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.

Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants Silence Pittsburgh Pirates 8-0 to Advance

Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher, or so the saying goes. But for the San Francisco Giants, it’s also that day’s starting pitcher.

After ace Madison Bumgarner twirled a four-hit shutout to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-0 in the NL Wild Card Game on Wednesday night, it’s hard not to think that masterful performance helped the Giants gain some momentum as they head into the Division Series against the top-seeded Washington Nationals —regardless of who will go in Game 1.

The 25-year-old added to his already-impressive postseason resume, which includes a 3.05 ERA in eight games overall, as well as two other scoreless starts, one each in the 2010 and 2012 World Series. The Giants, you might remember, won it all both years, and the left-hander was a big reason why.

Bumgarner’s dominance unquestionably was the lead story on Wednesday, but it wasn’t the only one worth highlighting. The other story? The Giants offense came alive, notching at least one run in four of the nine innings and totaling 11 hits, 10 of which were singles.

As for that lone exception, it was a Brandon Crawford grand slam in the fourth inning, which not only broke open a scoreless tie but also was—get this—the first ever by a shortstop in postseason history, as ESPN Stats & Info notes.

First baseman Brandon Belt, who has been hot of late after dealing with various injuries and ailments that cost him all but 61 games this season, got on base a team-high four times via two walks and two hits apiece, the last of which essentially sealed the deal in the seventh.

Beyond the two Brandons, there was former MVP Buster Posey (2-for-5 with a run and an RBI), former World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval (2-for-4 with two runs and a walk) and Hunter Pence (1-for-4 with two runs and a walk). That trio of heart-of-the-lineup hitters is as battle-tested and experienced—and can be as productive—as they come.

Then there are the lesser-knowns, like Crawford and Gregor Blanco, who has slashed .284/.354/.517 since getting regular run as an injury fill-in in late August. And don’t forget rookie Joe Panik, a former first-round pick who solidified second base by hitting .327 in the second half.

Rookie second baseman Joe Panik had a team-high three hits in the Wild Card Game victory.

That type of attack is going to have to continue, which won’t be an easy task against the Nationals’ big arms, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, who are likely to start Games 1 and 2.

It also won’t be easy because regular left fielder Mike Morse is fighting through an oblique injury that has hampered him since the end of August, while center fielder and leadoff man Angel Pagan—without whom the Giants went 31-35 in the regular season—is out for good due to back surgery.

The reason San Francisco’s offensive explosion in the Wild Card Game was so important, and the reason it needs to carry over into the NLDS, is that the rest of the rotation outside of Bumgarner isn’t close to what it was when the club won it all in 2010 and 2012.

There’s no Matt Cain. There’s no Tim Lincecum—well, not the version that owned the opposition in ’10 and dominated in relief during the run in ’12.

As of now, because the NLDS starts Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. ET, Bumgarner is expected to get back on the mound for Game 3 against the Nationals, according to Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post.

That leaves right-handers Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson to go in Games 1 and 2. While Peavy, 33, has been fantastic (2.17 ERA, 1.04 WHIP) in a dozen starts since joining the Giants in a July trade, his 9.27 career postseason ERA (not a typo!) is gnarly.

The 39-year-old Hudson, meanwhile, faded after a strong start and had himself a terrible second half in which he posted a 4.73 ERA and 1.45 WHIP.

Jake Peavy has allowed 35 hits and 23 earned runs in 22.1 innings in his October career.

In a way, then, the Giants’ momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher, and in the case of Peavy followed by Hudson, that’s not exactly a good thing.

But if San Francisco can somehow steal one of those first two games in Washington, then the home-field advantage will have shifted to the Giants.

And with Bumgarner in Game 3, so, too, would the momentum.