I’d like to thank the Giants for having special ceremonies on two of the last three Saturdays so that I had a great excuse not to write about the actual 2022 team. 🙂 That said, they did beat the Pirates last night, so good for them–nice outing for Carlos Rodón, nice game by Yaz (homer and “double” misplayed by Bryan Reynolds, hit the ball hard three times)
I was at spring training in late March 2012 when I saw a Tweet from rookie Giants beat writer Alex Pavlovic: Eric Surkamp had been scratched from his start in Scottsdale that day with an arm injury. Why should we care about this? Well, Barry Zito had been so terrible in camp (after a bad and injury-marred 2011 season) that one Chronicle writer started a rumor during spring training that he was going to be DFA’d with three full years to go on his disastrous contract. Surkamp, who’d made a couple of emergency starts up from AA in 2011 and was the next in line for the rotation if Zito was somehow out of it, had pitched well in the Cactus League up until that point. With the season less than two weeks away, the Giants’ rotation had a huge hole in it.
I was in New Orleans in the second week of April, chaperoning our daughter’s high school jazz choir on a school trip. We were out and about somewhere when a notification flashed from the MLB app on my phone: Long-time All-Star closer Brian Wilson would undergo Tommy John surgery and be lost for the season.
The Giants had underwhelmed their fans in the 2011-12 offseason (sounds familiar). The 2011 team had absolutely terrific pitching (except for Zito), with four starters finishing in the top 11 in the National League in ERA–but the offense was historically awful, and the team fell out of first place in early August and missed the playoffs and the chance to defend their 2010 championship. The Giants made two rather “meh” trades (or so it seemed), one for Angel Pagan from the Mets and the other for Melky Cabrera from the Royals. Then-GM Brian Sabean, in response to criticism about not doing enough, pointed out that the Giants would be getting back Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez, both of whom had been helped off the field in 2011 following season-ending injuries. Posey was indeed behind the plate when Tim Lincecum took the ball on Opening Day, but Freddy never did make it back that year (except for, oddly, sitting in the dugout during the playoffs). In fact, Sanchez never played again.
So, to review: The Giants began the 2012 season with a very shaky Zito as their fourth starter, without their expected second baseman, and with a catcher coming back from a career-threatening injury who had not yet played a full season in the major leagues, and then they lost their long-time closer in the second week of the season.
They finished the season with their new closer, Sergio Romo, literally jumping and screaming for joy after sneaking an 89 MPH fastball past 2012 Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera to lock down a four-game World Series sweep over the heavily favored Detroit Tigers. Posey was NL MVP, won the NL batting title, and the Comeback Player of the Year Award. The second baseman on the field, Marco Scutaro, didn’t join the team until July.
And as for Zito? His spring training performance was so alarming that the Giants kept him back in Arizona for more coaching while they went north for the Bay Bridge series. But by the fourth game of the season, at Coors Field in Denver, they had no choice but to throw Zito out there. The Giants had lost three straight in their opening series in Arizona, but Zito was the unlikely hero who pitched a complete-game shutout at Coors to give the team its first win of the 2012 season. It would not be the last time in 2012 that Zito was a hero. He won 14 games during the regular season, but that was just a warm-up for what was to come.
This is all to say that the 2012 Giants had a lot working against them from the beginning of the season, and I haven’t even gotten to the rise and sudden fall of “the Melkman,” Melky Cabrera, who went from All-Star Game MVP to suspended and disgraced in just a few short weeks. But this was a group full of grit and determination, and despite some of the most dramatic twists and turns of any postseason I’ve ever watched, they emerged as champions for the second time in three years. This weekend will be the ten-year reunion celebration for that team.
Having set the stage, I’ll highlight the two most important elements of that championship team: the breathtaking postseason and the individual narratives.
