SERIES: Division Series, Game 4; Marlins lead, 2-1.
The defending National League champion San Francisco Giants are on the brink of elimination.
There was speculation San Francisco would bring back Jason Schmidt on three days’ rest because the Giants need of a victory to avoid elimination. However, hours before the game, manager Felipe Alou decided to stick with the 21-year-old Williams.
It was a tough call for Alou. Williams has never pitched in a playoff game while Schmidt is a 30-year-old veteran who was 17-5 this season, won the National League ERA title with a 2.34 mark and is a Cy Young candidate. But Schmidt has had right elbow problems all season, and the Giants decided it was not worth risking injury by forcing him to pitch.
Called up in late May on the strength of a 4-2 record during his second stint at Triple-A Fresno, Williams got off to a strong start. He won five straight starts between June 21 and July 12, before slowing down to go 2-4 with a 3.82 ERA in 12 starts after the All-Star game.
The Giants are in a 2-1 series hole after losing consecutive games, including 4-3 in 11 innings Friday which featured a costly miscue and lack of clutch hitting.
“We lost a game that we should have won,” Alou said, referring to the Giants leaving 18 men on base, including nine in scoring position. “Against the wall—that’s where we are.”
With the Giants leading 3-2 in the bottom of the 11th inning, right fielder Jose Cruz Jr. dropped Jeff Conine’s routine fly ball to start what became the Marlins’ game-winning rally, which ended with catcher Ivan Rodriguez lining a game-winning two-run single to right.
Despite the error, the Giants supported Cruz after the defeat.
“I’ve seen him do all kinds of things out there,” left-hander Kirk Rueter said. “He’s too good a right fielder for us to have to say anything to him.”
Added first baseman Andres Galarraga: “He’s played the best right field in the league. He dropped that one; that’s baseball. We have to give him great support. He’s doing a lot of good things for us. And it’s not over yet.”
Alou said Cruz dropped only one other flyball this season, and it came on a windy day in San Francisco. There was little wind Friday in Miami.
“It just hit the heel of his glove,” shortstop Rich Aurilia said. “We still had our chances to get out of it.”
Now the stage is set for Willis to elevate the Marlins to just their second NLCS appearance in franchise history.
In Game 2 on Wednesday, the crafty left-hander pitched one-third of an inning in relief, facing three batters. He induced Barry Bonds to hit a foul pop to third, and then gave up singles to Edgardo Alfonzo and Benito Santiago before exiting.
Now, Willis will have to face Bonds and the Giants on Saturday in the Marlins’ biggest game of the year.
“I just want to do my best.” Willis said. “I want to go out there and kind of just downplay everything and just execute my pitches.”
So far, Florida is doing just that against Bonds, who is 2-for-7 in the series with seven walks and no RBIs.
Rodriguez, who never advanced past the first round of the playoffs during his previous 12 years in the league with the Texas Rangers, drove in all four runs for the Marlins on Friday.
The veteran catcher hit a two-run homer in the first inning, giving him five RBIs and a .538 slugging percentage in the series so far. He had just three RBIs in 10 playoff games for Texas.
“I’ve been hitting the ball hard this series,” said Rodriguez, who is hitting .308 (4-for-13) in the three games. “I’m seeing the ball good and hitting it good right now.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Giants - NL West champion. Marlins - NL wild card.
PROJECTED LINEUPS: Giants - 2B Ray Durham (.285, 8, 33), 1B J.T. Snow (.273, 8, 51), SS Aurilia (.277, 13, 58), LF Bonds (.341, 45, 90), 3B Alfonzo (.259, 13, 81), C Santiago (.279, 11, 56), CF Marquis Grissom (.300, 20, 79), RF Cruz Jr. (250, 20, 68). Marlins - CF Juan Pierre (.305, 1 HR, 41 RBIs), 2B Luis Castillo (.314, 6, 39), C Rodriguez (.297, 16, 85), 1B Derrek Lee (.271, 31, 92), 3B Miguel Cabrera (.268, 12, 62) or Mike Lowell (.276, 32, 105), RF Juan Encarnacion (.270, 19, 94), LF Conine (.282, 20, 95), SS Alex Gonzalez (.256, 6, 18).
GIANTS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Williams (7-5, 3.30 ERA). The right-hander is making his first appearance against the Marlins. Williams lost his last start of the season, against Los Angeles on Sept. 27, despite giving up just one run and one hit in five innings as the Giants lost 5-0. He was 4-2 with a 3.71 ERA in 11 road starts.
MARLINS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Willis (14-6, 3.30 ERA). Willis faced the Giants once this season, giving up four runs over five innings in a 6-4 defeat at San Francisco on Aug. 22. An All-Star in his first season, the left-hander went 9-1 with a 2.08 ERA before the All-Star break. Since then, he’s 5-5 with a 4.60 ERA.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Giants - 3B Alfonzo is hitting a team-high .615 (8-for-13) in this series. … After giving up just two home runs in his first 76 2-3 innings, RHP Williams allowed eight in his last 54 1-3. … The Giants broke the division series record of 16 runners stranded, which they set in a 13-inning loss to the New York Mets in 2000. Marlins - Florida went 19-8 in LHP Willis’ starts this season. … All-Star 3B Lowell was back in the Marlins’ lineup for his first postseason start Friday, replacing slumping rookie 3B Cabrera. Lowell, sidelined four weeks with a broken hand until he was activated last Sunday, went 0-for-3 before being replaced in a double switch in the seventh inning. Cabrera is 0-for-9 with four strikeouts in the series. … The Marlins won 19 games in their last at-bat during the regular season. They went 30-23 in one-run games.