2012 A Giant October Surprise

With an unexpected cast, the San Francisco Giants make it two world titles in three years after surviving a season full of injuries, challenges and handicaps.

One MVP celebrates while another dejectedly walks away: San Francisco’s Buster Posey races out to embrace Sergio Romo after Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera strikes out to end a four-game sweep by the Giants in the World Series.

Barry Zito made the right pitches. It was supposed to be Tim Lincecum.

Gregor Blanco made the great catches. It was supposed to be Melky Cabrera.

Sergio Romo closed it all down at the end. It was supposed to be Brian Wilson.

Handicapped by injury, dogged by controversy and challenged by unexpected drop-offs from key players, the San Francisco Giants repeatedly found themselves pinned against the ropes, only to free themselves from an uneven start—and twice from the edge of elimination in the National League playoffs—to ride to their second world title in three years by sweeping away the favored Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

After winning it all in 2010, the Giants in 2011 retained the pitching excellence that got them to the promised land the year before, but were gut-punched two months in when emerging star catcher Buster Posey broke his ankle in a brutal home plate collision that sidelined him for the rest of the season. In Posey’s absence, the bust-out heroes from their 2010 championship roster (Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross, Andres Torres, Pat Burrell) failed to provide an encore while no one else stepped it up, and the Giants ended the year scoring fewer runs than any other NL team. All this, and the Giants still won 86 games—suggesting that a modest nudge offensively could put them back in the driver’s seat for 2012.

A nudge is exactly what the Giants, never one to spend big bucks on front-line star hitters, seemed to shoot for in the offseason; they acquired mid-level outfield talent in Melky Cabrera, Gregor Blanco and Angel Pagan, and hoped that a couple homegrown infielders, shortstop Brandon Crawford and first baseman Brandon Belt, would show significant maturation in their upcoming sophomore campaign. But what really had the Giants crossing their fingers was whether Posey’s ankle would hold up through a full season of catching and allow him to return to the stellar breakout form he had flashed in 2010.

The 2012 season hardly started out on an ideal note for San Francisco. Eclectic closer Brian Wilson, who emblemized the team’s brand of winning by torture, made one appearance before bowing to season-ending elbow surgery. The Giants’ defense, prospected to be among the best in the majors, committed one gaffe after another. And Tim Lincecum, the team’s longhaired ace with two Cy Young Awards in his back pocket, was burned repeatedly by the big inning as opponents jumped his ERA to a baffling 6.42 by the All-Star Break—even as he showed no velocity loss or arm fatigue. Not helping matters was an on-field feud reportedly intensifying between Lincecum and Posey over pitch selection; the former was placated and the latter exiled to first, sending Belt—an emerging offensive force and superior defensive first baseman—to the bench whenever Lincecum took the mound.

There were some firm positive stories to offset the woes. Matt Cain, the steady, veteran rock in the solid Giants rotation, threw the first perfect game in the franchise’s 130-year history when he set down all 27 Houston Astros on June 13. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval, one of the few Giants to hit the ball hard in their lost 2011 campaign, was killing the rawhide with even more authority to start 2012. And Cabrera, who had shown signs of a rebounded baseball life the year before in Kansas City, took his game to further new heights with a sparkling .350-plus average as Giants fans wildly embraced him—most notably from a group of guys who roamed the continuously sold-out AT&T Park clad in old-fashioned milkmen attire, calling themselves “Melkmen.” With Cain, Sandoval, Cabrera and a revived Posey leading the way, the Giants stayed neck-and-neck throughout the season’s first half with the Los Angeles Dodgers, rescued by new ownership whose $2.15 billion price tag suggested they weren’t going to be afraid to spend.

The Giants grabbed nationwide attention at the All-Star Game at Kansas City as their representatives dominated. The winning pitcher was Cain, who started and threw two shutout innings. The MVP was Cabrera, who singled and homered. Sandoval capped a five-run first-inning rally with a bases-loaded triple off the losing pitcher—Detroit ace Justin Verlander. The San Francisco-powered 8-0 rout blessed the NL with home field advantage for the upcoming World Series.

