Giants' cast of characters share starring role in World Series triumph
DETROIT – The 2012 World Series concluded with an 89-mph fastball over the middle of the plate, the sort of pitch that ends up over outfield fences as often as it does in catchers' mitts. Buster Posey squeezed it, still a little surprised it had arrived there, because that meant Miguel Cabrera, the game's best hitter, had watched it go by, knees buckling ever so slightly, as though he wanted to genuflect to Sergio Romo, who had the stones to feed him that pitch at that moment. It took Posey the slightest moment to compose himself. And then he ran like a madman to join in the fury that soon would engulf him.
Over the last month, as they first played can't-be-killed zombies and then ran roughshod over the American League's finest, the San Francisco Giants have forged any number of identities. They wore their intangibles of fighters and scrappers, gamers and grinders, like they meant more than just words. They embraced their ability to defy defeat and couldn't explain it but for the sort of survivalism needed to advance in October. And, finally, they made official at Comerica Park what had been obvious from the outset of the World Series: The Giants are this season's champions.
A 4-3 victory that completed a four-games-to-none sweep Sunday night over the Detroit Tigers cinched the Giants' second championship in three seasons, a feat as noteworthy for its accomplishment as it is its foremost oddity: Only Posey remains from the starting lineup of the 2010 clincher. He was at the center of this one, too, poking a key home run, guiding starter Matt Cain through trouble and, best of all, allowing Romo to shake off the slider he asked for. Romo threw sliders nearly 62 percent of the time this season, and with two strikes and the soon-to-be AL MVP at the plate, Posey wanted another. Romo preferred to challenge Cabrera with a fastball.
And so at 11:50 p.m. ET, the ball popped into Posey's glove, where it stayed amid the celebration, amid the revelry afterward, all the way up until he ran into Giants manager Bruce Bochy. He handed Bochy the amulet. It's so easy to forget that five days earlier, when this series began, the Giants were generally regarded as underdogs, beaten down by comebacks against Cincinnati and St. Louis. They won six elimination games, Detroit had plenty of rest to line up its rotation and while it wasn't a fait accompli, it wasn't going to be like this, either, not anything close: not just a sweep but a dismantling, an embarrassment, a most thorough ass-kicking, the first World Series blanking in five years. Even though Posey had every right to keep the ball, he wanted Bochy to decide who would get the final out of this amazing run.
There were a lot of choices.
One version of the San Francisco Giants' story starts July 27, when they made an under-the-radar trade for an undersized infielder named Marco Scutaro. He immediately energized their lineup with his bat control, speed, defensive wizardry and presence. His arrival also sent Ryan Theriot to the bench.
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Theriot is one of those fighters and scrappers and gamers and grinders, someone whose talent never quite has dovetailed with his playing time. Managers like having him around anyway. The same thing happened to him last year, when St. Louis traded for Rafael Furcal midseason. Rather than complain his way off the roster, Theriot won a World Series with the Cardinals.
Because he is fungible, Theriot understands he must play plenty of roles. His clothing makes teammates laugh. He is the architect of the Giants' pregame dugout celebration, in which they gather in a huddle, start jumping and pummel each other with gum, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, Nerds, water, ice, assorted candy and, in the case of Theriot before Game 4, an entire meal-replacement bar. If the Giants are a bunch of frat boys, Theriot is the pledge master.
What he isn't, on the other hand, is a designated hitter. He is the anti-designated hitter, the person for whom the position wasn't made, with 17 home runs in more than 3,000 career at-bats. Naturally, he found himself hitting eighth and DHing in Game 4, and of course he banged a single to right field to start the 10th inning and advanced to second base on a sacrifice.
With two outs, up stepped Scutaro. He swings and misses less than any major league player, and when Phil Coke fed him a chest-high fastball, Scutaro tomahawked it into center field. Theriot booked home. He slid even though he was safe by a mile. He popped up, his helmet catawampus, and caterwauled. He might not be a DH, but he had scored what would prove to be the winning run of the World Series.
"Sometimes guys have to make sacrifices," Theriot said. "I think that speaks a lot to the team, the way we view each other as players. You realize it's not about you, personally. It's about the ballclub. It's about all 25 guys."
