Men With Brooms – World Series Wrap

World Series sweeps are hardly ever expected from the outset, and the one just completed by the Giants was no exception.  After all, in theory a least, the World Series pits the two best teams left in baseball against each other in a best-of-seven format.  Each team is likely a strong one and given what they must go through to even reach the Series, it would seem likely and reasonable to expect one of the teams to win at least one game before the other wins four, that the level of competition would mitigate against a sweep.  With the often volatile nature of a short series and the game itself, predicting which team will win a Series is hard enough, never mind going out on a limb and predicting a sweep.

And yet, sweeps in the World Series happen far more often than we might think.  Of the 108 World Series played to date (with none held in 1904 or 1994), this year’s was the 21st sweep.  That’s roughly just under 20% of the time that a Series is swept, almost one in five, which seems surprisingly high to me.  I would have thought this figure might be more like one in seven, or even one in eight.  Yes, the dominant Yankees of the past have a lot to do with this, winning eight of these and losing three, but sweeps have occurred in every era and seem to be on the rise, with four occurring in the last nine Series played.

Sometimes baseball can shock us with the truly unexpected from a player, such as Pedro Sandoval hitting three homers in this first three at-bats in Game One of this year’s Series, or Raul Ibanez, becoming the first player in baseball history to ever hit three homers in the ninth inning or later in one post-season.  Other times, it can be unlikely comeback heroics by a team, such as the Cardinals in Game Six of the 2011 Series, or what they did against the Nationals in Game Five of the NLDS, overcoming a 6-0 deficit by scoring eight runs in their last three innings, including four in the ninth.  Not to mention what the Giants did in winning six straight elimination games this year against the Reds and Cardinals to reach the Series.

Just as one is getting used to the frequency of all these flukey and wild doings though, baseball can also surprise us by abruptly reverting to the scripted, the likely and plausible.  I realize that hindsight is easy and 20/20, but perhaps the Giants’ sweep of the Tigers in this year’s Series was predictable, though shocking to many.  I certainly didn’t see it coming, but maybe more of us ought to have.  I felt the Giants would win the Series, but was fooled into expecting the Tigers would win two or three games by the preponderance of back and forth play in recent series and all the comebacks lately in the post-season; the flaw in my logic here was that it was the Giants who had accounted for a lot of this.  But, as the Giants kept pointing out, their example meant the Tigers might be capable of coming back too, you can’t take anything for granted in this game.

The Tigers were actually favoured by most to win the World Series, they had looked awfully impressive in sweeping aside the perennially tough but suddenly weak-hitting Yankees.  The Yankee hitters also struggled to score runs against Baltimore in the ALDS, so Detroit’s pitching maybe looked better than it really was against New York, was maybe a bit overrated.  But still, at that point, their collective ERA in the post-season was something like 1.02 and Verlander looked untouchable at 3-0, 0.74.  Even if these numbers were misleading, their pitching was still impressive by any measure, the only problem being that Jose Valverde had completely imploded as a closer at the worst possible time.

Also, on paper at least (and only on paper as we now know), the Tigers seemingly had a big edge offensively over the Giants, who hit fewer home runs than any other major-league team this year.  The Tigers had the celebrated power combo in the middle of their order in Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, backed by some other guys who could go deep (Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta, who had both been hot in previous series.)

One concern would be the six-day layoff after sweeping the Yankees, they also faced this as a much different team under Jim Leyland in 2006 against the Cardinals with similar results.  (There was a good article on this by Brendan Kennedy in Monday’s Toronto Star, the 2006 experience was eerily similar to this year, with the Tigers again losing the first game with Verlander starting, but winning the second game, only to lose the next three in a downward spiral of poor defense and clutch-hitting.)  The experience of the 2007 Colorado Rockies could also be considered here.  They had been on a serious winning streak late in the season which made them look a team of destiny, but had to wait nine days before meeting Boston (who had to claw their way back from down 1-3 against Cleveland in the ALCS.)  In truth, Colorado was nowhere near Boston’s level, but the wait certainly didn’t help as they were swept.

I thought having been through this before, Leyland would guard against the effects of the layoff, and he tried by scheduling some simulated games with Tiger farmhands, but as mentioned this was a different team and perhaps there was nothing that could have been done to maintain focus.  Much was made of this in the media leading up to the Series, as well as much mention of the Giants’ momentum in winning the final three games of the NLCS.  I downplayed this in my mind because of my dislike of the term “momentum” – it’s too pat and overused – momentum can be swept aside with just one tough loss to a good pitcher.  It’s only the word I don’t like though, the things that comprised the Giants’ momentum – like confidence, focus, opportunism, fundamental execution, great pitching and defense, concentration and true team-play – well, I believe in those things a whole lot and saw that the Giants had them in some abundance.

