Embrace the greatness of LCS players, teams
SAN FRANCISCO -- It was a week that, for the first time in baseball history, featured four elimination games, an unforgettable, heart-stopping 60-hour period that all eight cities involved will not soon forget.
Think back to baseball's original city, Cincinnati, and that Jay Bruce-Sergio Romo at-bat that seemingly played out for hours, an at-bat that thousands of people believed would end up with a Bruce home run that would have brought the National League Championship Series home to the banks of the Ohio River.
It was a weekend that emphasized that, as Bob Melvin said, "there are a lot of great statistical ways to view this game, but in the end, it is played by humans."
Some are dogged by insecurities, human wounds that injuries open and scar, which is why Alex Rodriguez became the story in what was a five-game war of intrepid gallantry between the Yankees and Orioles. A war in which A-Rod's team won, somehow.
Others rise at these moments. After that epic Giants-Reds fifth game, in which San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy mined his bullpen and survived the way a hockey team up, 3-2, in the third period and being outshot, 16-2, survives by dumping one puck after another. There was the precise genius of Justin Verlander. This is a man who forever has fun, whether he's doing a commercial with Kate Upton or some life-sized sticker or facing the A's in a do-or-die game before 37,000 screeching fans.
In Game 5, Verlander strode to the mound in the bottom of the first a man consumed.
"It was the best game I've ever seen him pitch, and I caught him a lot," said Oakland's Brandon Inge, for years Verlander's Tiger teammate. "There was no period where he was over-amped and overthrowing. He was relaxed at all times."
Verlander and C.C. Sabathia, who twirled a gem less than 24 hours later, are among those athletes who some see as cocky. Not really. Chase Utley calls athletes like them "comfortable," as they are always comfortable with their talent, comfortable with the risk of losing, never contemplating or fearing the negative.
When Evan Longoria played in the Cape Cod League, a scout referred to him as "arrogant" because the scout didn't know Longoria. Evan is simply comfortable in a baseball uniform in a game -- any game, any time.
When Verlander left the dugout to jog to the mound for the ninth inning Thursday night, he looked like a horse at the Kentucky Derby, kicking the stall to get to the finish line. He wasn't thinking pitch count or "might happens."
"I'll admit that I looked out at the bullpen to see if anyone was up and throwing," Verlander said.
There was not.
Jim Leyland knew that in Verlander's mind, this was his game. It got to 122 pitches, one more than Game One of the series. "It is fun," Verlander said, with that ever-present smile. "Of course it is."
Sabathia doesn't have that smile. Off the field, he is one of the most likeable folks on earth, one who devotes a large chunk of his life to helping those less fortunate. On the mound, he is deadly serious, frowning.
Where Verlander finds his relaxation in the this-is-fun zone, CC never lets his concentration wane. After a game in the 2009 playoffs, a member of the Yankee ground crew pointed out that this 6-foot-7, 290-pound man had one landing hole, meaning that he is such an extraordinary athlete that even with the complexities of his delivery, his front foot landed in the same spot for an entire game.
"Athleticism meets competitiveness," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
Since Verlander helped pitch the Tigers into the World Series as a rookie in 2006, he is the winngest pitcher in baseball at 124-63. Sabathia has 122 wins. They are ranked third and fifth respectively in games started in that time frame. Verlander (230 starts) and Sabathia (226), with Dan Haren (233), Bronson Arroyo (233) and Matt Cain (228) mixed in -- three more pitchers vital to their teams' success.
Verlander is 5-3 in the postseason, with two of the losses coming as a rookie in the World Series against the Cardinals. Sabathia is 9-4, two defeats coming after exhaustion in the 2007 ALCS, and one in the '08 NLDS, when he carried the Indians and Brewers to the postseason.
Verlander and Sabathia are among the models for the comfort of greatness. The Giants and Cardinals are the models of team cultures.
The Giants don't have Melky Cabrera or Brian Wilson, and Tim Lincecum didn't start a game in the NLDS, and yet San Francisco survived a really good, really dangerous Reds team by beating them three times in Cincinnati. The Cardinals ... well, they are a team for any age -- from the final day of the 2011 season to the Chris Carpenter-Roy Halladay classic to the World Series comebacks. Friday night's 7-5 deficit was the mirror image of the 7-5 deficit they faced against the Rangers in Game 6 of last year's World Series.
"You have to understand the postseason and all that it entails," David Freese said. "You have to embrace it."
It did not escape Tony La Russa that some of the Braves went into their Wild Card elimination game complaining about the one-and-done format. Freese and Carpenter and Jason Motte and all these guys named Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma and Trevor Rosenthal have come into this culture and embraced it.
Now, we have the clash of the Cardinal and Giant cultures, the night of reckoning of the comfort zones of two great pitchers, Verlander and Sabathia.
We have to embrace it, because it cannot get any better.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.