Sunday, October 26, 2014

Every Which Way And Loose: The Comeback Blowout and the Weird, Wild Story of Game Four

There was a moment in the bottom of the first where it looked like the Giants would scratch their way to a game four win. Then came the top of the third, when the Royals batted around, scoring four runs. The game, and the series, appeared to belong to Kansas City. By the end of the fifth, the game was tied. An inning later, the Giants had added three more. As the game entered the eighth, San Francisco had reversed their fortunes entirely, adding four more runs to make the score 11-4. The Royals would never recover. To simply leave this game as only the numbers on the scoreboard would be an injustice to the sheer absurdity of it all. In one of the weirdest World Series games I've ever witnessed, the Giants knotted the series, but that doesn't begin to tell the tale.

It was a hostile environment to say the least. The San Francisco crowd had embraced the necessity of the game. For the first time in the Bruce Bochy era, the Giants trailed in the World Series. With their ace Madison Bumgarner ready for game five Sunday night, there was a sense of urgency that if their could take a win in game four, the Giants would likely head back to Kansas City ahead three games to two. Letting the Royals take another game on their home field, and they would need to win two games in rowdy Kauffman Stadium to take the series in seven.

Gregor Blanco, of game two lead-off home run fame, led off the home half of the first with a walk. Royals' starter Jason Vargas, a perhaps over-heralded free agent signing last offseason, was in trouble early. Joe Panik was next for Vargas. On the ninth pitch of the game, Vargas hopped a 1-1 pitch just before home. As the ball bounced away from catcher Salvador Perez, Blanco broke for second. Perez grabbed the ball and hurled it across the diamond, but it was high. Shortstop Alcides Escobar leaped and caught the errant throw and tried to fall back to Earth in time to tag the sliding Blanco, but it was too late. After Panik popped out, Buster Posey stepped in, but all eyes were on Blanco. On Vargas' thirteenth pitch, Blanco took off for third. As Perez caught the pitch, stood and threw, Blanco was nearly there. Perez's throw was perfect, but Gregor Blanco had stolen third base. It was a sequence of events that everyone at AT&T Park as well as anyone watching on television could feel would lead to an attitude that would carry the Giants to victory. Posey walked, bringing up Hunter Pence. Vargas was having early control issues, but there was still a chance he could escape the inning without giving up that run. On the twenty-second pitch of the game, Pence made contact, driving a ground ball to third. Blanco held up. Third baseman Mike Moustakas fired to second to get Posey out, then Omar Infante turned to gun down Pence. Never known as a speed threat on the base path, Pence hustled down the line and beat out Infante's throw. Blanco had broken for home on the play at second. The Giants had scored without a batted ball ever leaving the infield. The score was 1-0, but it felt like that run meant a whole lot more.

What some see as the best part of baseball is often the most strange. In the third inning, Giant's starter Ryan Vogelsong got his counterpart Jason Vargas to fly out to deep center field. Then after allowing an Escobar single, snared a second out on an Alex Gordon fielder's choice. With two outs, things got weird. Lorenzo Cain stepped in. For at least the last two games, Cain has been visibly favoring his left leg. While a thing like that can affect a player's speed, it doesn't mean it will disrupt his hustle. Alex Gordon took off for second on a 2-2 pitch. Buster Posey's throw from home clipped Gordon in the shoulder and bounced into shallow center field. Cain chopped a ground ball to shortstop Brandon Crawford and ran to first. Crawford gathered the ball in stride and threw a laser beam to first base. Cain gave everything he had to leg out the run, and he beat the throw. Gordon was in to third and the inning was still alive.

Eric Hosmer, fresh off of his game three heroics, skipped a high ground ball to a surging Brandon Belt. Vogelsong ran over to field first base as Hosmer closed in. Vogelsong caught Belt's throw and turned to step on the bag, but he was off line. Hosmer beat him to the bag, allowing Gordon to score. The game was knotted at one because of back to back infield singles. Mike Moustakas walked, and the bases were loaded. Omar Infante worked a two ball - two strike count before lining a sharp ground ball to center. Cain scored. Hosmer scored. But the Royals were not finished. Salvador Perez knocked a single into shallow center field to score Moustakas. The score now 4-1, Bruce Bochy pulled his starter. Vogelsong's night ended after sixty-two pitches in which he only managed eight outs. In came the often shaky Jean Machi to get the last out. With the pitcher's spot due up first in their half of the inning, the Giants couldn't afford to burn one of their upper-tier starters. Jarrod Dyson worked a full count into a walk, and again the bases were loaded. The Royals had batted around in the inning, and for the second time in the third, Vargas was at the plate.