After a stellar first half, Melky Cabrera’s terrific performance at the All-Star Game in Kansas City earned him not only that game’s MVP trophy but World Series home field advantage for the National League; the edge would come in handy for the Giants in October, all while Cabrera forcibly sat out following a suspension for steroid use.

A month later, it appeared that the Giants’ sweeping All-Star efforts to favor its league come October would ultimately serve someone other than the Giants. Lincecum continued to struggle. Sandoval missed time with a hamstring injury and, when he returned, became deeply mired in a powerless rut. Then came the bombshell: Cabrera, by now a local matinee idol and pacing the NL in batting average, runs and hits, was suspended 50 games for steroid usage—suddenly ending his season.

If the Giants were looking for sympathy, they weren’t going to get it from the Dodgers. Baseball’s new free-spending kids on the block, having already acquired veteran stars Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino, didn’t stop even after the trading deadline had passed—crafting a nine-player deal with the dysfunctional Boston Red Sox to claim, via the waiver process, A-list talent in first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, pitcher Josh Beckett and outfielder Carl Crawford. The Giants countered as only they knew how, making modest movements by bringing in 36-year-old infielder Marco Scutaro from Colorado and gangly, free-swinging outfielder Hunter Pence from Philadelphia—moves that merited little more than filler in the sports pages, buried deep under the bold headlines monopolized by the Dodgers and their sensational player grabs. All told, the scales of fate appeared to show Dodger dollars ready to outweigh the Giants’ stretch-run chances in the NL West.

The anticipated seismic shift failed to materialize. The beefed-up Dodgers played .500 baseball the rest of the way while the Giants, rather than shrink under the challenge, thrived as everything began to click. Sandoval rediscovered his power stroke. Scutaro, the new Giant, hit a clutch-driven .362 down the stretch. Sergio Romo, normally cast as the set-up man for the injured Brian Wilson, emerged from the team’s closer-by-committee program and earned ninth-inning duties armed with the game’s best slider. Veteran starting pitcher Barry Zito, all but hung in effigy at AT&T Park with one disappointing season after another under a fat contract, went 7-0 over his last 11 starts to finish with a respectable 15-8 mark. And Buster Posey, after a solid first half, showed there would be no post-traumatic performance syndrome from his repaired ankle by hitting .370 or better over each of the season’s final three months—finishing the year with a league-best .336 average, 24 home runs and 103 runs batted in to secure NL MVP honors. The Giants turned the NL West race into a laugher, finishing eight games ahead of the second-place Dodgers—a testament not just to the players but to veteran Giants manager Bruce Bochy, whose deft, down-to-earth handling of the team’s year-long myriad of challenges strengthened his standing as one of the game’s most revered skippers.

The Giants’ late-season surge looked ready to hit an abrupt end when they got clubbed in two home games to start the NLDS against the NL Central-winning Cincinnati Reds, sporting the majors’ second-best record at 97-65. Faced with having to win an unprecedented three straight on the road to move on, the Giants eked out an extra-inning win in Game Three, dominated Game Four by an 8-3 count and then, in the Game Five winner-take-all, triumphed 6-4 thanks to Posey, whose fifth-inning grand slam so discouraged the Reds that pitcher Mat Latos and catcher Ryan Hanigan turned and walked away in painful disgust the second Posey sent the pitch flying toward the upper deck.

Not since Gene Mauch has a major league manager felt the sting of one bitter postseason defeat after another as Cincinnati skipper Dusty Baker.

Next for the Giants in the NLCS were the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals, attempting to repeat once more as a wild card entrant—this time without superstar Albert Pujols (now playing for Los Angeles of Anaheim) and manager Tony La Russa (retired). Piloted by former St. Louis (and, briefly, San Francisco) catcher Mike Methany, the Cardinals were aiming to be commit déjà vu all over again—first knocking off Atlanta in the first-ever single-elimination playoff of two wild card teams, then stunning first-seeded Washington—playing without ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg, shelved midway through September after hitting his pre-arranged quota of innings following his return from elbow surgery.