Four days after Marco Scutaro arrived, the Giants made another trade for outfielder Hunter Pence. He struggled during the season, prone to extended slumps. Giants players didn't seem to care. There was a magnetism to Pence, some alpha pheromone he bore, and if he talked, they listened.
While the Hunter Pence Motivational Speech became something of a cliché as the postseason evolved, there was one undeniable thing about them: Whenever he gave one, the Giants won. This is almost certainly more correlation than causation – "I don't give any of the meetings any credit," Pence said – but again and again, Pence's teammates kept pointing to him as some wellspring of motivation, a font of go-get-'em.
And so when Pence asked to talk before Game 4, the Giants sat rapt. Bad weather was on its way. It could stifle the Giants. And so could Justin Verlander starting a potential fifth game. Now was the time. Now was necessary.
"We knew it was going to be the hardest game," Pence said. "To win that final game is the hardest one. And sometimes when you get a lead like that, you can relax."
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No relaxing here, Pence's voice said. No relaxing ever, Pence's eyes said. There was no time to relax at all. The Giants had a World Series to win.
Maybe Hunter Pence's speeches don't win baseball games, but they do beget a moment like this: Before the game, Giants left fielder Gregor Blanco approached Marco Scutaro with a message: "You're going to have a great game."
Following a bonanza NLCS, Scutaro had cooled down in the World Series. Blanco, a fellow Venezuelan, wanted to remind him the Giants needed Scutaro to be great and that they would do whatever they could to help.
So during Scutaro's 10th-inning at-bat, the team fanned out to lucky spots. Blanco's was in the batting cages. Others were in the clubhouse or the training room. Enough stayed in the dugout so it didn't look too barren.
"Just trying to put some luck somewhere," Blanco said. " … And we did."
During the Giants' celebration, Scutaro embraced Blanco and pulled him close.
"You believed in me," Scutaro said, and that's exactly why the Giants are where they are.
Belief is a tricky beast. Brian Sabean, for example, never has believed in all of the principles that guide baseball's sabermetric revolution, leaving him among a small minority of general managers whose emphasis on scouting is far greater than numbers-based analysis. Accordingly, he has been cast as a Luddite, a nincompoop, stubborn, inefficient and all sorts of other labels that even if they're true can't take away that he has built two World Series champions in three years, and none of his peers can say that.
Sabean, 56, believed in Gregor Blanco enough that when Melky Cabrera's suspension ended, he stuck with his punch-hitting, slick-fielding left fielder instead of one whose presence could ruin what the Giants perceived as peerless clubhouse chemistry. While sports chemistry's formula is something like winning + winning = good, the Giants adhered to the idea that this is a different group, a special one.
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"They didn't try to be the guy," Sabean said. "They were just trying to be a guy."
Blanco ended up a guy with a few key hits, a handful of superb defensive plays and a glove headed to the Hall of Fame for display. He is not as much the Giants as Buster Posey – nobody is – but Blanco represents the turnover on this team and how Sabean is willing to hand-stamp every roster, hoping stability comes from the front office. Sabean is in his 17th season, the longest tenure with one team in baseball. Bruce Bochy finished his sixth in San Francisco.
They like each other. They respect each other. Sabean loves that Bochy "has no doghouse." Not even for players who might deserve it.
Every spring, Pablo Sandoval shows up looking just a little too fat. Or a lot too fat. He is evermore tiptoeing the line between obese and can't play. And still, the Giants try to help him instead of bedevil him.
"I really appreciate what they do," Sandoval said, still soaked from the celebration in which teammates feted him with congratulations on his World Series MVP award. "You know what I hear? I hear I was fat. I hear I was short. I hear lots of things why people don't want me."
He remembers a Phillies scout who told him that. It stuck with Sandoval. He may have blazed through the minor leagues, a hitting savant who punished pitching with equanimity right- and left-handed, but he was short and he was fat, and those things weren't going to change. He would always be them, and if the Phillies couldn't love him that way, the Giants did and would.
Sandoval stood on deck when Marco Scutaro plated Ryan Theriot. If the Giants held on, the MVP would be his, as would the Corvette he didn't want. ("I don't really like Corvettes, he said. "I think I'll give it to my fiancée.") More than that, this team drew something out of him. Last time the Giants were in the World Series, Sandoval slumped. He didn't feel like he earned that ring. The team hung by him anyway, and to reward them with three home runs in Game 1 and 24 hits over the whole postseason meant something.
