- Ray Ratto
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Phil Garner had never been inside Bondsville Heights before Tuesday's Astros-Giants game, so the Houston manager jammed a cigar into his yap the size of Stacy Dragila's favorite vaulting pole and patrolled the grounds a good five hours before game time, looking for indications from the height of the grass, the slope toward the foul line, all the little things that can make the difference in an important game, but usually don't.
He'd have probably been much better served trying to get Brett Tomko drunk and shanghaied.
It was that simple. In a game that was pre-game-hyped by the return of Jeff Kent, Barry Bonds' reworked contract and the ongoing specter of his never seeing a hittable pitch, and the five-teams-in-a-two-team-bag playoff race, the Giants had Tomko, your Cy Young winner for people who just got back from the space station on Labor Day, and the Astros took a comfortable 9-2 pianowiring.
This, while the Cubs were holding off the typically pliant and accommodating Pirates, and the Dodgers were going all gray and mordant in San Diego. So your update is Dodgers by 1½ over the Giants, the Giants by a half over the Cubs, the Cubs by 1½ over the Astros, the Astros by two over the Padres, and the Padres by 1½ over the abyss.
"Hey, this is an 11-game playoff," Giant manager Felipe Alou said afterward. "It was 12 before."
Any other questions?
Well, other than how Tomko suddenly turned into Greg Maddux, we mean?
Tomko gave up two ridiculous first-inning homers to Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman on successive pitches, and then spaced two hits and three walks among the next 24 Houston outs to win his sixth consecutive decision and become, if such a thing can be imagined, the perfectly acceptable Option B to Jason Schmidt's Option A.
Tomko credits his visits to a sports psychologist in Los Angeles, who taught him mostly how to relax in stressful moments, like every pitch in a major league baseball game. Since he took up with the psychologist, he is 5-0 with a 1.51 ERA, but there is also every reason to think that he might have done most of this work on a self-help basis.
Either way, the Giants, the team everyone was sure was doomed because all they are is Barry Bonds, Jason Schmidt and a lousy closing schedule, is holding a strong hand because they aren't just Barry Bonds, Jason Schmidt and a lousy closing schedule.
And the rest was easy, right? Right?
"It's real complicated right now," Alou said. "We're 'only' a game and a half behind the Dodgers, but 'only' is a lot. We're 'only' a half-game ahead of the Cubs. We know Houston is here, but there many other enemies out there."
The Giants, though, seem to have taken out their biggest enemy so far -- the Giants.
Their rotation has finally stabilized, behind Tomko and rookie Noah Lowry. Schmidt is still the ace, but since a groin problem has been less of a sure thing. The bullpen is now rested because it is well hidden; Jim Brower only needed to throw three pitches to finish the evening's work, a positive gift for a guy who has pitched in a league-high 81 games.
Offensively, Feliz, Durham and J.T. Snow have made a presence in Bonds' shadow, to the point that they are considered more the other two Supremes to Diana Ross rather than all the other Scots warriors in "Braveheart."
And Bonds? Well, the most he did Tuesday was get his contract reworded so that his $18 million for 2006 is now fully guaranteed and he can continue to play as (and be paid as) a Giant. He did get walked intentionally once, mostly for effect, and got hit by Russ Springer in the eighth inning, a message that seemed mostly to say, "I'm not sure where my ball is going."
"We don't need that right now," Alou said of a potential fist-shaking why-I-oughta with the Astros. "We don't need any problems."
After all, there are plenty of enemies out there.
Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com
The Barry Bonds Giants are showing surprising depth and getting contributions up and down the roster.