WASHINGTON — The Giants are underdogs once again. They’re missing their best right-handed starter, their leadoff hitter and their left fielder, and they’re facing the best team in the National League.
It’s a situation that seemed to call for an inspirational pregame speech from Hunter Pence, and maybe a sunflower seed shower or two in the dugout. You know, just to rekindle that "backs against the wall" magic that worked so well in 2012. And yet, the dugout floor was clean after a 3-2 win Friday over the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of the best-of-five N.L. Division Series. Pence’s voice was full and cheery, not hoarse."I don’t think there was any need for it," first baseman Brandon Belt said. "We knew the deal coming into this series."And they didn’t care. Everyone can call them the underdogs, and the Giants do, too. But they prefer another October tag: unbeatable. The two-time champs have won nine straight in the playoffs and 23 of 31 dating to 2010."You know," manager Bruce Bochy said, "they’ve got a calmness about them."That paid off early on an overcast day at Nationals Park. Stephen Strasburg lit up the radar gun and Jake Peavy painted the corners, and in time, the artist won. Peavy allowed just two hits in 52/3 shutout innings, getting his first postseason win.
This group has vanquished all kinds of pitchers in October, but few if any have possessed the raw stuff of Strasburg. He threw nine fastballs in a perfect first inning, all at 97 mph or above and the final one clocking in at 99 mph. It was Strasburg’s fastest pitch in two years and got a flyout from Buster Posey, the third of the inning.
It was an overpowering display, and in the dugout the Giants had the same thought. We’re going to get him.
"It was kind of like the (wild-card) game in Pittsburgh. You could see right away that people were having good at-bats," Belt said. "You could kind of tell a little bit that guys had a good chance at hitting him, and we did."
The Giants struck in the third inning, when Travis Ishikawa hit a leadoff single and reached second as first baseman Adam LaRoche made a late throw on Peavy’s bunt. Joe Panik lined a single to center two batters later, picking up his first postseason RBI.
Hunter Pence made it 2-0 with a manufactured rally in the fourth. He beat out the second throw on a would-be double-play grounder to short and then saw an opening and stole second. Belt followed with a single to right, and Pence scored easily.
Strasburg wouldn’t make it out of the sixth, giving up eight hits — all singles — and two runs. In his last two starts against the Giants, Strasburg has recorded just 27 outs and given up 16 hits. Bochy was pleased with the lineup’s approach against so many fastballs that registered in the upper 90s.
"I don’t think you ever change from trying to get a good pitch to hit," he said. "That’s the way it should be. Don’t try to do too much. Don’t overanalyze anything. You start thinking too much against a good pitcher, and you get yourself in trouble. We try to keep it simple."
Peavy did the same, but in a much different way. He piled up a high pitch count, but that was by design. Peavy wasn’t going to give this deep Nationals lineup anything that could be shot over a wall, and he worked the corners at will.
"They didn’t give anything away," he said. "They didn’t give any at-bats away."
Peavy didn’t allow many of them to end successfully for the Nationals. They didn’t have a hit through four innings, but a Nate Schierholtz double and walk of Jayson Werth put Peavy in a tight spot in the sixth. Javier Lopez entered to face LaRoche and walked him, loading the bases.
In the most important spot of the season thus far, Bochy turned to rookie Hunter Strickland, a September call-up. Strickland got the first two strikes on Ian Desmond with three big fastballs: 99 mph, 98 mph, 99 mph. The fourth postseason pitch of Strickland’s big league career was a 100 mph heater that Desmond swung through, getting the Giants out of the jam.
"He stepped right into as big a fire as you could step into and he came up huge for us," Pence said. "It was really amazing and impressive."
Strickland didn’t give up a run in nine September appearances, but Bryce Harper got to him in the seventh, crushing a 97 mph fastball into the upper deck in right. Asdrubal Cabrera homered two batters later, but the Giants still held the lead thanks to Panik’s insurance run in the top of the inning. As they always seem to do this time of year, the Giants held on, throwing an early body blow at a Nationals team that won a league-best 96 games.
"We understand that we might not be man for man, you know, the favorites," Peavy said. "We are not given a lot of credit. We take pride in being chained together. Our strength is in who we are as a team."
More often than not, that’s the team smiling after the final pitch.
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