San Francisco split the first two games at home but lost Games Three and Four at St. Louis—once more leaving the Giants backed against the wall and in need of three straight victories to advance. The first hurdle was cleared from an unlikely source: Barry Zito, the $20 million-a-year underachiever who, two years earlier, was so awful that the Giants kept him entirely off the postseason roster. But in Game Five, Zito made Giants fans everywhere forget about his miserable San Francisco past by tossing 7.2 shutout innings in a 5-0 win over the Cardinals, sending the series back to AT&T Park—where the Giants romped over the final two games by a aggregate 15-1 count behind strong starts from Matt Cain and one-time vagabond Ryan Vogelsong.

Tanned, rested and ready for the Giants in the World Series would be the Detroit Tigers, a team that, by comparison, had breezed through the American League playoffs—but had to fight like hell to get there.

After falling two wins short of a Fall Classic appearance the year before, the Tigers’ 2012 chances took a nasty blow even before the gates to spring training opened when designated hitter Victor Martinez tore an ACL and was declared out for the season. Owner Mike Ilitch, never one to shy away from the pocketbook in a mid-market pummeled by the Great Recession, immediately covered his losses by signing star boomer Prince Fielder, a move that sent incumbent star first baseman Miguel Cabrera to third—and Cabrera too nearly went down for the year when, acclimating himself to the hot corner, he took a wicked spring training grounder right at his eye socket; his sunglasses took the brunt of the hit and saved him, his season—and likely the Tigers’ as well.

Armed with three $20 million-a-year players in Cabrera, Fielder and pitcher Justin Verlander, the Tigers were expected to phone in the AL Central title; perhaps the Tigers themselves felt it would be a cakewalk, one of only a few theories to explain a sputtering first half spent mostly below the .500 mark. Adding unwanted tarnish to the disappointing start was Delmon Young, Martinez’s fill-in at the DH spot who was charged with a hate crime in New York when he bullied a couple with anti-Jewish taunts after a late night on the town.

To claw their way to first place, the Tigers had to overcome the Chicago White Sox, who had filled the void at the top with a trio of comeback performances from outfielder Alex Rios, first baseman Adam Dunn and pitcher Jake Peavy, on top of a dynamic second-year effort from pitcher Chris Sale (17-8, 3.05 earned run average). First-year Chicago skipper Robin Ventura, once upon a time the team’s third baseman, had it all going right until a sequence of late-season matchups with the Tigers went all wrong; the White Sox lost eight of their last ten games to Detroit—but what hurt even worse afterward was a season-ending nosedive (just four wins over their last 15 games) that not just cost Chicago the divisional title, but a wild card reservation as well.

Verlander did his job for Detroit, winning 17 of 25 decisions with a crisp 2.64 ERA and a league-leading 239 strikeouts; Fielder did his with a .313 average, 30 homers and 108 RBIs; and Cabrera definitely did his and then some, pounding away at opponents with AL highs in home runs (44), RBIs (139) and batting average (.330) to become the first hitter in 45 years to achieve a triple crown. Additional help came from pitcher Max Scherzer (16-7, 3.74 ERA, 231 strikeouts) and leadoff outfielder Austin Jackson (.300 average, 103 runs, 16 home runs and 66 RBIs).

After sweating out a tough ALDS against an upstart, no-name Oakland A’s squad—which thundered out of nowhere in the season’s second half to nip two-time defending AL champ Texas for the AL West crown on the regular season’s final day—the Tigers faced off against the New York Yankees, owners of the AL’s best record despite statistical drop-offs from star hitters Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and a freak, season-ending injury to veteran closer Mariano Rivera, who tore an ACL tear while snagging batting practice flies before a game at Kansas City in May. But the Yankees had no fight, no care (Rodriguez, frequently benched, turned his back on the action to fetch phone numbers from attractive women behind the dugout), no luck (Derek Jeter, after a renaissance campaign, broke his ankle in Game One) and absolutely no offense, scoring just six total runs in four straight defeats to the Tigers; Delmon Young silenced the Bronx cheers in his return to New York after his early-season run-in with the law, earning ALCS MVP honors by knocking in the game-winning run in all four Detroit wins.

