We've assembled some of our favorite baseball writers from around the country to contribute to Sports on Earth each day throughout the postseason.
By Wendy Thurm
Baseball memories die hard.
Dusty Baker, now the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, managed the San Francisco Giants from 1993 through 2002. His last season with the Giants, he led the team to the World Series against the then-Anaheim Angels. The Giants won Game 5 in San Francisco in a 16-4 romp, and headed to Anaheim needing only one win to secure the first World Series Championship in team history.
In Game 6, the Giants took a 5-0 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning. Starting pitcher Russ Ortiz took the mound and recorded the first out. But after two consecutive singles, Baker left the Giants’ dugout and called for his right-handed reliever Felix Rodriguez. When Rodriguez arrived at the mound, Baker rubbed the game ball. But instead of handing it to Rodriguez, Baker returned the ball to Ortiz. A break with custom, sure, but a gesture of thanks from Baker to his starter for a job well done.
Scott Spezio stepped into the batter’s box against Rodriguez, worked the count to 3-2, and launched a three-run home run, a dagger into the hearts of the Giants. The Angels added three more runs in the eighth, the Giants added nothing and the Angels came back to win after being down by five runs with just eight outs left in the game. From that moment, the outcome of Game 7 seemed like a foregone conclusion, and it was. The Angels were World Series champs.
That was the end of the road for Baker and the Giants. He went on to manage the Cubs, and now the Reds. He’s still loved in San Francisco. Giants fans gave him a warm standing ovation before Game 1 of the Division Series between the Giants and the Reds. But Giants fans will never forgive Dusty for pulling Ortiz -- who’d thrown only 98 pitches -- and replacing him with Rodriguez. And then there’s the matter of handing Ortiz the game ball. What was viewed as a well-meaning gesture at the time came to be seen as a poke at the baseball gods, an act so contrary to baseball custom that they had no choice but to punish the Giants with a painful and humiliating loss.
And so it may be for Reds fans.
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The Giants defeated the Reds, 6-4, in Game 5 of their NL Division Series on Thursday. A San Francisco series victory seemed like nothing more than a dream after the first two games, when the Reds strutted into AT&T Park and soundly defeated the Giants on their home turf. The Giants’ pitching betrayed them and their offense all but disappeared. The Reds played nearly flawless baseball and headed home needing only one victory in the next three games.
That victory never came.
In each of the next three games, Dusty Baker stood on the steps of the Reds’ dugout, his signature toothpick twisting and turning between his lips, and faced one tough pitching decision after another. In Game 3, starter Homer Bailey was magnificent. He held the Giants hitless through five innings, but allowed a run on a hit-by-pitch, a walk, a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly. With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the seventh, Baker lifted Bailey, who’d only thrown 88 pitches, and sent Todd Frazier to the plate in his place.
That led to Sean Marshall pitching the eighth, Aroldis Chapman pitching the ninth, and with the scored still locked at 1-1, Jonathan Broxton pitching in the 10th. The Giants rallied against Broxton on two singles, a wild pitch and an error by Scott Rolen on a tough-hop grounder by Joaquin Arias.
In Game 4, Baker was forced to rely on Mike Leake to start the game, since ace Johnny Cueto was taken off the postseason roster due to the strained oblique suffered in Game 1. The Giants hit Leake hard out of the gate, with Angel Pagan and Gregor Blanco blasting home runs to give the Giants a 3-1 lead in the second. But the Reds had Giants starter Barry Zito on the ropes, too, and pulled to within 3-2 by the third. When Zito stumbled further in the fourth, Giants manager Bruce Bochy went to his pen and ended the Reds’ rally. But Baker stayed the course with Leake, and the Giants made him pay, adding to their lead on back-to-back doubles. Baker finally pulled Leake with one out and one on in the fifth, but the damage was done. The Giants never relinquished the lead, and eventually won 8-3 behind a gutty relief performance by Tim Lincecum.
And so it was in Game 5, with the Giants and Reds trading zeros through the first four innings. Matt Cain kept the Reds off balance by mixing his mid-90s fastball with a heavy, sinking slider and a pinpoint change-up. Mat Latos was equally tough on the Giants, throwing his you-can’t-hit-me fastball to both sides of the plate, up and down in the zone, and past the Giants’ bats. Home plate umpire Tom Hallion established a wide zone early on, and both starters took full advantage.
The Giants finally got to Latos in the fifth when Blanco dumped an opposite-field single over the head of shortstop Zack Cozart, and Brandon Crawford ripped a triple past Joey Votto at first base and into the right-field corner. Latos was visibly upset with what appeared to be a narrowing zone from Hallion. San Francisco expanded its lead to 2-0 on an error, a walk and a single.
Then Buster Posey strode to the plate with the bases loaded and one out.
Posey was the National League’s best hitter in the second half of the season, with an eye-popping .385/.456/.646 slash. When Melky Cabrera was suspended 50 games after testing positive for testosterone, Posey didn’t flinch or flail under the pressure. He continued to mash the ball without the protection of Cabrera in the lineup, and carried the Giants to the NL West title.
But that Posey had been missing in the Division Series. He homered in Game 1, and had a single to start the game-winning rally in Game 3, but he looked off balance in his at-bats. In the first inning Thursday, and again in the third against Latos, Posey couldn’t square up the ball, swinging just under Latos’ pitches, and flying out both times.
Posey stepped into the batter’s box with a chance to break the game wide open. Baker didn’t move, either to visit Latos himself or send his pitching coach to give Latos a breather. Three fastballs and a cutter later, the count was two balls and two strikes. Then Latos served up what looked to be a batting-practice pitch and the National League’s best hitter since the All-Star break did what you’d expect him to do: Posey launched a majestic, Hollywood-esque grand slam over the left-field wall, giving the Giants a 6-0 lead.
