SAN FRANCISCO – Then the St. Louis Cardinals had a six-run lead with most of a game to play.
Then it was five. Three. Ahem. Two.
The National League Championship Series was barely an hour old, Game 5 of the division series only a couple days back, the miracle still fresh in their hearts and raw in their throats.
And now the 6-0 lead was theirs to hold, and the San Francisco Giants weren't having any of it, just the damnedest thing. The game has this wicked sense of humor.
"That all happened pretty fast," Cardinals rookie manager Mike Matheny said. "You could see it starting to go in that direction. And we knew we couldn't let it go too far. But the next thing you turn around and you're looking at four runs."
I know a manager in Washington who's a bit wind-whipped himself.
The Cardinals beat the Giants in Game 1, 6-4, on Sunday night at AT&T Park. They threw strikes. They made plays. They held on. Seven times a Giants player stood in the batter's box as the tying or go-ahead run. Seven times, against six different pitchers, the score remained 6-4.
In the first-ever league championship series game in which neither starter completed the fourth inning, the winner would be decided by a bullpen. Given a two-run head start, that would go to the six men who followed Cardinals right-hander Lance Lynn.
Not 48 hours after bringing home 6 2/3 innings behind Adam Wainwright, the same five – plus left-hander Marc Rzepczynski – were handed 16 outs. The Giants, for a moment in the fourth inning, had found their bats. They had dragged the crowd back into the game. In their second looks at Lynn, they'd put five men in a row on base, four of them with hits, none of them flukes.
That big ol' lead – provided for in part by David Freese and Carlos Beltran home runs – was leaking away. Lynn had pumped fastballs at the Giants for three innings, once through the lineup. By the fourth inning, their second time through, the Giants had come hunting fastballs.
"Before you knew it, they had four runs," Lynn said, continuing the theme. "I wasn't able to make an adjustment fast enough."
And, well, here was the thing: For a long time, the bullpen was vacant, other than the stray security guard. With two out and a man on first, Hunter Pence singled and Brandon Belt singled.
Once a starter, but not since late September, Lynn had thrown 75 pitches over 14 days. He was creeping up on that same number over three-plus innings, and still there was no one in the bullpen.
The pitching coach, Derek Lilliquist, in his first season standing where Dave Duncan had, went to the mound. Lynn nodded. Lilliquist returned to the dugout.
Gregor Blanco tripled. The bullpen was quiet. Brandon Crawford doubled.
Now, AT&T Park is a unique place. The bullpens run alongside the foul lines in front of the stands. The relievers sit in the dugout, along with everyone else. Coming from the far steps, jogging toward the foul pole, they practically announce themselves to the crowd.
Four runs were home. The Giants were coming back.
"Joe," announced the bullpen coach, Dyar Miller. "You're up."
Joe Kelly stood, grabbed his glove, and headed off to the bullpen with Miller, a catcher and a man entrusted to save the catcher from stray foul balls. By then, Aubrey Huff had been summoned by the Giants to pinch hit. Lynn went ball one, then ball two. Catcher Yadier Molina strolled to the mound.
Matheny stared from the dugout. Lynn could lose the zone at times, lose the sink on his pitches, but often enough he'd correct. The ball was sailing, and the game had crept up on its critical moment.
"It happened fast and [he] couldn't recover," Matheny said.
Back when, Kelly would close games for UC Riverside. He had a couple saves in A-ball. He needed to be ready by the time the Huff plate appearance was done.
Hurriedly, he threw seven fastballs, another five or six breaking balls.
"I didn't know if I could get loose that fast anymore," Kelly said. "I guess I did."
After just five pitches from Lynn, Huff was on first base. He'd walked. Two runners were on.
"Can you go?" Kelly was asked.
His arm felt good. He nodded.
"Felt like 10 seconds," Kelly said.
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Maybe it could have happened to anyone, any manager. Indeed, a half-inning before, Giants manager Bruce Bochy, a veteran of these October games, had ridden Madison Bumgarner until the last ball fell into the left-field bleachers. Bumgarner handed his bullpen – and his offense – a six-run deficit. He'd given up eight hits, a walk, and hadn't looked sure of himself since the first inning. His cutter wasn't the weapon it had been over the summer, a fact proven again when the Cincinnati Reds had pounded him in Game 2 of the division series.
By the time George Kontos arrived to finish the fourth inning for the Giants, the series leaned already toward the Cardinals.
You know, until the bottom of the fourth.
With four in, two on, and the Giants and their crowd sure the runs had just started to come, Kelly threw a single pitch. Angel Pagan pounded it past the mound. Second baseman Daniel Descalso laid out to his right, gloved it, and flipped to shortstop Pete Kozma.
So began the night of the Cardinals bullpen. Kelly got two out in the fifth and left two on base for Rzepczynski, who entered for the left handed-hitting Belt. Belt flied to center.
Then came Trevor Rosenthal, Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte, each with an inning. The Giants would get one more hit – Pagan's single with two out in the ninth. Given that one last shot, their seventh in which one hit could tie the score, Marco Scutaro grounded to first base.
"They're doing it just like they did it last year," Lynn said.
He said "they." He could have said "we." Lynn pitched 10 times in the NLCS and World Series last October. They were good enough to pitch through Game 7, to beat the Texas Rangers, to start over again barely more than a week ago. With live arms and, often enough, high-90s conviction, they held the game steady in Washington, then buried the game in San Francisco. A roll is a roll. No matter the direction.
"It was a perfect time to get hot," Lynn said. "And they're hot right now."
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