`Little' Giants stand tall in NLCS triumph

Pitching around Bonds opened door for Santiago, Lofton and World Series


October 16, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

SAN FRANCISCO - Barry Bonds cast a Giant shadow over the National League Championship Series, but in the end his big shoes were filled by the little guys.

The San Francisco Giants are headed to the World Series because Benito Santiago and Kenny Lofton and a sparkling cast of understudies stepped up when the St. Louis Cardinals tried to sidestep the most intimidating hitter in the game.

Santiago, the most unlikely No. 5 hitter you'd ever want to meet, was named Most Valuable Player for repeatedly making the Cardinals pay for pitching around Bonds, but Santiago was not the only one to make a big statement in the Giants' impressive five-game victory.

The final win, a 2-1 thriller at Pacific Bell Park on Monday night, ended with Lofton coming out of his shell to line a dramatic two-out single to right in the bottom of the ninth and third baseman David Bell flying through the air headfirst to grab home plate.

"We're playing like a bunch of kids right now," said veteran shortstop Rich Aurilia, who rushed out from the on-deck circle to play air traffic controller as Bell made his landing. "We've got a bunch of guys who are 38, 39 years old and they're jumping around like it's the Little League World Series."

Bonds came out of the dugout on a dead run, which was something of a departure for a guy who spent much of the series like he has spent much of the past two seasons - walking to first base. He finally will get to put his great talent on display on baseball's greatest stage, but he contributed to this playoff victory more with his presence than his statistics.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa challenged him before the series to expand his strike zone if he wanted to be the big dog, but Bonds did not bite. He maintained his iron-fisted discipline at the plate and delivered when there was the opportunity, but mostly he just enjoyed watching Santiago and Co. make them pay.

The venerable catcher, who seems as if he's been catching since the Johnson administration, struck the biggest blow of the playoff series in Game 4: a towering home run to left field in the bottom of the eighth to break a 2-2 tie and push the Giants to the brink of their first pennant since 1989.

He has been doing that kind of thing since manager Dusty Baker plopped him into the No. 5 spot behind Bonds with a couple of months left in the regular season.

The conventional wisdom before the series held that La Russa would have to decide whether to make Bonds or Santiago the MVP of the series. He unapologetically chose Santiago, and, as it turned out, so did the committee that actually makes that decision.

Santiago was not a major factor in the series finale, but he already has driven in 11 runs in the postseason and there are at least four games left to play.

"Oh, my God," Santiago said. "This is a dream come true. This is what you play the game for."

The final game featured strong performances from starting pitcher Kirk Rueter and veteran reliever Tim Worrell and a string of unlikely two-out hits by Bell, Shawon Dunston and Lofton - a whole bunch of guys trying to prove the Giants are not just a one-man team.

"It's a baseball team," said a champagne-drenched general manager Brian Sabean. "It's not just one guy."

Bonds certainly did his part. He has four home runs this postseason, and his .500 on-base percentage in the playoffs illustrates his value even when he doesn't get to swing the bat. No one's talking about missed opportunities or playoff futility any more.

Except in St. Louis.

The Cardinals endured a difficult season and displayed amazing resiliency to win the National League Central and sweep the defending World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks in the Division Series. They had the home-field advantage in the NLCS and were considered a slight favorite to defeat the wild-card Giants and reach the World Series.

The character of the team was reflected again in Game 5, when starting pitcher Matt Morris bounced back from a disappointing performance in the opener to carry a shutout into the eighth inning. The Cardinals were in position to win Game 4 on Sunday. They entered the eighth with the lead in Game 5. It could have been different.

They'll spend the winter wondering just what might have been if an unknown Diamondbacks pinch runner named Alex Cintron had not been running with his head down in the second game of the Division Series.

Cintron slammed into Scott Rolen, and the resultant shoulder sprain knocked the Cardinals' $90 million third baseman out of the postseason at a time when he was swinging the bat as well as he ever had.

He might have made the difference, and the Cardinals kept him on the NLCS roster just in case he could come back for Games 6 and 7. Who knows if the loss of roster flexibility hurt them in the tense final games, but there was little doubt that Rolen's absence loomed large.

"That's just an excuse," La Russa said. "When they outplayed you in every category, how much is Scott going to change that?"

Now, just the two wild-card teams are left - the Giants and Anaheim Angels - but no one is complaining except a few killjoy television network executives.

"To me, the fact that these are two teams that don't get a lot of attention around the country is special," Aurilia said. "It's kind of nice to have two teams like this in the World Series."

World Series

Anaheim vs. San Francisco(Best of seven; *-if necessary)

TV:Chs. 45, 5

Saturday:at Anaheim, 8 p.m.

Sunday:at Anaheim, 8 p.m.

Tuesday: at San Fran., 8:30 p.m.

Oct. 23:at San Fran., 8:30 p.m.*Oct. 24:at San Fran., 8:30 p.m.*Oct. 26:at Anaheim, 8 p.m.*Oct. 27:at Anaheim, 8 p.m.

SunSpot:For more coverage, visit sunspot.net/baseball

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