The San Francisco Giants aren’t underdogs very often. The seven-time world champions have bred a long tradition of success, from their roots in Manhattan to their current home in the Bay Area.
From Polo Grounds to AT&T Park, the orange and black franchise has won more games than any other North American professional sports team. The Giants have been around since Chester Arthur was president of the United States, and since then, they’ve almost always had the upper hand.
Flash-forward 120 years and 23 presidents later: The Giants are now on the other side of the country, kicking ass and taking names in the unofficial capital of startups and beatnik coffee shops.
In both 2010 and 2012, the team won the World Series, defeating the Texas Rangers and the Detroit Tigers, respectively. With the clutch heroics of familiar faces such as Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum and Pablo Sandoval, the Giants looked to be at the onset of a new Major League dynasty.
The 2013 team, however, was plagued by injuries and struggles with offense. They finished the season 10 games under .500 and tied with the San Diego Padres for third place in the division.
At the start of the 2014 campaign, Giants fans were allured by a vision of three world championships in alternating years. Like any superstition-tinged sports pattern, there were few reasons and almost no rhyme.
Other than the offseason acquisitions of first baseman Michael Morse and veteran starter Tim Hudson, the team showed few changes from its 2013 counterpart.
Nonetheless, the season progressed, and the vision of World Series champagne grew even riper. On June 8, the Giants were first place in the NL West, leading by 10 games over their closest opponent.
By July 23, however, the Giants were closely trailed by their most-hated rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Led by lefty Clayton Kershaw, arguably the greatest MLB pitcher of the century, the boys in blue worked some mid-summer magic six hours south on the Interstate 5 at Chavez Ravine, and cut the Giants’ division lead from 10 to two.
The Dodgers proceeded to sweep a three-game series in San Francisco. Kershaw and company took first place in the division and never looked back.
In a 9-1 victory at home on September 24, the Dodgers knocked off the Giants and brought the NL West pennant back to Los Angeles. The Giants finished the season with 88 wins, and edged themselves into the post-season with one of the two Wild Card spots.
The Giants came into October 2014 having won six consecutive post-season series, dating back to their playoff successes two and four years ago. Despite a rather pompless end to the 2014 regular season, they handily defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in last Wednesday’s Wild Card tiebreaker, and advanced to the National League Division Series to face the Washington Nationals.
Led by the likes of starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg and star outfielders Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper, the Nationals won the East with more wins than any other team in the league.
They were guaranteed home field advantage throughout the playoffs, and were heavy favorites to represent the National League in the World Series.
The Nats were the top seed in the NL, and the Giants were the tenth. The Nats had home field advantage in the first two games, and entered the series with a greater bench and bullpen depth than the Giants. The Nats were also better rested than the Bay Area boys, having refrained from playing a long Wild Card game on the road.
So that’s how the one of the most decorated teams in sports history was suddenly an underdog.
So far, the entirety of the 2014 post-season has been characterized by close scores and long games. The Nats/Giants affairs were no exception; each of the four games between Washington and San Francisco has been decided by no fewer than two runs.
The pinnacle for post-season longevity began on Saturday night, when the two teams took a 1-1 tie into the early hours of Sunday morning, playing 18 full innings in a game that lasted nearly six and a half hours.
In the top of the 18th inning, Brandon Belt’s solo home run off of Nationals’ pitcher Tanner Roark gave the Giants a 2-1 win in the longest postseason game in MLB history. More importantly, for the Giants’ championship prospects, the win gave them a crucial 2-0 lead in the series as it moved back to San Francisco.
After losing game three on a Madison Bumgarner throwing error, the G-Men came out Tuesday night with hopes to close the series in four games. A win would’ve meant San Francisco advancing to the NL Championship Series to face the Cardinals, who won earlier in the day against the Dodgers.
A loss for the Giants would’ve forced a deciding game five, which would be held back in Washington. Although it was Washington that had their backs against the wall, the Giants surely didn’t want to lose the crucial game four.
The Giants held a 2-1 lead until the top of the seventh, when Harper tied the game on a towering home run into McCovey Cove. In the bottom of the inning, a pair of singles by Joe Panik and Buster Posey was followed by a walk to Hunter Pence.
With the bases loaded, Nationals reliever Aaron Barrett’s 2-1 pitch to Pablo Sandoval dropped into the dirt and onto the backstop, allowing Panik to score the eventual winning run for San Francisco. With a final score of 3-2, the Giants clinched the series and will move on to the championship game against St. Louis.
In the series against Washington, the Giants showed a new side of their winning approach. Like the Kansas City Royals in the American League, the Giants displayed the dominance of the “small ball” over the “power ball.”
Home runs and 10 strikeout shutouts have been replaced by a more fundamental type of baseball, one that is characterized by smart baserunning, solid defense and strategic hitting.
From smartly-placed sacrifice bunts to key stolen bases, from working deep counts to Hunter Pence’s ridiculously magnificent but awkward game-four catch in deep right field, the Giants have displayed a desire to win games with all-around smart baseball, rather than attempting to overpower opposing hitters and pitchers.
Like the Royals, the Giants came into the post-season as underdogs, but have since dominated the team with the best record in their league. For the boys of the bay, the small ball approach is a rather new concept, but has clearly proven to be nothing short of successful.
Both Kansas City and San Francisco will enter their respective Championship Series as the underdog, but that doesn’t mean the Orioles and Cardinals won’t have their hands full.
As for baseball fans, well, they can surely expect to see some damn good matchups in the coming days.
by Philip Tacason
This post originally appeared at Elite Daily. Reprinted with permission.
Philip Tacason is a graduate of political science and economics from Richmond University, London. He was the editor-in-chief of his university newspaper and also wrote for a number of other publications, both online and in print. In May 2014, he self-published his poetry collection “Poems from the Great Wide Open.”