This is going to be a very large and hard pill for Dusty Baker to swallow. It’s bad enough that he couldn’t find a way for his Cincinnati Reds to push the San Francisco Giants down, back, and out of the postseason in this fifth division series game. But he’s entering the history book on the dime of the franchise he once pulled to within five outs of a World Series title a decade ago.
Baker’s Reds became the National League’s first to win their first two postseason set games lose the series in a followup sweep. Never mind that they got swept in their own playpen after taking the first two in the Giants’. It’s only slightly less humiliating in one sense than having been up three games to one managing the 2003 Chicago Cubs in the League Championship Series before losing that set. Slightly.
You couldn’t say the Giants beat the Reds dishonestly. It doesn’t get any more honest than it got in the top of the fifth Wednesday. The bases loaded, two runs in (an RBI triple, a run-scoring error), and Buster Posey—with Cincinnati starter Mat Latos still in, inexplicably, with the best bullpen in baseball on the regular season ready for duty if and when needed, which was probably right now, if not a couple of hitters sooner—yanking a grand slam.
And it gets even less dishonest, after the Reds hung up a two-spot in the bottom of that inning, with Brandon Phillips dropping a long two-run double into the right center field gap, when another solid Cincinnati threat—it opened with Ryan Ludwick hitting a 2-2 offering from Matt Cain into the same bleachers—got quashed when Posey clutched strike three on Ryan Hannigan with a full count . . . and gunned one up to third to bag lead runner Jay Bruce, with Baker sending his runners but running them, instead, right out of what might have been a fat enough inning to put them back in the game.
Until the fifth inning Latos and Cain hooked in a near-classic pitching duel, and Latos had put down eleven of his previous twelve hitters. Then the Giants launched the fifth-inning merry-go-round with Gregor Blanco’s leadoff opposite-field single, Brandon Crawford’s triple into the right field corner, and Cincinnati shortstop Zack Cozart’s leaping fumble on Angel Pagan’s hopper, allowing Crawford to score, which is probably what Cozart thought about preventing as he misplayed the hopper.
Marco Scutaro wrung a four-pitch walk out of Latos. There was maybe a mild stirring in the Cincinnati bullpen. Pablo Sandoval singled the bases loaded with an opposite field single. And Posey squared up a 2-2 service and drove it almost to the second deck above the left field bleachers. He became only the third Giant (Chuck Hiller, 1962 World Series; Will Clark, 1989 National League Championship Series) to stuff salami in a postseason contest.
“Buster Posey’s swing,” said Joey Votto, the Reds’ first baseman whose season, and no small volume of his long-ball power, was sapped by a knee injury, “was a series-changer. That made it very difficult to come back.”
Actually, in retrospect the series really changed when a) Brandon Phillips got overanxious and ran the Reds out of what should have been more than a one-run Game Three first; b) Scott Rolen short-hopped the Giants into what proved the winning run in the top of the Game Three tenth; and, c) Tim Lincecum, resigned to and embracing his once-unthinkable postseason role out of the Giants’ bullpen, shutting the Reds down in a six-punchout, four and a third inning Game Four assignment.
Not to mention the Reds putting the tying run to the plate in three consecutive innings after Posey’s tee-off and not even having the pleasure of seeing those potential tyers get on base in the first place.
Like Latos, Cain had to shake off a testy first inning; if Latos wrung his way out of first and second with one out, Cain had to do likewise, and on two swinging strikeouts. From then on they dueled stoutly enough, keeping each other’s batters from putting anything on the board, at least until Latos’s oil case leaked in the fifth.
Baker might have done a little extraterrestrial, never mind Stengelese thinking before Posey stepped into the bases-loaded box. He might have reasoned that he needed a stopper like five minutes ago and handed things to his usual closer, Aroldis Chapman, who might have been the one pitcher above all the Reds’ brilliant bulls to snuff out the Giants with the ducks on the pond. Baker doesn’t always think that far beyond the fifth dimension.
That’s not to hang a goat horn on the manager. He stuck with his man Latos, who’d given him reason enough to hold confidence, especially after he picked up from stricken Johnny Cueto in Game One. He didn’t get unstuck by a scrubeenie off the bench or filling in for a solid regular; he didn’t get unstuck by a lesser lineup presence; he got unstuck by one of the greatest catchers in the game these days and the likely National League Most Valuable Player.
But Baker got stuck in the irrevocable hole when his Reds wasted their bullpen’s solid shutdown of the Giants the rest of the way:
* After Ludwick reached the bleachers to open the Cincinnati sixth, and the Reds ran themselves out of that possible two-or-more run inning with the tying run striking out into that double play against a weakening Cain—and just what on earth was Baker thinking, sending his runners when his lead runner (Bruce) wasn’t exactly the Road Runner— Giants manager Bruce Bochy called on George Kontos, having a fine division series, and Kontos got Drew Stubbs to bounce out to shortstop for the side.
* After Cincinnati reliever Sean Marshall threw a second straight 1-2-3 at the Giants, Brandon Phillips ripped a one-out single to right off Jeremy Affedlt, the third San Francisco reliever of the day, and Joey Votto bounced himself into a twoe-out infield single when Crawford just missed throwing him out. But Affeldt got Ludwick, yet another potential tying run, to bounce one right back to the mound and shoveled the ball to first for the side.
* After Jonathan Broxton took over for Marshall to pitch the San Francisco eighth, he dispatched Posey swiftly with a leadoff fly out to right, surrendered a down-the-line single to Hunter Pence, and heaved relief when Phillips smothered Brandon Belt’s full-count smash and threw the Giants’ first baseman out from his knees, before Henry Blanco flied out to center for the side. In the bottom? Scott Rolen dumped a one-out quail into shallow right center off Santiago Casilla, the fifth Giants pitcher on the day. One out later, pinch-hitter Todd Frazier, a Rookie of the Year candidate in his own right, lined a single to left.
* For a third straight inning, this time at the mercy of San Francisco closer Sergio Romo, the tying run wouldn’t get anywhere near base, this time Frazier hitting a soft liner to center that Pagan needed to slide to grab.
Chapman finally came in when he normally does and you noted the Reds’ closer with the thunderbolt arm hadn’t pitched in a save situation all series long. He shook off a leadoff single to dispatch the Giants on back to back popups and a line out to center. But Romo shook off back-to-back bottom of the ninth opening singles to wrestle Bruce in an epic duel, twelve pitches worth, before Bruce finally flied out to left
It seemed almost cruel in its simplicity when Romo nailed Rolen with a game, set, and match-ending swishout. ”You get tired of the disappointments,” Baker said softly, as the Giants occupied themselves in the visiting clubhouse with a big, hard-earned celebration. ”But then you get over it.” With a fleeting pause, though, he added, “It hurts big-time.”
It was as though his own kids had left the family safe unlocked and his house guests made off with the silver, the gold, and the household cash.
“You know they’re going to throw the kitchen sink at us,” Votto remembered of Posey’s salami. Actually, given the openings, Posey and the Giants already had.