The sweeping ease of the ALCS triumph gave the Tigers five days to rest up for the World Series and optimally set its rotation—starting with Verlander in Game One—while the Giants, fighting through to the seventh game in the NLCS, were forced to go with the flow and begin the Fall Classic with the bottom end of their rotation in Barry Zito and struggling lefty Madison Bumgarner. The pundits heavily favored the Tigers as a result, but that was before Pablo Sandoval came to the plate in Game One. In the first inning, the big lovable lug blasted a home run off Verlander. In the third, he did it again. In the fifth, Sandoval made it three-deep when he homered off reliever Al Alburquerque, who had replaced a beleaguered Verlander an inning earlier. The Giants rolled, 8-3, with Zito firing blanks into the sixth; Bumgarner, fixing a kink in his mechanics, did him one better the next night by throwing seven shutout frames and received terrific defensive assistance, particularly from left fielder Gregor Blanco—rising to the occasion in place of the suspended Cabrera.

The Giants continued to show that too much rest before a World Series is not necessarily a good thing. Here is the list of teams who won their LCS in seven and how they fared in the Fall Classic against teams that swept their LCS.

Stunned by losing the first two games, the Tigers returned to Detroit and showed little recovery. Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincecum—the latter following up his awful regular season by beautifully settling in during the postseason as a highly effective long reliever—combined for eight more shutout innings in Game Three for a second straight 2-0 win; the Giants then wrapped up the sweep in tense fashion as Marco Scutaro, continuing his late-season hitting surge into October, singled home the game-winning run in the top of the tenth. Sergio Romo provided the exclamation point in the bottom half of the inning by whipping his unsolvable slider past triple-crown hero Miguel Cabrera for the third strike, the final out and a World Series trophy.

Romo, usually watching from the sidelines, thrust his arms triumphantly into the air from the mound. Scutaro, the once-forgotten warrior, ecstatically joined the growing mob of celebrating Giants teammates—as did Blanco, dashing in from an outfield spot forcibly relinquished by a steroid user, as did Zito and Vogelsong, two proud pitchers once cast aside as useless fifth wheels.

That the Giants were to contend was not unexpected. But it wasn’t expected to happen like this.

2013 baseball historyForward to 2013: Coming on Strong After two years of internal misery, the Boston Red Sox come together and give an emotional lift to a wounded city with an inspirational championship effort.

2011 baseball historyBack to 2011: What Wild Wednesday Wrought Surging September comebacks by the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays fuel a memorable regular season finish.

2010s baseball historyThe 2010s Page: A Call to Arms Stronger and faster than ever, major league pitchers restore the balance and then some—yet despite the decline in offense and rise in strikeouts, baseball continues to bring home the bacon through its lucrative online and regional network engagements.

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2012 Standings

National League East
Washington Nationals
Atlanta Braves (w)
Philadelphia Phillies
New York Mets
Miami Marlins
National League Central
Cincinnati Reds
St. Louis Cardinals (w)
Milwaukee Brewers
Pittsburgh Pirates
Chicago Cubs
Houston Astros
National League West
San Francisco Giants
Los Angeles Dodgers
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
American League East
New York Yankees
Baltimore Orioles (w)
Tampa Bay Rays
Toronto Blue Jays
Boston Red Sox
American League Central
Detroit Tigers
Chicago White Sox
Kansas City Royals
Cleveland Indians
Minnesota Twins
American League West
Oakland A's
Texas Rangers (w)
L.A. Angels of Anaheim
Seattle Mariners

2012 Postseason Results
NL Wild Card St. Louis defeated Atlanta.
AL Wild Card Baltimore defeated Texas.
NLDS San Francisco defeated Cincinnati, 3-2.
NLDS St. Louis defeated Washington, 3-2.
ALDS New York defeated Baltimore, 3-2.
ALDS Detroit defeated Oakland, 3-2.
NLCS San Francisco defeated St. Louis, 4-3.
ALCS Detroit defeated New York, 4-0.
World Series San Francisco (NL) defeated Detroit (AL), 4-0.