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"I didn't know what to do," Sandoval said. "Cry? Jump? Say something? I went to bat and swung at the first pitch because I was so happy."
He retreated into the dugout for the final three outs. And when Buster Posey caught that fastball from Sergio Romo, Sandoval finally decided what to do.
"I cried," he said.
All these position players getting the glory. By now we should know: The San Francisco Giants win with pitching. They won the division series with pitching. They won the NLCS with pitching. They especially won the World Series with pitching, from Barry Zito to Tim Lincecum to Matt Cain.
Zito opposed Justin Verlander in Game 1 in a matchup of ant vs. elephant. Cain started Game 4 against Max Scherzer and went pitch for pitch with him late into a tie game. And Lincecum bridged the two, taking a role in relief and turning it into a revelation. Because Zito came to San Francisco as the franchise pitcher, and because Lincecum stole that role through his brilliance, and because Cain inherits it with his $127.5 million contract, the three are intertwined, and it was fascinating to see them mill about the clubhouse in different fashions.
Zito held a mini-camera and announced to anyone within earshot: "I'm making a home video." He and his new wife, Amber, kissed, and he walked up to shortstop Brandon Crawford, petted his hair and said, "Look at how dreamy he is," and he interviewed teammates for posterity. After 2010, when the Giants didn't even include Zito on the postseason roster, he wanted to capture this moment. It may be his last.
Cain, too, couldn't let the night go by without an accounting. Only his came via a set of Liquid Image camera goggles that his mother gave him as a gift. A small camera recorded the bubbly celebration and everything else surreptitiously, Cain always preferring the low-profile style to Zito's bombast.
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Even more subdued was Lincecum. He celebrated with friends and family and out of sight of the cameras that filled the clubhouse for nearly two hours. Finally, as most strangers filtered out, Lincecum appeared to hop into the shower.
"We just won seven straight playoff games," he said, still incredulous, and it's difficult to blame him. Dispatching the Cardinals like they did. Then taking the Tigers, who had swept the Yankees in the ALCS, and watching most of their lineup hit below their body weight. It was the sort of thing that shell-shocked Lincecum, and so rather than engage the masses about his future following a relief turn that returned his luster following a mess of a regular season, he gave an exact time when he plans on addressing them.
"I'll talk in spring training," he said. "Only 89 days."
In 89 days, when the Giants report to Scottsdale, Ariz., they will not do so as World Series favorites. It's not that this victory was a fluke or that the Giants aren't a well-run organization. It's that outside of Matt Cain and Buster Posey, they're more a bunch of guys than anything, and to master the formula of 25 guys three seasons in four takes a level of genius – or luck – that neither Sabean nor any other GM could muster.
Of course, Posey is the archetype around whom front offices want to build: a 25-year-old with a thunderous bat, enough fielding skills behind the plate and an unshakeable temperament. Think about what Sergio Romo did to him. Miguel Cabrera loves fastballs. He hits them very, very far. Romo has one of the best sliders in the game. And despite those truths, Romo still wanted to throw him a fastball.
"It's extremely gutsy," Posey said. "I think it just shows the type of makeup he has. There's no fear out there. You don't see that very much."
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Posey could have been speaking about himself. The sixth-inning home run off Max Scherzer, who was dealing. The helming of a pitching staff with a 2.88 ERA over 144 postseason innings.
"Nobody's talked about how Buster put down the right fingers," Brian Sabean said, and it's because they take for granted how good Posey really is. His postseason numbers this season actually were quite awful: .200/.294/.350. And yet his grand slam against Cincinnati locked up the Giants' historic division-series comeback. And Sunday's home run was just as big.
When asked why he gave that final ball to Bruce Bochy, Posey said: "It's not a fun decision to make." And he's right. It could be Marco Scutaro's or Ryan Theriot's, Hunter Pence's or Gregor Blanco's, Sabean's or Pablo Sandoval's, Barry Zito's or Tim Lincecum's or Cain's. Hell, it could even be Buster Posey's.
That's the real story of this San Francisco Giants team, which rode a concept more than it did a person. This was a team that acted like it – together, real, caring, fighters and scrappers and gamers and grinders and zombies and Darwinists and here, on a cold night where they finally put the Tigers out of their misery, champions, forever.
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