It’s early to even mention it. It may even be a cosmic jinx to write it out and publish it on the internet. But no one can deny the historical context of the 2014 World Series, and the debate over whether a third San Francisco Giants championship in five years would constitute a dynasty.
Of course, if you are on the East Coast or populate an I-95 metropolis, you might be chalking it all up to luck. We’ve often heard how the baseball postseason is a crapshoot, and no team in the national sports dialogue is more emblematic of the stars aligning than this most recent, uncannily successful iteration of the Giants. The meteoric 2010 run to the franchise’s first World Series title since 1954 (rest assured that the ghosts of seismic earthquakes and Rally Monkeys are just as foreboding as the Curse of the Bambino and Billy Buckner) was definitely the most improbable at the time.
Built on a historically dominant pitching staff that simply waxed lineups in September (18-8, 1.78 ERA), the Giants rode performances that ranged from the transcendent (Tim Lincecum’s 14 strikeout 2-hit shutout in Game 1 of the NLDS), to the shocking (Cody Ross taking two deep off of the impervious, coming-off-a-no-hit-postseason-debut Roy Halladay), to the foreshadowing (Buster Posey, .288/.354/.744 with a postseason rookie-record 17 hits, and Madison Bumgarner, 2-0, 18k, 20 IP, 2.18 ERA). An unlikely champ to say the least, and one that defeated teams in the Braves, Phillies, and Rangers that all came with greater fanfare and more highly touted star power.
The following year was forgettable. Everyone in the Bay Area remembers the tremors of 2011. Posey’s ankle snapping in a plate collision that would lead to the end of a century of catchers being run over (and Scott Cousins being banned from San Francisco). Trading Carlos Beltran for Zack Wheeler. Some ridiculous reality show on Showtime. Really, a jinxed year all-together. But then the odd number turned to even, and 2012 brought with it new faces, along with some recognizable faces taking on new roles. Hunter Pence, acquired in a midseason trade, brought five-tool skills, a confounding, unorthodox swing and unique pant-to-sock ratio. Marco Scutaro, left for dead on baseball’s scrapheap, also joined midseason and finished the year with a 20 game hit streak (more on this below). Buster Posey, ankle healed and back in the squat, won the NL MVP and Batting Title in his third season. Pablo Sandoval, who had sat the bench in favor of Mike Fontenot in 2010, was named an All-Star starter, joining Posey, Matt Cain, and the now forsaken Melky Cabrera. And Tim Lincecum, heretofore the face of the franchise and most recognizable Giants star, would humbly move from starting ace to bullpen dervish for the 2012 playoffs.
While 2010 was improbable in the sense of the Giants being a mostly unknown ballclub, the improbability of 2012 was sheer odds-beating guts. The Giants opened the 2012 NLDS by losing the first two games at home, and then coming back enflamed, sweeping the Reds and ex-manager Dusty Baker in three straight games in Cincinnati. Let’s pause, and offer a moment of silence for Buster’s grand slam off one Matt Latos, he of the infamous “mercenary” nonsense (love ya Buster).
The Reds series was also notable for Timmy’s 1.42 ERA and 8k’s out of the bullpen, and Hunter Pence going pregame football scream-speech all over the place. The 2012 NLCS brought another showdown with elimination, as the traditionalist’s dream the St. Louis Cardinals took a 3-1 series lead, with the much defamed, 126 million dollar man Barry Zito on the mound for Game 5. Somehow, beyond impossibly, Zito pitched the game of his life, carrying a shutout into the eighth inning. I’ve argued with many a Giants fan on whether that albatross of a contract was worth Zito’s 2012 postseason run (while Sandoval was benched for the 2010 postseason, Zito wasn’t even active), where he shone with a 1.69 ERA, 2-0 record, and only 3 earned runs in 16 innings. Most say something close to no, but, given his track record before 2012, the fact that I haven’t received any unequivocal no answers speaks volumes to Zito’s redemption. The Giants would go on to win the next two games, off the strength of the resurrected Marco Scutaro’s performance at the plate, with the following, absurd splits: .500/.533/.607/1.140. Not much of a debate for the NLCS MVP. (One crazy sidenote on Scutaro: he had only, and read this carefully, six swinging strikes in a 170 AB stretch during the second half of the 2012 season. He swung and missed SIX times in 170 at-bats. That may be the most absurd statistic I’ve ever seen, thank you, thank you Fangraphs).
