SAN FRANCISCO – At some point in the next few days, in a tiny ballpark on the north bank of the Ohio River, the Cincinnati Reds will end this National League Division Series. There's a better than good chance it'll be with fists raised over silly grins, and maybe some fireworks, and certainly a long pull on a heavy green magnum.
One among them will throw a pitch and another will gather up the result, and then they'll mob some poor sucker until they're all rolling around in the grass at Great American Ball Park. It'll be a good time, the first of its kind in 17 years, when the Reds last attended the National League Championship Series.
I hope they take a moment to remember Sunday night and Bronson Arroyo and the game that all but took out the San Francisco Giants, that took out their bats and nicked their hearts.
Pitching not 24 hours after starter Johnny Cueto traipsed from the mound after a single out, leaving 26 outs for the bullpen (including new inductee Mat Latos), Arroyo, the 35-year-old right-hander, carried them to within a win of something special.
It was slick and it was severe, carried the whiff of a no-hitter and ultimately concluded with seven one-hit innings, a 9-0 win and three home games to win one, starting Tuesday.
One win at AT&T Park would have sufficed. Two put the Reds to within a whisper of leaving a generation of mostly mediocre ball behind. Many among them had felt the failure of 2010, when an NL Central title spawned three losses in three games to the Philadelphia Phillies, one of them Roy Halladay's no-hitter.
[Related: Giants move Tim Lincecum to bullpen for NLDS]
Pitching two years and a day later, Arroyo won his first postseason decision. The precision of his performance in this time and this place served as a reminder that these Reds always pitched first. Over 162 games, five pitchers started 161 of them. Even with 81 in that spare bedroom they call a ballpark, their game began with the ball in their hand.
And against a desperate team that hit with the best in the National League over the second half of the season, Arroyo was perhaps as good as he's ever been. He threw 91 pitches, only six of them from the stretch. So batter after batter stood and measured Arroyo when he leaned back, shot his left leg straight to third base, uncoiled and then spooned with plate umpire Brian O'Nora's strike zone.
"I think that was one of the best games he's ever thrown," catcher Ryan Hanigan said.
Arroyo hung around in the mid to high 80s with his velocity, sinking his fastball, running it, and then pulling it back into a changeup. He struck out Brandon Belt on a 69-mile-an-hour curve ball, buried Buster Posey with batting-practice fastballs, and in the third inning busted Gregor Blanco with a drop-down slider that froze the entire ballpark. The last thing anyone saw was O'Nora's arm raise.
By the time Belt got enough of a 3-and-1 sinker with two outs in the fifth inning to heave it into right-center field for a hit, and to force Arroyo into the stretch for the first time, the Reds were ahead 4-0 and more than halfway to a two-games-to-none lead.
The pitch to Blanco on a full count confirmed the night would belong to Arroyo, and that the Giants would have to mount something unusual to resist that course. They didn't. They couldn't.
"It's super comforting, you know?" Arroyo said. "Because the times that you get a little squirrelly out on the mound is when you're [down] 2-and-0, 2-and-1, you're 3-and-1, and you're trying to throw secondary pitches to get back into the count and you can't do it.
"I think the 3-and-2 backdoor breaking ball we threw to Blanco early in the game set a nice tone for us because you don't always get those pitches. You're trying to pitch to such a small sliver of the outer half of the plate. And if you can do that it builds confidence."
The arm angle, the sneak-attack nature of it, the precision of it, it reminded me some of David Cone. He called that pitch his "Laredo."
[Y! Sports Fan Shop: Buy Cincinnati Reds division champs merchandise]
Hanigan smiled and nodded.
"He named your pitch right there," he said.
Arroyo chuckled, agreeable enough.
He'd just cut through all – or most – of the hope here. Through the talk of National League West championships, and of a suddenly prominent offense, and a full ballpark that expected the resilient Giants to rally back. None of it, however, would deflect the authority in Arroyo's game.
Not the Gangnam Style fad that ran through the bleachers, not the Charlie Sheen and Joe Montana sightings, not the dancing popcorn vendor. Not Edgar Renteria's ceremonial first pitch, not a relief appearance by Tim Lincecum, not the orange towels and not the guy who fiddled "God Bless America."
It all disappeared in Arroyo's shadow, in as big a game the Reds have played in nearly two decades, and in a game the Giants absolutely had to have.
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