SAN FRANCISCO — It’s possible the San Francisco Giants’ last best chance came in the first inning Sunday night. They hit three fly balls off Bronson Arroyo, one to the warning track in right field by Angel Pagan that brought a deafening roar from the sellout crowd at AT&T Park.
But each time, the ball settled softly into the gloves of the Cincinnati Reds outfielders — twice into that of Jay Bruce in right, one caught by Drew Stubbs in center.
The rest of the night was almost exhausting for the Giants, who couldn’t break through against Arroyo or the Reds in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, falling 9-0 to drop into an 0-2 hole heading to Cincinnati.
“He was great,” Reds manager Dusty Baker said of Arroyo. That’s high praise, but Arroyo’s seven innings of one-hit ball were more than worthy — they made for a masterpiece by the veteran right-hander.
The Reds now return home needing to win only one of three to take the best-of-five series. It’s not a lock, but it would be difficult not to like their position.
“We’ve got to feel good about ourselves,” Stubbs said afterward. “We had a lot of confidence coming into this series, but to take two at their place and be able to go home and try to close it out has got to make everyone feel good.”
Certainly, Arroyo was a reason for the good feelings. He’s used to postseason pressure, having made 11 previous playoff appearances, but AT&T is hardly his favorite venue: He had an 0-4 career record at the ballpark by the bay and hadn’t beaten the Giants since 2008.
But except for the three fly balls in the first inning, he was hardly pressured. He retired the first 14 batters of the game, gave up a two-out single to Brandon Belt in the fifth, then set down six more before walking Buster Posey with two outs in the seventh.
“I think that was one of the best games he’s ever thrown,” Reds catcher Ryan Hanigan said. “It was really on point. Getting a four-run lead (in the fourth inning) helped, and in the first inning, having those balls caught that were hit hard was huge. Then he settled in and was in command the rest of the game.”
From the second through the sixth innings, Arroyo got nine ground ball outs, struck out four and allowed just one fly ball. Baker noted that Arroyo flirted with a no-hitter late in the season, but this performance came on a much larger stage.
“These games are as big as any in my whole career,” Arroyo said. “Every year that goes by, you feel like the next one is the biggest thing, and for this ball club last year, we didn’t win a game in the playoffs. Just getting off to a good start and having the club believe, and the fan base believe, those things can help you later on.”
The Reds were not among the National League’s more prolific offenses during the regular season, ranking ninth in runs and batting average, but they have overwhelmed the Giants in the first two games. Ryan Ludwick hit a home run in the second inning of starter Madison Bumgarner, and Cincinnati added three more in the fourth, two coming on Hanigan’s two-run single.
Given how well Arroyo was throwing, it amounted to overkill. The Giants used seven pitchers, including Tim Lincecum, who was relegated to the bullpen for this series and pitched two shutout innings, but they did nothing that resembled a threat.
But this series hasn’t been about the Giants. It’s been nothing but Reds, who survived the loss of Game 1 starter Johnny Cueto to back spasms after recording only one out and now are riding a combination of strong pitching and hitting.
As Baker pointed out, however, nothing is assured. The series resumes Tuesday afternoon at Great American Ball Park, and the Reds would prefer to finish things quickly. They’ll have right-hander Homer Bailey, who pitched a no-hitter 10 days ago against the Pittsburgh Pirates, going against a still-undecided starter for San Francisco.
No reason to worry, right?
“You’re not comfortable at all until it’s over,” Baker said. “We’ve been there before. It’s hard to take that last breath out of any team.”
That’s what the Giants are down to — their last breath.