Like many sabermetrics-oriented folks, I believe that the closer’s role is fairly overrated. Premium, expensive closers get injured, forget how to throw strikes, or simply get slapped around like all pitchers do; no-name, late-round prospects get converted to relievers and turn into shutdown 9th inning guys. If there’s a mysterious Closer Mentality – an ineffable thing that lets pitchers grit their teeth against the pressure, glare lasers into home plate, and get the job done – then I think it’s something a pitcher has to have to succeed at the big-league level, period. Every player in baseball will be on one side or the other of clutch situations, and not all of them come in the ninth inning.
But I’m willing to admit that some of that closer-agnosticism might be a result of having been a fairly spoiled fan over the last few years. It’s easy to forget, but before the face-dwelling monstrosity and on-camera antics and injuries to his arm bits and strike-zone-finding organs, Brian Wilson was a really, really good closer. Like, crazy good. The rest of the bullpen has spend the past three seasons being above-average to unbelievable. I haven’t had to spend a lot of time carving tiny wooden fetishes to the God of Closers because if he exists he has already blessed me and all Giants fans with his beneficence (mostly in the form of Sergio Romo, obviously.)
Well, apparently we’ve angered him with our skepticism. Sorry, guys. I have long been a Santiago Casilla booster; he’s had periods of absolute dominance, and when he’s throwing upper 90s, that fastball combined with his spike curve is just a terrifying prospect to face. But Casilla is a hot mess right now. Maybe he’s hurt. Probably he’s just as fungible a commodity as every other Proven Closer, and he’s fungibizing right…about…now.
The really frustrating thing is everything about this awful series. But one of the secondarily frustrating things is that the Giants should not have needed a dead-on, Game 6 NLCS kind of performance from their bullpen. They had 15 hits, 2 walks, and were playing in as live a ballpark as you can get. You saw it time and again over this series – Nationals hitters going the other way, sending soaring pop-ups into the giant wind turbine blowing out into right field and turning them into home runs. Meanwhile, the Giants offense tried to pull every hittable pitch (and many that weren’t) down the line like Pat Burrell was standing behind home plate whispering, “Chicks dig pull hitters, bro. Trust me.”
It was probably thrown into high relief tonight, by the Giants’ best overall offensive performance that had a chance to be so much better. Buster, Melky, Theriot, all over the basepaths like usual. Angel Pagan had his best game in a good long while. Justin Christian brought some Fresno pixie-dust with him this time and was a competent leadoff presence.
And for that? Seventeen baserunners, 3 for 15 with RISP. Pablo Sandoval fouled off complete meatballs and swung at pitches in the opposite batter’s box. Joaquin Arias, apart from one loud out, was the usual black hole. Brandon Belt looked as anxious and as bad as he has in any game since the opening series. And just about everyone managed to fail to cash in a scoring opportunity, leaving it up to a bullpen that had, apart from Sergio Romo, apparently been using Tim Lincecum’s deodorant.
Matt Cain was good. He probably shouldn’t have started the seventh, but it was understandable enough, considering how Matt Cain he is and what happened with the bullpen after those two extra dingers anyway. But this is Washington DC – not the Washington DC of liberty and justice for all, but the Washington DC of 105 degree heat, 19% congressional approval ratings, and Danny Espinosa getting hit by a pitch in the strike zone – so for his efforts, Cain was rewarded with a hearty slap on the butt and a front-row seat to some grade-A clownball.
Even good teams get swept, and in the hangover of a sweep every team bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the 2003 Tigers.* But these three games were a drubbing, a humiliating woodshed-style experience that exposed all the weaknesses of this team. The Nationals are the class of the NL, with a .621 home winning percentage, but hanging in there against clubs like that is exactly what the Giants have to do. They dodged the Strasbot 9000 and Gio Gonzalez, and they still got swept. Ugh. Just ugh.
*Did you know Shane Loux was on the 2003 Tigers? He pitched 30 innings with an ERA of 7.12 and a K/BB of 0.67. He was only the fifth-worst reliever on the team. So that’s about how that went.
The Giants go to Pittsburgh next. I previously made a joke on Twitter about Joel Hanrahan saving game 1 against the Giants, being traded in game 2, and blowing his first save opportunity for the Giants in game 3. Then I realized the Pirates currently have a better record than the Giants, so instead of inquiring about a Proven Closer, Brian Sabean might be having to fend off calls about Sergio Romo. And Barry Zito pitches tomorrow! And the Dodgers are currently leading 3-1 with a lineup featuring a 3-4-5 of Jerry Hairston Jr., Juan Rivera, and some guy named Luis Cruz!
There’s a few positives that could be taken from this (improved usage of Romo, Pagan having a good day) but I just remembered that the game ended when Brandon Crawford, defensive stud, bounced a routine throw in the dirt and Brandon Belt couldn’t bail him out for once. So I think I’m going to wallow in despair some more instead. Wallow with me! It’s fun! This must be how Armando Benitez always seemed so satisfied!