For sure, I thought what they did in outscoring the Cardinals 20-1 in those final three games showed at least two things pretty clearly – that their pitching was better than most gave it credit for (and likely better than the Tigers’) and above all, that their hitting, while not flashy, was certainly capable and coming around.  In the future, I’ll be a little less surprised by a World Series sweep if the losing team has been sitting around for a week and the winner has been scratching and clawing to stay alive for a couple of weeks. As a famous writer once put it, “Readiness is all.”

So, I expected San Francisco to be ready, but also expected Detroit to be ready too –  but they just weren’t, they looked flat from the get-go.  I even had a far-fetched hunch that Verlander wouldn’t be sharp in Game One, yet was still shocked at how poorly he pitched and of course by Pedro Sandoval’s three-homer game.  Even though it was just the first game and on the road, losing it this badly behind their best pitcher did much damage to Detroit’s chances of winning the Series, psychologically and otherwise.

Ironically, the one advantage of Detroit’s layoff was the luxury it afforded them of setting up their rotation all nice and cozy with Verlander leading off; by contrast the Giants had one day off and their rotation was set up in reverse order, from (maybe) fourth-best to best in the first four games.  This advantage for Detroit was now gone, but I still expected the Tigers to win either Game Two or Game Three and make some kind of a Series out of it.  I liked their chances in the second game – Doug Fister had pitched really well in the post-season and Madison Bumgarner, though very solid all season, had been a pretty shaky 0-2 in his two playoff starts, with an ERA over 11.00.

This is where handicapping a team’s starting pitching can drive you crazy – maybe it’s because the Giants are such a pitching-savvy organization, I don’t know – but, Bumgarner corrected whatever was wrong and gave the Giants probably the best game they had from any of their starters in the Series.  Seven innings, eighty-six pitches, eight strikeouts, just two walks and no runs.  Fister was also very good, only not as efficient, his 114 pitches over six innings knocked him out of the game after six innings and Detroit’s bullpen wasn’t horrible, but just generous enough with the walks and small, timely hits to lose the game.

Detroit was now in a big hole, having to face the Giants’ two best starters in the next two games in Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain.  Still, I thought, they’re going back home, where they play well, and plenty of teams go down 0-2 on the road in a Series and turn things around with some home cooking.  I figured the Tigers could win at least one of the next two games to get the ball to Verlander in Game Five, and surely he would be better in his next start.  Looking back on it, this was more wishful thinking than conviction on my part, I was really just hoping the Tigers would do something, anything, to make a more competitive Series out of it.

My optimism evaporated early in Game Three, a lot of which I managed to watch at the bar on my gig.  Vogelsong looked very good for the Giants as he had throughout the post-season, and Anibal Sanchez started well enough for the Tigers, but the Giants got to him with a sudden flurry of hitting in the second inning.  A single by Hunter Pence, followed by a quick steal of second base.  Then – thwock! – a stunning triple from Gregor Blanco, scoring Pence.  Shortstop Brandon Crawford, who had been fielding brilliantly throughout the Series, then lifted a single to shallow centre to score Blanco, which Austin Jackson misjudged, the ball getting past him, allowing Crawford to move into scoring position.  Jackson should either have charged the ball and dove trying to catch it, or stayed back on it.  In the end it didn’t matter, Crawford didn’t score, but this was another small, telling mistake by the Tigers, who were starting to unravel a bit.

They had made some of these in Game Two as well – watching Blanco’s bunt stay fair, being overaggressive in sending the slow Prince Fielder home to try and score all the way from first on a double, allowing key stolen bases – with runs at a premium against such good pitching they couldn’t afford these.  Now in Game Three their hitters began making them too, appearing over-anxious at the plate, seemingly with no thought or plan of action in mind.  Their best chance to break this game open came when they loaded the bases with just one out, but number-two hitter Quintin Berry struck out and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera popped out meekly.  The lack of production from the Tigers’ main power threats was killing them – clean-up hitter Fielder was even worse than Cabrera – striking out, popping up or hitting into double plays, something the pair did often during the season.

Vogelsong didn’t pitch as far into the game as he might have, but he didn’t need to, the Giants had Tim Lincecum ready to pitch in long relief and he was just overpowering.  When Lincecum can’t crack your rotation, well, you might say your pitching has “deep depth”, to paraphrase Earl Weaver.  I realize Lincecum suffered from a National League version of “Ricky Romero-itis” (no control, ugly ERA) this year, but still, he’s a two-time Cy Young Award winner, a dominant strikeout pitcher, and it was great to see him turn it loose like this.  I admire him, a big star and all, taking the ball in this diminished role and doing his job so well without any show of pique whatsoever.  It’s called being a team-mate.

