Yes, the Phillies and the Yankees swept. But several veterans making their October debuts—and, in the case of Philadelphia ace Roy Halladay, making history—ensured that this won't be the same old postseason
As if cloaked in a veil of mist and a shroud of fog, the baseball postseason can be cruelly difficult for some to find, especially when the search to get there begins fatherless in a trailer park in Mineral Wells, Texas. Aubrey Huff was six years old when his father, Aubrey Huff II, an electrician working in an apartment complex, stepped in to quell a domestic disturbance he happened upon and was shot and killed. A few years later, smitten by baseball, young Aubrey asked his mom, Fonda, for the extravagances of a batting cage and a pitching machine behind the trailer. She ran up her credit-card bill and somehow found a way to give the boy his wish, and the batting cage was where he found joy.
It was a wise investment. Huff is 33 now, an 11-year major league veteran, and until last week had played more major league games (1,479) without reaching the postseason than any active player except Randy Winn of the Cardinals and Michael Young of the Rangers. The fog finally lifted for Huff as a member of the Giants, playing the Braves in a National League Division Series. After the teams split the first two games, San Francisco was one out away from losing Game 3 in Atlanta on Sunday, 2--1, when Huff took his turn at bat with two runners on base. "I remember thinking, Oh, this is a pretty big spot," Huff said in a deadpan manner, emphasizing the understatement. "I wasn't nervous. I was amazingly calm. It was weird. But I just feel like the baseball gods owe me."
This is the postseason of debt settlement. The active leader for most wins without a postseason appearance (169), Roy Halladay, 33, finally made it, and when he did, with the Phillies, he showed what October has lacked without him. In his first postseason start, in Game 1 of the other NLDS, Halladay no-hit the Reds, the highest-scoring team in the National League, 4--0 to become the second man, after Don Larsen, to throw a no-no in 2,550 alltime postseason starts.
Though Winn (1,717 games played) remained home in October, the next three players on the longest-to-wait list—Young (1,508), Huff and Mike Sweeney (1,454)—all played on. Young hit a key three-run homer in Texas's Game 2 win over the Rays, helping the Rangers take a 2--0 lead in that AL Division Series. (The Rays won the next two games, forcing a winner-take-all Game 5 on Tuesday night at Tampa Bay.) Sweeney, a bench player, and the Phillies advanced to the NLCS with a sweep of the Reds. The 37-year-old Sweeney had just one at bat in the series, but he made the most of his postseason moment: He had a pinch-hit single in Game 2.
Huff, meanwhile, did his part to make sure the Giants-Braves series stayed more labyrinthine than Inception. In the ninth inning on Sunday the weirdly becalmed first baseman stroked a game-tying single off lefthander Mike Dunn; one batter later fellow long-distance postseason traveler Freddy Sanchez (844-game wait) scored the eventual winning run on the third error of the game by Atlanta second baseman Brooks Conrad. The 3--2 victory gave the Giants a 2--1 series lead. They sent the Braves home with a 3--2 win in Game 4 on Monday, advancing to the National League Championship Series for the first time since 2002. It was the fourth straight game in the series decided by one run.
"This is everything Aubrey and I have ever wanted and played for," said Sanchez, 32, who had kept the Game 3 rally alive by singling when his team was down to its final strike.
"This postseason," Giants ace Tim Lincecum said after the win, "is amazing. Two strikes, two outs and we win? These are the moments that get written about for years."
After a season in which pitchers dialed back offensive numbers to 1992 levels, the first week of the postseason gave off an even more antique look—that of the Dead Ball era. The first 14 postseason games averaged 6.4 runs, down 27% from the regular season (8.8). Twelve starters in those first 14 games had never before pitched in the postseason, and they went 5--3 with a 2.08 ERA in their debuts.
The stellar playoff rookies included Halladay and Lincecum, who threw a two-hit shutout in Game 1, 1--0, with a franchise-postseason-record 14 strikeouts. The shutouts by Halladay and Lincecum and another one by Cole Hamels of Philadelphia—a five-hitter to sweep away Cincinnati on Sunday, 2--0—provided more shutouts in one week than were thrown in 368 starts over the previous six postseasons combined.
Moreover, on Sunday, playoff first-timer Jonathan Sanchez set a Giants postseason record for a lefthander, with 11 strikeouts, and the Rays' Wade Davis forced a Game 5 by beating Texas on the road, 5--2, in his first playoff game. It was a quality outing his manager, Joe Maddon, saw coming. "He's kind of cold-blooded," Maddon said the day before Davis took the ball. "On an off day in Toronto the boys went bear hunting, and Wade was the only one that came back with the 300-plus-pound black bear. If he can stay eye-to-eye with a black bear, I think [a postseason start] is not that big of a deal."
The two defending league champions, New York and Philadelphia, breezed through the first round without a loss or the slightest worry. The Yankees swept the Twins in a series that amounted to little more than calisthenics. The Phillies allowed the fewest hits ever in a three-game sweep, 11, with Halladay crafting his Ode to Nothingness in Game 1. So sharp was Halladay that he threw just 25 balls to 28 batters, including four to Reds outfielder Jay Bruce in the fifth inning, the only plate appearance that prevented Halladay from matching the perfect game by Larsen for the Yankees in the 1956 World Series. Halladay, who led the NL in wins (21), innings (250 2/3) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.3) and is almost certain to win his second Cy Young Award, has made such brutal efficiency almost to be expected whenever he takes the mound. He tossed a perfect game against the Marlins in May; the masterpiece against the Reds made him the fifth pitcher in history and first since Nolan Ryan in 1973 to throw two no-hitters in a season. "The only thing that was different about Doc in the no-hitter is that he was a little more amped up because of the crowd, because it was his first playoff game," said Phillies closer Brad Lidge. "So it made his good stuff even a little better."
