No-hit relief ensures game within reach for Giants
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FRANCISCO -- Theoretically, it's still a nine-inning game. The rules haven't changed. In reality, however, modern baseball's best bullpens are credited with "shortening the game."
Usually, the abridgment -- an appropriate term, since we're always talking about the bridge to the closer -- is to six innings, after which the middleman-to-setup-man-to-closer relay seals the deal.
If No. 1 is any indication, however, games in the National League Championship Series have been really shortened, to four innings. Following the early departures of both starters on Sunday, both bullpens ruled for 5 1/3 innings.
Cardinals relievers brilliantly allowed two hits while throwing shutout ball.
Giants relievers were even more brilliant: No hits at all.
The teams' 11 relievers set a postseason record for most scoreless appearances in a nine-inning game.
"In these series," said San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy, "the bullpen plays a huge role. It did for them tonight. Their 'pen did a great job. And ours did a great job."
"More or less, just trying to do our job," confirmed lefty Jeremy Affeldt, after contributing a hitless inning to the effort. "Our job is keep the game within striking distance, and that's what we've been doing. It worked it Cincinnati."
It did not work as well Sunday night. The score remained what it had been when Giants relievers went to work, 6-4 in St. Louis' favor -- as noted, because the Cardinals' bullpen did its part in the standoff.
However, turning AT&T Park into an island in this postseason sea of ridiculous comebacks pumped even more confidence into a Giants team that has already proven its resilience.
Prior to the veteran Affeldt, it had been rookie George Kontos and Tim Lincecum, a one-time ace who has become a wild card. After Affeldt, it was Santiago Casilla and Jose Mijares.
Bochy having to use so many arms obviously meant his starter, lefty Madison Bumgarner, was off his game.
"It makes it easier when you get a quality start," Bochy said. "But when it doesn't happen, you try to get through the game and keep it close. We did that."
Casilla and Mijares both struck out two in their one inning, but once again, the most compelling turn was taken by Lincecum, the only one of the five relievers to work two frames.
Those two zeros increased Lincecum's postseason workload to 8 1/3 innings, in which he has allowed three hits and one run -- typically, one start during his 2008-09 NL Cy Young Award-winning seasons.
Except, now it took him three outings. The results have been a dramatic improvement over the regular-season struggles that led to 15 losses and an ERA of 5.18.
Lincecum himself minimized the positive effect regular relief work for the first time has had on his performance, allowing only that "confidence-wise, definitely" he has felt a boost.
Otherwise, as far as the righty's fickle command is concerned, he asserted that it was still a "day-to-day" thing, that even in the bullpen different pitches obeyed differently on different days.
Naturally, Lincecum's familiar success in an unfamiliar role fueled new speculation of his return to the Giants' rotation. And Bochy confirmed a vacancy still existed for Game 4, on Thursday in St. Louis.
"We still have our options there," Bochy said. "[Lincecum] did a great job. We got within two, and he kept us there. He gave us a chance to come back. He's still available if we want in Game 4."
Don't do it, Affeldt appeared to say.
"Obviously, it's Bochy's decision," Affeldt said. "But he's been a great guy for us out of the 'pen. He's been very, very effective. Having him out there has been great. He's been amazing, with his good stuff.
"I think he had a lot to do with us beating the Reds," added Affeldt, referring specifically to the 4 1/3 innings Lincecum had contributed toward the 8-3 victory in Game 4 of the NL Division Series. "He saved the 'pen -- critical, because we have been throwing a lot. Before, we didn't have a guy like that who could save the others. All year, we've pretty much gone with short relievers, so to have a guy available to pick you up ... that was really, really big."
In a sense, the Giants had five guys to pick them up in Game 1, a little shutdown momentum to carry over into Game 2.
"We understand outs are very, very important now, more so than in the regular season," Affeldt said. "Every loss is one game closer to going home."