CINCINNATI — What once was a monumental advantage for the Cincinnati Reds now is reduced to a sliver of an edge over the San Francisco Giants.
And some would say: “Advantage, San Francisco.”
That’s because momentum is pushing hard behind the Giants after their 8-3 victory Wednesday at Great American Ball Park — a win keyed by the fact San Francisco tapped two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum out of the bullpen for 4 1/3 ultimately victorious innings.
The significance: The best-of-five series now is tied at two wins apiece after an illogical sequence of games. The Reds won the first two games in San Francisco and came home needing only one win in three chances to win the National League Division Series.
Amazingly, the Giants won the first two in GABP, and now it’s a one-game, winner-take-all on Thursday afternoon.
The methodology doesn’t surprise Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips, because this is the way it always is for the 2012 Reds — nothing comes easy, make it as difficult on themselves as possible.
“It’s sad that somebody is going to be a loser, but that’s just how it is,” he said. “It’s never the end of the world to me. I’m a happy person. As long as you got out and give it your all, give it your best. If you don’t give it your best, then you are going to have hard time sleeping at night.”
The Giants must have slept well Wednesday night after they banged 11 hits, eight for extra bases (five doubles, three home runs). Most of the damage was done against stand-in pitcher Mike Leake, plucked from the inactive list before the game in place of Johnny Cueto, who was removed from the roster with oblique problems.
Leake’s second pitch left the premises, a 0-and-1 pitch that Angel Pagan drove over the right-field fence.
The Reds tied it in the bottom of the first when Giants starter Barry Zito gave up a hit and three walks.
Leake gave up five runs and six hits (two homers) in 4 1/3 innings. Zito lasted only 2 2/3 innings, a walk on the wild side — 76 pitches during his short stay, during which he gave up two runs, four hits and four walks.
But Zito had the pick-me-up that Leake didn’t have. Lincecum, a starter during the season, was plopped into the bullpen for the postseason, and he saved the Giants with those 4 1/3 innings of one-run, two-hit, no-walks, six-strikeout pitching.
The Giants were able to throw big money bags at the Reds — Zito with his $19 million deal and Lincecum with an $18 million contract ($37 million worth of arms — and it gets pricier next year with Lincecum at $22 million and Zito at $20 million).
“Right now, the times are different,” said Lincecum. “We’re playing for a different reason than just the season — to get to the NLCS and further. So I feel that motivation helps me not think about the difference between starting and being in a bullpen situation. I just have to get my outs and do my job.”
And what a job he did.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy, the man who decided to put his big-name starter into the bullpen, is reaping results.
“Tim has unbelievable talent, and I know it has been an up-and-down year for him,” said Bochy. “I knew he was wanting to get out there (to pitch), and I knew he would play a huge role in this. I love to have a man like this who has the talent he does, and part of it was him buying into what we were doing. He said, ‘I just want to do anything I can to help the ballclub win.’ “
That he did on a chilly afternoon when a loss would have ended the Giants’ season. But now a third straight win would enable San Francisco to become the first National League team to lose the first two games at home and then win the next three in a Division Series. Conversely, the Reds could suffer the ignominy of being the first NL team to win the first two playoff games on the road and then lose the final three.
“Well, we haven’t done anything yet, but we had to work hard to get back to this point,” said Bochy. “We’re excited about being in this position, especially when we came in 0-2 down and have to play in their park.”
Cincinnati right fielder Jay Bruce knows the situation now, and said, “This is baseball. This is what it is all about. It is down to one thing — win or go home. We still have the edge. We’re playing at home and we have our big horse (Mat Latos) pitching.”
Latos will face Matt Cain, the loser in Game 1, when Latos stepped in on three days rest to fill the hole when Cueto left after eight pitches.
Of his team’s plight, Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker said, “It was probably hard for them to believe we were up 2-0 after two games out there. So they reversed on us what we did to them, so now it is the rubber match.”
Phillips was 1-for-4 Wednesday and drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, continuing as Cincinnati’s top run finder — 7-for-19 (.368) with two doubles, a home run and five RBI in the four games.
“I’m out there trying to make things happen for the team, making positive things happen,” he said. “You can’t press. You’ve been playing this game since you were a little kid, and all you can do is give it your all.
“Everybody knows we are going to go home and we are going to move on,” Phillips added. “Some people might bust like a pipe and some people might rise to the occasion. We need clutch hits, good defense, good pitching and then we’ll be popping champagne.
“We won two games there, they came here and won two games here,” he added.
After the Reds stranded eight runners in the first four innings Wednesday, Phillips said slowly and succinctly, “Key … hits … is … the … key … factor.
“We … haven’t … got … them … the … last … two … games.”