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CINNATI -- Despite its one-sided start, the National League Division Series between the San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds turned out to be as closely contested as most observers predicted.
The Reds out-hit and out-pitched the Giants -- statistically, at least -- but were edged in the end as Buster Posey and the Giants' bullpen helped push San Francisco into the National League Championship Series.
The Giants joined a short list of teams that prevailed in a best-of-five series despite losing the first two games. As cliched as it might sound, they truly approached each game one at a time after falling behind 2-0. They needed a 10th-inning unearned run to win Game 3, but that was enough to propel them onward.
"Game 3 is the tough game for them," the Reds' Scott Rolen said of the Giants. "That's a big uphill climb for them, so you have to give them a ton of credit for Game 3, sticking in there and playing good baseball and staying on top of things. That's an easy one to let slide a little bit. They stayed on top of it, and they earned where they're headed right now."
The three reasons the Giants won the NLDS:
Getting the breaks. As the series progressed, fortune smiled more widely upon the Giants. But they weren't just lucky. Teams make their own breaks by getting runners on base and putting pitches in play. Sure, Rolen's 10th-inning error on Joaquin Arias' grounder allowed the go-ahead run to score in Game 3. But his miscue probably would have been harmless if Posey and Hunter Pence hadn't singled to open the inning.
A similar instance occurred in Game 5, when the Giants seized upon shortstop Zack Cozart's error during their six-run outburst in the fifth inning. They might have scored as many runs without the error; officially, only one run was unearned. But the Giants handed Cincinnati an opportunity in the second inning when Pablo Sandoval misplayed Rolen's grounder. Matt Cain responded by coaxing a double-play grounder from the next batter, Ryan Hanigan. Obviously, Cincinnati wasn't as opportunistic.
Teams also create breaks by hustling. Pence's sliding catch down the right-field line in Game 3 furthered the Giants' efforts that night, because it (as well as his pregame speeches) inspired the entire club.
Bullpen benefits. San Francisco's starters averaged barely more than 4 1/3 innings per game in the series. That's typically a source of disaster, particularly for such a pitching-reliant club. But the Giants compensated by receiving superb efforts from their relievers. In the Giants' three consecutive victories, relievers allowed two runs in 14 2/3 innings (a 1.23 ERA) while yielding 12 hits, walking two and striking out 13.
Some contributions were brief but significant. Javier Lopez, Jose Mijares and George Kontos sometimes faced only one batter. Others, such as Jeremy Affeldt and Sergio Romo, appeared in longer stints. And of course, there was Tim Lincecum, whose 4 1/3 dazzling innings sealed San Francisco's Game 4 triumph.
The Giants probably will need longer stints from their starters to survive whoever they play in the NLCS, whether it's St. Louis or Washington. For now, the bullpen can take an extended bow.
Avoiding Aroldis. Reds relief ace Aroldis Chapman looked impressive enough. He allowed one meaningless run in three one-inning appearances, struck out three and displayed his breathtaking velocity. But Cincinnati couldn't generate a save opportunity for him, because the Giants removed him as a factor in the series. In Games 4 and 5, they assumed commanding leads by the middle innings, which discouraged the Reds from using Chapman.
Cincinnati's bullpen was as impressive as advertised. Jonathan Broxton, Sam LeCure and Sean Marshall made three appearances apiece and didn't surrender an earned run. Summoned to pitch relief in Game 1, Mat Latos essentially assured the Reds of a victory by yielding one run in four innings. But the Reds never could strike fear into the Giants' hearts by holding the threat of Chapman over them. They simply didn't let Cincinnati get that far.
The three reasons the Reds lost the NLDS:
Lack of clutch hitting. The Reds went up 2-0 on the Giants at AT&T Park with good pitching, but the offense was perky with 14 runs and 13 hits combined, including a 9-0 stomping in Game 2.
What followed was abysmal clutch hitting, something that often bit them during the regular season. The postseason Reds were 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position over the last three games and stranded 28 runners. They missed chances to jump on the Giants in the first inning of both Games 3 and 4. After falling behind 6-0 in Game 5, there was a nice comeback attempt as the Reds had the tying run at the plate in the final four innings, including the winning run in the ninth. Cincinnati was 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position in the final game.
Not at full strength because of his surgically repaired knee, Joey Votto had no homers and no RBIs in the NLDS, despite hitting .389.
"Obviously you can reflect on it and understand the main thing -- we just didn't hit with runners in scoring position," right fielder Jay Bruce said.
Cueto's injury caught up to them. Following ace Johnny Cueto's shocking Game 1 oblique injury finished him after only eight pitches in San Francisco, the Reds pitching staff responded admirably. Sam LeCure and Latos came up huge from the bullpen as their team pulled out a win. Bronson Arroyo gave up one hit over seven innings in a Game 2 shutout. In Game 3, Homer Bailey allowed one run over seven innings and flirted with a no-hitter.
Once Cueto was removed from the roster, Mike Leake could not step up and got roughed up in Game 4. And Latos came unglued during an ugly six-run fifth inning in Game 5 that was capped by Posey's grand slam.
"It was a mental error on me," Latos said. "I'm not making excuses. I screwed it up. This game is 100 percent on me. I let down my teammates, and that's what bugs me the most right now."
Defense faltered in key moments. The Reds have played solid defense all season and it's one of the reasons they made the postseason in the first place. But it sprung a couple of untimely leaks.
In Game 3, a 2-1 loss, a 10th-inning passed ball on Ryan Hanigan put the go-ahead run on third base. It scored when Gold Glove Award winner Rolen couldn't snare a high hop to third base by Joaquin Arias.
And in Game 5, as Latos was struggling, Cozart bobbled Angel Pagan's grounder for an error that let a run score.
"We did some stuff that we normally don't do, like me making that error," Cozart said. "It's kind of tough to swallow."