One inning

A baseball season is a slog, a marathon.  162 games, from early April to the first of October, playing essentially every day, with the only occasional days off mostly consumed with travel.  In a novel-length narrative, themes emerge, characters are established and grow in significance, moments of comedy interrupting a fairly constant daily tension.  And yet, sometimes, a single game, even a single inning seems filled with significance.

The Dodgers and the Giants have been rivals since the first days of the twentieth century, when both vied for New York supremacy.  The Dodgers were Brooklyn, named for the habits of urchins who would sneak aboard streetcars, dodging fare-collectors; they played in Ebbetts Field.  The Giants were upper Manhattan–the Polo Grounds were a short ways from Central Park, 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, prime uptown real estate.  In the 1890’s, the team was led by four players, pitchers Tim Keefe and Mickey Welch, catcher Buck Ewing, and outfielder Roger Connors; all were above-average in height, leading their manager, Jim Mutrie, to refer to them as his ‘giants.’  The nickname, unaccountably, stuck. 

The scrappy, hard-scrabble blue collar neighborhoods of Brooklyn vs. uptown Manhattan–it wasn’t just a rivalry based on sports.  In ’47, the Dodgers acquired another identity–civil rights pioneers, with the apotheosis of Jackie Robinson.  The Giants built theirs on another black superstar, Willie Mays.  When both teams moved to California, the rivalry took on a California tinge.  LA vs. San Francisco; it was still about a lot more than baseball.  There’s a joke told about a Giants fan, a Padres fan and a Dodgers fan who go mountain climbing together.  The Padres fan shouts: ‘this is for my team, the Padres!’ and leaps off a cliff to his death.  The Giants fan shouts: ‘this is for my team, the Giants!’ and pitches the Dodger fan off.

In recent years, though, the Dodgers have fallen apart, due to the tasteless antics of their owner, Frank McCourt.  He named his wife Jamie ‘team President’ and paid her an exorbitant salary to not do anything; the happy couple then filed for divorce, and their all-too-public squabbling cast an unflattering spotlight on the uglier habits of at least their version of the One Percent.  Meanwhile, McCourt let the team and stadium deteriorate.  As a Giants’ fan, the Frank and Jamie show couldn’t have been more entertaining, but it was bad for baseball, and probably even bad for the rivalry–you want your rivals to fail, but not to become a national joke.

But McCourt finally did sell the team, and the ownership group he sold it to was fronted by none other than Magic Johnson. Magic is, of course, a Hall-of-Fame basketball player, but he’s since become a very successful businessman.  And obviously, he knows sports. When I heard the news, I thought, ‘dang, Magic.  They’re gonna get really good, really fast.’  And so, last month, the Dodgers relieved the dysfunctional Boston Red Sox of four exceptionally talented, unachieving, preposterously overpaid players; traded ’em for prospects.

Last night, the Dodgers starting pitcher was Josh Beckett.  Beckett’s pedigree includes pitching two teams to World Series wins: the Florida Marlins in 2003, and the Red Sox in 2007.  But last year, it was revealed that Beckett was a ring-leader of a group of disaffected Sox, who would disappear into the clubhouse during games, drinking beer and eating fried chicken.

His 2012 season has been pretty terrible, but he’s still Josh Beckett, he’s a great clutch pitcher, and I wasn’t thrilled to see him in a Dodger uniform.  Last night, he was sharp, giving up just two runs over six innings, in a terrific pitcher’s duel with Timmeh; the Giant’s Lincecum, likewise trying to redeem a tarnished reputation.

September 7, then, in the middle of a pennant race, Giants in first place, Dodgers just behind in second.  2-2 game, seventh inning.  Beckett v. Lincecum.

