Baggs' Instant Replay: Two down, one to go

Baggs' Instant Replay: Two down, one to go
October 10, 2012, 11:44 pm
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BOX SCORE

CINCINNATI This was supposed to be the night that Barry Zito sang his redemption song. It was his turn to take the baseball, save a season and rewrite a Giants legacy that wouldnt include a first-sentence reference to 126 million.

Yes, there was redemption Wednesday night. Salvation, too.

But the baptism on the banks of the Ohio River belonged to another pitcher who competed with reduced stuff and diminished stature, who battled a yearlong crisis of confidence and who faced so many questions armed with so few answers.

You didnt need the scorers discretion. In every sense, Tim Lincecum was the winning pitcher as the Giants pounded the Cincinnati Reds 8-3 to force a decisive Game 5 in this unforgettable NL Division Series.

Zito needed 76 pitches to record just eight outs, but Lincecum peeled off his hooded sweatshirt. And the former ace, bumped from the playoff rotation after posting the worst ERA among all 46 qualified starters in the National League this season, held the Reds to a run in 4 13 strike-filled relief innings.

Gregor Blanco hit a tiebreaking, two-run home run in the second inning one of three longballs for the Giants, who broke out of their offensive doldrums against No. 5 starter Mike Leake.

Angel Pagan led off the game with a home run and Pablo Sandoval added a towering, two-run shot in the seventh as the Giants finally received a productive game from their top three hitters.

The speeches and the fire and the hard-hit drives cannot end here. The Giants must win one more game Thursday behind Matt Cain to complete a three-game sweep at Great American Ball Park and advance to the NL Championship Series against either the St. Louis Cardinals or Washington Nationals.

Starting pitching report
Zito pitched like he was boxing above his weight class. He threw from his heels, had trouble throwing strikes in the first inning and constantly steered around potholes.

He allowed two runs on four hits and four walks, and labored for 76 pitches to record just eight outs.

But in his first playoff start as a Giant, he did not pitch his team out of the ballgame.

The first two innings were so classically Zito. He retired the first two hitters only to run into deep, deep trouble from the stretch, where his location wasnt as sharp and he didnt have the same finish on his breaking pitches.

Joey Votto reached out on a breaking ball for a two-out single in the first inning, and after a series of competitive misses, Ryan Ludwick drew a walk. Zito was less competitive while walking Jay Bruce on a series of offerings that took catcher Hector Sanchez out of his crouch. Todd Frazier followed by drawing a five-pitch walk to force home the tying run as George Kontos began loosening in the bullpen.

Zito escaped the bases-loaded jam when he got Dioner Navarro to swing through a two-strike curveball.

Zito appeared to settle down in the second inning despite a pair of two-out hits, both of which went off the glove of second baseman Marco Scutaro. But Ludwick homered on a hanging curve to start the third, and after Navarro drew a two-out walk, Bochy went to his bullpen.

The relievers had a long road ahead to protect a 3-2 lead.

Bullpen report
Bochy wasnt going to go straight to Lincecum. He tabbed George Kontos, who got a foul pop to end the third. When the pitchers spot was stranded on deck in the top of the fourth, Bochy stayed with the rookie right-hander. Kontos made the pitches to get outs in the fourth, but Scutaro misplayed Mike Leakes short-hop grounder into an infield single and Zack Cozart grounded a one-out hit.

Bochy was going batter-by-batter, fourth inning be damned. He did not hesitate to fire one of his left-handed bullets, using Jose Mijares. The lefty had Joey Votto guessing fastball on a slider and slider on a fastball while striking him out.

Then it was time for Timmy. Although Bochy probably preferred to give Lincecum a clean inning to begin, the manager was too tempted by Ludwicks 3-for-23 career line against the two-time Cy Young Award winner.

Lincecum threw a 2-2 slider that broke away from Ludwicks swing to end the inning and strand two runners, as three different Giants pitchers each recorded a whiff to strike out the side.

Prior to the game, Bochy said Lincecum could pitch as many as five innings, calling it a huge advantage to have him in the bullpen. But that only worked if Lincecum is on his game, and so many times this season, he hasnt been able to work clean innings.

