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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Stoic, steady Cain leads Giants out of wilderness

With bodies littering the field and the team psyche just as wounded after a spate of fresh injuries and two crushing walk-off losses, the Giants had only one option Wednesday: to win.

Well, two: to stay safe, too.

A loss would have lodged the toxic lump of defeat halfway down their collective esophagus, solidified the narrative that seemed to be carrying them toward an ugly fate. It would have given credence to the fast-growing notion that the Giants had run out of luck, were destined to pay for whatever bargain they'd made to win last year's world championship.

The accumulation of bad news was becoming untenable. It felt as if the whole season was collapsing in on the Giants. It was becoming more and more acceptable to buy into the malicious fate that seemed to await them.

And yet, there was hope. They had Matt Cain they could turn to, lean on, have faith in. It is the one saving grace of a faltering team: Good, tough pitching. It can heal wounds, correct the course, slay the demons.

Matt Cain is stoic, thoughtful, but mostly he is steady, tenacious. He has a fixed expression of a slight frown, a bit of a scowl. But it is his eyes that give him away. He peers in with an almost vacant look, as if he doesn't see you, the hitter. He sees a target, but mostly, he has a task. It is to get the Giants through these trying times, to instill a calm and order.

In another time, Cain would have led a great cattle drive through the wild Western plains, steering his men through the dangers of an untamed land, unbowed by nature's challenges or the slings and arrows of enemies.

Cain's performance Tuesday added to his legacy as the man who could be counted on. Add it to his seven shutout innings that gave the Giants a critical 2-games-to-1 lead over the Phillies in last year's NLCS. Because, make no mistake, the Giants were fighting for survival and Cain steadied the rickety foot bridge over the deep ravine.

After he got out of the first inning with just the one run on a bases loaded walk -- dodging the bullet when Brandon Belt ran down a drifting fly ball -- Cain was all in.

Whatever was called for, he had: a fastball that darted in on the hands of left-handers, a sweeping curve that danced away from righties, or plain power fastballs that broke down swings. He had nine strikeouts and only one walk, retiring the final 18 hitters before yielding to the bullpen in the ninth.


Cain has struggled his entire career for offensive support, which has made him a better pitcher, a pitcher who was forced to focus on every pitch because a single mistake could sink him.

Uncharacteristically, however, the offense backed him on this night, and played with the urgency of a team trying to remain relevant.

They scored first on a pair of doubles, then broke through with four in the fourth, the inning that broke through the still lingering angst that had stifled their offense a night earlier, when they'd been no-hit by a rookie for six innings and could only muster a run on five hits through 11 innings.

It all started with a flare that landed weakly but beautifully down the left field line off the bat of Aubrey Huff, who, having paid his debt to society through a series of rollover ground outs to second, was due a bit of madcap luck.

And then the hits came out on a string, adding up to a 5-1 lead. It was as if an unconventional hit, one suffused with good fortune as Huff's was, would be what broke down the barrier that had blocked the Giants for so long.

They would add two more in the top of the ninth, both on sacrifice flies by the men who the Giants will need to rely on down the stretch -- Huff and Pablo Sandoval. Maybe they saw the runs as superfluous, as stats to add to their RBI ledgers. But they proved to be critical when the bullpen nearly coughed it up in the bottom of the ninth.

Jeremy Affeldt's emotional, almost angry, reaction when he grabbed the ball from Chris Stewart after the game summed it up: he was beside himself over nearly blowing it. By no means was it all on him. Just recalled left-hander Dan Runzler dug a pretty deep hole by sandwiching a walk with a pair of base hits to left-handers Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward for one run.

By all rights Affeldt should have ended it right there when he came in and jammed Michael Bourn on the thumbs to induce a weak Little League pop up halfway up the grass portion of the infield.

All thoughts of an easy win disappeared when Orlando Cabrera couldn't make the play -- a tough one, running all-out, trying to catch a ball with English, to bring home a second run. But it was a play that had to be made.

And when Martin Prado powered Affeldt's 94 MPH fastball into the right center field alley, Cody Ross took a bad route, slipped, and then watched as it bounced against the wall for two more runs, and the Giants' lead had narrowed to 7-5 with the All-Star catcher Brian McCann striding to the plate.

Would the Giants face another collapse, this of even more epic proportions than when Brian Wilson blew a 4-2 lead on Monday? Who among Giants fans had confidence the Giants would emerge victorious?

It seemed written in the pages of destiny that the Giants were indeed doomed to suffer. Affeldt fell behind in the count, 3 balls and 1 strike. First base was open, but Dan Uggla, the star second baseman just off a 33-game hitting streak, loomed on deck as the potential winning run.

