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Thursday, July 7, 2011

A game that should be remembered for a long time

You come from behind late, win in extra innings, on a walkoff home run no less, shaking off a three-game losing streak, and, as a bonus, you gain a game on the Arizona Diamondbacks in the standings: It was the ultimate gut check win that the Giants needed desperately, a game that should be remembered for a long time.

The Giants' 6-5 win over the pesky San Diego Padres was a jolt to what had been sagging spirits after three straight tough losses and the feeling that something was amiss in San Francisco. You had to begin to wonder, the way things were going, if the Giants could survive long enough to make the July 31 trade deadline meaningful.

Instead, they turn in their 10th walkoff win of the year, one of the grittiest of them all. They hadn't led in this game until Nate Schierholtz lofted his 14th inning drive into the arcade just over the high right field wall.

The Giants played like they absolutely had to win the game: the fire in Andres Torres' eyes, the steely cool of Nate the Great, the absolute confidence behind Pablo Sandoval's power shot two-run game-tying double and, an inning later, the determination and grit behind his dramatic diving play to save the game.

It was the game that put Sandoval into the realm of the superstar. Sandoval has returned to his level of play of 2009, but with the edge of a veteran who's endured failure, been humbled, but become a sharper and more disciplined ballplayer. Once again, you look forward to seeing him taking his at bats, but you also have come to rely on his leadership as other veterans continue to struggle.

You want consistent? Pablo's got a 17-game hitting streak, and has hit in 21 of the 22 games he's played in since his return from surgery. He's playing every day, through pain (Tuesday, it looked like he tweaked is surgically repaired hand on a swing; he's pounded hard foul balls into his lower legs for three straight games now, and he ruined at least one pair of pants when blood from a spiking seeped through).

He's hit .306 since his return (28 for 95), and is at a .326 clip (24 for 74) during his hit streak.

The win solidified Nate Schierholtz as one of the top clutch players in the game. His two-run home run in the bottom of the fourth came when the Giants situation appeared pretty grim, down 4-1, maybe wondering if they were headed to a fourth straight loss. His double in the 12th gave them a chance to win it (though it went for naught), and his home run in the 14th was storybook.

Schierholtz' is a simmering talent, seething with restrained confidence symbolized by his cool, even trot around the base paths.

And the win gave a glimpse of a renewed Torres, who in addition to his three hits -- including his signature doubles -- made a stunning catch in deep center field in the sixth inning. As he raced with his back to home plate toward the warning track, he raised his glove directly over his head and grabbed the soaring fly ball by the tip of his webbing; you could see that he couldn't actually see the ball as he caught it: it was almost a feel catch, if you can imagine that.

But the Padres, not the World Champion Giants, had been the team playing solid, fundamental baseball through the first two-and-a-half games of this series, doing everything right: moving runners around with productive outs, running wild on the bases, getting key two-out RBI, snuffing out Giants' rallies with dominant relief.

Maybe the low moment for the Giants came in that sixth inning, immediately after Torres' sensational catch. After two outs, the Padres started a rally on an Orlando Hudson base hit (after Madison Bumgarner was squeezed on one what should have been a strikeout, one of at least a half dozen calls that could easily have been corner strikes). Hudson stole second, moved to third on a throwing error by catcher Chris Stewart (one of two errant throws from the typically sure-armed kid), and scored when Bumgarner gave up an RBI hit to No. 8 hitter Rob Johnson.

It was almost as if Bumgarner, still fuming over umpire Jeff Kellogg's calls, had forgotten that the pitcher was on deck when he fed a fat slider to the light-hitting Johnson. My question at that point was: where was Dave Righetti to a) calm him down and b) remind him to either pitch around Johnson, or to walk him intentionally?

Bumgarner's lapse had wiped out what momentum that Nate had created with his fourth-inning home run, and the offense went dark over the next two innings, trailing -- shall I say haunted? -- by the same 5-3 score they'd lost to the previous two nights.

Torres and Brandon Crawford brought life back to the Giants with base hits in the eighth inning -- Crawford's off the tough set up man, Mike Adams, setting up Sandoval's game-tying blow, a mammoth blast to center field that one-hopped the fence in the deepest part of the park. Thankfully it didn't bounce over the wall for a ground rule double -- that would have frozen Crawford at third. As it was, Pablo, the potential winning run, was stranded at second, and the game would seep into extra innings.

Schierholtz had put the Giants in the position to win in the 12th with a leadoff double but was stranded at third when pinch hitter Cody Ross struck out on an eye-high fastball (after taking a thigh high fastball down the middle) and Pat Burrell popped out.

There were Crawford and Sandoval setting up another promising rally in the 13th -- Crawford may be on the verge of establishing himself as a late-game pressure guy -- but it fizzled when Huff and Burriss struck out.

If Schierholtz didn't hit it out in the 14th, no telling how long this game would have gone. The Giants were out of bench players, and were ready to send Javier Lopez up to hit fourth in the 14th.

I'm sure Lopez was only slightly disappointed he didn't get to hit. But the win he received for his two perfect innings, emblematic of the entire relief corps (eight shutout innings, 13 strikeouts), would have to suffice.

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