By Wendy Thurm
When the San Francisco Giants captured their first World Series Championship in 2010, they did so with the perfect mix of youthful energy and veteran experience. The team heading back to the World Series just two years later strikes a similar balance -- yet the rosters couldn’t be more different. The 2010 squad succeeded on the arms of its young pitchers and the well-timed home runs of its veteran hitters. This year, the wily, left-for-dead veteran pitchers steadied the team when the younger arms tired, and the young hitters hit their stride at just the right time.
Starters Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner together allowed only 15 earned runs in 79 innings in the 2010 postseason. Lincecum was the oldest at 26, Cain had just turned 26, and Bumgarner was just 21. The offense was led by surprise heroes Edgar Renteria and Aubrey Huff, each in his mid-30’s and on his fifth major-league team, and Cody Ross, who while only 29, also was on his fifth team in eight seasons.
The Giants headed into the 2012 season with Lincecum, Cain and Bumgarner as the core of the rotation, and Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong holding down the fourth and fifth spots. Vogelsong had been a pleasant surprise in 2011, when he returned to the Giants after several years pitching in Japan and bouncing around the minor leagues, but questions remained about whether his 2011 success was a fluke. As for Zito, the Giants hoped he’d do his best with what he had left: eat up innings and pitch well enough to keep the Giants in the games he started. Starting pitching was the Giants’ strength. It has been since the departure of Barry Bonds after the 2007 season.
Lincecum struggled out of the gate, and while he steadied himself somewhat in the second half, he only rarely showed flashes of the form that led to Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009. His fastball velocity -- in the mid-90s at the beginning of his career -- fell to an average of just over 90 mph this season, but even at that speed, Lincecum couldn’t command it. By the All-Star Break, his ERA had ballooned to 6.42, the highest for any qualified starter in the National League. Cain, forever in Lincecum’s shadow, stepped to the fore and became the staff ace. He pitched a perfect game on June 13, the first in the 128-year history of the Giants franchise. His 2.79 ERA and 3.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio were his best since his rookie season in 2005. He looked every bit like the postseason Game 1 starter that manager Bruce Bochy would later announce him to be.
Bumgarner pitched remarkably well in the first half, and compiled a 10-5 record with a 3.27 ERA. He flashed an improved back-door slider, which he used with particular effectiveness against right-handed batters. But September was not kind to him. He lost velocity on his fastball and his usual pinpoint command betrayed him. To the surprise of many, Vogelsong was actually the Giants’ most consistent starter for most of the season. The 35-year-old right-hander pitched into sixth inning or later in 21 consecutive starts, and in all but two of those starts, he allowed no more than three earned runs. When the streak ended in mid-August, Vogelsong struggled with four outings of fewer than four innings. Then, as if those starts never occurred, he pitched two beautiful games against the Padres in late September, and looked ready for the postseason.
And then there was Zito, for so long the critics’ whipping boy, with the $126 million contract and the mediocre-at-best performance. The Giants famously left Zito off the 2010 postseason roster, and he spent much of 2011 on the disabled list (opening the door for Ryan Vogelsong’s incredible comeback). But something happened with Zito this year, something largely out of his control, but which allowed him to record 15 wins, the most in his career with San Francisco: the Giants scored runs with Zito on the mound; 5.96 runs per nine innings in his starts, the 8th-highest among qualified major league starters. So while Zito ended the season with the exact same ERA as in 2010 (4.15), and a lower strikeout-to-walk ratio than two years ago, the Giants ended the season with twelve consecutive wins in games he started. This time, he would not be left off the postseason roster.
And that was a very good thing for the Giants.
Down three games to one to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, the Giants sent Zito to the mound at Busch Stadium last Friday night. Against all odds, and all expectations, he pitched masterfully, keeping the Cardinals’ mostly right-handed lineup off balance all night. We often hear an athlete’s performance described as “the game of his life,” and it is often hyperbole. But it is truly the only way to describe what Zito did, saving the Giants season, and redeeming himself with critics and Giants fans.
The Giants had no choice but to lean on Zito in Game 5 after losing the games started by young 2010 postseason heroes Cain, Bumgarner and Lincecum. Zito’s masterpiece gave the team life and sent them back to San Francisco for Game 6 and, hopefully, Game 7.