The Reds battled back. Oh, did they battle back, with two runs in the 5th on a Brandon Phillips double and another in the 6th on a home run by Ryan Ludwick. They were hitting Matt Cain hard and looked to be on the verge of a huge inning -- before Baker made another move with disastrous consequences. With runners on first and second, and catcher Ryan Hanigan at the plate, Baker ordered a double steal on a 3-2 pitch. Hanigan was called out on a close pitch low in the zone, and Posey -- of course, Posey -- gunned down Jay Bruce at third base. Rally over.
The Reds still did not relent, putting two runners on base in the seventh and again in the eighth. Only spectacular defensive plays by shortstop Brandon Crawford and center fielder Angel Pagan kept them off the board.
And so the Giants entered the bottom of the ninth with a 6-3 lead and diminutive right-hander Sergio Romo on the mound. The Reds cut the lead by one, and had the winning run at the plate in the form of Bruce. With the count 1-2, Romo pounded the outside corner again and again, and Bruce fouled off pitch after pitch after pitch. It was beautiful postseason baseball, as classic as Posey’s soaring grand slam. And then it ended, when Bruce hit a lazy fly ball to left on the 12th pitch of the at bat.
The Reds still had the winning run at the plate in veteran Scott Rolen. But the battles had already been won. In Posey’s grand slam off Latos. In the strike-him-out-throw-him-out on the double steal attempt. On the extra runs scored off Leake in Game 4. In forcing Bailey out of Game 3.
Romo struck out Rolen on five pitches, the fifth a nasty, buzzing slider that has become Romo’s signature pitch. And what seemed all but impossible when the teams left San Francisco after Game 2 had become a reality. A dream comeback for the Giants.
And a nightmare collapse for Dusty Baker and his Reds.
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With their backs to the wall, the Washington Nationals silenced the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. They may have silenced their critics, too. At least, for now.
The Nationals faced elimination after losing, and losing badly, to the Cardinals in Games 2 and 3. Starting pitching -- a Nationals strength in the regular season -- couldn’t contain the Cardinals’ offense. Game 2 starter Jordan Zimmermann gave up five runs in three innings while Game 3 starter Edwin Jackson yielded four runs in five. It was a far cry from the rotation’s NL-leading 3.40 ERA. The bullpen, which held opponents to a .226 batting average during the season, fared no better, giving up 12 runs on 11 hits in nine innings of work.
That rotation, of course, included Stephen Strasburg, who posted a 3.16 ERA and a 4.10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 28 starts, but is not on Washington’s postseason roster. The Nationals have been roundly criticized for shutting down Strasburg, despite the team’s concern about protecting his surgically repaired elbow. After the Cardinals kicked around Zimmermann and Jackson, Washington’s critics were crowing, many with smiles.
Ross Detwiler took the mound for the Nationals in Game 4 and did everything Zimmermann and Jackson couldn’t do: He kept the Nationals in the game long enough for their offense to have an impact. Detwiler -- the fifth starter, the weak link in the Nationals’ vaunted rotation -- worked six strong innings and gave up only one unearned run on three walks and three hits.
When Detwiler left the game, the score was tied at 1. Adam LaRoche opened the scoring in the second inning with a solo home run off Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse after a nine-pitch battle. The Cardinals tied the game in their next turn at bat. Pete Kozma walked, Lohse advanced him to second on a sacrifice bunt and Jon Jay advanced him to third on a grounder that shortstop Ian Desmond couldn’t cleanly field. Carlos Beltran hit a sacrifice fly to medium center field, but it was deep enough to score Kozma.
And then the game got interesting.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson sent Jordan Zimmermann to the mound to relieve Detwiler in the seventh inning. Just three days after his disastrous start in Game 2, Zimmermann struck out the side on just 12 pitches. Tyler Clippard pitched the eighth and nearly matched Zimmermann with strikeouts of Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina on 11 pitches. His only blemish was a walk to Allen Craig. Drew Storen relieved Clippard and continued the strikeout parade, setting down David Freese and Daniel Descalso. Nine batters. Eight outs. Eight strikeouts. After a walk to Pete Kozma, Clippard retired Holliday to end the ninth.
All those strikeouts, and the game remained tied at 1, as the Nationals couldn’t do much of anything against Lohse or Mitchell Boggs, who relieved Lohse in the eighth. After LaRoche’s home run, Washington mustered only a Ryan Zimmerman single and two walks, but never advanced any of the runners past first base.
Until the ninth.
Jayson Werth stepped in against Cardinals reliever Lance Lynn for the third time in the series. The first two confrontations ended in strikeouts. And this one appeared headed in the same direction. First pitch fastball, 95 miles per hour, at the knees. Strike one. Second pitch fastball, 94 miles per hour, on the outside corner. Strike two. Werth worked the count to 2-2 and then fouled off six consecutive pitches. Another ball, another foul, and then, on the 13th pitch, Lynn threw a 96-mile-per-hour fastball right down the middle. Boom. A rocket of a home run over the left field wall and into the Cardinals’ bullpen.
The Nationals’ offense came alive just in time, and in the best way it knows how. The team hit 194 home runs in the regular season, second only to the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League.
The series will be decided in Game 5 at Nationals Park.
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Thurm is a contributing writer at FanGraphs and Getting Blanked on The Score. She has also written for Baseball Nation and ESPN.com. You can keep track of her writings and ravings on Twitter @hangingsliders.