To cap off 2012, the Giants would face another ESPN / East Coast media darling, the juggernaut Detroit Tigers. MVP Miguel Cabrera had won the Triple Crown and former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander was simply unhittable. But apparently, the Giants pitching staff and Pablo Sandoval weren’t paying much of any kind of attention to the hype. The Panda went ahead and paid homage to Mr. October, crushing two of Verlander’s pitches over the wall (three in total), including a pitch way outside that he just knuckle-busted to the opposite field. I still enjoy watching the replay of Verlander mouthing “Wow” in disbelief, watching the opposite field muscle shot land in a screaming sea of orange.
Ah beautiful. Cabrera would bat a subpar .231, and the Giants would proceed to sweep the Tigers, clinching in Detroit and again simultaneously shocking and embarrassing the so-called baseball experts, who had consistently picked against them.
Now, after another ignominious odd-year in 2013 where they failed to make the playoffs, the Giants seek to win their third World Series Championship in a five year-stretch, again in improbable fashion. Off the unlikely, left-for-dead bat of Travis Ishikawa, the Giants again have defeated the Cardinals in the NLCS in dramatic fashion, this time with a walk off home run. Many faces are the same: Posey, Pablo and Bumgarner, along with the four headed bullpen monster of Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt, Serigo Romo, and Javier Lopez, were all on both the 2010 and 2012 teams. Many new faces have shown their mettle: Joe Panik, Yusmeiro Petit, Michael Morse. But strangely, this year more than any, the Giants are winning despite an absence of some of their greatest stars: Angel Pagan, a linchpin at the top of the lineup in 2012 is out for the season; Lincecum and Cain, bulwarks of the starting rotation, are gone to a loss of mechanics and injury respectively.
But with Posey, Sandoval, Bumgarner, and the middle relief, one other constant remains. Bruce Bochy, the essence of equilibrium. He of the gargantuan cranium and longtime catching experience. It’s become fashionable to name him the best manager in the game, and the pundits likewise grudgingly place Posey and Bumgarner in the pantheon of the elite players in the game. But, as we in the Bay Area have known since the mystical postseason success began in 2010, this team’s success is about much more than MVP awards, or All Star appearances, or media kudos, or star recognition. Simply put, the more they succeed in October, the more they believe they can continue that success. The more often they navigate pressure and elimination, the more they bounce back and outperform expectations.
What they face now is no easy task. The 2014 Royals look a lot like the 2010 Giants, young, brash, talented, built on defense and pitching, a murderer’s row of no-name players that the national media doesn’t recognize. They look to engender their own brand of magic with their first championship in 29 years. Then again, what the Royals face now is likewise no easy task: a team of misfits, uber-talents, a devious minded manager, and that certain October mystique that bears no easy definition. If the Giants do win, they will join only various Yankees teams and the Oakland A’s of the seventies as teams to win three championships in five years. If that doesn’t constitute a baseball dynasty, I’m not sure what does.
I will say, in full disclosure, that after editing this post I waited. You see, when you mention jinxes, they have a strange way of…jinxing. In 2004, watching the Giants play the Dodgers, I somehow uttered this, “The only way they win is if Finley hits a grand slam, there’s no way he’ll do that off of Wayne Franklin.” Double full disclosure, I had to Google the pitcher. Well, if you don’t recall, Finley went ahead and hit that grand slam, a walk-off that clinched the NL West for the Dodgers. My best friend turned to me and said, “Should’ve knocked on wood dude.” I have never forgotten that. Jinxes are real in baseball. As proof, I’ll point to the Giants game one win against the Royals, a game played with no blog post with “dynasty” in the title posted an hour before the first pitch!