From Death’s Door to Tiger-Killers
We all remember how the Giants had their backs to the wall not once, but twice, before emerging from the NL to play in the World Series. They got down 0-2 to the Cincinnati Reds in the NLDS and 1-3 to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS and had to win six straight elimination games–the first four on the road–in those two series to stay alive. (They would win four more elimination games under manager Bruce Bochy before that remarkable streak finally ended in the 2016 NLDS.) Some of the most amazing moments:
- The first elimination battle was Game 3 of the NLDS in Cincinnati on October 9, 2012. Despite being mostly shut down by Homer Bailey and Aroldis Chapman and striking out 15 times in the game, they went into the tenth inning tied 1-1 and won the game on the tiniest of bobbles by perennial Gold Glover Scott Rolen, allowing hitter Joaquin Arias to beat out an infield grounder and Posey to score the go-ahead run from third. That game was also notable for a rousing pre-game speech by midseason addition Hunter Pence.
- The Giants won Game 4 a bit more comfortably, and that set up a winner-take-all Game 5 on October 11. Matt Cain, who’d thrown a perfect game in June, started the All-Star Game for the NL, and had emerged as the Giants’ ace when Lincecum faltered, started against Giants’ nemesis Mat Latos. They played a tense scoreless tie until the fifth inning, when a six-run Giants uprising was capped by a Posey grand slam, maybe the most famous hit of his illustrious career. But they still had four more innings to play, and the bottom of the ninth featured an epic 12-pitch battle between Romo and lefty slugger Jay Bruce with the tying runs on base. Romo won the battle, struck out Rolen, and the first of several celebrations was underway!
- In Game 2 of the NLCS, burly Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday took out Scutaro in a late and hard slide at second base. Amazingly, Scutaro was able to continue in the game, and several innings later, he had the big hit to break the game open–which was booted in the outfield by Holliday, leading Will Clark after the game to make pronouncements about the Baseball Gods making things right (and oh, the irony, when you think of Clark’s takeout of Ozzie Smith back in 1988 that sparked a classic brawl).
- The Giants were down 3 games to 1 in the series, and Game 5 in St. Louis would be started by Zito, who had pitched poorly in his previous start in Cincinnati. Giants fans spent 24 hours in a viral #RallyZito Twitter effort, which included not only the hashtag but fans changing their Twitter avatars to photos of Zito. It was cool, but it was nervous time. But then Zito was a hero again, just like back in April at Coors Field when he got the Giants their first win. Zito not only pitched 7 1/3 shutout innings in Game 5 but also had a key RBI bunt single. The Giants had taken the series back to San Francisco for Games 6 and 7…and starting with the #RallyZito game, they never lost again in 2012.
- The Giants won Game 6 at home behind Ryan Vogelsong, who also pitched the game of his life and had nine strikeouts. Game 7, started by Cain, turned out to be a 8-0 blowout. The big hit was by Pence with Fryer the Magic Bat, which broke and hit the ball three times. But the even more memorable moment was in the ninth inning, when Scutaro, the NLCS MVP, raised his arms to embrace a torrential downpour. Pence’s hit and Scutaro’s rain shot are the inspiration for two of the three bobbleheads that will be distributed at Saturday’s celebration.
- And so on to the World Series, which began less than 48 hours after the NLCS ended, barely enough time for all the pundits to write that the Giants had NONE CHANCE. The AL champion Tigers had been sipping gin-and-tonics for eight days waiting for an opponent, and everyone* confidently predicted that the stacked Detroit team, with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and so on, were going to STOMP all over the plucky but less talented Giants. [*OK, almost everyone. SB Nation did an “expert predictions” article before the World Series, and all the writers picked the Tigers except for Grant Brisbee, who said this: “I’VE GOT THE GIANTS IN FOUR GAMES, WITH JUSTIN VERLANDER GETTING KNOCKED OUT IN THE THIRD INNING OF GAME 1.” Verlander actually didn’t get knocked out until the fifth inning of Game 1, but–damn. That was pretty close to what actually happened!]
