One: This Is the Playoffs, Man
On the banks where Mission Creek meets Mission Bay, where I once worked among abandoned warehouses and rusted railroad tracks, I feel part of something larger, a crowd, an orange and black organism, being swept up Third Street, pushed by the wind, pulled by a buzzing, pulsing, vibrating, cheering…. “Hey,” a guy hits me on the shoulder. “How come you’re not cheering? This is the playoffs, man! LET’S GO GIANTS!”
Inside the ballpark, an intense carnival of commerce, interrupted by spontaneous eruptions of rhythmic cheers; photo flashes, the smell of grilling hot dogs and sour beer and…hey, that’s a first, the smell of burning buds.
Derek Lowe, a veteran Giant nemesis, returns to haunt Mission Creek as the Braves’ starting pitcher. No speed demon, Lowe throws a great sinker, a fastball with late downward motion, and other off-speed pitches, like a slider that tails either right or left. The Giants hate sinkers and sliders –- pitches that now you see, now you don’t.
On the mound for the Giants, Tim Lincecum. What do you do for an encore after two seasons as the best pitcher in the league? Why not star in your own soap opera? You bid farewell to your childhood and endure the longest losing streak of your short life. You befuddle not just one batter, but tens of thousands of ordinary San Pancho people who have gone batty trying to figure you out. And then, when the season is about to go down the tubes, you pick yourself up and lead your team into the playoffs, a civic festival organized around an athletic contest between you and…Derek Lowe? The Braves? Fate?
Three: The Science of Hitting
Pitchers can keep their teams in the game, but a team has to hit to win. Red Sox hitter Ted Williams begins his book “The Science of Hitting” by declaring that hitting a baseball “is the most difficult thing to do in sport.” Egotistical as always, Williams does have a point. In what other sport does a 30 percent success rate constitute success?
Derek Lowe’s pitch crosses the plate less than a half-second after he releases it. Because it takes approximately .18 of a second to complete a swing, Giant hitters have a little over .2 of a second to figure out where the pitch is going, when it will get there, and if they should swing.
Most of Lowe’s pitches come in low, inducing the Giants to clip the top of the ball, producing weak grounders directed right into a waiting infielder’s glove.
Four: Small Ball
At the beginning of the season, we thought the Giants were going to be a great pitching team that played “small ball” on offense, scoring runs with walks, stolen bases, singles and an occasional home run. That didn’t work out, so a Plan B was hastily put together, turning the small ball formula on its head. For offense, the Giants hit home runs.
They can’t even hit a fly ball against Lowe. Rookie Buster Posey gets the Giants’ second hit when he singles to left in the bottom of the fourth. I have a feeling Pat Burrell is going to get a hit. He strikes out.
But on his third swing, Posey races for second. The catcher, Brian McCann, throws high and a shade too far right; Posey slides under the tag for a stolen base. Lowe strikes out Juan Uribe, and the Braves braintrust (aka manager Bobby Cox) decides to intentionally walk Pablo Sandoval and pitch to Cody Ross. Not the best decision. Cody Ross has been hot recently, not so the Panda. Lowe throws two sliders that miss outside, then comes back inside with…a sinker. Ross hits a ground ball, but he manages to punch it just under third baseman Omar Infante and into left field, and here comes Buster Posey, flying around third, sliding safely home.
Five: Rookie of a Lifetime
Buster Posey is the Giants’ leading hitter and their on-field leader. He plays the game with an easy but disciplined and determined style. In the past couple of weeks, Posey has caught some very big games, but none bigger than tonight, and none as beautiful.
Earlier in the season, there was some concern as to how Lincecum and Posey were working together. Tonight, after Lincecum throws some bad pitches, Posey goes out to the mound to calm him down. As Posey turns to head home, Lincecum slaps him on the shoulder with his glove. A sign of thanks.
A sign of acceptance.
Six: Long Lines
“I was in that line for almost two innings,” says Mike, a San Francisco taxi driver, speaking of the men’s room line.
I’ve never seen such long lines, stretching for sections.
“What do you expect?” texts the Rabbi of Section 216. “These are the playoffs; it’s 1-0 in the sixth; what better time for a little schnapps? Care to join me?”
Seven: Whatever It Takes
In the second inning, after Lincecum throws two or three consecutive balls, the crowd grows ominously quiet. On the View Deck above me in Section 313, a guy yells, “Focus!” From another section over, another guy: “Smoke a bowl!” Then a woman back in 313: “Whatever it takes Timmy, whatever it takes.” Cheers and rally rag waving.
Brian McCann hits a double off Lincecum to open the seventh. He’ll make it to third, which is the farthest any Brave has made it, before Timmy gets the Braves’ third out.
Lincecum gets stronger as the game progresses, stronger but loose and flexible, as if “he’s smoking again,” according to Giants’ employee; “that’s the difference.” Although the lead is only one run, it is beginning to feel like one hundred.
Hitting remains a problem. In the sixth inning, Buster Posey leads off with the Giants’ only extra-base hit, a double resulting in a triple after Rick Ankiel loses the handle. Man on third, no outs, and the Giants cannot bring him home. Except for Posey’s hits and Ross’s single in the fourth, that sums up the night for the Giants.
Not really; Tim Lincecum sums up the night for the Giants. When he comes back to the mound for the ninth inning, he’s given an ear-splitting standing ovation.
Not as loud as the sustained roar he receives upon finishing his masterpiece by posting his 14th strikeout, a franchise record for the post-season.
Nine: Good Vibrations
And not as loud as the ramps leading from the stands down to the street. The stadium vibrates; it rocks, echoes with cheering, stomping and letting go of 2.5 hours of tension.
Giants hitters can and will do better, but the team will need to keep winning close games like this one if they are going to beat the Braves in five.
Tomorrow they go back at it. Meanwhile, tonight belongs to Timmy.