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The Hot Stave League

I’ve mostly followed the ongoing National League Championship Series via peripheral vision, not having fully sat down to gaze directly upon the Giants and Cardinals very much given that for their first five games I’ve mostly been doing something else, thinking about something else or literally mostly watching something else (the full power of P-I-P technology only recently having been mastered by your correspondent) while our circuit’s pennant’s fate is being tussled over with only modestly dramatic flourishes. Odd start times, extensive rain delays and a bounty of distractions notwithstanding, I suppose the reason I haven’t been fully engaged in what St. Louis and San Francisco have been doing to each other is the sense that there’s little payoff to be had. We’ve got the 2010 World Champions battling the 2011 World Champions for the right to compete to become 2012 World Champions.

Emotional stakes have been higher in a brand-name sense, but that’s not necessarily fair to the individual participants, for significant changes roil the ranks of every team, even recent titleholders. The Cardinal evolution has been more obvious to our Met-trained eye, given their addition of Carlos Beltran, which has made the Redbirds’ run back toward another MLB Finals not only somewhat palatable but close to desirable. Yeah, I know, Beltran is either the most stupidly underappreciated superstar of our time — quick, someone cite eighteen different metrics and work up a condescending hashtag! — or a big stiff who never tried and never cared. I’ll be over here in the middle ground remembering someone who played hard, played hurt and played very well for my team for nearly seven years without intentionally drawing a fuss in his direction, and I’ll be mostly hoping that he’s in a World Series Wednesday despite his current uniform.

But I can’t say I’m fully committed to that outcome because a) his current uniform has two avian creatures perched smugly on a bat and I can hear them squawking “1985! 1987! 2006!” evermore; and b) I really loved watching a whole bunch of Giants refuse to give in to what loomed as the inevitable in Game Five [1] Friday night.

Out of the corner of my eye, in the corner of my screen, I saw one dive after another, almost all of them resulting in the scooping of a ball that couldn’t be allowed to land anywhere but a glove lest the San Francisco season end at once. There was Pablo Sandoval, usurper of All-Star starting third baseman berths, perhaps, but also The Man when it came to stabbing a hot liner and stanching an early Cardinal rally. There was Hunter Pence, always willing to throw himself all over the grass, occasionally making it work to his advantage. There were our alumni, Marco Scutaro and Angel Pagan, reminding us they had their moments on our behalf. And there was Barry Zito, proffering the best defense possible: pitching shutout ball well into the eighth — and bunting home a run and beating the play at first when it really, really mattered in the fourth.

What those fellas have in common is they mostly had nothing to do with the last Giant championship. Sandoval and Zito have rings, but the so-called Panda was all but glued the bench in 2010 and Zito was written off as a Bayload of wasted millions and omitted from that postseason’s roster. Pence, who became exponentially less distasteful the moment he stopped being rented by the Phillies, toiled in dreary Houston for several years. Scutaro has been the epitome of a journeyman since he briefly made our acquaintance a decade ago. Pagan we know very well.

These five guys banded together to stave off elimination in Game Five, perhaps because they’ve been eliminated far too many times in their respective careers and don’t want to go home before everything ends once again. It’s a grim assignment for any team, whether it’s a Game Four, Five or Six situation. The odds are against you when you’re stuck in that three-something hole. The Giants just climbed out of something similar twice against the Reds before tying that best-of-five at two. Once you’re in a decisive game like that, then you’re no longer staving — you’re striving. But the Giants are still in stave mode. No offense to Our Mr. Beltran, but I hope San Fran can stave around a little longer. It demands your undivided attention when somebody does.