Giants' diminutive stars come up huge
On the deciding play of the 2012 World Series, the 5-foot-10 current second baseman scored the 5-foot-11 former second baseman with a flare that dropped into center field with an artist’s precision. The scrawny, 5-foot-10 closer recorded the final out, using an 89 mph fastball to freeze the opposition’s towering Triple Crown winner, one night after the spindly, long-haired former ace turned in the decisive relief performance. The 5-foot-11 left fielder, who glides with the grace of an Olympic hurdler, made yet another game-saving catch.
The name of these champions?
Their clubhouse isn’t entirely populated with men built like high school point guards. (Pablo Sandoval — Kung Fu Panda and World Series MVP — is not often described as diminutive.) But the modest professionals are the essence of this team, the troupe of super-skilled Smurfs who dressed up in orange and black for Halloween and beat up every bully on the block.
San Francisco sits atop the baseball world for the second time in three seasons, largely because of men who are the opposite of giant.
“I guess you could say that,” agreed Ryan Theriot, who slid home with the clinching run of the Giants’ 4-3, 10-inning, sweep-completing triumph over the favored Detroit Tigers. “In stature, no. But in will and desire, yeah, I would probably say they are Giants.”
The Giants play small ball. That is both an observation and a compliment. They won 94 games and the National League West despite hitting the fewest home runs of any team in baseball. They did it with pitching — to be fair, every starter in the World Series rotation was 6-foot-2 or taller — and a plucky lineup that produced the most runs on outs in the majors this year.
The San Francisco roster includes one position player with the carriage and cachet of a superstar: Buster Posey, the NL MVP candidate who had struggled in this World Series before bending a sixth-inning home run inside the left-field foul pole as another catcher famously did 37 Octobers ago.
Posey, who squeezed the Sergio Romo fastball that flummoxed Miguel Cabrera 10 minutes before midnight Sunday, is the only player to be on the field for the last out of the Giants’ two world championships in San Francisco. That the Giants have reached the summit of their sport so soon after 2010 — and with such a different cast — speaks to the soundness of general manager Brian Sabean’s plan. His scouts recommend the players, he acquires them, and they fit together splendidly.
The Giants looked incongruous — and dangerously so — during the on-field celebration, when reliever Javier Lopez ran in from the bullpen to join the dancing scrum beside the pitcher’s mound. As spark plug Marco Scutaro embraced teammate Angel Pagan, Scutaro’s head reared back and split the lip of the 6-foot-4 Lopez.
“I bit his frickin’ dome,” Lopez said a few minutes later, as the Giants popped champagne in the clubhouse. “That’s why I got a nice fat lip going. But I’ll do that any day.” When I pointed out to Lopez that he had blood on his right hand, he said he wasn’t sure whether it was his or Scutaro’s. “Championship blood, is what it is,” Lopez said, smiling.
Scutaro and Theriot were quintessential players for this team, so it was entirely fitting that they collaborated on the last run of the season. (“The two perfect guys you’d want in that situation,” Lopez said.) Theriot was the team’s everyday second baseman for long stretches of the year, but Scutaro took his job not long after arriving in a July trade. Theriot’s playing time decreased while Scutaro became a San Francisco sensation — culminating in his NLCS MVP award.
Sunday, the Giants needed them both. Manager Bruce Bochy — as brilliant in this World Series as he was in 2010 — inserted Theriot as the Game 4 designated hitter, batting eighth. Theriot’s teammates joked with him about it, pointing out that his power numbers — zero home runs in 104 games this season — didn’t exactly recall the David Ortiz DH archetype.
But Theriot, 32, has earned a major league paycheck since 2005 because of an ability to grind through at-bats against quality pitchers. He did it for the champion Cardinals last year, becoming a quiet hero of the epic Game 6 victory over Texas with his run-scoring groundout in the 10th inning. Here, in the first World Series 10th inning since that night, Theriot began the Giants’ winning rally by punching a fastball into right field for a leadoff single.
“Oh, man,” Tigers radio broadcaster Jim Price sighed over the air. Detroit reliever Phil Coke had struck out the first seven hitters he faced in the World Series, but suddenly Theriot was aboard as the go-ahead run. Given the Giants’ resolve, and Theriot’s reputation for generating crucial runs in precisely this manner, it was as if the crowd of 42,152 knew what would happen next.
The inning wound its way to Scutaro, the soon-to-be 37-year-old who had been quiet during the World Series but is a virtuoso situational hitter. Scutaro worked his way into a 3-1 count — with a meticulous take of Coke’s 2-1 fastball — and lashed the fastball that he knew was coming, with the dangerous Sandoval looming behind him. The liner landed just in front of center fielder Austin Jackson, and Theriot, running from second, slid home with a facial expression that fell somewhere between a beaming smile and snarling roar.
“Ecstatic. Total excitement. Fulfilled,” said Theriot, who scored the College World Series winning run — from second base, on a single — 12 years ago for LSU. “Everything culminated right there, at that one point in time.”
The Giants won baseball’s biggest prize with extensive contributions from the little guys. Gregor Blanco, signed as a minor league free agent on the recommendation of scout Brian Johnson, became an indispensable everyday outfielder — particularly after Melky Cabrera was lost for the season because of a steroid suspension. Blanco nearly signed with the Miami Marlins last offseason. If he had, the fortunes of two franchises could have changed.
As it happened, Blanco’s defense in left field became so essential to the Giants — his play to cut down Prince Fielder at the plate in Game 2 was the World Series turning point — that Brad Horn from the National Baseball Hall of Fame asked Blanco if Cooperstown could have the black Rawlings glove he’d used. Blanco, who spent a few quiet moments amid the celebration thinking about his late mother, was honored to oblige.
For a team that won it all only two years ago, many Giants celebrated as if they’d never held the Commissioner’s Trophy — which, in many cases, was true — as it made its way around the room, Stanley Cup-style. This was the first title for veterans Scutaro, Ryan Vogelsong and Hunter Pence; Sandoval and Barry Zito were afterthoughts in 2010 but heroes in this convincing effort. The Giants trailed after only three of 37 innings in the Fall Classic — all of them in Game 4, after San Francisco had taken control of the Series.
But the final outs are not easy, as the Texas Rangers know well, and so Romo provided one of the most poignant images of all in the bottom of the 10th. He lorded over the mound and set down the Tigers in order: strikeout, after strikeout, after strikeout. And then, at last, it was time to pop open the good stuff from Napa Valley.
“He’s a little man that pitches like he’s a big man,” Lopez admired of Romo. “He’s 180 pounds — if that, soaking wet — and he goes out there and pitches like he’s 6-foot-4, 250. The guy’s got it. He showed it tonight.”
He looked like a Giant. All of them did.