The top two teams in the National League faced off last week at Pac Bell Park, in a series of classic games, more classic if you were a fan of the orange and black. The Atlanta Braves came to SF looking to avenge their defeat in last year's playoffs, while the Giants were returning home after five straight losses on the East Coast the previous week. The series began well for the Giants. Tuesday night, Barry Bonds returned to the team after attending to his terminally ill father, and hit the game-winning home run in the bottom of the tenth inning. On Wednesday, the Giants' starter left with an injury, but the bullpen held Atlanta scoreless for five innings and the team won in the bottom of the ninth. Thursday, the Giants' best pitcher, Jason Schmidt was taking the mound, and I had two free tickets to the game. Would this game live up to the standard set by the previous two?
Roommate and compatriot Gene Wood attended the game with me, his first visit to the four-year ballpark. Our first conversation was not about the architecture or quaint throwback charm of the stadium, but rather the bar code scanners that the Giants use, instead of having ushers tear tickets. At first, it seems needlessly futuristic, as ticket-tearing is simpler, but Gene explained that it's undoubtedly a great way to harvest information about the attendees - what gates are crowded at what times, which ticket holders show up early, which tickets go unused, etc. Not surprisingly, the Giants' president owner is also the CEO of Safeway, whose Club Card database is also likely an amazing source of consumer information, buying habits, etc. They seem to be putting their data to good use, as we were attending the team's 31st consecutive sold-out game.
We arrived at the park slightly late, to find our seats had been given away by an overzealous usher. Since they went to a guy in a wheelchair, and we were re-seated immediately, it wasn't a big deal. Once we sat down, it was clear that this game was all about Giants' starter Jason Schmidt.
Scmidt has been the most effective starting pitcher in the National League this year. Ever since his final three appearances in last year's playoffs, all victories, he has been incredibly effective, throwing hard and rarely walking hitters. The only reason that his statistics aren't more impressive is that the team has had a large lead, so they've babied his arm. Though the Braves have the league's best offense, they looked like a Little League team against Schmidt. Garry Sheffield, riding a 24-game hitting streak, went 0-for-3. The opposing pitcher struck out on a pitch over his head in the sixth. That same inning, Schmidt struck out all three hitters on just nine pitches. Through eight innings, Schmidt had given up but three hits.
Schmidt was helped out by a few spectacular catches by Giants right fielder Jose Cruz. Jose Cruz is a member of a class of players I like to refer to as baseball's right field Ronin. These are outfielders that, though highly thought of as young players, were rejected by their original teams by reason of injury or trade, like a samurai without a master. Although talented, these players are doomed to remain baseball nomads, never receiving a long-term contract, job security, or respect. They tend to be good hitters and solid defenders, though not such good defenders that they can play center field. Another common trait is that, while effective, they seem to play just below their potential. They also tend to have high strikeout totals.
The Giants have employed a string of ronin to man right field in recent years, from Cruz to Reggie Sanders to Ellis Burks. Other notable ronin of the recent past include Eric Davis, Juan Encarnacion, and Gary Sheffield. Future ronin include J.D. Drew and Adam Dunn. Cruz is an underrated hitter, due to his high walk totals, and an excellent fielder, so I hope that the Giants retain his services, and save him from a ronin's lonely existence.
Meanwhile, the Giants were hitting, but not taking full advantage of their chances. Atlanta was choosing to walk Barry Bonds when he came up, and for the most part, the Giants were stranding runners. They left the bases loaded in the fifth, and two runners on base in the second, fourth, and eighth innings. Going into the top of the ninth, the Giants led 3-0, and many fans headed for the exits, confident that victory was safely in hand. Gene commented, "Those people are probably hoping to see a car accident on the way home."
A convention in modern-day baseball is to reserve one strong relief pitcher for the ninth inning, as a "Closer." The Closer is not necessarily used at the game's most crucial juncture, but when he has a chance to earn a save, meaning, his team is leading by 1-3 runs. This role worked perfectly for dominant pitchers like former Oakland Athletic Dennis Eckersley, but is now used by all big league teams, regardless of the talent of their relief staff. The Braves have an extremely dominant Closer in John Smoltz, whom they also reserve exclusively for save situations. Twice in the series so far, the Giants had scored the winning run off of inferior relievers, but because a save was not in order, Closer Smoltz had not taken off his warmup jacket.
One might think a three-run lead is not especially difficult to protect, and in general, that is a correct impression. My only beliefs are that one's best relievers are most valuable when games are closest - that is, tie games, leading by one run, or even trailing by a run. Still, the mystique of the Closer is such that any manager going against this conventional wisdom risks the wrath of the fans and sportswriting community.
A save was in order for the Giants, so Schmidt left in favor of their Closer, Tim Worrell. Tim Worrell is decidedly not a dominant pitcher. He's not bad, but he certainly doesn't fit the general stereotype of a flame-throwing relief pitcher, as exemplified by Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Goose Gossage, and Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn. Nevertheless, the Giants' staff plays "Iron Man" as Worrell walks in from the bullpen, fills the stadium's screen with exploding graphics reading "WORRELL," to try to build up some fake intimidation for a pitcher that only became the Closer because Robb Nen got hurt. Needless to say, the Braves were not fooled by the PA system bravado, and with the help of some poor infield defense by the Giants, they tied the score at 3-3. Incredibly, as the game headed to the bottom of the ninth, large numbers of people continued to leave the park. Perhaps they wanted a car fire.
The ninth began, and Smoltz was warming up in the bullpen. After two days of inactivity, it appeared the Braves might use their top reliever. The Atlanta manager, Bobby Cox, had been roundly criticized for not using Smoltz at all in the first two games. Perhaps he was finally going to play for the win, and not the save, tonight. The Giants failed to score in their half of the ninth, held the Braves at bay in the top of the tenth, and when the tenth inning began, the Braves new pitcher was...Trey Hodges?
Yes, Trey Hodges. He began the inning by striking out Marquis Grissom, and then Barry Bonds stepped to the plate. Surely, the fans thought, this will be the time for Smoltz. Less than 48 hours earlier, Cox had left Smoltz in the bullpen while Bonds hit the game-winning home run. Even in a non-save situation, he had to bring in Smoltz, right?
He did not. Hodges stayed in. And Bonds hit the first pitch he saw over the center field fence. The remaining crowd of 20,000 went wild. The Giants mobbed Bonds at home plate. I gave Gene an awkward high five. John Smoltz ate some sunflower seeds and adjusted his cup. Thousands of early-departing fans kicked themselves and prepared to lie to their co-workers about having seen the home run live.
So, to recap: Barry Bonds, folk hero. Jason Schmidt, dominant ace. Jose Cruz, lost samurai. Bobby Cox, dunce. Gene Wood, staunch companion, and responsible for a decision as good as Bobby Cox's pitching changes were bad: going to Gordon Biersch after the game.