Pablo Sandoval had his leadoff off-field home run down the left field line in the second to give the Giants an early lead; and Aubrey Huff and Nate Schierholtz paired up for a nice two-out rally in the fourth: Huff with a blast off the right field wall for a double -- now wouldn't that be something if he responds to his new role as a supporting cast member? And Schierholtz came through in yet another two-strike, two-out spot. He'd fought through eight pitches, breaking his bat on two successive pitches at one point, before stroking a payoff slider down the middle just over the glove of a leaping Utley. "He has become a specialist in two-strike situations," said TV color man Mike Krukow. "That might be my favorite two-strike at bat of his." And in their two-run seventh -- the one with Howard acting miffed that he had to run down an errant throw -- the only hit of the inning came on a beautifully executed one-out hit and run single barely through the hole on the right side of the infield by Stewart, the Giants No. 8 hitter and backup to the backup hitting .206. Schierholtz raced around to third, setting up the Phillies' defensive implosion. It came on pinch hitter Aaron Rowand's grounder to Martinez' back hand. It's not clear that he could have gotten a double play, and he was playing back, so a run would have scored (a puzzlement: why hadn't Charlie Manuel drawn the infield in, down 2-0 late in the game? Was it hubris? Thinking that a third run was no big deal, even in the late innings against the best relief corps in the National League?). But Martinez booted it, then threw wildly over the 6-foot-5 inch Howard, the ball bounding toward the restraining wall beyond the dugout. At the point that Martinez uncorked his throw, Stewart was just arriving at second base. But Flannery, seeing Howard's indifferent retrieval, brought the catcher scurrying around third and toward home as if on a run-scoring single, and as if the game was on the line. That run captured the soul of the Giants: an edgy, slightly insecure, often underachieving team that savors the opportunities when they appear, seizes the openings, slight as they may be. There is no self-satisfaction on this team. No sense of entitlement.