Baseball: Giant misfits make pitch for unlikely world glory
San Francisco's rag-tag bunch, led by star pitcher Tim Lincecum, have high hopes as they play Texas in world series
Wednesday 27 October 2010
With his shoulder length tresses, penchant for marijuana and a stated ambition to own an old VW bus, Tim Lincecum could be a product of the City of Love circa 1967 rather than a starting pitcher for San Francisco in this autumn of miracles for the Giants in 2010.
So what more natural, in the recent Game One of the National League Championship Series in Philadelphia, than the famously boorish Phillies fans sarcastically wolf-whistling him as he took the mound? This after all was the city where Santa Claus was once booed off the field during a snowy mid-December American football game.
But Lincecum, as he usually does, had the last word. He may look like a flower child, but place a baseball in his right hand and he's lethal. Lincecum outduelled the Phillies' top starter Roy Halladay for a 4-3 win, and the Giants never looked back.
Five games later, they wrapped up the NLCS, and tonight Lincecum takes the mound against the Texas Rangers to launch his franchise's bid for its first World Series title since 1954, before the Giants made their transcontinental migration from New York. And many of the fans jammed into their gorgeous downtown ballpark by the bay still can't quite believe their eyes.
This has been the post-season of upsets. San Francisco weren't supposed to have a prayer against the Phillies, owners of the best regular season record in the big leagues and chasing their third consecutive National League pennant.
Having navigated the small problem of the Giants, the Phillies were then scripted to face the New York Yankees in a repeat of the 2009 Series. But the stars on the Yankees' $200m payroll are starting to show their age. In the American League pennant series they made no impression against the Rangers – whose pedigree happens to be even more threadbare than the Giants.
Yes, Texas' last-but-one managing owner was the former president George W Bush (who then sold it to a certain Tom Hicks who wreaked the same havoc on the team's finances as he would later inflict on Liverpool's). Far more important, for the purposes of the best-of-seven series starting today, the Rangers are one of only three current Major League Baseball franchises that have never been to the World Series in their history. If they are to break the hex of never having won the big one, they will have to overcome Lincecum and the assorted dudes of San Francisco.
One way or another, these 2010 Giants couldn't be more different from their counterparts of 2002 – the last time San Francisco made it to the World Series, when they lost to the Los Angeles (then Anaheim) Angels. That team lived in the shadow of the surly, uptight superstar Barry Bonds; this one couldn't be looser.
"A bunch of misfits," is how manager Bruce Bochy describes his players, who can often be spotted mingling and drinking with fans in the bars of the bay. Their baseball isn't always pretty, and often it's downright nerve-racking; seven of their 10 play-off games so far, against the Atlanta Braves and then the Phillies, have been decided by a single run. More than once, they've got lucky. But the human chemistry is perfect. The misfits fit together wondrously.
Take Cody Ross, a journeyman outfielder picked up on waivers in August from the Florida Marlins, who proceeded to smash three home runs off the vaunted Phillies pitching, and was named the NLCS most valuable player. Or Aubrey Huff, a down-on-his-luck free agent picked up last winter by the Giants – alone among the 30 major league teams to make an offer for him.
What the Giants do have, however, is a terrific, mostly homegrown, pitching staff – and rule number one of baseball, particularly play-off baseball, is that good pitching beats good hitting. So it proved as the Phillies' normally fearsome line-up was tamed, hitting a meagre 0.216 over the six games.
Of that staff, the undisputed ace is Lincecum, at 26 already a two-time Cy Young Award winner. In build, as well as hairstyle, he breaks baseball conventions. Pitchers as a breed are big men, tall or bulky, often both. Lincecum by contrast is lithe and light, just 5ft 11in and weighing a shade over 12st, but with a fastball clocked consistently in the mid-90s, and a deadly change-up, at first resembling the fastball but 10mph slower as it dips towards the hitter at the last moment.
"He's a freak of nature," the Giants general manager, Brian Sabean, once said of Lincecum (the nickname "The Freak" has since stuck). "To have that kind of athletic ability, those mechanics and the sheer strength he has – with his stature – is just unheard of." The question now is, does he have enough to get the better of the Rangers, or rather their ace Cliff Lee, virtually unbeatable in a play-off game?
On paper, Texas look the stronger team. They play better all-round baseball, and the Giants have no hitter to match Josh Hamilton, the Rangers' outfielder whose career once seemed ruined by drug and alcohol addiction, but who smashed four home runs off the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, on the way to averaging 0.350. After witnessing their team's demolition, some New York writers of a certain age are likening Hamilton to the immortal Mickey Mantle. There's no higher praise.
But the outcome may hinge on the match-ups between Lincecum and Lee. Their first encounter is tonight, and if the Series goes the distance, they could also go head-to-head in games four and seven. For baseball fans, it is a match-up for the ages.
Giants' cause: Three other key players aiming to help San Francisco win the world series
One of the stories of the season, outfielder Ross was cast off by the Florida Marlins after a contract dispute and only joined the Giants two months ago. But he has been one of the heroes of post-season, starring in the divisional series and then claiming the NLCS MVP after hitting .350 with three home runs and five runners-batted-in.
The Giants' closer has 134 career saves but is just as famous for his eccentricities. He has already been fined $1,000 by the MLB for wearing bright orange spikes in the All-Star Game. His idiosyncratic appearance also includes Mohawk hair and a beard dyed black. He has claimed this year to be a "certified Ninja".
The popular catcher who comes on to the theme song from Ghostbusters ("Go Buster!" sing the fans), has had an astonishing rookie season. A prodigious clean-up hitter, he went on a 10-day streak in July (.514, 19 hits, six home runs and three RBIs) that was the best by any rookie in the history of the National League.
World series fixtures
Game 1 Tomorrow, ESPN America 00.30
Game 2 Friday, ESPN America 00.30
Game 3 Saturday, ESPN America 23.30
Game 4 Sunday, ESPN America 23.30
Game 5 Mon 1 Nov, ESPN America 23.30
Game 6 Wed 3 Nov, ESPN America 23.30
Game 7 Thu 4 Nov, ESPN America 23.30
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