It Happened in 2012

And Then There Were Ten
To further increase late-season interest among teams that otherwise wouldn’t have a shot to make the postseason, each league expands its playoff format to accommodate two wild card teams—with each facing off against one another in a one-game playoff before moving onto the League Division Series. Both road teams, with the lesser record, win; the Baltimore Orioles upend the two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers in Arlington, 5-1, while the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals go to Atlanta and escape with a 6-3 win over the Braves thanks, in large part, to a questionable infield fly rule called well into left field (Andrelton Simmons’ pop fly can’t be caught up to by St. Louis shortstop Pete Kozma, but umpire Sam Holbrook rules Simmons to be automatically out anyway) that neutralizes a potentially big Atlanta rally.

The Tri-Perfecta
For the first time in major league history, three perfect games are thrown in one season. The first comes courtesy of the Chicago White Sox’ Phil Humber, who retires all 27 Seattle Mariners on April 21; San Francisco’s Matt Cain matches Humber on June 13 by throwing the first perfecto in Giants franchise history; and the Mariners get on the right side of the result on August 15 as ace Felix Hernandez nails down the Tampa Bay Rays with the M’s first-ever perfect game. The three gems are part of seven overall no-hitters on the year to tie another major league mark, previously set twice.

With a Little Help From the Umpire
It takes the New York Mets 50 years and 8,019 games, but the team with a grand history of top pitchers finally produces their first-ever no-hitter when Johan Santana stifles the Cardinals at Citi Field on June 1, 8-0. Santana’s gem doesn’t come easy and includes some dubious luck; he walks five, avoids one extra-base hit when outfielder Mike Baxter sacrifices himself for the next two months by making an injury-inducing, running catch into the center-field wall, and avoids another when a curling line drive behind third base by the Cardinals’ Carlos Beltran is errantly ruled foul (TV cameras clearly show a divot upon the chalked line). Santana’s no-no leaves the San Diego Padres as the only one of 30 major league teams without one.

It Takes Six to Give Up None
Apart from being on both the winning and losing ends of a perfect game in 2012, the Mariners also earn a no-hitter using six pitchers—tying the record for the most hurlers used to complete one. Kevin Millwood injures his groin after tossing the first six hitless innings on June 8 at Seattle against the Los Angeles Dodgers; five relievers wrap up the 1-0 result with the second, Stephen Pryor, earning the win as the Mariners score on a Kyle Seager single in the seventh.

The Oldest Winner
Jamie Moyer, 49 and giving it one last shot for the Colorado Rockies, becomes the oldest player to earn credit for a major league win with a 6-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Denver’s Coors Field. Moyer contributes with a two-run single in the fourth inning—also making him the oldest to knock in a run. The win is the last of 269 in Moyer’s career, as he’ll soon be released by the Rockies for an overall ineffective start to the season.

Four for Texas
Josh Hamilton homers four times and adds a double to produce an American League-record 18 total bases in the Texas Rangers’ 10-3 rout of the Orioles at Baltimore on May 8. The 5-for-5 performance, which includes eight RBIs, is part of a titanic, near-record week for Hamilton in which he’ll homer nine times over a six-game period.

Blasting Out of the Gate
Two days later, the Orioles gain a measure of revenge on Hamilton and the Rangers when their first three batters—Ryan Flaherty, J.J. Hardy and Nick Markakis—all homer, an AL first. Baltimore wins the first game of a doubleheader, 6-5.

Minor leaguer Billy Hamilton—not to be confused with the Billy Hamilton of the 19th Century who stole 100 or more bases four times—sets an organized baseball record with 155 swipes, breaking Vince Coleman’s old mark. A farmhand for the Cincinnati Reds, Hamilton splits his historic total between Class-A Bakersfield and Class-AA Pensacola.

Arizona’s Aaron Hill becomes only the second major leaguer (after Babe Herman, in 1931) to hit for the cycle twice in one year, accomplishing both a mere 11 days apart in late June.

Retiring the Lineup in Order…And on Strikes
Detroit pitcher Doug Fister sets an AL mark by striking out nine straight batters in the Tigers’ 5-4 home win over the Kansas City Royals on September 27. Fister strikes out only one other batter over 7.2 innings of work, for which he does not get credit for the win.