Simply put, the Giants wouldve been up a very unmapped, backwoods creek if Lincecum had struggled. They had only three more relievers in the bullpen, and two of them, Sergio Romo and Jeremy Affeldt, had combined for four innings the previous night.

Lincecum did not struggle. Pitching exclusively from the stretch, he threw a remarkable 42 strikes on 55 pitches while holding the Reds to one run in 4 13 innings.

Drew Stubbs had one of just two hits off Lincecum, a leadoff double in the sixth. He advanced on a ground out and scored on Brandon Phillips sacrifice fly.

Other than that, the Reds could not touch him. He didnt rediscover his 95 mph fastball, but he made pitches with what he had and kept pumping strikes with all his pitches. He competed as he did two years ago, when he was relentless while pitching the Giants to a World Series title.

Perhaps Lincecums most impressive sequence came in the sixth, when Zack Cozart fouled off seven consecutive pitches as Lincecum kept alternating between fastball and offspeed. He finally threw a slider and Cozart lined it to Pagan in center field.

Counting his start against Atlanta in the 2010 playoffs and his two relief appearances in this series, Lincecum is 2-0 with an 0.59 ERA in NL Division Series play. He has allowed just five hits and one walk while striking out 22 in 15 13 innings.

Not only did Lincecum bridge a very long chasm, but he saved all the frontline relievers, as Bochy only needed to use Santiago Casilla in the ninth. The Giants will need the bullpen as fresh as possible behind Cain as the Giants must pull off one more victory at Great American Ball Park to advance.

At the plate
Its safe to say the Giants improved on the .126 average they dragged into Game 4.

As he did during so many successful road series in the second half, Pagan provided the spark. He became the first Giant in all-time franchise history to lead off a postseason game with a home run, sending Mike Leakes second pitch of the game into the right field seats.

Bochys decisions to start Hector Sanchez and stick with Gregor Blanco paid off, too. Sanchez singled to start the second inning and Blanco, who only owned seven homers in 1,103 career at-bats, sent a tiebreaking, two-run shot into the right field seats.

Bochys magic did not end there. His decision to double-switch with Lincecum in the fourth made a huge impact, as new shortstop Joaquin Arias hit a leadoff double in the fifth and Pagan followed with another double that split the gap in right-center. Pagan advanced on Marco Scutaros sacrifice bunt and scored on Sandovals sacrifice fly to give the Giants a 5-2 lead.

Arias sparked the Giants again in the seventh, greeting right-hander Jose Arredondo with a double off the base of the left field wall. After Pagan hit a 380-foot out to the warning track, Scutaro lined an RBI double and Sandoval followed with a towering shot that landed in the Giants bullpen for a two-run home run.

Pagan, Scutaro and Sandoval, the top three hitters in the Giants lineup, combined to go 6 for 11 with two walks, three doubles, two home runs, five RBIs and four runs scored.

That made all the difference from the first three games, when those three hitters combined to go 4 for 37 (.108) with zero runs scored.

Pagan also became the first Giants center fielder to combine for two hits, a home run and two RBIs in a postseason game since Willie Mays in the 1971 NLCS.

In field
It wouldnt be a Lincecum postseason appearance without a brain fart. It happened in the eighth inning, when the right-hander turned and fired a pickoff throw to first base after Posey had backpedaled from his position. Navarro took second base on the error, but Lincecum struck out pinch hitter Chris Heisey to leave him there.

Other than that and Scutaros misplay on Leakes single, the Giants played a clean game. Give Blanco credit for making some tough catches in the early innings, when left field was still bathed in afternoon sunlight.

Attendance
The Reds announced 44,375 paid. At least those rally towels are good for washing your car.

Up next
Its winner-take-all as the Giants and Reds meet in Game 5 on Thursday at Great American Ball Park. Right-hander Matt Cain, the Game 1 loser, takes the mound against a starter to be announced. Presumably, the Reds will turn to right-hander Mat Latos, who pitched four relief innings in Game 1. First pitch is at 10:07 a.m. PDT.

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