Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 4, 2010

Lincecum, Bumgarner and Cain; Texas Left Hoping For Rain.

In the long-distant days of late winter, during those first workouts in Florida and Arizona, thirty franchises dared to dream that 2010 could be the year. Many of those dreams were but fantasies from the start. Others ran up against the cold reality of unexpected injuries or disappointing performances during the course of the longest season. In the end the dreams of eight clubs were kept alive into October.

Of the eight playoff teams, conventional wisdom had the two-time NL Champion Phillies as the most likely to represent the senior circuit in the World Series. With a powerful lineup and the two Roy’s, Halladay and Oswalt, anchoring their rotation, the Phillies looked to be head and shoulders above the other three NL playoff teams. Meanwhile either of the two Eastern Division entrants, the Yankees and the Rays, appeared to be the class of the American League.

But when the World Series opened on Wednesday of last week, all three of the presumed favorites had been vanquished. In their place were the Texas Rangers, who beat both Tampa Bay and New York in the first two playoff rounds, and the San Francisco Giants, who ended Philadelphia’s season in the NLCS.

The Rangers, born as the expansion Washington Senators in 1961, had made the playoffs just three times prior to this autumn and had never won a playoff series. The Giants on the other hand are one of the Great Game’s oldest franchises. The team dates to 1883, when they began play as the New York Gothams. In part because of that lengthy history the Giants have won more than 10,500 games, the most in the sport. This year marked their 18th trip to the World Series; however their fifth and last championship was in 1954, when they were still playing on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. For their California faithful, the annual dream has died every year since the Giants moved west in 1958.

On paper this Series belonged to the Rangers. They came in as a strong hitting club led by likely American League MVP Josh Hamilton. In the ALCS Texas battered New York’s pitching, especially the bullpen. Meanwhile on the mound the Rangers had the redoubtable Cliff Lee, who was 7-0 in eight post-season starts over the last two years. Through the ALDS and ALCS this October, Lee was a perfect 3-0 in as many starts, having allowed just two runs and but a single walk.

San Francisco, on the other hand, had relied almost exclusively on pitching down the stretch. Over the last month they scored 5 or more runs on average just one game in four. Unable to generate significant offense through September, the Giants squeezed into the playoffs on the regular season’s final day. And while their starting rotation carried them into the playoffs, any number of sabermetrics mavens could point to assorted esoteric pitching statistics that indicated the starters’ low ERA’s were a fluke.

As I’ve previously written, the home team won each of the first three games, each in somewhat surprising fashion. The expected duel of aces in Game One never materialized; with Tim Lincecum decent but not overwhelming for the Giants and Cliff Lee throwing the first really bad outing of his post-season career. But them some unexpected pitchers were masterful in Games Two and Three; first Matt Cain for the Giants and then the Rangers’ Colby Lewis. Though the Giants had the two games to one lead, both teams’ championship dream was alive and well and just barely beyond the grasp of either to seize it and at long last make it a reality.

In the end the longer wait was rewarded. Over two clear autumn evenings in Texas, the San Francisco Giants saw a young rookie dominate on the mound, an established superstar add to his growing legend, and an aging veteran complete a career of individual World Series memories. When it was over, fifty-two years of California dreaming had finally been rewarded.

On Sunday night rookie Madison Bumgarner, at 21 years and 91 days became the youngest pitcher to start a World Series game in almost thirty years. Guided by fellow rookie Buster Posey behind the plate, all Bumgarner did was hurl eight scoreless frames, allowing just six base runners. He scattered three singles, walked two, and Josh Hamilton reached in the 7th on Juan Uribe’s error. When Hamilton advanced to second on Nelson Cruz’s two-out single, it was the only time all night that Texas had a man in scoring position. Bumgarner calmly ended the mini-threat by getting Ian Kinsler to fly to right.

For the Giants, Aubrey Huff provided all the offense needed with a two-run homer in the 3rd. Andres Torres doubled home another run in the 7th, and Posey homered in the 8th to finish the scoring. After closer Brian Wilson worked a perfect 9th, San Francisco was on the cusp, and Texas was on the ropes.

One night later the pitching matchup was a repeat of Game One. No one on either squad dared think Cliff Lee would have two bad outings in a row. In perhaps his final game for the Rangers, the free agent to be did not disappoint. Lee threw seven innings and allowed just six hits while fanning six and, as usual, walking no one.

But if Lee was an ace, Tim Lincecum was a giant in more than just team nickname. The 26-year old reminded everyone watching why he owns the last two National League Cy Young Awards. Through 8 innings he allowed but a single blemish and just two singles and two walks. The blemish was a solo home run surrendered to Nelson Cruz in the bottom of the 7th. Along the way the hard-throwing right hander with the unique delivery struck out ten.

Lincecum set down the first eight Texas batters before Mitch Moreland’s single with two out in the third. Cruz was the only Ranger to touch second base safely as he rounded the bases on his homer. The 7th was also the only inning that Texas managed more than a single base runner, when Ian Kinsler walked after Cruz’s dinger. After a visit from pitching coach Dave Righetti, Lincecum responded by retiring the final five batters he faced, the first three on strikeouts.

Still, there have been post-season outings when a single run would have been enough for Cliff Lee. But on Monday night as good as Lee was, Lincecum and the Giants were simply better. Before Cruz could strike his blow in the bottom of the 7th, San Francisco had taken a 3-0 lead in the top of the inning by notching three of their six hits off of Lee.

Cody Ross, claimed off the waiver scrap heap in August singled. Juan Uribe followed with another. Aubrey Huff, signed as a free agent in the last off-season after spending a career playing for also-rans, then stunned the Rangers by executing the first sacrifice bunt of his career. So surprised was Texas, and so perfect was the bunt, that the slow-footed Huff nearly beat it out for a single. One out later, 35-year old Edgar Renteria homered into the left field seats to put the Giants on top to stay.

Renteria is contemplating retirement. If he chooses to do so, the homer will be quite a final at-bat. But it will be just one of three ultimate World Series moments for the five-time All Star. In 1997, in his second season in the majors, Renteria hit a two-out bases loaded walk-off single in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game Seven to give the Florida Marlins their first World Series title ever. Seven years later, in mid-career and playing for the Cardinals, Renteria grounded back to Red Sox pitcher Keith Foulke for the final out of the World Series that ended 86 years of frustration for Boston. Then last Monday, in his playing twilight, he struck the blow that finally brought joy to San Francisco after more than half a century of waiting.

In the first years after their move west, the Giants were a team loaded with talent. Between the move in 1958 and the 1971 season, they had more victories than any other team. They had a roster of future Hall-of-Famers. Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, all wore the orange and black. But of all of them only Mays won a World Series as a Giant, and that was in 1954, four seasons before the move from the Polo Grounds to the City by the Bay. As great as they were individually, as a team the Giants could never quite turn that annual Spring Training dream into an autumn reality.

Other than Tim Lincecum, the 2010 Giants are noticeably short on household names; though I think we’ll be hearing about Buster Posey for a good long while. They have prided themselves about being a team of castoffs and misfits. Now each of them has something far more permanent than personal fame. Now each of them has the Great Game’s ultimate dream fulfilled.  Now each of them has a ring.

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