SAN FRANCISCO >> Leave it to other teams to blast home runs, deliver clutch base hits or run opponents ragged on the basepaths. The San Francisco Giants have taken a less majestic route through the playoffs, generating most of their offense with a dink here, a dunk there.
And so, of course, the hit that delivered the Giants’
5-4, 10-inning victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday was not a hit at all. It was a sacrifice bunt, one placed with perfunctory execution and not much ambition.
With two on and none out, Gregor Blanco did his job in advancing the runners to second and third. But when left-handed relief pitcher Randy Choate fielded the bunt and sailed his throw down the right-field line, Brandon Crawford raced home with the winning run to give the Giants a 2-1 lead in the National League Championship Series.
As Choate’s throw, which had the same type of wicked tail as his side-armed fastball, went past second baseman Kolten Wong, who was covering first base, the ball bounced until it came to rest in the glove of a catcher in the Cardinals’ bullpen.
It was the latest something-from-nothing twist for the Giants.
They clinched their division series against the Washington Nationals with a 3-2 victory, their runs coming on a walk, a groundout and a wild pitch. Down to their final strike in Game 2, pinch-runner Matt Duffy tied the score when he raced home from second on a wild pitch. In their previous four games, the Giants had scored 11 times – eight without getting a hit.
"Somebody asked me if there is any other way we can score a run other than a nonconventional way," Giants left fielder Travis Ishikawa said. "I said if there is, we’re going to find it."
Giants starter Tim Hudson added, "Anybody can score on base hits, you know."
The Giants’ unconventional offense fits their unconventional ballpark, which in blustery conditions Tuesday played as important a role as any player.
The right-field wall is not smooth and flat, nor does it carry a gentle curve. Rather, it veers in a zigzag from 305 feet at the foul pole to 421 feet in right-center, turning the usual gap between outfielders into a lush green welcome mat for triples. The wall, which rises as high as 24 feet, has acute edges and obtuse angles. It is covered in brick, foam padding, chain link and advertising.
On days when the wind blows hard off San Francisco Bay, outfielders navigate toward the ball as if they are heading down Lombard Street.
The conditions were just as cruel to a rookie, Cardinals right fielder Randal Grichuk, who was playing his first game here, as they were to the Giants’ veteran Hunter Pence, who has served three seasons as an apprentice learning right field’s quirks.
The Giants, already with an early lead, had the bases loaded with two out when Ishikawa ripped John Lackey’s first pitch deep to right. Grichuk thought the ball was gone, but he raced toward the notch in the wall, 365 feet from home. When he turned to wait for a possible carom, the ball landed off the base of the wall about 30 feet to his left.
By the time center fielder Jon Jay retrieved the ball, Ishikawa was standing on second and the Giants had a 4-0 lead.
"It’s got a lot going on with the brick and the fence and the padding," Grichuk said. "Balls can shoot off in any direction. There’s a lot going on out there and you throw in the wind, it’s a pretty tricky right field."
But Pence looked like no less the novice in the fourth. When Wong blasted a two-out pitch to right, Pence drifted and turned toward the notch. But when he did, he lost track of the ball and the wind carried it toward center and around the corner from where he was. The ball hit off the wall, two runs scored and Wong cruised into third, the Cardinals cutting their deficit to 4-2.
"I can’t remember a crazier wind than today," Pence said. "On the ground you feel it going one way, in the air it’s blowing another way and the flags are going another way."
Though they did not have their injured catcher and emotional leader, Yadier Molina, the Cardinals continued to rally, as they have throughout the playoffs. They came back three times to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series, including twice against Clayton Kershaw, and had to rally twice to beat the Giants on Sunday.
The Cardinals crept within 4-3 when Jhonny Peralta’s two-out grounder eluded third baseman Pablo Sandoval, scoring Jay. And they got even when Grichuk atoned for his travails in the outfield by ripping a line drive off the left-field foul pole in the seventh off Hudson.
The Cardinals hit line drives that Blanco, in center field, and Joe Panik, at second base, turned into outs. Then, in the top of the 10th, Sandoval, the bouncy third baseman, made a diving stab of Matt Holliday’s smash down the line. Sandoval’s catch may have saved a run.
The Giants, meanwhile, had only one hit since their first-inning outburst, and had 16 straight batters retired until the left-handed Crawford drew an eight-pitch walk. Then Juan Perez, after failing on two bunt attempts, looped a single to left. That brought up Blanco, who dropped his bunt delicately near the pitcher’s mound.
It was the first time in his life that Blanco remembered delivering a game-winning hit, if it can be called that. Earlier in the playoffs, he acknowledged that the Giants’ offense was ugly, but that it worked.
"That’s been us all year," he said, a function that for the Giants is taking on a beautiful form.
Billy Witz,New York Times