Affeldt, whose curve had failed him so far, bent one that stayed high and appeared to be just inside, but got the call, reeling McCann, shaking his head vehemently, back into the batters box. McCann fouled off a couple fastballs.

And then Affeldt pulled deep within to make the pitch for the ages, a 94 MPH fastball that had a spectral sink to it, as if it disappeared at the last moment, under the bat. For a strikeout. To end the game. And send the Giants gingerly back into the field of hope, the wild plains of the playoff hunt.


  1. Thanks, Steve, for capturing the drama, almost quoting Shakespeare, even.

    I was busy working and missed the game. Regardless of the result over the past few days, I've been impressed with the character of the Giants. While some fans are bewailing how the mighty have fallen, I see it otherwise.

    Scrapping together as they have, they've come thisclose this week to pulling out a few wins, while down and out. That speaks plenty about this team's character, would you agree?

    I'm still worried, though. Speaking of "torture baseball," this has been
    torture season." Their circumstances remain dicey: the Giants haven't escaped from the woods, yet.

    However, I'm prouder of this team's performances this week (notwithstanding Wilson's struggle Monday)even while losing, than I've been over many of their wins. Character is essential. I still see the Giants have it.

    Now, if they can continue hit, I'll be happy.

    Thanks for your columns. I enjoy them. I value your long-term perspective; your enthusiasm is also evident.

  2. Am I the *only* one (amidst all the Cabrera-hate at SFGate) who thought the ump got in the way on that pop-up? [Making a difficult play impossible?]

    And am I the only one who thinks that when (if?) Sanchez makes his next start, he should try pitching out of the stretch from the beginning too? ;-/

    Please dear God, may a day or two off for Wilson be all that's needed...

  3. thanks, Paul. I had meant to say that the Giants have played real good, championship caliber ball for the last five games; the first two of this series were as good as it gets. They used to win those games earlier this year, but to come back as the did Wednesday was a testament, as you say, to their character. Of course, it didn't hurt that Jair Jurrjens is not up to snuff. Let's see how they work the rookie today. They seem to have trouble with kids they don't know.

    JCF: I did not notice the ump in the way. I felt it was just the difficulty of racing in from shortstop (it's not as easy as people assume; the ball bounces in the air, at least to the eye, as you race in, and then there's the backspin).

    And how about that pitching out of the stretch? Lincecum has started a trend. It calms them down, keeps the distractions of their mechanics at bay. Let's see if Sanchez goes to it, though I have to say he started out beautifully Tuesday, looked like he was headed for a stellar performance.

    And, yes: tho Wilson gives it up as dramatically as it comes, he is needed! With Romo out, the Giants better hope Tim can turn in another long outing.

    Have a great day, guys.

  4. Let's hope that Dan R. was a little nervous facing big league hitting again, because that was not a heartwarming entrance.

    On the offensive side, it could not have been fun facing Pablo and Nate last night. Holy smokes, that was intent to do damage, and damage done.
    Even Nate's foul shots looked lethal.

    I'm in complete agreement with Paul above. The Giants have the moral high ground in Atlanta with the grit they've showed.

  5. I'm pleased with the baseball content here at this blog. Much as I like A. Baggs, that site, like SF Gate has largely been hijacked by commenters with little patience and lots of attitude, not all of it good. I don't like to come on here and be met with endless gripes and judgements by "fans" who often seem to be cheering for the demise of our own players. So thanks for the civil, thoughtful, baseball commentary.

    I too appreciate Mr. Harmon's long term perspective, having attended my first Giants games at Seals Stadium under the watchful eyes of Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons.

    So go Giants! Good season so far, even with the setbacks; that's why it's a season.

  6. Ah, I really miss Lon Simmons. I liked Hank Greenwald as well.

  7. Hey, Jstreet, I appreciate that. Thankfully, the rascals of those sites find it too difficult to sign up, and we can keep the comments civil. I agree that the back and forths, esp. on the Baggs blog, get pretty nasty.

    One of my early memories as a Giant fan (not dating back to Seals Stadium, but...) was watching Russ Hodges interview Ken Henderson after a game, Hodges at least a foot shorter, and had to hold the microphone practically over his head. And I was basically raised by Lon Simmons on the radio. I called him my second father who taught me so many of the intricacies of the game; and nobody could match the emotional pitches he reached in big moments.

    CrowsNest, yeah, I thought Runzler actually had great stuff, got squeezed on a couple pitches and seemed to get distracted by that. His biggest mistake was, after blowing a 95 MPH by Freddie Freeman, he sped up his bat with a hit-me 86 MPH slider out over the plate. That set the tone.