SAN FRANCISCO -- All due respect here, and please excuse my language, but what the hell was that? That third inning for the San Francisco Giants. That bizarre breakdown of baseball, from the Giants' two-time Cy Young winner to their record-setting defense to their astute manager.
All of it, all of them, screwed up. Freaked out. Melted down. It was completely out of character for San Francisco, a blurting kazoo for a team that has played a smooth sax all postseason. But it wasn't, as Giants manager Bruce Bochy called it, "a hiccup."
It was a choke. That's what it was. Mentally, physically, it was a one-inning choke. And although the choke came and went, just like that, that one inning was bad enough -- because Phillies starter Roy Halladay was good enough -- to let the Phillies post a 4-2 victory in Game 5. With the win, the Phillies stayed alive in the National League Championship Series, maybe even moved into control of the NLCS, down 3-2 but going home for Games 6 and 7.
"You know," Bochy said, "we don't do anything easy."
No kidding. And this was hard to watch. Good baseball is easy on the eyes, but this was stressfully bad, like watching a blooper reel where you know the blooper is coming -- you just don't know when. The waiting is agony. That was the top half of the third inning on Thursday night. It was agony.
And it came from nowhere. After two innings, the Giants led 1-0 and Giants starter Tim Lincecum was perfect. No hits, no walks, no nothing. When the Phillies' Raul Ibanez led off the third with a looping single to right-center, a guy in the press box muttered, "There goes the no-hitter." And the guy wasn't being funny. I had the same thought. Lincecum was so dominant through two innings, making most of the first six batters look bad, that anything seemed possible. Even a no-hitter.
But then Ibanez blooped that single, and the no-hitter was gone. San Francisco's sanity followed.
Lincecum made a mental mistake on the next batter, Carlos Ruiz, after getting ahead with two quick strikes. Lincecum got cute with an 0-2 curveball and hit the Phillies catcher. That put runners on first and second, and led to the most bizarre play of the inning.
Halladay tried to bunt the runners to second and third, but his bunt went nowhere. Literally, it hit in front of the plate, or maybe on the plate itself, and died. Giants catcher Buster Posey picked up the ball and threw to third for the force-out, where third baseman Pablo Sandoval caught it well ahead of Ibanez, stomped on the bag and ... missed. Sandoval was standing too far from the base. Couldn't reach it. By the time Sandoval realized where he was, Ibanez had arrived safely.
The box score shows no error on the play because Sandoval was able to throw out Halladay, who was unsure if his bunt was fair and never left the batter's box. In other words, had Sandoval been able to step on third, he had an easy double play that would have short-circuited the inning. Instead, the Phillies had runners on second and third and just one out.
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Which led to the most erroneous play of the inning.
Shane Victorino hit a ground ball to first base, and not just any ground ball. Not a spinning, darting, angry ball -- no. This was a two-hopper, the kind of groundout that bounces up happily into the infielder's glove, like a yo-yo returning to its owner. This was the kind of easy play a good defensive team makes in its sleep, and the Giants are a good defensive team. They set a franchise record with their .988 fielding percentage, but when this easy ball bounced up into Huff's glove, Huff had his glove -- like Sandoval had his foot one batter earlier -- in the wrong place. The ball clunked into the heel of Huff's glove and bounced into shallow center field. Two runs scored, and Victorino motored into scoring position at second base.
"It's gonna happen," Bochy said. "These guys have been doing a great job on defense, and when you're playing a real good club, you can't give extra outs. You've got to play your best ball, and we had a hiccup that inning, gave them some extra outs, and it came back to get us."
Right, because Lincecum had momentarily lost his edge. His next pitch flew in the vicinity of Placido Polanco's head, causing Polanco to duck away and then stare out at Lincecum -- not so much in anger, but in mystification. Polanco's eyes said, "What are you doing?"
Polanco could tell that Lincecum was gone. Bochy? Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti? They couldn't tell a damn thing. They stayed in the dugout, oblivious to the effect their team's Bad News Bears impersonation was having on Lincecum. A few pitches later he presented Polanco with a hittable fastball over the heart of the plate, and Polanco presented left fielder Pat Burrell with a sharp single that scored Victorino for a 3-1 Phillies lead that held up the rest of the way.
And you should have seen Phillies manager Charlie Manuel after the game. He looked so darned pleased.
"We did exactly what we had to do," Manuel said. "We won the game. Going back home we have [Roy] Oswalt going the first game and [Cole] Hamels the second, and that's kind of how we got it, and you're like we're going to have to like it."
No idea what he just said, but he said it with a pleased look on his face. He likes it. As well he should, because the Phillies were in trouble without that gift of a third inning. Lincecum pitched perfect innings -- three up, three down -- in the first, second, fourth, fifth and sixth. He was dealing, I tell you. Halladay was good, even with his groin injury, but Lincecum was better.
Except for the third inning, when Lincecum was inexplicably bad. And his defense was worse. And his manager was asleep at the switch.
We'll see if the Giants wake up for Game 6. Or Game 7. Or if the nap they took in the third inning Thursday night leads to hibernation in the form of elimination.