As we approach Game 1 of the 2010 World Series, I thought we'd use our weekly top five feature to take a look at the reasons why the San Francisco Giants won the National League Championship Series. This is not about why the Giants got to this point over the course of the 2010 season. Rather, it's about the events that took place during their six games against the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS. There were numerous key players and moments that factored into the Giants bringing home the National League Pennant. We'll list five of them in no particular order.
1. Javier Lopez
A lot of people might look at Javier Lopez's appearances in the NLCS, take a second to ponder them, and then move on. After all, a lefty specialist who generally pitches to a couple of batters and no more than an inning's worth does not usually get much love. Middle relievers seem to get the most coverage when something goes wrong. And in light of some of the team's bullpen struggles against the Phillies, I thought it would be worth highlighting one of the stronger bullpen performances.
Lopez appeared in five of the six games in the NLCS, lasting 4 1/3 innings. During that time he gave up one run in Game Four, and nothing else the rest of the way. In Game Four he came in to start the seventh inning and after issuing a walk to Shane Victorino, he got a pop-out from Chase Utley and forced Placido Polanco to ground into a double play. He came back out in the eighth inning and gave up a lead-off double to Ryan Howard. He was then pulled and a Jayson Werth double led to Lopez being credited with the Howard run.
What's notable about that Ryan Howard hit is that it was the only hit Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, or Placido Polanco got off Lopez. Lopez was primarily brought in to face Utley and Howard and was immensely successful against the heart of the Phillies batting order. When Phillies manager Charlie Manuel split them up with Placido Polanco in the middle, Giants manager Bruce Bochy was confident enough to let Lopez make his way through all three, and Lopez stepped up for his manager.
2. Giants Starting Pitching
As has been the case all season long, this series really did come down to starting pitching. The Giants starters did not dominate like they had at times in the regular season, but the Giants got what they needed from them. Although Jonathan Sanchez's Game Six mini-meltdown doesn't help this argument, the pitching otherwise kept the Giants in this series and gave them what they needed.
It really was fitting that of the starters, it was Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain that really stepped up the biggest. While Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sanchez have shown great signs of development in 2010, the duo of Lincecum and Cain are what carry this rotation. In Lincecum's two starts he went seven innings each time with a 3.21 era. In Cain's start he threw seven innings of shutout ball. The Giants went 2-1 in those starts and will need to see continued strong outings from these two in the World Series.
3. Game Six Bullpen Performance
Although the Giants held a 3-2 edge in the series at this point, Game Six had most Giants fans on edge. Even with a one-game cushion, a Giants loss would have brought the Phillies all the way back and momentum would have been squarely to the backs of the Phillies. Things were not looking good at all in Game Six as Jonathan Sanchez had a bit of a meltdown both physically and emotionally. He gave up a pair of first inning runs and even with the Giants tying the game up in the third, Sanchez was struggling with his location.
Things hit their low point for Sanchez in the bottom of the third. After walking Placido Polanco, Sanchez hit Chase Utley in the back with nobody out. A brief exchange between Utley and Sanchez led to both benches emptying and Bruce Bochy decided he'd had enough. Relief pitcher Jeremy Affeldt had begun warming up in the bullpen and the bench-clearing argument provided him with the necessary additional time to come on in relief of Sanchez.
After limited work throughout the series, Affeldt proceeded to set down the Phillies six up and six down with two strikeouts mixed in. Given the two on, nobody out situation to start the third, Affeldt's performance was huge for a team looking to just keep the game tied.
The Giants then went to starter Madison Bumgarner hoping to get a couple solid innings from him. Bumgarner did last those two innings in spite of some shaky moments. He gave up three hits and one walk, but worked out of both innings, including a bases loaded situation in the fifth. Bumgarner has given the Giants a lot of hope for the future, but he showed some additional poise in this relief appearance.
The Giants finally went to their regular bullpen with Javier Lopez in the seventh, who set the Phillies down in order. The eighth inning saw Bruce Bochy looking to bring down the hammer as he brought Tim Lincecum back on one day's rest to face the Phillies. After striking out Jayson Werth, Lincecum gave up a pair of singles. This brought in Brian Wilson, looking for a five out save. Although things got a little dicey, Wilson got through the five outs for the save.
Game Six technically wasn't a must-win game, but all things considered, a loss would have left the Giants feeling incredibly uncomfortable. The Giants full contingent of pitching was mixed in after Jonathan Sanchez left the game, and they did an admirable job over seven innings.
4. Chase Utley/Ryan Howard
The downside to this part of the Top Five is that it's not something they can carry on with them to the World Series. The Phillies had a fairly dynamic offense, but there was no doubting that it was built around the combination of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. During the regular season they combined for 47 home runs, 173 runs batted in and 162 runs scored.
The postseason, and the NLCS in particular, did not see a repeat of that success. In six games the two hit a combined .250 with 1 run batted in. The big story was Ryan Howard's failure to drive in a single run for the Phillies in the postseason. He did manage to hit 7 for 22 (.318) for the series, but almost all his hits ended up being fairly meaningless. He scored 1 run and drove in nobody over the six games, which basically means six of those seven hits were basically for naught. Chase Utley did manage to score some runs, but consider it good timing more than anything. He was 4 for 22 (.182) with a walk.
While Jayson Werth, Placido Polanco, and Jimmy Rollins all managed some big hits in the series, the team simply could not overcome the offensive struggles of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.
5. Cody Ross
Naturally we have to include the NLCS MVP in a list of the top five reasons the San Francisco Giants advanced to the World Series. In reality one could make the argument that Ross' impact on this series really was primarily felt in Game One. Ross hit a pair of home runs in that game, both of which were essential in the Giants 4-3 victory. In Game Two he hit a solo home run in a 6-1 loss, in Game Three he drove in the first run in the Giants 3-0 victory, and in Game Five he drove in a run in a 4-2 loss.
Even if Cody Ross had done nothing other than hit those two home runs in Game One, one could argue those home runs were enough to win him the MVP. Since everything really should be compared to a Rocky movie, one could argue those home runs were much like round 2 of the Drago fight in Rocky IV. Even with the Giants superb pitching, Roy Halladay and the Phillies were huge favorites in the series. Lincecum had put together an amazing performance in the NLDS, but Halladay was coming off a no-hitter.
The Giants offense had plenty of question marks heading into this series and was certainly an X-factor. And then Cody Ross struck in the third and fifth innings...