It All Seemed so Pure at First
San Diego rookie Yasmani Grandal, a switch-hitting catcher, establishes a major league first when his first two career hits are home runs—each belted from both sides of the plate—in the same game on June 29 at Colorado. The 23-year-old Cuban native will hit .297 with eight homers and 36 RBIs in 60 games to finish the year—then is slapped with a 50-game suspension for illegal performance enhancement, to start in 2013.

The Walk-Off King
Jim Thome’s 609th career home run is a special one—and makes him a little fatter in the wallet. Philadelphia closer Jonathan Papelbon, after blowing a 6-4 lead to Tampa Bay in the top of the ninth on June 23, storms through the dugout and offers $5,000 to anyone who can bail him out and win the ballgame. Thome, asked to pinch-hit, collects; his leadoff homer gives the Phillies a 7-6 victory and sets a major league record for most career walk-off homers, with 13.

The Longest Opening Day
Cleveland and Toronto play the longest Opening Day game by innings in history, toiling for 16 innings before the Blue Jays’ J.P. Arencibia’s three-run blast wins it at Progressive Field, 7-4. Indians closer Chris Perez blows a 4-1 ninth-inning lead after starter Justin Masterson pegged down the Blue Jays with one run allowed on two hits with ten strikeouts through eight frames.

Brothers in Statistical Arms
On August 3, Tampa Bay’s B.J. Upton hits his 100th career home run in the Rays’ 2-0 win over Baltimore; just moments later up the East Coast, his younger brother Justin Upton also tees off on his 100th career shot, helping the Diamondbacks to a 4-2 win over the Phillies at Philadelphia.

With the Good Comes the Bad (A Lot of It)
Chicago White Sox slugger Adam Dunn, after a 2011 campaign considered one of the worst ever by any major leaguer, returns to form with 41 home runs and an AL-best 105 walks—but also hits only .204 and sets a major league record among position players by striking out at least once in 36 consecutive games. (Former Montreal hurler Bill Stoneman barely has Dunn beat among pitchers—with 37 straight games.) Overall, Dunn strikes out 222 times on the year—just one shy of Mark Reynolds’ all-time mark.

Angel, Can You Spare a Run?
The ghosts of the deadball era are likely shaking their heads over this one: In five straight starts for Los Angeles of Anaheim pitcher Ervin Santana, the Angels fail to score a single run of support for him. It’s the first time a pitcher has suffered five straight shutout losses.

New Ballparks

Marlins Park, Miami Built on the site of the former Orange Bowl, the refreshingly modern Marlins Park looks almost out-of-place situated in one of Miami’s more financially challenged neighborhoods, as the Marlins decided to scoff at the dying retro trend and go full speed ahead into contemporary times.

The seemingly endless quest to make the ballpark a reality was tough enough, but real controversy erupted when the Marlins—who pled relative poverty and, using the threat of relocation, negotiated a sweet deal in which they would pay less than 20% of the venue’s $634 million cost—were ratted out in an online report proving to have made far more profit than the City of Miami and Dade County were led to believe (the Securities and Exchanges Commission began an investigation). Worse, because the public’s cost is tied to bonds to be repaid over 40 years, the actual taxpayer tab will ultimately amount to a staggering $2.4 billion.

Still, Marlins Park is an immense improvement over the Marlins’ first home, the made-for-football Dolphins Stadium. The constant threat of rain has been eliminated with a retractable roof, and the constant threat of an empty stadium (owner Jeffrey Loria and his continued fiscal shenanigans notwithstanding) has been reduced with far more baseball-friendly comfort. Seating 37,000, Marlins Park shouts South Florida with its lime green outfield walls, a line drive-proof aquarium behind home plate, a bizarre, mechanized aquatic-themed sculpture behind center field that goes into action whenever a Marlin hits a home run (something of a rare thing given the ballpark’s spacious dimensions), and an all-out nightclub (the famed Clevelander) operating under the left-field bleachers, complete with a bar, a pool and female table dancers initially clad only with bikini bottoms and body paint.

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