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.

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St Louis Cardinals Top Los Angeles Dodgers in NLDS Game 4, Advance to NLCS

On Tuesday night, the St. Louis Cardinals hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS. The Cardinals led the best-of-five series two games to one at the start of the contest, putting themselves in position to advance to their fourth consecutive NLCS with a victory.

Standing on the brink of elimination, the Dodgers sent Clayton Kershaw to the mound, hoping their all-world ace could keep their team’s season alive.

Kershaw, who is expected to win his third Cy Young and perhaps the NL MVP award this year, was coming off an uncharacteristically bad start, giving up eight earned runs in 6.2 innings of work in Game 1 on Friday. For as historically great as the 26-year-old southpaw has been over his young career — becoming the first pitcher to lead the major leagues in ERA in four straight seasons — he has not been immune from running into trouble in the playoffs. Entering play today, Kershaw had a record of just 1-4 with a 5.20 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP in the postseason.

Pitching on three days rest, he appeared to be cruising along today, though, tossing six shutout innings and racking up nine strikeouts, seemingly making a statement. Then came the seventh, however, when Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams belted a three-run homer, which would ultimately prove to be the death blow for the Dodgers as they would ultimately lose the contest by a score of 3-2. Kershaw now falls to 1-5 with a 5.12 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP in the playoffs.

Some may be tempted to compare Kershaw’s October struggles to those of David Price, another terrific left-handed starting pitcher who has strangely enough encountered a similar string of tough luck in the postseason.

That said, Kershaw has at times shown that he can indeed be his dominating, brilliant self in the postseason. With the exception of the Adams’ home run, he threw a great game today, and he posted an 0.69 ERA with 18 strikeouts in two starts against the Atlanta Braves in the 2013 ALDS just a year ago.

Considering the extraordinary talent that Kershaw possesses, it should be safe to say that at some point, he will indeed find success in the postseason once again.

O’s Finish Sweep of Tigers, Move On To ALCS

Pop some bubbly, Baltimore. You’re four wins away from the World Series.

The last time the Baltimore Orioles stood on baseball’s biggest stage was 1983, which, for those keeping score at home, was a long time ago.

Now, the Birds are on the brink. And, after a decisive sweep of the heavily armed Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series, they’re well positioned to fly all the way.

It’s too much to call these Orioles underdogs. They won 96 regular-season games, after all, second-best in the American League, and they claimed the AL East crown going away.

But they entered the postseason carrying some question marks. Could the offense, hit by the losses of Matt Wieters and Manny Machado to injury and Chris Davis to an amphetamine suspension, still produce?

And would the starting rotation—which boasts a bevy of solid arms but no shutdown ace—hold up under the October glare?

As they celebrate in the Motor City, the Orioles have answered those questions with a resounding “yes and yes.”

On Sunday, it was the bat of Nelson Cruz and the arm of Bud Norris. Cruz, who hit .500 in the series with two long balls and five RBI, bashed a two-run homer in the sixth.
That would prove to be all the offense Baltimore needed. Norris tossed 6.1 scoreless innings, outdueling David Price, and the bullpen made it stand up en route to a 2-1 victory.

Overall, Baltimore outscored Detroit 21-10 in the series. Game 1 was a 12-3 blowout that featured an eight-run eighth inning against a beleaguered Tigers ‘pen.

In Game 2, Baltimore came from behind with another big eighth inning, plating four runs in the penultimate frame and winning, 7-6.

In sweeping Detroit, the Orioles bested a trio of Cy Young winners: Max Scherzer, who won the award last year, Price, who won it in 2012, and Verlander, who won it in 2011. It’s just the fourth time in history a club has accomplished that feat, according to Cash Kruth of MLB.com.

Talk about your confidence builders.

“[This team is] resilient, just doesn’t give up,” said shortstop J.J. Hardy after Friday’s win, per MLB.com’s Brittany Ghiroli.

Center fielder Adam Jones told Ghiroli something similar after Game 1: “We rise to the occasion. In the face of some good pitchers, we go after them and zone in a little bit more. There’s no answer to what we do, we just somehow, someway get the job done.”

That’s a trait all successful postseason clubs share: a no-quit attitude, an ability to dig in their heels when the pressure is greatest. It’s the intangible part of baseball, difficult to quantify but nonetheless essential.

The Orioles still have a tough road ahead. Dispatching the Tigers was an important first step, but if they’re going to make a long-awaited return to the Fall Classic, they’ll have to get through another team on a tear—the Kansas City Royals, who swept their ALDS against the Los Angeles Angels.

Kansas City and Baltimore have a lot in common. Both are success-starved franchises with balanced, unheralded rosters. Both beat star-studded Goliaths. And both are gelling at the right time. Should make for a great ALCS.

Still, it’d be unwise to bet against this O’s team.

And that’s the key—it looks, and plays, like a team. Sure, there are stars: guys like Cruz and Jones. Mostly, though, the 2014 Orioles are a cohesive unit, one that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Kansas City Royals Win ALDS Game 3, Complete Sweep of Los Angeles Angels

One of the most tiresome things often heard in the last decade is that baseball needs a salary cap. This season should shut those critics up for a long time.

