It was part card game, part war of attrition, part contest to see who blinked first.
Both managers based their strategies on mitigating their weaknesses as much as exploiting their strengths.
The team that came back from disaster – the one that “overcame adversity” – was the team that lost.
The team that blew a commanding lead and was impotent for most of the game was the team that won 5-4 in the bottom of the 10th inning in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.
The hero of the story had no business being so if you base heroism in baseball on, you know, being able to hit.
Gregor Blanco can’t hit, at least not in the leadoff spot he’s forced to occupy because of injuries on his Giants team. But Blanco can lay down a perfect bunt and run so fast he puts pressure on opponents.
The St. Louis Cardinals blinked, rushed into a throwing error by reliever Randy Choate because of Blanco’s speed. And that’s how it ended – the first postseason game won on a throwing error since the 1969 Miracle Mets won Game 4 of the World Series.
This one was glory via walk-off bunt. If that sounds preposterous, that’s because it is – just as it’s preposterous how reputations of managers and players are made in the comfort of hindsight when games like these offer no comfort and turn on moments that could go either way.
“I’m a little delirious, I guess,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, his gigantic face flushed red as a beet and brimming with a grizzled, goofy smile.
“I’m not sure if I assume something is going to happen, but it couldn’t have worked out any better.”
It could have been much worse. Bochy, who now seems destined for the Hall of Fame, was primed for major second-guessing in this one had things gone another way.
This is where we get back to a chess game of managers pulling strings to cover up their deficiencies. After the Giants’ bullpen surrendered a lead to lose Game 2 on Sunday, Bochy was in a position where his words and his deeds were suspect.
Was the brilliant strategist losing his edge? Did he stick with starter Tim Hudson one batter too long on a blustery Tuesday afternoon after burning his ace left-handed relievers too early in the Game 2 loss?
And was Bochy overcompensating now in Game 3 by holding Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt in reserve while allowing Hudson to pitch into the seventh inning when he had been wobbling and vulnerable?
Boom! Randal Grichuk, the Cardinals’ right fielder who had been hitless all day, slashed a one-out solo homer off Hudson to tie the score 4-4.
Why not bring in a left-hander? Why let Hudson go out there when he allowed a run in the sixth to turn a 4-0 Giants laugher into a 4-3 nail-biter entering money time?
The chatter all over social media was that Bochy was losing his edge. He was starting to be too loyal, the way Dusty Baker used to be while managing the Giants to several gut-wrenching October heartbreaks a decade ago.
Such facile second-guessing underlines the absurdity of instant analysis and how heroes and goats are measured on the thin line separating success from failure in games fought passionately between two evenly matched teams.
Hudson did make a mistake on Grichuk. Bochy did make a mistake by leaving him in. But “mistakes” like these are easy to condemn after the fact.
In the moment, playoff game situations come down to trust developed between managers and players based on months of monotonous repetition.
It made sense to stay with Hudson in the seventh inning because he was facing the bottom of a Cardinals lineup that Hudson had handled well – unlike more prominent Cardinals hitters like Jon Jay and Kolten Wong.
Hudson made a mistake, leaving a cutter over the plate. When Bochy went out to get Hudson, there was a you-left-him-out-there pall hanging in the air.
“We just felt he could get us two outs (in the seventh),” Bochy said of Hudson. “I thought he was still throwing the ball well.”
Hudson was, but mistakes happen.
Having lost the lead because Giants strategy based on belief went awry, many teams would have wilted – especially since the Giants had not gotten a hit since a Hudson single in the fourth inning.
“I always believe we can win,” said Travis Ishikawa, the Giants’ left fielder who is a first baseman by trade.
It came down to belief.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had holes he had been plugging as well, with the loss of iconic catcher, Yadier Molina.
As bad as Blanco was at the plate, he was keeping the Giants in the game with superlative plays in the field. So was Ishikawa, who was a Triple-A free agent before opportunity via injury brought him here.
“I’ve gotten to see the whole country, but San Francisco is home,” he said.
Is it luck? Is it fate that makes the Giants’ clubhouse a place where sure losses turn into wins?
In the 10th inning, Brandon Crawford, so anemic at the plate all afternoon, forced a walk. Juan Perez, so anemic at the plate he couldn’t lay down a sacrifice bunt, singled to left.
Then Blanco laid down a bunt; the throw went wide and the Giants won.
Bochy the goat became Bochy the hero.
“Great ballgame,” Bochy said.
He could afford to be magnanimous. He won. His genius tag was intact. Worrying about how easily it could have gone the other way was for losers.
Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.