San Francisco Giants' Instant Classic Stirs Foul Memories

Categories: Sports
Matt Cain baseball card.JPG
Matt Cain's showdown with Cliff Lee exceeded some very high expectations
Last night's epic duel between San Francisco's Matt Cain and Philadelphia's Cliff Lee was that rarest of things: It felt like a throwback to another time and a videogame.

The Giants' right-hander tossed nine innings of two-hit, shutout ball. He threw a minuscule 91 pitches and was removed only because he was scheduled to hit in the bottom of the ninth. Lee, meanwhile, flashed shades of Jack Morris in Game 7 of 1991 -- hurling 10 shutout innings.

The increasing specialization in baseball (and, really, most every sport) prolongs players' careers and maximizes efficiency. We lionize the Sandy Koufaxes and Orel Hershisers who amassed complete games at an astonishing clip -- but ignore that the wear and tear broke both men. It's a mistake and an oversimplification to say that something is better just because it harks to a past age. But, last night's game really did feel better. It was two world-class pitchers at the very top of their games, a team game reduced to a competition between the two best men on the field. And they matched zeros for 19 half-innings. If you love baseball -- if you really love baseball -- it doesn't get much better than this.

San Francisco, happily, broke through in the 11th inning against the incomparably named Antonio Bastardo for a 1-0 win. For your humble narrator, the sight of Brandon Belt sliding home with the winning run banished a malevolent, lingering memory: The day the Giants lost, 1-0, in 18 innings. Actually it was days. The game stretched well past midnight. 

Cliff Lee baseball card.jpg
Sans Edgar Renteria, the Giants could not touch Cliff Lee
It seems one derives more pain from the bad losses than pleasure from the good wins. That's why, it was only after the stockpiling of zeros in last night's game grew mesmerizing, that my mind wandered back to the suppressed memories of May 29, 2001.

The Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks matched scoreless frames for 17 innings that night. In the top of the 18th, however, the visitors tagged reliever Ryan Vogelsong -- now in an improbable second stint with San Francisco -- for the game's first run.

In the bottom half of that inning, with the bench depleted, the home side sent Vogelsong up to bat for himself. He responded with a double. Rich Aurilia walked to put runners at first and second for Barry Bonds.

Bonds, of course, would go on to hit 73 home runs that year through the awesome combination of more talent and better drugs than the other talented, drugged-up ballplayers. He was walked 177 times -- meaning, when other teams were actually forced to pitch to him, he succeeded with a regularity baseball may never see again. And yet, after 17-plus scoreless innings, with his team down by that single run, Bonds could not come through. He grounded into a force play at second, moving Vogelsong to third.

At this point, it was nearly 1 a.m. on May 30, 2001. The game had carried on for just shy of six hours. The team had, in essence, played two games -- and had not scored in either of them. And now, in the 18th inning, its transcendental star failed to come through. But, still, after all of this, the tying run was at third with just one out. And, after Jeff Kent was intentionally walked, the potential winning run moved into scoring position in the person of Bonds.

Armando Rios, however, hit a fly to center too shallow to bring Vogelsong home. Benito Santiago sealed the team's fate with a pop to left. It really felt like San Francisco lost two games that day. And, when the season was done and done, the Giants finished two games out of first. Behind Arizona. The eventual World Series champs.

But that was then and this is now. As the baseball scholar Nuke LaLoosh put it, winning is to be cherished, as it's "better than losing." Just ask Vogelsong.

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