- The Tigers were rested with their rotation all set up. The Giants had to go the full distance in both of their previous series and wouldn’t be able to use Cain until Game 4. Game 1 was Zito again, and he pitched the game of his life, Part 2, with yet another RBI single of his own. But the bigger story was Pablo Sandoval’s three home runs, two off Verlander, who was seen mouthing “Wow” after Pablo took him to the opposite field with the second one.
- Game 2 was a 2-0 thriller started by Madison Bumgarner. Like Zito, Bumgarner hadn’t pitched well in the postseason up until that point, and he’d actually been pulled from the rotation for ten days after his NLCS Game 2 start. Amazingly, pitching coaches Dave Righetti and Mark Gardner were able to spot a mechanical flaw, and Bum was able to fix it. He threw seven shutout innings in Game 2 for the win. That game also inspired the third bobblehead that will be distributed. With the game still scoreless, Fielder tried to score from first on a double but was cut down on a brilliant relay play from Gregor Blanco to Scutaro to Posey. The third bobblehead shows Posey after making the tag on Fielder. Game 3 was another Vogelsong gem that also was a 2-0 Giants win.
- So they went into Game 4 on October 28, 2012, with a 3-0 lead and their ace, Cain, on the mound against Scherzer. This was a back-and-forth battle that included a sixth-inning two-run homer by Posey but was won in extra innings on a hit by, who else, Scutaro, knocking in Ryan Theriot, who let out a rebel yell as he slid across the plate. In the bottom of the tenth, Romo completed a 1-2-3 inning by striking out Cabrera looking–Miggy was looking for Romo’s patented slider, and Romo snuck a little fastball by him. Posey kept the ball and handed it to Bruce Bochy during the postgame celebration.
So that was the story of a classic, dramatic postseason. The Giants went from looking like they couldn’t beat anyone to being unable to lose. They outscored the Cardinals 20-3 in the final three games of the NLCS, and then, of course, they confounded everyone by sweeping the mighty Tigers. Of the three postseason runs that led to championships in 2010, 2012, and 2014, I think 2012 was the tightest. The Giants won all three of their 2010 playoff series without playing the full complement of games, and the 2014 Giants won the NLDS in four games and the NLCS in five, but the World Series went 7, and of course, there was a wild card game on the road. In 2012, though, they had to go five games to win the NLDS, seven to win the NLCS, and even though they swept the Tigers in four, the final three games were very close.
The Individual Stories
Long-timers on TWG know that the 2012 championship team was my favorite. I’ve never been more emotionally involved with a sports team than I was with the Giants that season. When they played those elimination games in Cincinnati, I woke up those three days feeling so sad, like I was going to have to say goodbye to someone I loved. I think a big part of my affection was that I’m a writer, and I love a good story, and there were so many of them that season:
- Pablo Sandoval, mostly benched in the 2010 postseason because his ballooning weight had made him a defensive liability, was one of the best hitters on the team in the postseason and won the World Series MVP award after his Game 1 heroics. No one thought the Giants could do that to Verlander, who was the best pitcher in the game and at the top of his powers. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Tigers never recovered from that knockout punch.
- Marco Scutaro, traded to the Giants for Charlie Culberson in July, earned the nickname of “Blockbuster” because his final two months of the regular season and his postseason heroics were such a game-changer for the Giants. Scutaro’s performance allowed the Giants’ lineup not to miss a beat after they lost Melky Cabrera in mid-August.
- Hunter Pence actually didn’t contribute all that much on the field in 2012, but his vocal leadership, starting in Cincinnati, was one of the big stories of the team’s turnaround in the postseason. He went on to become one of the most beloved Giants and was an All-Star in 2014 on the way to another championship.
- Gregor Blanco was a non-roster invitee to spring training that year. He made the team and was in right field to save Cain’s perfect game in June. After Cabrera was suspended, Blanco became the main left fielder. He had several key hits in tight postseason games as well as the throw to get Fielder at the plate in the World Series.