Dodger’s half, Mark Ellis, their second baseman, leads off with a soft infield single.  Lincecum facing Shane Victorino.  You know how it is; there are some guys who just rub you the wrong way.  Victorino is a very good player, played last year for the Phillies, and we Giants’ fan just don’t like him. He’s cocky, obnoxious; we just don’t like him.  When this year he was traded to the Dodgers, my favorite Giants’ blogger, Grant Brisbane of The McCovey Chronicles called it ‘the perfect match of bacteria and growth medium.’  Summed it up nicely.  Bearing down, Timmeh strikes him out.  Then Adrian Gonzalez, one of the Red Sox refugees, draws a walk–Timmeh’s control was awful the whole game.  First and second, one out, seventh inning. Lincecum was up to 120 pitches, and Bruce Bochy reluctantly made the move–Santiago Casilla in.  Casilla was once the team’s best relief pitcher–an injury set him back, but he still throws smoke.  Strikeout, easy grounder; out of the inning.

Now came the bottom of the second, and the bottom of the order, our seventh, eighth, and ninth hitters.  Most of the time, that’s not a recipe for a big inning.  Last year, backup catcher was a position of weakness for the Giants, a weakness exposed when Buster Posey, our star, blew out his ankle.  This spring, a rotund young rookie, Hector Sanchez, showed up and started spraying line drives everywhere.  Giants’ management went from saying ‘he’s impressive, but nowhere near ready for the major leagues,’ to ‘well, he’s certainly showing us something,’ to telling him he’d made the team. And he’s kept hitting. Lincecum likes throwing to him, so he starts when Timmeh does, with Posey playing first.  So now, Hector leads off the seventh with a single.

Next up, Brandon Crawford.  For the last two years, shortstop has been a black hole, with a series of veteran players adding very little offense to sub-par defense.  Meanwhile, Crawford kept creeping his way up the minor league ladder.  I always thought he’d be good.  He was a very good college player, but the kind of guy who always seemed to need a little time to adjust to each new level.  When the Giants announced he’d be the starting shortstop this year, a lot of fans shuddered at the thought.  And he started the season not hitting much, and making a lot of errors.  But he’s settled down, been brilliant defensively: see for example, this.  And he’s just gotten better and better all season long. Now, with the game on the line, he lays off three borderline pitches, and draws a walk.  

Next up, Manny Burriss.  Emmanuel Burriss is from Washington, D.C., the only player in the majors from our nation’s capital.  He was the starting second baseman at the beginning of the season, and he’s fast and a good fielder, but he never did hit, and lost his job.  But he’s a very good bunter, and proves it now, in the seventh, pinch-hitting for Casilla and laying down a perfect sacrifice.  Beckett then walks Angel Pagan intentionally, to set up the double play.  And Marco Scutaro comes up to the plate.

Scoots is a veteran player, came up with Oakland, and is one of those solid good guys who just does everything the way it’s supposed to be done.  I love the guy, just so sound, so smart.  He started the season with the Colorado Rockies, an awful team this year.  It broke your heart, watching this consummate professional with a team so young and inept.  In July, we liberated him in exchange for Charlie Culberson, a minor league second baseman with some potential.  Good trade for both teams–we get a pro, and they get a guy who has a chance to be pretty good down the line.  So now, bases loaded, one out, Marco Scutaro comes to the plate.

It was a perfectly ordinary at bat, and yet also a great one.  First pitch, Beckett starts him with a fastball just off the plate outside.  A younger player, over-eager, would probably swing; Scoots takes, ball one.  A curve next, again just off the plate; another ball.  Another curve, and Scoots watches it cross the plate for strike one.  Then a fastball on the outside corner.

Thing is, it was a good pitch.  Josh Beckett’s a good pitcher, and he threw a ninety two mile an hour fastball, right on the corner, in the strike zone.  If Scutaro had tried to pull the ball, he would have turned it over, grounder to shortstop for the double-play.  But instead, he just went with the pitch, lofted a little ducksnort blooper over the second baseman’s head.  No possible way anyone could have caught it; two runs score, Crawford safe on a close play at the plate for the second run.

Ball game.  The Giants’ bullpen struggled a bit in the 8th, but Sergio Romo threw his frisbee slider and retired the side, and we got another run in the 8th to put it away.

First game of the three game set to the Giants; nationally televised games to come on Saturday and Sunday.  We’re five games up, with three weeks to play.  A turning point game?  No. But a tense and tough one.  September baseball, man.  I haven’t slept, I don’t think, since mid-August.    

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