Ratto: Giants' Lopez Holds Key to Unlocking NLCS

October 17, 2010, 4:38 am
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PHILADELPHIA -- Of all the inspirational moments to come out of Saturdays 4-3 Giants win over Philadelphia in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, these were the best three:

1. Tim Lincecum, on the wolf whistles he got from the fans at Citizens Bank Park: They must think I have a really nice butt.

2. P.R. head Jim Moorehead after Aubrey Huff walked through the clubhouse with a beer in his hand, ice strapped to his ankle and his red thong in full view and doing its job: We ARE Americas Misfits.

3. Cody Ross saying anything at all. The man speaks homer, so he doesnt have be eloquent.

And yet, on a night with multiple heroes, or ordinary players doing heros turns, the most important might have been Javier Lopez. Yeah, that Javier Lopez.

Ross hit two home runs off Phillies show pony Roy Halladay. Pat Burrell returned to the scene of his greatest triumphs and aired out an RBI double. Juan Uribe followed with a line single to center to provide the ever popular fourth run. Brian Wilson teased and then strangled the Phils for yet another inning-plus save. Lincecum grappled with both the Phillies, the frugal home plate umpire Derryl Cousins, and his own work to match Halladay stride for stride.

But as it is likely to be for the rest of this series, the game is ultimately going to go through Lopez, and what he does with the Phillies two best hitters, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. It wont be noticed by many folks because, as Moorehead said, they are Americas Misfits, but it may end up being the secret truth that helps tell the bigger story.

I dont know about that, he said. Im just trying to make my pitches, attack the zone, hit my spots, make them work for what they get.

Clich bingo! He hit em all.

But while he doesnt want to tell a lot of about the secret rocket formula, he did get through enough of the Utley and Howard at-bats in the eighth to bring the game to Wilson, which after all is why he is paid. Utley grounded out modestly to second baseman Freddy Sanchez on an 0-2 slider, and Howard worked through a fastball and four sliders of varying velocity before swinging through another fastball.

That was all he did. That was all the Giants needed. He performed the vital task of taking Lincecums lead and presenting it to Wilson seamlessly, and Wilson closed from there in a tidy 33-pitch effort.

Well, he did face six hitters, after all.

But in Lopez nine pitches, he changed arm angles from side to sub, varied his speeds from 74 to 88 mph, got ahead of both Utley and Howard and eliminated them from doing what they are best equipped to do in this series -- hit uncatchable balls very far.

And he did so working with Cousins tightish strike zone, one that irritated both Lincecum and Halladay at times but which was consistently unfriendly to any and all pitchers.

Well, you actually have a pretty good vantage point from the bullpen (in almost dead center field), Lopez said, so I could get a sense of what was working for the other guys. Plus Ive faced them before, and I know what they can punish.

The closest he came was on the 1-1 slider that Howard smoked foul. I dropped down a little more on that one, he said. And I didnt do that again.

Much has, or will be made of how Lopez is fitting the job Damaso Marte did for the Yankees in last years World Series stifling Utley and Howard and Raul Ibanez. In a situation-loaded series like this, his work on those hitters in late-inning situations will define whether Bruce Bochy can get to Wilson without the agita of baserunners in one-run games.

Of course, it will be lost in the ancillary fun of Cody (Rodeo Boy) Ross, the most powerful eight-hitter ever created. And Burrells history, and Huffs accoutrements, and Wilsons costume shop beard.

And of course Lincecum, whose hair will again be the object of many Philadelphian and Jerseyite male desires if the series goes seven games. The whistling, which is actually a historical by-product of the days when Ron Duguay of the 1970s New York Rangers used to come to town with a considerably larger mane than Lincecums Patty Smyth look; he is part of Philadelphia lore now, and thats how it will have to stay.

But in the quiet corner where few deign to tread, Javier Lopez sits quietly, knowing the game is heading for his little corner of the universe almost every time. Theyll all be when the Giants have a one-run lead to protect, or a one-run deficit to hold, because thats what the Giants do.

But theyll all matter. At least until Huff comes through the clubhouse with a lingerie statement to make. Americas Misfits, or Victorias Secret models -- whatever.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.

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