- Tim Lincecum was the Opening Day starter but went on to have the first bad year of his career. When the playoffs began, Bochy had four other starters (Cain, Bumgarner, Vogelsong, and Zito) pitching better than Lincecum was, so he asked Timmy to move to the bullpen–where he was a huge X-factor who helped them win several critical games.
- Sergio Romo went from being a valuable late-inning reliever to the main closer after Wilson went down in April, but it took a few months for that to evolve. Romo got three saves in the four World Series games by going nine-up/nine-down and had a strong argument for World Series MVP given how close three of the four games were. His battles with Bruce in the NLDS and Cabrera in the World Series, along with Posey’s grand slam off Latos and Sandoval’s three Game 1 homers, are probably the main memories Giants fans have of that postseason.
- Madison Bumgarner’s regular season, with 16 wins, was a foreshadowing of the ace he was on the verge of becoming. He had pitched well as a 21-year-old rookie in the 2010 postseason, with an especially memorable World Series start in which he threw eight shutout innings against a stacked Texas Rangers lineup. But he ran out of gas in October 2012, and then his stirring return to the rotation in the second game of the World Series again was a precursor of his larger-than-life performance to come in 2014.
- Matt Cain had always been the quiet, solid workhorse behind flashier rotation mates (Zito, Lincecum, even Hall-of-Famer Randy Johnson for a minute). But 2012 was his year. He became the ace of the staff and was the starter in all three clinching games of the postseason. Sadly, that was his last great hurrah. It’s hard to say if his heavy workload in 2012 was to blame, but he never was the same guy again and battled injuries before retiring after the 2017 season.
- Ryan Vogelsong was the great story of the 2011 season, returning to the team that had drafted him after many weary years to become an unlikely All-Star. Because of Cain’s steadiness, Romo’s resolve, and Zito’s heroics, it’s easy to forget that Vogelsong was actually the best Giants pitcher of the 2012 postseason, and in fact, his ERA of 1.09 led all major league starters who played in that postseason. Including the 2014 postseason, the Giants won all 7 games that Vogelsong started.
- Barry Zito, like Sandoval, had been cast aside during the 2010 postseason, not even on the roster. As with Lincecum in 2012, there were four other guys pitching better than Zito, but unlike Lincecum, Zito wasn’t seen as a good fit for the bullpen. But after a bad spring, Zito became perhaps the unlikeliest Giants hero of all in 2012.
- Buster Posey made a triumphant return after a devastating injury to lead the team to another title and win the NL MVP award. His home runs against Latos in Cincinnati and Scherzer in Detroit were huge postseason contributions.
As is always the case when a full, long season leads to a parade, there were many other contributors. Arias, another non-roster invitee, filled in at third when Sandoval went down with hamate surgery and made the last out in Cain’s perfect game; he was also a “Kershaw-killer” in a crucial August series at Dodger Stadium. The young Brandons, Belt and Crawford, both played their first full seasons and were important contributors. The other “Core Four” members of the bullpen, Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, and Javier Lopez, did their thing again that year. Angel Pagan was an offensive sparkplug who broke Willie Mays’s team record for triples that year. Theriot was the Opening Day second baseman in the absence of Freddy Sanchez and was there at the end as an unusual DH to get on base and score the winning run in the final World Series game.
If you want to relive it all again, here are a couple of links.
Podcast (August 11, 2022): Ryan Vogelsong reflects on the 2012 season
Inside the Clubhouse: Orange October 2012
Pirates at Giants, 6:05 p.m., Oracle Park (pregame 2012 ceremony starts at 5 p.m.)
Tyler Beede (1-1, 3.57 ERA) vs. Logan Webb (10-5, 3.17 ERA)
In an odd coincidence, the Giants’ first- and fourth-round draft picks from 2014 are facing each other. We’ll be at the park again tonight to cheer our 2012 heroes one more time. This will be our eighth and likely final in-person Giants game this season, and our fourth time seeing Webb pitch. We also got to see Rodón twice, so it worked out pretty well for us.
It cheered me up to remember the 2012 team. Lefty out.