Giants are more than just team spirit

I love the “band of brothers” in the San Francisco clubhouse. I could listen all day when right fielder Hunter Pence talks about the Giants playing for each other. I’m a sucker for when closer Sergio Romo says, “The guy standing next to me is the one who matters more.”

You know what, though? The Giants rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit to win the National League Championship Series not because they had superior team spirit. No, they won because they were better than the Cardinals — not necessarily on paper, but on the field.

The Tigers will be favored in the World Series because their rotation is rested and intact while the Giants will need to scramble a bit, at least in the first two games. But if the Giants perform like they did in the NLCS, and the Tigers return to their shoddy defensive ways, this Series will be a lot closer than people think — and maybe even an upset.

None of the Giants’ hitters, not even Marco Scutaro, the sublime NLCS MVP, can mash with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. None of their pitchers is as overpowering as Justin Verlander. But let’s see what happens. The last time the Tigers were in the Series, against the Cardinals in 2006, they were flat in virtually every aspect of the game.

Some of that was attributable to a six-day layoff, and the Tigers were more proactive with their five-day layoff this time, scrimmaging for two days against their Instructional League players. But the Tigers, even when sharp, give opponents extra outs. The Giants are more athletic and play with more precision.

The NLCS was their masterpiece.

The Cardinals’ Lance Berkman was right when he said after Game 6 that his team had a better lineup than the Giants, even without Matt Holliday. Give any general manager his choice of bullpens, and he would take the Cardinals’ collection of young hard throwers.

Yes, the Giants had the edge in the rotation, but that edge didn’t become apparent until the final three games, starting with Barry Zito’s jewel in Game 5. And defense? Well, the Cardinals had a reputation for rarely beating themselves, but the Giants fielded much better in the NLCS.

Pete Kozma, the Cardinals’ rookie shortstop, melted down in Game 7, making three miscues as the Giants scored five runs in the third inning of their 9-0 victory. Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, in contrast, contributed the defensive play of the game, snaring a liner by Kyle Lohse at the top of his jump to end a first-and-third threat in the second inning.

“That’s really what made this series — guys came up big with making huge defensive plays,” said Giants right-hander Matt Cain, who threw 46 pitches in his first two innings of Game 7 but wound up shutting out the Cardinals for 5-2/3.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy, asked about the importance of the defense, said, “Critical. Our defense played a critical role in our success trying to come back.

“You know, pitching is our strength, but we have to catch the ball. We did such a great job. Crawford was tremendous at short, Scutaro (at second), really everybody.

“The outfield, they cover so much ground out there. And, of course, Buster (Posey) is the one who was putting the fingers down there and helped get this pitching staff, the starters back on track to get us where we are.”

Bochy is part of the team’s success, too — a big part. The Giants are headed to their second World Series in three years, but few things are as they were in 2010. Seven of the eight position players are different, and the previous closer, Brian Wilson, appeared in only two games before undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Few managers are better than Bochy at piecing together bullpens. And the hit-and-run call with Ryan Vogelsong in Game 6 — and Vogelsong’s execution of the “slash” play, showing bunt, then swinging — was a thing of beauty.

The hitting of the Giants’ pitchers in this series actually was another testament to the team’s preparation, and another reflection on Bochy. As Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said, “They had all aspects of their game going, and capitalized on the opportunities.”

Did the Giants benefit from some luck? Of course they did. Pence’s wacky two-run double in the third inning of Game 7 — FOX’s super slo-mo replay showed the bat hit the ball three different times — was a pivotal moment, extending the Giants’ lead to 3-0. Only a player as unorthodox as Pence could produce as bizarre a hit, but no one ever said there was logic to any of this.

Maybe the series would have turned out differently if the Cardinals’ Carlos Beltran had not injured his knee in Game 3 and Matt Holliday had not suffered lower back stiffness before Game 6. But really, the Cardinals have no excuses, not after playing so poorly in the final three games and getting outscored, 20-1.

Their starters in those games — Lance Lynn, Chris Carpenter and Lohse — lasted a combined 9-2/3 innings. For the series, the Cardinals allowed 10 unearned runs, an NLCS record, while Giants did not yield a single unearned run. Offensively, the Cardinals barely resembled the team that finished second in the league in batting and third in OPS in the regular season. They batted .217 with a .582 OPS in the series.

The problem for the Giants in the World Series is that the Tigers might simply overpower them, particularly in Games 1 and 2. The initial pitching matchups — Justin Verlander vs. Barry Zito, Doug Fister vs. Tim Lincecum or Vogelsong on three days’ rest — favor the Tigers. But who knows? The Giants, as we’ve seen, play better from behind, anyway.

They’ll open at home before their usual frenzied crowd, thanks in part to Verlander’s poor start in the All-Star Game, which helped cost the AL home-field advantage for the World Series. Their dugout, the closest thing in baseball to “Animal House,” again will be full of hijinks. And rest assured, the “band of brothers” vibe will remain big part of the narrative.

It makes for a good story, but it’s not the whole story, or even the real story. No, the real story is that the Giants are NL champions for the purest of reasons. Not because they possess some magic intangibles. Because they’re a damn good baseball team.