Tigers manager Jim Leyland said it best, and he wasn’t just being gracious.
“I don’t think they’re getting any breaks,” Leyland said of the Giants. “I think they’ve earned everything they got.”
Leyland exaggerated slightly, but surely it is no accident that the Giants lead the World Series, two games to none.
The Giants are playing exquisite, inspired, near-flawless baseball, and Thursday night’s 2-0 victory was their most breathtaking clinic yet.
For starters, the Giants executed a brilliant cutoff and relay to nail a runner — well, Prince Fielder — at home plate.
Later, they produced a pickoff. A sacrifice attempt that turned into a base hit. A critical stolen base to set up the insurance run, and a sacrifice fly on an 0-2 count to bring that run home.
Oh yes, they also got seven shutout innings from left-hander Madison Bumgarner, who had an 11.25 ERA in his two previous postseason starts but was manager Bruce Bochy’s choice to pitch Game 2, anyway.
When exactly was Bochy’s last wrong decision?
Bochy essentially benched Bumgarner after the 16-game winner lasted just 3-2/3 innings in Game 1 of the NLCS. But the demotion, if that’s even a fair word, was only temporary.
Bumgarner, 23, worked with pitching coach Dave Righetti to correct a mechanical flaw — he had been over-rotating in his delivery, trying to generate velocity.
Meanwhile, Bochy worked on Bumgarner’s head.
“You kind of challenge him,” Bochy told the FOX broadcasters before the game. “A couple of days ago, I told him, ‘You’re getting a start unless you’re scared.’”
Naturally, Bumgarner told Bochy he wasn’t scared, wouldn’t be scared if he had given up 10 runs in 30 straight starts. And Bochy replied, in that great understated way of his, that if Bumgarner was pitching that poorly, he wouldn’t get 30 straight starts.
A Tigers coach was skeptical before the game that the Giants somehow could fix Bumgarner in the middle of the postseason, but sure enough that is what happened. Bumgarner allowed just two hits and two walks, striking out eight, his highest total since Aug. 20.
“He’s done such a great job for us,” Bochy said. “I really thought he needed a break, and I thought he benefitted from it, getting some rest, both mentally and physically. He went out there and pitched like we know he can.”
Of course, Bumgarner had help. Giants pitchers always get help. The team ranked only 13th in the majors in the regular season in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the percentage of batted balls that are converted into outs. But in the postseason, the Giants’ defense continues to be a game-changer.
Case in point: The second inning, when the Tigers’ Delmon Young hit a ball past a diving Pablo Sandoval at third base with Fielder on first. The ball skipped over the bullpen mound, then ricocheted off the left-field wall into fair territory, forcing left fielder Gregor Blanco to reverse course.
Shortstop Brandon Crawford, the first cutoff man, set up on the outfield grass, about 20 feet beyond the infield. Second baseman Marco Sctuaro, the second cutoff man, set up on the infield dirt, not far from third base.
Textbook, even though Blanco didn’t know it.
Blanco, a left-handed thrower, recovered the ball on his backhand and fired. Tigers third base coach Gene Lamont, to the surprise of most everyone in the park, was waving Fielder home with none out.
The throw — an overthrow, really — went above Crawford and right to Scutaro. Scutaro turned and made a perfect relay home. And catcher Buster Posey, after setting up in front of the plate, was in an ideal position to tag out Fielder.
It was the first 7-4-2 out in Series history, and Blanco seemed confused by the whole thing afterward, saying, “I don’t know what Scutaro was doing there.”
Scutaro and Crawford, however, said they executed the play properly. And Scutaro, when informed of Blanco’s remark, joked, “He’s an outfielder. He doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Blanco was at the center of another pivotal play — and another with unintended consequences — when he attempted to sacrifice with two on and none out in the seventh and the score 0-0.
Hitters generally try to keep sacrifices away from the lines — the idea is to move the runner over, not bunt for a base hit. But Blanco’s ball hugged the third-base line.
“As soon as I bunted it, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s going to go foul,’” Blanco said.
The count was 3-1 — maybe the Giants would have given Blanco another chance on 3-2, maybe not. In the end, such a decision was unnecessary. Blanco’s bunt stayed fair, loading the bases. Crawford then hit into a 4-6-3 double play, but a run scored to give the Giants a 1-0 lead.
The Giants loaded the bases again the following inning, getting three walks (one intentional) and a stolen base from Angel Pagan. Hunter Pence, who began the night batting .173 in the postseason, stepped to the plate, having already shown signs of recovery — he had led off with a single and scored the Giants’ run in the seventh. But in this at-bat, Pence fell behind 0-2 against reliever Octavio Dotel.
A strikeout on a slider away — a frequent Pence outcome — seemed inevitable. But Pence hung tough, fouling off three straight pitches, then lofting an opposite-field sacrifice fly to make it 2-0. Closer Sergio Romo pitched a 1-2-3 ninth, avoiding Miguel Cabrera, who was due up fourth in the inning. And the Giants had outclassed the Tigers again.
Yes, the Giants have had some luck — Pagan hit a double that bounced off the third-base bag in Game 1, and Blanco’s bunt easily could have rolled foul. But think of all of the Giants’ outstanding defensive plays — Blanco’s two catches in Game 1, Sandoval’s leaping grab on a bullet by Cabrera in the fourth inning of Game 2.
Leyland knows what he’s seeing.
A team executing better than his own. A team in full.
“I mean, they’re playing good,” Leyland said. “They’re playing like the Giants play, and we expected that coming in.