When the game ended with the same 2-0 score as the second one, the question on many lips was: “Are the Tiger hitters this bad, or are the Giant pitchers this good?”  Hitting and pitching are opposite sides of the same coin, so it’s a fair enough question and the answer is, probably a little of both.  No question, the pitching overall for the Giants had been stellar, but the Tigers had now been shut out twice in a row, after being previously shut out just twice all season.  Commentator Gregg Zaun amplified on this as only he can, saying he mostly thought it was the Tiger hitters who were to blame, for not thinking situationally or being prepared, for not handling hittable fastballs in fastball counts, showing examples of them being fouled off, taken for strikes or simply swung at and missed.

With Detroit now down 0-3, a sweep seemed a strong possibility and to their credit, at least the Tigers didn’t go down meekly, made a game of it. Game Four was by far the best of the Series, going to extra innings with a couple of lead changes.  Max Scherzer has been a very good number two starter, winning seventeen games and finishing just behind Verlander in the AL strikeout race.  He looked good early, striking out Giants in bunches, yet they touched him for a double by Pence, followed by a triple from Brandon Belt (his first hit of the Series) in the second for an early lead.  Matt Cain also pitched well as expected, but Cabrera finally did something, sending a deep fly over the right field fence with a man on to give Detroit its only lead of the Series so far.  With Hurricane Sandy fast approaching, it was a blustery night at Comerica Park, the homer may have been wind-aided, but they would take it.  Buster Posey took the lead back with a two-run shot to left off Scherzer in the sixth, but Delmon Young answered back in the bottom half with a solo shot of his own to knot the score at three.  This hardly ever happens, and you don’t have to believe me, but I felt both home runs coming, a palpable hunch.  I was watching the game alone, so it’s not like I called them aloud or anything, I’m not that far gone yet.

So the score was 3-3 with all the marbles on the line for the Giants and the bullpens would take over, another area where the Giants had an edge with Lincecum lengthening theirs, where Valverde’s woes shortened the Tigers’.  Scherzer left after 6 and 1/3 innings, having given up three runs on seven hits, striking out eight and walking one, a fine outing.  Cain lasted through seven, striking out five, walking two and giving up the two homers for three runs.  Drew Smyly and the ubiquitous Octavio Dotel (pitching on his thirteenth team) combined to get the Tigers through the eighth, giving up nothing but a walk.  For the Giants, Jeremy Affeldt pitched 1 and 2/3 innings, striking out four, but had a nervous moment with one out in the ninth as Peralta took him very deep to the warning track before Pagan caught the ball; that was enough for Bruce Bochy, who brought in Santiago Casilla to get the last out.  The Tigers new closer-elect was Phil Coke and he did a marvellous job throughout the playoffs for them in his new role. He was flawless in the ninth, striking out the side.

These tight, late-innings pitching duels usually turn when one team blinks first, it often starts with a little thing, a small mistake, or a fundamental piece of hitting well-executed, a bit of luck.  This came in the top of the tenth, when Ryan Theriot, in the game as a DH for the first time in his career, sent a little nubber up the third base line.  It wasn’t hit hard, didn’t go far or very fast, it was almost like a swinging bunt.  Cabrera charged in to make the play but the angle was awkward and he took some time getting the ball out of his glove to make the throw late to first; Theriot can run and was aboard.  Crawford came to bat and laid down a perfect bunt up the first base line, everyone was expecting it, but it was so well placed there was nothing anyone could do, Theriot was at second on the sacrifice.  Angel Pagan, who had a tough time at the plate in this Series but played some brilliant defense in centrefield, now struck out.

This set up a situation that seems to come up in almost every World Series, where the Hollywood baseball screenwriters in the sky seem to get busy with the the inspiring, Andy Hardy, come-off-it-underdog scenarios, where the hero-worship cliche-machine kicks into high gear.  You know, the prairie-fresh rookie fireballer strikes out the grizzled slugger with the bases loaded to win it all for his dad, who’s bet his last hundred bucks on the kid to save the family farm.

Or the washed-up alcoholic pitcher who comes in with a hangover to save the game in relief with one out and runners on first and third – the hitter rips one off his skull which kills him, but not before he fields the ball and whips it to second to start the Series-ending double-play – the action ends with him dying on the mound, his weeping and grateful teammates gathered around him, cue the choir.

Or the hobbled slugger, bleeding internally from about six ulcers nobody knows about, and who alone knows his manager Pants Ripple is dying from a rare and untreatable brain disease, belts the Series-winning homer as a pinch hitter, then later dies in Pants’ arms just as the manager finds out he’s been miraculously cured and will live after all.  Cue two choirs and the Warner Brothers Philharmonic, Max Steiner conducting.