In past years with Toronto, Halladay would always reserve the first two weeks of the off-season for doing nothing; they would be the only weeks Halladay allowed himself time off from training. He's glad to have work this time of year. Said backup catcher Brian Schneider, another veteran who made it to his first postseason, "I grew up in Allentown rooting for the Phillies and came here because I wanted to experience the playoffs. Roy and I have talked about that. We both wanted that. The atmosphere is electric. We made the right decision.
"When we clinched [the NL East] in Washington, Ryan Howard made sure Roy and Mike [Sweeney] and I got the first bottles of champagne. Three veterans going to the playoffs for the first time. That was classy. We got our fingers on those corks and popped 'em open. All three of us at the same time."
In San Francisco, when the past three seasons ended, Lincecum would take his hat and go home. (The righthander has worn the same sweat-stained cap every season of his four-year big league career and holds on to it during the off-season so as not to lose it.) But this year Lincecum, 26, was among 16 Giants on the 25-man roster who threw their hats into the postseason ring for the first time. On the day after Halladay pitched, Lincecum was nearly unhittable himself, allowing the Braves only two doubles, one to start the game by Omar Infante and another in the seventh by Brian McCann. So dominant was Lincecum that the Braves swung and missed 31 times at his pitches.
The Giants gave Lincecum a run in the fourth inning, and he made it stand. Talk about old-school pitching: Lincecum became just the sixth pitcher to throw a 1--0 shutout in his postseason debut, joining Bill James (1914), Johnny Sain ('48), Preacher Roe ('49), Wally Bunker ('66) and Mike Scott ('86). What's more, he did it with a catcher also making his postseason debut, Buster Posey. "It's great, just a relaxed feeling, telling each other, 'We've done this before, no big deal, come out and play the game,'" Lincecum said. "And throwing to Posey has been great for me. The guy is a student of the game. He just wants to get better and help us get better."
No one, though, seemed to bask in the postseason more than Huff. When asked if his game-tying single in Game 3 was the biggest hit of his career, Huff cracked a smile and said, "Do I even have to answer that? I don't think it was a double in a Devil Rays game in July one year."
Huff had the misfortune of being selected by Tampa Bay (then known as the Devil Rays) in the fifth round of the 1998 draft after two seasons of college ball at Miami. He reached the big leagues in 2000 and spent five full losing seasons with the Devil Rays before they traded him to Houston in July 2006. The Astros finished in second place in the NL Central that year, 1½ games back.
Huff then signed with Baltimore, where he logged two losing seasons before the Orioles shipped him to Detroit and into a pennant race last year. Alas, the Tigers and Huff were denied a playoff berth with a loss to Minnesota in a 163rd game.
Huff hit .241 overall in 2009, his worst season, and had difficulty last winter finding a job. As the off-season dragged and no team called, Huff considered the possibility of retirement. Finally, the Giants called—but only after free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche turned them down. "My agent said they had an offer for $3 million," Huff said, "and I knew there were still a bunch of first basemen out there, so just like that I said O.K. I knew a couple of things I wanted: I wanted to play for a team that was going to contend, and I had had enough of the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East. Whenever the playoffs were on, I would watch, but not if the Yankees or Red Sox were playing. I saw enough of them."
Huff turned out to be one of the biggest bang-for-the-buck signings of the winter. He led the Giants in home runs (26), RBIs (86) and clubhouse humor. On Aug. 31, for instance, worried that the Giants were uptight after losing four of their previous five games, Huff walked around the clubhouse wearing nothing but an anniversary gift from his wife: a rhinestone-studded red thong.
"How many games do we have left, 30?" he shouted. "Boys, we're going to go 20--10."
The Giants promptly went 20--10. Huff has worn the thong under his uniform every game since his great and nearly naked proclamation.
"There's a reason for the year that I had," Huff said. "It's the best team I ever played on. It's the most fun I ever had. I was beaten down by the losing. I didn't know how much more I could take. But this? This is fun."
"I WASN'T NERVOUS," SAID HUFF. "IT WAS WEIRD. BUT I JUST FEEL LIKE THE BASEBALL GODS OWE ME."
ASKED IF HIS GAME 3 HIT WAS THE BIGGEST OF HIS CAREER, HUFF SAID, "DO I EVEN HAVE TO ANSWER THAT?"
Photograph by CHUCK SOLOMON
GRAND LARSEN-Y The final pitch of Halladay's first career playoff start was a historic one: It stole the Reds' Game 1 hopes and finished off the second no-hitter ever thrown in the postseason, after Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 Series.
JED JACOBSOHN (HUFF)
FALL BALL Young (right) helped give Texas a 2--0 series edge over the Rays with this clutch homer, while Huff (below) and the Giants pushed the Braves to the brink in Game 3.
BOB ROSATO (YOUNG)
[See caption above]
ROBERT BECK (HUFF)
ORANGE CRUSHER After signing a bargain deal in January, Huff led the Giants in home runs, RBIs and OBP this season.