Jason Vargas saw fourteen pitches in his two at bats in the inning. The last two will likely be an enduring image of the series. In the fifth pitch of the at bat, Vargas took a pitch outside. He turned, tossed his bat and began his trot to first. There was only one problem- it was ball three. With all the awkwardness of a child accidentally calling his teacher "mom," Vargas recognized his mistake only after it was far too late. He cracked a smile, but the uncomfortable feeling was evident on his face. The heavily-biased crowd began to laugh and boo the opposing pitcher. After a brief conversation with the umpire, Vargas stepped back in. Jean Machi tossed a fastball right along the inside edge of the strike zone. Umpire Ted Barrett rung up strike three and the inning was over. Vargas had been two of the three outs in the innings, but the latter of the two was the kind of rare absurdity that makes baseball weird and brilliant. Despite the gaffe, the Royals had taken the lead and inched closer to their shutdown bullpen in the last three innings.

By the time the Giants cut the lead to 4-2 in the bottom half of the inning, it felt like we had already sat through an entire baseball game. To be fair, the top of the fourth began only an hour and a half after first pitch. Major League Baseball's recent initiative to create a Pace of Game Committee was their way of finally admitting games go far too long. From my perspective, as long as the game is good, I could not care less how long it takes. I am also clearly not a casual fan. To baseball obsessives, devoting four hours to a single game is no big deal, but it hurts the casual fan. That being said, a Royals - Giants World Series probably isn't the keenest matchup for the causal fan either, so a long game might only further the lacklust. Through four innings, Kansas City still held a two run lead.

An inning later, Joe Panik doubled to lead off, ending the night for Jason Vargas. Panik's star continues to rise as he has not once shown any sense of youthful nerves in the series. Buster Posey grounded out, moving Panik to third. Hunter Pence drove in the run on a fastball returned to center field. Reliever Jason Frasor was chased from the mound and replaced by Danny Duffy. Again Pence's ability to hustle came into play as he moved from first to third on a single by Pablo Sandoval. Quickly, the orange and black clad crowd could feel a changing of the tide in game four. The roar that had started the game was back an in full force. Duffy walked Brandon Belt and the bases were loaded. Juan Perez, starting in place of Travis Ishikawa in left field, was due up. He saw one pitch. Perez knocked a fly ball to somewhat shallow center field. Jarrod Dyson charged in at top speed. Pence trotted back to third in the offhand chance Dyson could make the play. He lunged forward. The defensive prodigy, a fiftieth round draft pick in 2006, made the catch. It was an incredible play to get the out. Dyson quickly adjusted and tried to throw to the infield, but Pence had tagged and made it home with ease. The game was tied and AT&T Park was electric. Brandon Crawford would go down on strikes to end the inning, but the damage was done. The Royals would not have a lead going into the late innings.

The unsung hero of the San Francisco pitching staff is Yusmeiro Petit. Including Saturday's three innings, Petit has pitched twelve this postseason, only allowing four hits with no runs and thirteen strikeouts. In game four he was lights-out. As the Giants tied the game, Petit was there to keep it so. The home team's offense, however, had other plans. In the bottom half of the sixth, the Giants seized control. Petit was pulled for pinch hitter Joaquin Arias, who singled. Then Gregor Blanco followed suit. Joe Panik laid down a beautiful sacrifice bunt and quickly the Giants had runners on second and third. Brandon Finnegan had come on to pitch to start the inning. With one out, Finnegan intentionally walked Buster Posey to load the bases and create a force double play scenario. Hunter Pence grounded to Alcides Escobar at short. Escobar quickly made the force play at home, not willing to concede the run. The game was still tied with two out. That brought in the big man, Pablo Sandoval. The good ones seem to find their way into these kinds of situations where they can thrive under pressure. The great ones follow through. The World Series legend of Pablo Sandoval continued to grow as he sent a first-pitch slider back up the middle and into center field. Blanco and Posey scored and the Giants had fully turned the game around. Brandon Belt matched Sandoval's single with one of his own, scoring Pence. With the score 7-4, it was as if the Royals' 4-1 lead was ages ago. The game was just shy of the three hour mark when Juan Perez grounded out to second base, but the message had been sent. The Brian Sabean-annointed "cockroaches" failed to resign their fate. It was a lead they would not relent. In fact, they would add more.

It was the Giants' bullpen that would get a chance to lock down the game four win. The Royals would only get one hit in each inning. This was in part of stellar outfield defense like that of Juan Perez, who made a difficult catch look easy to start the seventh. Pablo Sandoval showed off his surprising agility on the next out. It was looking grim for Kansas City, and it would only get worse. The Giants tagged on four more runs in the bottom half of the inning. Before they gave up an out, the Giants lead stretched to 10-4. As Hunter Pence drove in the eleventh run in the form of Joe Panik, the game was well out of reach.

There would be little fight from the visiting team. Alex Gordon's double in the ninth was for naught. Eric Hosmer grounded out to Hunter Strickland to end a game that lasted exactly four hours. The series now tied, Madison Bumgarner's game five start Sunday night looms large. After thirty six innings, there is no clear-cut most valuable player candidate. We have seen three blowouts, but the series still feels as if it is either team's to take. The 2014 World Series is now a best of three. There will be more baseball in Kansas City, and if this unpredictable series can be forecast by any measure, we should be in for a full seven games.

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