OK, so I’m a cynical bastard.  But, all kidding and exaggeration aside, the World Series does have a way of often serving up these coincidental, long-shot, inspirational story lines and this was a feel-good beauty – Marco Scutaro was coming to bat with a chance to drive in the potential Series-winning run with two out.  Scutaro is the epitome of the baseball journeyman, a classic defence-first middle-infielder, now 34, a solid but unspectacular contact hitter, a gamer.  A pro who long toiled in the baseball hinterlands of Oakland and Toronto without even a sniff at a championship, put up with a bunch of dispiriting bullshit the last couple of years in Boston, then was traded this spring to the baseball-gulag of Colorado for his trouble.

The Giants picked him up in July in a low-profile deal; his teammates nicknamed him “Blockbuster” after this because he played so well down the stretch while so many other more glamorous players flopped for the rival Dodgers after landing with them.  He’d had a brilliant NLCS, hitting .500 and winning the MVP of that Series; he’d slumped a little against the Tigers but there was absolutely no one the Giants would rather have up in this situation.  It was easy to say later, but Zaun said he was surprised the Tigers elected to pitch to Scutaro in this situation instead of walking him and pitching to Pedro Sandoval, who, Game One heroics aside, would be much more likely to strike out or hit an easy grounder.  I’ve no desire to second-guess Jim Leyland at all, but I agreed with Zaun.

Anyway, they pitched to him and Scutaro finally saw one he liked and calmly dumped a polite single to just the right spot in short centre, Jackson fielded it on one hop but his throw was wide and too late to nab Theriot with the go-ahead run.  I felt badly for Coke, who had pitched well but maybe for a bit too long, he deserved better.  I was really happy for Marco though, few deserve this more than him.

Among many other famous things, Yogi Berra has said, “It ain’t over till it’s over”, but, with a one-run lead and Sergio Romo ready to pitch with his all-universe slider in the top of the tenth, this was as good as all over.  Romo struck out Jackson and Berry, then faced Cabrera.  He threw him nothing but sliders but with two strikes, threw a fastball belt-high which absolutely froze Cabrera; the Triple Crown winner looked at it for strike three and the Series was suddenly over.  It’s funny,  this surprising sweep now seems inevitable, but only viewed in retrospect.  Zaun put it perfectly afterward when he said that Romo’s surprise fastball and Cabrera’s imitation of a statue were a microcosm of the Series itself.

A World Series ending so quickly in the minimal four games is never really satisfying, though this one had its moments, some of them described above.  This baseball post-season reserved its best competition and dramatic moments for the earlier rounds.  There wasn’t a lot of analysis required, Jim Leyland put it best in his typically forthright way – it hadn’t been close, the Giants were simply far better than the Tigers in this one so you tip your cap to them and move on.  I really like and respect Leyland a lot and felt badly for him, but was glad to hear today that he’s signed on for another year with the Tigers.  There was speculation that he might not be asked back, but the Tigers were flailing around in the wilderness before he signed on a few years ago, they might get the job done yet.

Though I had hoped the Tigers would win, I also like the Giants and felt good for them, they’re a team in the truest sense of the word, everyone had contributed in his own way.  I was especially happy for Scutaro and for Hunter Pence, and for the redemption of Barry Zito and Series MVP Sandoval, both of whom were on the bench when the Giants won it in 2010, loyalty is seemingly a two-way street on this admirable club.  Also, I was happy for the absurdly young-looking Buster Posey, who had struggled at times in the post-season, but is clearly a special player and the center of this team.  He’d missed all of 2011 with a bad leg/ankle injury and the team went nowhere without him, but he had an MVP-type season in 2012 and here they were, back on top of the heap.

It would be easy to dwell on the failings of the Tigers in this Series, but I prefer to focus on the virtues of the Giants.  A sure sign of a great team is their ability to win games in various ways, to play any kind of baseball needed to beat you on a given day.  These Giants won with the long ball in the first game, with great pitching and small ball in the second one, timely hitting and great relief in the third and a little bit of everything in the finale.  They can play them some baseball.

Above all, the success of this team reflects well on Bruce Bochy, as good and smart a manager as there as is in baseball right now.  I call him “Valium” for his preternatural calm and almost catatonic speech, but he clearly had everyone on this team setting aside egos and personal agendas and playing for one another, and it sure showed.  He’s now accomplished something with the Giants that only the great John McGraw did – winning multiple titles – McGraw won three and lost six, Bochy is a perfect two-for two.  With most of the core of this team still intact and quite young, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them win at least one more, they’re one of the most likeable and admirable teams of our time, quirky and colourful, yet anti-star and all business on the field.

© 2012, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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