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That kind of torture lasted all season. The Giants always played close games—115 of their 162 regular-season games were decided by three runs or fewer, the highest total for any team in five years. "At times it felt like this season lasted five years with all the close games," reliever Jeremy Affeldt said.
San Francisco fans have never particularly embraced torture—perhaps another reason why the tenor of the Giants' losing through the years has been so different from, say, all those decades of heartbreak in Boston. "In Boston, Chicago, places like that, there's this almost Calvinistic self-loathing among fans," Breton says. "They can celebrate losing in literature. They can talk about curses. San Francisco is not like that. To be honest, there's a little bit of arrogance in San Francisco. People see themselves as winners. The only thing Giants fans know about losing is they don't want it. They can't see anything romantic about it."
Plus, this isn't a typical San Francisco team. "People in San Francisco love stars," Kuiper says. And in the past the most beloved San Francisco teams—the Rick Barry Warriors, the Joe Montana and Steve Young 49ers, the Mays and McCovey Giants, the Barry Bonds Giants—were built around the biggest names in sports. Not these Giants. Other than Lincecum, this team is devoid of recognizable stars. The two highest-paid players are pitcher Barry Zito ($18.5 million this year) and outfielder Aaron Rowand ($13.6 million). Zito, after struggling to go 9--14 with a 4.15 ERA during the regular season, did not even make the postseason roster. Rowand has hardly played in the postseason, making only two plate appearances through the first two games of the NLCS. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who broke out last year as a lovable, roly-poly slugger nicknamed Kung Fu Panda, lost his starting job and had made just eight trips to the plate in the postseason.
Still, even without big stars, even with every night being an ordeal, the City by the Bay has fallen for these Giants. "It's funny, the one thing always said about San Francisco is that people were too sophisticated for baseball," team president Larry Baer says. "And here we have people coming to the ballpark, going crazy on every pitch, dressing up in all orange, dressing up like Pandas."
Why? Well, there was something irresistible about the Giants. After July 4 they played at a .630 pace. (Their improvement coincided with the emergence of their rookie sensation, catcher Buster Posey; on July 5 he hit a home run, two days later two more, the next day another, and two days later one more.) They chased down the Padres to win the NL West title on the final day. They were a team filled with comeback stories: First baseman Aubrey Huff, for example, at age 33 and on his fifth team, had a career year that might earn him some MVP votes. They pitched well, they played hard, they hustled for runs. They beat the Braves in four games in the NLDS—all four games decided by one run.
And then they stunned the Phillies and Halladay in Game 1 of the NLCS in Philadelphia. The biggest hero was that onetime rodeo-clown prospect, Ross. He was waived by the Marlins in late August, and the Giants claimed him, mostly to keep him away from their offense-strapped rivals in San Diego. Ross grew up in New Mexico, where his dad wrestled and roped steer, and he was drawn to rodeo clowns because of their fearlessness. In his first at bat against Halladay—who had thrown 11 hitless innings in the postseason to that point—Ross homered to left. His next at bat, he homered to almost the exact same spot. Lincecum battled through seven tough innings, and another waiver-wire pickup, Burrell, a former Phillies mainstay who was released in May by Tampa Bay after proving to be hopeless as a designated hitter, hit a key RBI double. The Giants won 4--3. Another one-run victory. "To be honest," Ross said afterward, "I got lucky."
Ross has been lucky all month. He homered to break up Derek Lowe's no-hitter in the sixth inning of the Giants' Game 4 victory over Atlanta in the NLDS. And the night after he burned Halladay, Ross broke up a no-hitter by Philadelphia's Roy Oswalt in the fifth with yet another homer to the same spot in the leftfield stands. ("Stupid pitch," Oswalt said. "You can't throw him fastballs on the inside part of the plate; we know that.")
That homer was not enough, though. The Phillies—sparked by a three-run double from the previously slumping Jimmy Rollins and by Oswalt's dominant performance—breezed to a 6--1 victory to tie the series. The Phillies looked confident and in charge again. But nobody in San Francisco expected that the Giants would win this series easily. Not this team.
"You know, this is the most likable Giants team of my lifetime," Breton says. "Those teams with Mays and McCovey, they were great, but they weren't exactly cuddly. The Will Clark, Jeffrey Leonard Giants, they definitely had a little bit of an edge. The Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent Giants, well, it goes without saying....
"I never could quite go all in with those Barry Bonds Giants. I know a lot of people who did.... I just couldn't. It was amazing to watch him, but there was something missing for me. And then this team comes along, and there are no stars, and they're good guys, and they're all pulling the same rope. It's really a very different Giants team."