Giants dump Nats in march toward destiny

AT&T PARK — The Giants clubhouse erupted like a crazy party Tuesday night.

Every player, coach, trainer and family member was drenched in a potent mix of beer and champagne and awash in a light haze of smoke above everyone’s heads from the cigars that Hunter Pence was passing around to his teammates.

A madhouse perhaps, from an outsider’s perch. But for the San Francisco Giants, a typical gathering.

It took four games — five if you count Saturday’s 18-inning dramatics — with 25 pitching changes, 62 hits, 16 runs and, all that matters, three wins, for the Giants to take the National League Divisional Series for the third time in five seasons.

Photos by Scot Tucker/SFBay

The San Francisco Giants prevailed over the Washington Nationals with a gritty 3-2 win in front of a noisy, orange-rag-wavin’ crowd to close out the NLDS and face the St. Louis Cardinals — who closed out the Los Angeles Dodgers earlier — for the National League pennant.

The win, like the series, wasn’t pretty.

Not that it had to be: Bruce Bochy showed off his postseason managerial skills by tailoring his left-handed heavy lineup just enough against Washington’s lefty Gio Gonzalez.

Bochy swapped righty Juan Perez for lefty Travis Ishikawa in left, and put Hunter Pence in the four-spot ahead of switch-hitting Pablo Sandoval.

Those tweaks sparked just enough offensive momentum to give the Giants an edge. Joe Panik, who was hitless through his last 11 at-bats, returned to form with two singles and an RBI. Gregor Blanco, who was just 1-for-18 this postseason, got himself a hit and an RBI.

The offense rallied solely behind weird defensive bloopers after sporadic yet timely hits. Two of San Francisco’s three runs were unearned, and both came in the second inning with Gonzalez on the mound.

With one out, Brandon Crawford had knocked a single into center field and Gonzalez fumbled what should have been a surefire out hit by Juan Perez.

Ryan Vogelsong reached first on a perfect bunt and miscommunication between Nats’ third baseman Anthony Rendon and Gonzalez; the flustered pitcher ended up walking a slumping Blanco and in the first run. Panik got the second run in with a ground out.

Gonzalez lasted until the fourth inning.

Vogelsong kept at bay a Nationals team trying to claw their way back into the series. He showed up big despite skepticism that may have followed him from the regular season.

Bochy was frequently asked, why is Vogelsong the right choice to seal the deal? The better question was, why isn’t he.

In the 2012 postseason run, Vogelsong went 3-0 in his four starts with a 1.09 ERA. Tonight, he pitched 5-2/3 innings and allowed just two hits and one earned run.

Bochy was proud:

“What a job he did. He came out, had great stuff. Command. It’s been an up and down year for him and I said, there must be a reason why he’s on the mound tonight. He’s gonna find a way to get it done on the mound today, and he did.”

Bryce Harper — a favorite to boo at AT&T due to exuberance that spews into the farthest row of the park — was the only National able to make a splash.

He hit an RBI double in the fifth inning off Vogey before his massive splash hit home run in the seventh off Hunter Strickland‘s 97-mph fastball to tie the game at 2-2.

Vogelsong stayed on target, silencing the rest of the lineup. He was happy about his command:

“The best it’s been all year, thats what I expect out of myself in these games … You might not be the best pitcher, you might not have the best talent, but you can focus your concentration and that’s all I tried to do.”

He said later of the two hits he allowed:

“I felt like the Desmond pitch was a mistake. He got a base hit. Harper’s ball wasn’t a great pitch. He just kind of hit where no one was. I knew I was still throwing the ball good and knew I still had to be making pitches to get through the inning.”

Pence helped keep Vogey’s outing pristine when the Nats threatened to score in the sixth with one out and Werth at the plate. Werth launched one deep to right, but Pence extended to make an awkward, magnificent catch at the wall to prevent an extra-base situation.

Brandon Belt was impressed with Pence’s acrobatics:

“That was one of the best catches I’ve seen considering the circumstances. I mean, if he doesn’t catch that ball it’s hitting the wall and it’s rolling half way back to the infield and he’s gonna possibly run around the bases so, awesome catch, saved the baseball game.”

Michael Morse — who said he felt pain free and ready for St. Louis after batting practice today — said of Pence:

“He would run through that wall to make that catch.”

The Giants’ scratched out their game-winning run kept in tone with the game’s events. Panik and Posey hit consecutive singles and Pence walked before a wild pitch by Nats reliever Aaron Barrett to Pablo Sandoval scored Panik for the game-winning run.

San Francisco almost scored a security run off of a wild-intentional-walk-pitch to Sandoval, but Posey was tagged out at home. Bochy rightly called for a review — Barrett was blocking the plate as he made the tag out — but the call stood. Posey reaped no  reward from the rule he inspired.

But they scored nonetheless, and Hunter Pence approves of the system:

“We just kind of clawed and scratched. We didn’t have any big base hits that I remember, when you bring that up you have to bring up the pitching, and the defense. That’s the foundation of this club and that’s the reason why we’re where we are right now.”

Vogelsong agreed:

“This time of year, it doesn’t matter how you push them across, you just have to get them across. And get them across more than they do.”

Runs are runs, and no matter how they’re earned, it should be noted that the lineup conquered a star rotation this series: Stephen Strasburg boasted 242 strikeouts this season, but  struck out the Giants only twice Friday.

San Francisco fought tooth and nail for a win Saturday against two Nationals starters, Jordan Zimmermann and Tanner Roark, for that 18-inning win. Tuesday, they worked two-time All-Star Gonzalez into a frenzy.

Not to mention, the Giants rotation stifled a team ranked third in run production in the National League. Second, if you don’t count oxygen-deprived Colorado.

Now, the team has risen up from the second wild card spot to an NLCS berth. The Cardinals are a scrappy team that pulled just the right strings, and took advantage of every lapse in judgement to best the Dodgers.

The Giants’ ability to chip away at the once-powerful Nationals team showed that, with the right tweaks, they can pull together just enough for a win against anyone.

Belt seemed optimistic of the path that lay ahead:

“We don’t ever give up. We know we’re down a few players, some major players.  That just means that someone is going to have to step up. and thats what seems to happen every time up … It never gets old, hopefully we can make World Series this year.”