Awaiting opening day, it is not unusual for baseball fans to have a heightened sense of anticipation if their ball team happens to be scheduled to open the MLB season on the road. But for Giant fans, that was just the tip of the anticipation iceberg.
Not only had the team revamped its offense in the off-season to better support baseball’s best starting and relief pitching, but April 2010 happens to be the 10th anniversary of the opening of a venerated jewel next to San Francisco Bay: AT&T Park. For those of us who attended the Park’s 1997 groundbreaking and April 2000 opening day, it seems impossible that this steel diamond has been part of the eastern waterfront for ten years. Waiting for the Giants to come home made for an extremely long week, even if the team convincingly swept the Astos 5-2, 3-0, and 10-4.
Opening day April 9th was a beautiful post-rainstorm Friday afternoon enjoyed by a sell out crowd of 42,940 fans, officially 103.3% of full capacity— maybe they stuffed a couple of dozen panda-capped citizens in the cable car that overlooks the right center field stands. And it was good to have that many witnesses to watch the slogging grudge match that took place, uphill and backwards.
The Atlanta Braves were in town with Tim Hudson on the mound, and through the first seven innings Hudson simply went through the Giant hitters like goose food through a goose. The first five innings, the Giants meekly went three up and three down. In the 6th, Atlanta shortstop Yunel Escobar’s error allowed John Bowker to get to first base, a distant place known only to Giants hitters through rumor and song. Bowker wasn’t even there long enough to snap some souvenir photos before Juan Uribe fouled out to first baseman Troy Glaus, and Nate Schierholtz grounded into a 6-3 double play.
In the 7th, Aaron Rowand led off with a single to right field, and Edgar Renteria followed with a double, Rowand to third. In keeping with this difficult day of difficult baseball, the Giants finally broke through via two ground ball outs by Pablo Sandoval and Aubrey Huff-- each groundout scoring a run. Since the Braves had been busy scoring three runs, at the end of seven it was 3-2 Atlanta.
After the Braves rudely added a run in the top of the 8th to make the score 4-2, the Giants were thrilled to see that Tim Hudson was inexplicably gone, perhaps attending a 1999 Oakland As reunion across the Bay. Whatever the reason, it appeared to be good news as one-time Dodger closer Takashi Saito toed the mound. The Giant hitters in the bottom of the 8th apparently did not get the Tim-Hudson-gone memo, and promptly went three up and three down. Again.
Giants’ fireballing lefty reliever Dan Runzler started the top of the 9th by walking Braves third baseman Martin Prado, then immediately solved that problem by picking Prado off and getting the next two batters out.
In the bottom of the 9th, behind 4-2, the Braves brought out their new closer, Billy Wagner. Yes, it is the same Billy Wagner who imploded with the hapless Mets last year, the same Billy Wagner with a 96 MPH fastball, and a baseball IQ in the low 70s. Amazingly, Atlanta signed Wagner to pitch for them in 2010 for $6.75 million—apparently Eric Gagne was unavailable.
So the legendary Billy Wagner faced Giants utility man Eugenio Velez in the bottom of the 9th. And, by the way, why are some play-by-play announcers now calling Velez “Gino”? What, a five syllable Latino first name is too much trouble to bother with? And why stop at “Gino”, how about we just call him “Buzz” or “E”? Eugenio might have answered Rod Steiger’s “So what do they call you in ‘Frisco, boy…?” question from “In the Heat of the Night” with “They call me A-U-Hey-Nio...”.
So the legendary Billy Wagner faced Velez, and Mr. Velez hit a double off a 95 mile an hour fastball. An out later, Giant shortstop Edgar Renteria absolutely electricfied the crowd with a two run home off a Wagner curve ball. Why the hell Wagner threw a curve ball in that situation will be investigated later in an upcoming episode of “Miami CSI". With one out in the bottom of the 9th, the Giants tied a game they were absolutely losing right up until that moment.
As Yogi Berra might have described it, “That hit was, in a word, totally awesome.”
Then many things happened: runners from both teams got to third base, Giant relievers did their usual masterful job, and then… …and then the game went to the bottom of the 13th and the Giants' Jose Uribe walked, stole second, and advanced to third on Atlanta catcher Bruce McCann’s error. Then Uribe scored on a ball hit slowly by Aaron Rowand to the Braves shortstop. Giants win. Giants win. Giants win.
Two things about this game: first, the vast majority of the sold-out crowd stayed through the 13th inning, which showed some very serious fan grit. And, second, this 2010 Giants team showed they were tough and showed they will not give up easily. And, more than having a big-bomb home run hitter, more than having some kind of precious "team chemistry", and more than having the excess cash to purchase expensive free agents, pure grit is worth a lot in the game of baseball.