SAN FRANCISCO – Most afternoons, Eli Whiteside heads down the right-field line at AT&T Park and meets his student for the day. As the catcher for the San Francisco Giants pitchers between-start bullpen sessions, Whiteside plays a number of roles beyond target. For 30 or 40 pitches, he is a psychologist and a manipulator, a biomechanist and an umpire. Most of all, he is a scout, his perspective on the Giants pitchers keener than anyone's. And he knew exactly what was coming at the Detroit Tigers this week.
"These guys are really good," Whiteside said.
This is no boast. Whiteside was born and raised in Mississippi. He knows better than to do that. It's just true: He saw how Barry Zito was throwing before his start and watched him throw a wet blanket on the Tigers' offense in the first game of the World Series, and he helped Madison Bumgarner find himself after weeks of searching. Seven shutout innings, eight strikeouts and just two hits later from Bumgarner on Thursday night, the Giants were surging, the Tigers reeling and the World Series smelling decidedly San Franciscan for the second time in three years.
A 2-0 victory in Game 2 put the onus on Detroit to take four of five games, and considering how the Giants are pitching right now, not even the best offensive team in baseball could muster that. Since Game 5 of the NLCS, when Zito started this incredible run, Giants pitchers have thrown 45 innings. They've struck out 44 Cardinals and Tigers, walked 10, allowed 29 hits and twirled three shutouts. Their ERA is 0.80.
As in, below one. Or, damn near perfect.
It's the sort of run that teams go on maybe once a decade, perhaps even longer. What makes it so incredible is that this is the second time in three years the Giants have done this. Granted, the 2010 team rode a regular-season surge into the playoffs and let it carry them. This season's just sort of happened, like somebody realized it was October, flicked a switch and turned a Giants pitching staff that had vacillated between dominant and dominated into an electrified fence nobody wanted to touch.
"People need concrete reasons why stuff happens, why we're like this in October," Zito said. "But so much stuff is up to a greater plan. There's momentum, there's camaraderie, there's guys who have great attitudes, there's just a general desire to win. A lot of things you can't put on a scale."
The idea that great pitching is some contagion passed around a clubhouse is bunk, of course, but to ignore the idea that positivity and a sunny sentiment don't help is foolish. Whiteside took special care to coax Bumgarner along in the three bullpen sessions he has thrown since flaming out of Game 1 of the NLCS on Oct. 14. Smiles and attaboys didn't cure Bumgarner. They did put him at ease during a trying time in which they fixed an important mechanical flaw, one that had hindered him for weeks.
While Zito, Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong can follow a routine in their bullpens, Bumgarner adjusted his to work on a slider that had gone out of whack. It had flattened out, and when pitching coach Dave Righetti, manager Bruce Bochy – a former catcher – and Whiteside looked at video, they figured out why.
"He was closing himself off a little too much and showing his back to the hitter," Whiteside said. "It's kind of tough with the arm action and arm angle he has. It makes it that much further behind his back and that much longer to the release point. It's hard to repeat that."
Bumgarner slings from a low three-quarters release, a rarity among left-handed starters. Whiteside encouraged him to stay closed, urged him on when he did, celebrated strikes. Fewer than half of Bumgarner's pitches in his latest bullpen were fastballs, and he parlayed that into the game, when he threw 44 of 86 off-speed pitches, including 34 sliders.
The result: Brilliance despite diminished stuff. Bumgarner's hardest fastball (90.7 mph) didn't even reach his average velocity during the season (91.1 mph). And yet of the 2,732 starts in postseason history, Bumgarner's was just the 20th to reach the seven-inning mark with two or fewer hits and eight or more strikeouts.
"He was our question mark for the last two series, and now he goes out and throws a shutout for seven innings," Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. "Pretty much what he did against Texas."
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Until now, that was the game against which Bumgarner would be judged. As a 21-year-old, he threw eight shutout innings against the Rangers in Game 4 of the 2010 World Series. It was the best performance in a series of brilliant ones, the standard that the Giants are trying to repeat – and perhaps usurp – this season.
"We just come up big when we need to," said Tim Lincecum, who shrugged off a demotion from the rotation to excel out of the bullpen. "I'm not sure what it is. We dug ourselves some holes, but we didn't act like we were stuck in them. We know we can pitch. So we pitch, and grind it out, and here we are."
Tigers manager Jim Leyland shrugged his shoulders when trying to explain the Giants, allowing this: "They're good. They're really good." It wasn't that he was resigned to a fate as much as Leyland couldn't help but compliment them.
This series is not about lucky bounces, whether it's a ball off the third-base bag or a line-hugging bunt around which three Tigers stand pretending to be the Bermuda Triangle in hopes that it disappears. It has been about pitching, the Tigers' lack thereof and the Giants' excess of it. And the scary part for Detroit is that the Giants' best pitcher this postseason, Ryan Vogelsong, and their $127.5 million ace, Matt Cain, will start Games 3 and 4.
Well, that and the Giants' bullpen. While Detroit's couldn't get out of a jam in Game 2, San Francisco's locked in two more shutout innings. Affeldt hasn't given up a run in 8 2/3 innings this postseason, and Javier Lopez has thrown three shutout. Closer Sergio Romo has allowed one run in 8 2/3 and setup man Santiago Casilla the same in 6 2/3. That's two runs in 27 innings from the four guys whom Bochy has unleashed so brilliantly.
"If you're going to get all the way to the World Series," Affeldt said, "you might as well win it."
And if the San Francisco Giants are going to win it, it's pretty obvious how.
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