“And they’re going crazy; they’re going crazy!” -New York Giants’ announcer Russ Hodges, calling the 1951 “shot heard ‘round the world.”
By beating the Texas Rangers convincingly in five games, the San Francisco Giants put an exclamation mark on a baseball season that can best be described as the year the underdogs came through.
From start to finish, the season was marked by the success of teams that were not supposed to succeed. Individual loyalties notwithstanding (as I’ve made clear in the past, I live and die with the Dodgers), the result can only be good for the sport.
The season began with almost everyone predicting a re-match of last year’s Fall Classic between the Phillies and the Yankees. Both teams were loaded with great players and were possessed of the financial ability to add to their rosters if and when they needed to. And both did get to the playoffs, albeit the Yankees had to do it as the American League’s wild card entry, as they stumbled through the last six weeks of the season, no better than a .500 team.
That fact alone might qualify as something of an upset, since the Yankees have (on paper, at least) a starting lineup that is loaded with stars (A-Rod, Jeter, Teixeira, Posada, Cano) and a pitching staff that starts with CC Sabathia and ends with Mariano Rivera (‘nuff said). But more than a few of those players showed their age as the season wound down, and though they swept through the Minnesota Twins in the first round of the playoffs, they looked completely overmatched in losing four of six games to the Rangers.
The Rangers started the season as a predicted also-ran. They had some talent, but the pitching, as always, looked suspect, and the hitting was going to rely on Josh Hamilton (a recovering alcoholic) and Vladimir Guerrero (who had stumbled on bad legs in his last year with the Angels). Hamilton then went on to have an MVP-like year (32 home runs-100 runs batted in-.359 batting average), and if he doesn’t get it, it will only be because Guerrero (29-115-.300) does.
Texas started strong and then, in mid-season pulled a real coup when GM Nolan Ryan traded for Cliff Lee, who dominated in three straight post-season games (two wins against Tampa Bay and one against the Yankees) before running into those giant-killing Giants.
But the guys from the Bay Area were the real story of the year, and few, if any, pre-season prognosticators predicted it. In fact, even fewer of those scribes thought the Giants would get to the World Series after they squeaked into the playoffs by beating San Diego for the National League West title on the last day of the season.
But this being the year of the underdog, they did prevail, beating that mighty Texas lineup in five games (and beating the mighty Mr. Lee twice in doing so).
This was a Giants team that had lost as many as 90 games just two years ago (its first without Barry Bonds) and 91 the year before that (its last with him). But even though General Manager Brian Sabean had almost been booed out of town in 2007 after signing another Barry (Zito, the ex-Oakland A’s Cy Young winner, who had two miserable seasons before regaining some of his former magic), he continued throughout the season to make roster moves.
Thus he picked up Pat Burrell, who had been released by Tampa Bay after barely hitting .200 early in the season. Burrell went to the minors, got some semblance of his swing back, and came up to the big club in mid-season to become a power hitter the team desperately needed. (In 96 games, he hit 18 home runs and knocked in 51.)
And, in mid-August, when the Florida Marlins waived an outfielder named Cody Ross, Sabean grabbed him, too (primarily so the Padres, who were waiting to nab Ross, couldn’t get him). Ross won a starting spot in the outfield and socked five post-season home runs, while winning MVP honors for the team’s six-game rout of the Phillies.
Sabean also bolstered a sometimes-shaky bullpen by adding a tough left-hander, Javier Lopez, from Pittsburgh at the trading deadline, and by trading for right-hander Ramon Ramirez (from the Red Sox) on the same day. Both pitchers played key roles in the Giants’ playoff run.
That run began with a tough, four-game series against the Atlanta Braves in which all four games were decided by one run. And except for the game the Giants lost, they were all low scoring, which is to say, the Giants pitching was dominant.
If it’s true that good pitching stops good hitting, then the Giants have just proved that great pitching stops all hitting. Their hitting was sporadic during the regular season (actually it was anemic until Burrell and rookie sensation Buster Posey, their catcher, came on board), but the pitching was very strong, and it only got stronger when the post-season began. That’s when Sabean and field manager Bruce Bochy made a tough, but critical, decision. They left Zito off the playoff roster, knowing that they had four better (read that much better) starters and that the lefty was unlikely to be a fit for the bullpen.
So, instead, the Giants went with a four-man rotation headed by two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, hard-throwing right hander Matt Cain, and a pair of young lefties, Jonathan Sanchez (who already had a no-hitter to his credit) and Madison Bumgarner (who, at 21, had only been on the big league roster for half the season).
Say what you will about the suddenly hot bats of Ross, Aubrey Huff, Freddy Sanchez, Juan Uribe and Edgar Renteria (whose home run iced the final win over the Rangers, thereby winning him the World Series MVP award), it was the pitching of those four, and the lockdown performance of closer Brian Wilson (he of the heavy-duty black beard), that propelled this team to its first championship in 56 years and its first-ever in San Francisco.
And finally, in the city by the Bay, the happiest form of hysteria reigns.
They’re going crazy; they are, indeed, going crazy!