SAN FRANCISCO -- For all the energy devoted to the back end of the Giants' starting rotation in the National League Division Series, it turns out that the front end was the problem after all.
And for all the fretting about the front end of the rotation, it turns out that the real problem was the hitting after all.
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It's a hellish Moebius strip of paralysis for the locals, who flee for Cincinnati after a defeat and a sound throttling at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds. They have nothing to use as a springboard, no optimism from recent events to use as a guide for the flop, the turn and the river of this series. The Reds hold king-king, the Giants have a seven-deuce unsuited, and the easy part of the series is done.
Sunday's 9-0 muzzling seems so much worse than it actually is, and it was the worst shutout loss in franchise history, because the Giants did nothing whatsoever to provide any hope. Sure, Tim Lincecum made the transformation from Roy Halladay to Joba Chamberlain with surprising ease, but the bigger picture prevents that development from being other than a catchy little sideshow.
Madison Bumgarner didn't last as long as Matt Cain did the night before, the long end of the bullpen essentially cratered, and the hitters, who had scuffled against Cincinnati's makeshift pitching staff in Game 1, did nearly nothing against the more traditional Bronson Arroyo. It looked, when you put the 18 innings together, like the Giants are simply and thoroughly overmatched.
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And maybe they are. Series are over when they are over, and this one isn't over. But it has the overwhelming feel of over-ish, so much so that there is no second-guessing to be done, no what-ifs, no wasted opportunities. The best moment the Giants have had was Johnny Cueto's eighth pitch Saturday night. After that, they have looked baffled, and buffaloed. Even Giants manager Bruce Bochy was more platitudinous than usual, which is how he typically is when the team gives him nothing to talk about.
"We know where we're at right now and our backs are to the wall," he said, his voice more graverl-based than usual. "We have to come out and be ready to play once we get to Cincinnati. It's been done before and we have to keep fightin'. There is no choice in this. We have to keep our heads up and be ready to go come Tuesday."
So this series is no longer a matter of macro-decisions like the starting pitchers, or who catches whom. The what-to-do-with-Lincecum issue is now played out, and the identity of the Game Four starter is even less meaningful than ever. Even the sniveling about the fans being too quiet to inspire the boys is not only out of place but out of time as well. This is now about little moments, single at-bats, fly ball outs in San Francisco that won't be in Cincinnati. This is about finding at-bats that work, and the best Ryan Vogelsong Ryan Vogelsong has ever been. Just to give them a chance.
The Giants have been in this situation before, most recently in 2003, when they were flap-slapped in four games by the Florida Marlins, but nobody in uniform save pitching coach Dave Righetti was there to draw from it. History doesn't help you when you're face down in a puddle. So it is that their only salvation is incremental improvement in the following areas:
Places 1 through 3 in the order, where Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval are 3 for 26.
Places 5 and 6, where Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt are 1 for 13.
Places 8 and 9, where Brandon Crawford and an amalgam of pitchers and pinch-hitters are 1 for 11.
That's 5 for 50, and there isn't enough Buster Posey and Gregor Blanco and the ghost of Melky Cabrera to tidy that up.
And the pitching? Well, the next time we see Cain would be in an as-yet-still-hypothetical Game 5, and everyone else is available for whatever scut work is there to perfrom. Lincecum acceded to Bochy's desires and went to the bullpen without protest, and his reward is that he and George Kontos are suddenly the staff aces.
But all this is small sample size stuff, and so is the Giants' task -- to make the monumental into a series of small and potentially digestible chunks, if they can. They have no choice, as Bochy said forlornly. It is do, or be done.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for CSNBayArea.com