Innings One Through Three: The Big Orange Machine

As the summer gets old in most parts of the country, it’s just warming up in San Francisco. Near 90 on the Mission Creek ballpark diamond at 5 p.m. At game time, with the field completely shaded, it’s 75. We could be anywhere back east: New York, Baltimore, even Cincinnati.

Well, maybe not Cincinnati, whose Reds ride into town having won eight of their last nine games. They know it’s not Cincinnati: There’s heat, but none of the oppressive humidity or choking air. They must be happy to be here. Happier than Giants’ fans, whose team comes home having dropped four of six to St. Louis and Philadelphia, teams fighting the Giants for the wild card slot in the playoffs.

The first time the Cincinnati Reds, then the Red Stockings, came to San Francisco to play baseball (1869), they beat the locals 35-4. As fans cross Townsend Street with fingers crossed, they worry: Will history repeat itself?

During batting practice I get the impression that fans fret more than players. Whether it’s the weather, home cooking or San Francisco’s other slump-busting charms, they look relaxed and unfazed by their precarious position in the standings. As Aubrey Huff compares notes with Pat Burrell, even the perpetually dour Juan Uribe gives up a smile.

As if to prove their point, the Giants score five runs in the first inning off Reds starter Edinson Volquez, three before the first out. Andres Torres draws the critical opening walk, raising the curtain for singles by Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval and doubles by Huff, Burrell and Freddy Sanchez.

Matt Cain pitches for the Giants, another Giant ace who has recently lost touch with baseball reality. Five runs? That’s nothing. Remember, these are “your” 2010 San Francisco Giants; no lead is safe. Cain can blow five runs faster than his fastball. Watch his curveball: It hangs high, not breaking; someone’s bound to bash it. Sure enough, in the third, with two outs, Cincy strikes back, scoring two runs on a single, double and triple. Suddenly it’s a three-run game.

The Reds are pumped, but the Giants immediately release air from their balloon when Andres Torres lashes a two-run homer deep into straightaway center. The Giants again lead by five.

Innings Four Through Six: Moon Over Mission Creek

The 1869 game was played in Recreation Grounds, up Mission Creek from the bay near Folsom and 25th streets in the Mission. The Red Stockings, baseball’s first openly professional team, would win 57 of 58 games that year (tying the 58th) while barnstorming the country from Boston to San Francisco. Some (mostly from Cincinnati) say the Red Stockings that year had the greatest season in baseball history.

Matt Cain, a pitching prodigy, does not play amateur historian. Torres’ home run not only restores his five-run lead, but also his concentration and accuracy. An almost-full moon rises over right field as Cain throws mostly fastballs around 92 mph, mixing in changeups, sliders and occasional curveballs that actually show signs of curving.

Cincinnati loses hitter Jim Edmonds when he strains his right oblique swinging the bat. I ask an unemployed drummer next to me in the lower deck, “Do you think five runs is enough for Cain?” “Yes,” he answers nervously, “but not enough for the bullpen.” Two guys in front of us wearing Reds hats agree. Vociferously.

Innings Seven Through Nine: Waiting to Exhale

The good thing about following an inconsistent team is uncertainty, because that offers drama. Not tonight. Matt Cain leaches the drama out of the game, pitching with authority and ease. After the third, the Reds never threaten again. In the eighth, Cain puts down them down in order, firing his fastball at speeds up to 95 mph, while looping his curveball and making his changeup as nasty as a pit bull. Welcome back, Matt.

The local team playing the powerhouse from Cincinnati at Recreation Grounds in 1869 was the Eagle Base Ball Club, California’s first organized team, a team with talent and pride. The Red Stockings were in town for a three-game series and the Eagles were not about to roll over and play dead. Maybe that would have been a good idea, as the Red Stockings won the second game 58-4. Had Bruce Bochy been manager of the Eagles, he certainly would have found positive lessons to take away from that game. As it was, local sportswriters applauded the Eagles for rallying in the seventh and eighth innings to keep the “score down to moderate figures.”

The Giants have no interest in holding down the score. Aubrey Huff leads off the bottom half of the eighth with a booming home run onto the promenade in right. Cody Ross, in his first appearance as a Giant, singles, then comes home after successive doubles by Nate Schierholtz and Pablo Sandoval, who continues his determined comeback. And Freddy Sanchez, four-for-five tonight, may also be emerging from a long, long slump. He grounds out, but knocks in Sandoval. 11-2.

On BART, Zoanne says she hasn’t seen the Giants this hot for a long time. I ask when she finally exhaled tonight, when she felt sure the Giants would win. “Top of the ninth, after two outs.” She’s gone to a lot of games this year.