Vogelsong -- the Game 2 winner -- was on the hill for the Giants in Game 6. And just like Zito had on Friday night, Vogelsong pitched the game of his life. He carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning, and allowed just one run over seven. He threw his two-seam fastball fast and hard, in and out, up and down. The Cardinals couldn’t catch up to it, and when they did, it resulted in only soft contact. Vogelsong racked up nine strikeouts, a career high. His performance -- twelve years in the making -- was a thing of beauty, and it put the Giants in Game 7, where Cain pitched the Giants to their second NL Pennant in three years. It wasn’t Cain’s best effort, not by any means. He had trouble commanding his fastball, and had almost no use for his curve or his slider, two usual weapons in his arsenal. But it was good enough.
It was good enough because the Giants scored nine runs. Just like they had scored six runs in Game 6 in support of Vogelsong, and five runs in Game 5 in support of Zito. The offense, which had mustered just four runs total in Games 3 and 4, came alive in the final three games of the series, sending the Giants to their second World Series in three years.
The catalyst for the Giants offense was NLCS MVP Marco Scutaro, the 36-year-old second baseman whom the Giants acquired from the Rockies at the trade deadline. Scutaro set a record with six multi-hit games and tied a record held by Albert Pujols, Kevin Youklis and Hideki Matsui with fourteen overall hits in the series. But Scutaro couldn’t, and didn’t, do it alone. He had help from the kids.
Heading into the 2011 season, Brandon Belt was the Giants’ most highly-touted prospect. San Francisco drafted Belt in 2009 out of the University of Texas and he burned up the minor leagues from the moment he arrived. He wasn’t expected to make the big-league roster coming out of spring training, but injuries moved Huff to the outfield and opened a spot for Belt to play first base. He struggled, couldn’t make adjustments and failed to show the promise of gap-to-gap power that scouts had predicted, so he spent much of the 2011 season on the highway between San Francisco and Fresno, California, where the Giants’ Triple-A franchise is located, in the unending cycle of call-up, demotion, call-up, demotion and call-up.
Belt made the 2012 Opening Day roster, but his playing time was not assured. Early in the season, manager Bruce Bochy used a platoon at first base, with Belt, a left-handed hitter, facing mostly right-handed pitchers, and Brett Pill facing lefties. While Belt struggled to display his anticipated power, he showed himself a much more patient and consistent hitter than Pill, and a far superior defensive player. And yet, the platoon continued. Fans convinced of Belt’s superior skills clamored for more playing time. On it went … until August. Then it clicked. Belt found his groove, hitting .349/.411/.477 that month and solidifying his spot as the everyday first baseman.
After Scutaro and Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval, Belt was the third-most productive hitter for the Giants in the NLCS. He ignited the game-winning rallies in Game 2 and Game 6 with a double and a triple, respectively, and put the icing on the cake in Game 7 with a towering home run over the right field wall to give the Giants a 9-0 lead. He also played spectacular defense, including a crucial stop early in Game 7 when the Cardinals appeared to have Cain on the ropes.
The other Brandon -- shortstop Brandon Crawford -- is best known for his wizardry with the glove. Like Belt, Crawford was pressed into major-league action unexpectedly early when an injury to Sandoval in 2011 moved Miguel Tejada to third base. Crawford excelled in the field, but struggled badly at the plate. Heading into this season, the Giants decided to stick with Crawford at short knowing they’d upgraded the offense with the additions of Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, and with the return of Posey after his horrific leg injury in 2011. And then Crawford did the unexpected. No, he didn’t turn into an above-average hitter -- he suffered through the first fielding slump of his life. Errors, gaffes, missed plays. In the first month of the season, Crawford looked nothing like The Professor, what his teammates call him for the way he puts on a defensive clinic. After a few months, Crawford found his defensive footing, and became a regular on the highlight shows with one spectacular play after another. He even swung the bat well, on occasion, and ended the season with 26 doubles. Overall, Crawford wasn’t much of an offensive force in the NLCS, but he had the momentum-shifting hit in the momentum-shifting Game 5.
Youth and experience. Kids and veterans. Every good team has both. In 2010, the Giants’ young arms and veteran bats propelled them to a World Series Championship. Two years later, the roles are reversed, with the veteran starters making the big pitches and the young bats coming alive at the right time. The Giants now take that mix into the World Series against the Tigers. In a week or so, we’ll know if it is a recipe for success.
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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.