Think about it. Even before the postseason started, the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies all missed the playoffs. Earlier Sunday, the Baltimore Orioles reached the American League Championship Series for the first time since 1997.

Sunday night, the Kansas City Royals continued this unbelievable postseason, making it to the ALCS for the first time since 1985.

Now tell me again: Why does baseball need to shut the game down for a year when it already has a tremendous amount of parity?

The Royals have slowly built to this for several years. Ever since general manager Dayton Moore convinced owner David Glass to start investing in the farm system and scouting, the Royals have been among the teams to watch. Like any team that operates in fits and starts, however, the Royals took two steps back with every step forward.

This season, the Royals finally moved forward. If it wasn’t the rock-solid pitching of James Shields, the dependable bullpen that included closer Greg Holland, or sure-fire defense led by catcher Salvador Perez, it was the hitting.

Like with any team that plays out of the media spotlight, players like Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon are finally finding their way to the national spotlight. The Royals just swept the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in three straight games to set up what should be an ALCS to remember.

Sure, the critics will say this can’t last. Shields is likely gone after this season to free agency. Who’s to say the Royals may not make a run at him? The extra revenue from this postseason will spill over to much bigger crowds in 2015. And even if Shields takes off for “greener” pastures, what’s to say another pitcher might tell his agent that he wants to play in Kansas City?

There was a time when George Brett played for the Royals that Kansas City was a destination city. The Royals were rock-solid from the mid-1970s up to around 1990 before the team took a few steps backward.

Another era of success might be around the corner. Kauffman Stadium was rocking Sunday night when the Royals clinched the ALDS win over Los Angeles. No one wants to wake up in Kansas City. For once, the spotlight isn’t on the Kansas City Chiefs.

This is a baseball town. The Royals are living a dream.

San Francisco Giants Outlast Nationals In Marathon 18-Inning NLDS Game 2

The marathon game is finally over after Brandon Belt hit a solo homerun in the 18th inning to lead the San Francisco Giants over the Washington Nationals 2-1. This game should be about Belt’s heroics, but much will be made of the Nationals manager. Matt Williams cost the Nationals a chance to win game-two of the NLDS. After a ninth inning walk to Joe Panik to end Jordan Zimmerman’s streak of 20 straight batters retired, Williams chose to turn to Drew Storen out of the bullpen instead of staying with Zimmermann.

It was truly an inexplicable decision. Zimmermann was cruising, and he was only 100 pitches on the night. With Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval due up the order, wouldn’t you want your team’s best pitcher against the opposition’s heart of their lineup? I know I would. Nevertheless, after a two-out walk to Panik, it took only a handful of pitches for Posey to single and Sandoval to double him home. The Nationals could have very well lost it in the ninth inning as well, as Posey was called out in a controversial play at the plate.

The Nationals had plenty of chances to walk away with the win, but nine innings later, regardless, the Giants now head back to AT&T Park ahead in the NLDS 2-0. With Madison Bumgarner scheduled to pitch on Monday, it could be over quickly for the Nationals, just like it was in 2012, when they entered the postseason in similar fashion.

The decisions by Williams just highlighted the team’s total inexperience in the postseason as the Giants remained cool. After allowing the tying run in the ninth, Williams and Asdrubal Cabrera were both tossed after arguing balls and strikes in the 10th inning. It was a complete unraveling by the Nationals due to the frustration buildup from game-one and the majority of game-two, and it ultimately cost Washington the game, and potentially the series.

The win for the Giants, however, was just more evidence of how resilient this team really is. They won the World Series in 2010 and 2012 with similar resiliency. They weren’t the favorites in either of those series, but yet they moved their way through. Tonight was just another example of Bruce Bochy pulling all the right strings and believing in his players to come through in the end.

The same cannot be said for Williams, as the rookie manager made the mistake of pulling Zimmermann, and in turn, probably costing the Nationals any chance of winning this series.

St Louis Cardinals Win Slugfest Over Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1: Quick Hits

To think you know baseball is to be a stupid, stupid fool.

No one understands this game, or why things happen how they happen, particularly when everyone expects exactly the opposite. That is why you watch in October. That is why jaws can routinely be picked up off the floor with a snow shovel in the autumn.

It is why the sport is beautiful, because the seemingly impossible can always trump perfectly sound reason.

It is why the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers left the baseball-watching world speechless and in disbelief Friday night at Dodger Stadium. This was an outcome nobody saw coming before Game 1 of the National League Division Series started, or even more than halfway through it.

In a game started by the two best pitchers in the league, the Cardinals won, 10-9. It wasn’t that the Cardinals won that was so stunning, but it was the way they got down and then came back, and the fact that Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright combined to give up 14 runs, every single one of them as earned as earned can be.

Simply stated, this game was shocking, and if the rest of the series is anything close to this, predictions be damned. This is going to be wild.

“That’s baseball. Anything can happen,” Dodgers right fielder Matt Kemp said after the game, attempting to brush aside the fact that this game was ridiculously nuts.

