San Francisco Giants Close Down Washington Nationals in Game 4

It’d be ridiculous at this point to suggest the San Francisco Giants are lucky. Luck doesn’t win you two trophies in three years, and it doesn’t land you a spot in the National League Championship Series, which the Giants clinched with a 3-2 victory over the Washington Nationals Tuesday night at AT&T Park.

Not everyone pegged this team for another deep run. In fact, after the Giants squandered a hot start and squeaked into the second wild-card position, many dismissed them.

Funny thing though…there’s just something about this squad led by veteran skipper Bruce Bochy. The Giants seem to enjoy the feeling of their backs against a wall, to thrive when the pressure is greatest and to find the strangest, most unexpected ways to come up big.

Take Tuesday’s clincher: The Giants scored on a bases-loaded walk, a weak ground ball and a wild pitch. They would have plated a second run on a wild pitch, when an intentional ball four to Pablo Sandoval in the bottom of the seventh sailed over Washington catcher Wilson Ramos’ head.

The ball, though, caromed hard off the backstop, and Buster Posey was tagged out trying to score from third.

It didn’t matter. The Giants clung to their one-run lead with more stellar innings from their stingy bullpen and eked out another memorable, nail-gnawing win.

It began with starter Ryan Vogelsong, who in many ways embodies the unflinching resiliency of the Orange and Black. A Giants prospect once upon a time, Vogelsong was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2001.

A Tommy John surgery and a stint in Japan later, he returned to San Francisco as a minor league free agent in 2011 and fought his way into the rotation.

The following season, Vogelsong was an October hero, posting a 1.09 ERA in four playoff starts and getting himself a ring.

Since then, the 37-year-old right-hander has been unreliable at best. His 4.00 ERA in the 2014 regular season certainly didn’t inspire overwhelming confidence as he took the mound Tuesday, with the Giants up 2-1 in the best-of-five series.

It was a must-win game for the Nationals, but it felt like one for the Giants. San Francisco did not want to go back to D.C. with the series tied and face either Stephen Strasburg or Jordan Zimmermann in an elimination contest.

Vogelsong helped ensure that wouldn’t happen, tossing 5.2 gutsy innings while giving up one run on two hits. He didn’t earn the win, though, thanks to Bryce Harper.

In the top of the seventh, with the Giants leading 2-1, Harper launched a towering home run into the water beyond the right field wall off hard-throwing Giants rookie Hunter Strickland. The bomb fired up the Washington dugout; for a moment, it looked like the loaded, 96-win Nats had some fight left in them.

Then the Giants worked their magic, loading the bases in the bottom of the frame on a pair of singles and a walk and scoring on the aforementioned wild pitch.

And that was it. Setup man Sergio Romo and closer Santiago Casilla, who have combined for six scoreless frames this postseason, tossed mostly uneventful eighth and ninth innings, and the Giants stormed the field to celebrate another trip to the NLCS.

The team they’ll face, the St. Louis Cardinals, knows a thing or two about playoff mojo. The Cards made the Fall Classic in 2011 and 2013. Add the Giants’ appearances in 2010 and 2012, and we’re looking at a fifth straight season when either San Francisco or St. Louis will represent the National League on baseball’s biggest stage.

The Cardinals are tough. They showed that by dispatching the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games in the NLDS, including two wins against sure-fire Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw.

The Giants, though, have now won seven straight playoff series, eight if you count the wild-card playoff win against Pittsburgh that started this latest run.

They’ve already added to the legend in 2014, winning the longest game in MLB postseason history, an 18-inning marathon Oct. 4 at Nationals Park, on a towering home run by first baseman Brandon Belt.

Really, the Giants don’t need to say anything. They let their play do the talking.

They’re confident. They’re collected. They’re cohesive. And they get it done, one way or another.

Call them what you like. Just don’t call them lucky.

Bryce Harper’s Breakout Season Put On Hold

Many were predicting that 2014 would be Bryce Harper‘s big breakout season. After two seasons of putting up solid numbers, this was supposed to be the year where the 22-year old firmly established himself as one of baseball’s stars. Now fans might have to wait until later this season or maybe even next for the outfielder to really take off.

Harper is of course going to be on the shelf for the foreseeable future after thumb surgery. Initially he was just placed on the 15-day DL with a bad thumb, but now an operation to repair a torn ligament will extended his time away from baseball.

The Washington Nationals are currently four games back in the NL East and without one of their top hitters, that’s where they’re likely to stay.

All is certainly not lost without Harper. He’s just one piece on a talented team and let’s face it — he wasn’t doing that great prior to his injury.

Overall, this is not a crushing blow to the OF or his team. He’ll be back and the Nationals should remain near the playoff picture during his absence. Luckily the baseball season takes forever and there’s plenty of time for everyone in Washington to get back on track before September rolls around.

As for that huge breakout season from Harper that everyone’s been waiting for, there’s always 2015. If he fails to take off again next year, then fans will really begin to wonder if he’s destined for long-term stardom.