Kemp then paused for a few seconds before offering some candidness.

“Maybe I was a little shocked.”

The part that was so crazy was that the starting pitchers came in as the best the NL has to offer at that position, with Kershaw being the most dominant pitcher in the world during the regular season. Yet Wainwright was smacked around by a surging Dodgers offense that took errant fastball after errant fastball and locked in on his breaking pitches.

When Wainwright did miss in the zone with hard stuff—fastball, sinker, cutter—the Dodgers tagged him for eight hits. And when the curveball found the hitting zone, three hits, not including a laser of a liner by Hanley Ramirez that was caught for an out.

 “My fastball command was absolutely atrocious. Awful,” Wainwright said. “When they realized it, they sat on the slow stuff.”

By the end of all the contact, Wainwright had allowed six runs on 11 hits and Dodger Stadium transformed from sporting venue to all-out house party. A five-run lead with Kershaw on the mound—he started the game 67-0 when the Dodgers gave him at least four runs—was plenty reason to start the celebration while the Southern California sun still beamed.

Tsk, tsk. As Kemp so plainly noted, this is baseball. More specifically, postseason baseball. Very little goes as plotted.

After Kershaw allowed a first-inning home run on a curveball—the third-ever home run he’s allowed on that pitch in 1,423.1 innings—he put away 16 consecutive Cardinals hitters and seemed to be cruising. Everything was working. The fastball, the curveball, the swing-and-miss slider and the changeup, all of them working seamlessly together to create Kershaw’s latest masterpiece.

For as lights-out as Kershaw has been over the last four seasons, not even he could duck the total wackiness of this game. Going into the seventh inning, Kershaw had allowed two baserunners, both of which hit solo home runs, and gave the Dodgers zero indication he was about to implode.

It started innocently: Matt Holliday lacing a single up the middle to start the inning, putting Kershaw into the stretch for the first time. Then Jhonny Peralta the same thing. Then Yadier Molina the same thing to load the bases, nobody out. Two more singles wrapped around a strikeout and suddenly it was a two-run Dodger lead.

Then a three-pitch strikeout and it seemed Kershaw was back. Furthering the assumption, he got ahead of Matt Carpenter 0-2, but the at-bat turned dim for Kershaw. He could not put away Carpenter, who worked to see six more pitches before thrashing a middle-middle fastball for a bases-clearing double.

Just like that, an entire country, an entire Twitter universe and entire baseball world was turned on its throbbing head. Stunned euphoria in certain parts of that world, stunned silence in others.

“If I don’t get in the way tonight,” Kershaw said, “we have a pretty good chance to win this.”

Just the thought of two of the best pitchers in this galaxy saying they got in the way of their teams’ chances to win a playoff game is absurd. But that’s how this night went.

What wasn’t so unexpected is that the bad blood between these two clubs started to boil in this first game. It also signaled the start of Wainwright’s meltdown when he hit Yasiel Puig with one of those catch-me-if-you-can fastballs.

Puig calmly strutted to first base, but Adrian Gonzalez, usually the calmest of the men in uniform, confronted hot-tempered St. Louis catcher Molina.

“We’re not going to start this again,” Gonzalez claimed to have told Molina.

“You have to respect me,” Gonzalez claimed was Molina’s response.

For Molina’s part, he said he couldn’t hear Gonzalez, but that he was screaming.

“I told him, ‘If you’re going to scream at me, get ready to fight,’ ” Molina claims was his actual response.

he dugouts emptied, the bullpen gates opened, but officials quickly restored order. Molina and Gonzalez seemed to be the only two fired up enough to raise their voices.

Wainwright and Puig found each other, spoke a few words and called it a day, the latter finishing the exchange with a friendly pat on Waino’s backside.

“It kinda woke a sleeping dog,” Carpenter said, acknowledging the Dodgers went bonkers after that, scoring six runs in the next three innings off Wainwright.

This beef between the Cardinals and Dodgers started last postseason, when the ninth pitch of Game 1 of the NL Championship Series stuck in Hanley Ramirez’s side, snapping one of his ribs and taking him out of the series. Two games later, Gonzalez doubled in a run off Wainwright and gestured toward the Dodger dugout to fire up his team. Postgame, Wainwright described Gonzalez’s behavior as “Mickey Mouse.”

In July of this season, the fireworks went off again when Cardinals flamethrower Carlos Martinez hit Ramirez with a fastball high on his shoulder. In the bottom of that inning, Kershaw plunked Matt Holliday. In the ninth inning, St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal hit Ramirez again, this time on the hand, knocking him out of the lineup for a few games.

“It happened during the season, and it’s a trend,” Gonzalez said of the Cardinals hitting Dodgers players. “They can deny it as much as they want. They are going to say it’s not on purpose, but we all know (it is).

“If that’s the way they want to go at it, we’ll make adjustments.”

So that’s where we stand, in a completely unpredictable series that could erupt into punches at any moment. Or not.

This is baseball, though, and none of us knows what will happen next. So let’s just enjoy the drama as it unfolds.

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.