SAN FRANCISCO — Barry Bonds threw out the first pitch before the Giants beat the Cardinals, 6-4, in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series Wednesday night. Bonds recently underwent hip surgery, needed crutches to get to the mound, and looked considerably smaller than he did when he hit 73 homers in 2001.
Those were the days when chicks dug the long ball and a lot of guys were hitting 50 homers. And those days are over.
Welcome to the 2014 hardball postseason tournament, an Octoberfest thus far dominated by bullpens and small-ball. Fifteen of 24 playoff games have been decided by a single run.
The Kansas City Royals completed their stunning sweep of the homer-hitting Orioles Wednesday, eliminating the last of the big boppers from the baseball playoffs with a 2-1 ALCS victory. Along with the A’s, Angels, Tigers, Dodgers, and Nationals, the Orioles were nibbled to death by bunts, wild pitches, sac flys, and defensive gems. The flyweights of the Heartland will host their first World Series in 29 years Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium. Somebody tell Bud Selig to set his snooze alarm. Fox is no doubt thrilled to showcase 10 days of the Ned Yost No Names.
The Royals will play either the Giants or the Cardinals, big-market ballclubs with small offenses and minimal star power. Let’s hope this isn’t the World Series that kills baseball on television altogether.
Going into the NLCS Game 4, the Cardinals were hitting .229 in this postseason while the Giants were hitting .235. The Giants already had won one game on a wild pitch and another on a pitcher’s throwing error on a sac bunt play. Small-ball brings its own excitement, but it’s not exactly Kirk Gibson vs. Dennis Eckersley or Bobby Thomson vs. Ralph Branca. The Giants hit only two homers in their first eight postseason games. The guys in the kayaks aren’t getting much action in the waters beyond the right-field wall.
The Royals finished last in the majors in homers this year, hitting 95, compared with 211 for the swept-away Orioles. The Cardinals hit a measly 105 homers. The Giants came in at 132. The Royals, Cardinals, and Giants all won 90 games or fewer.
Compare them with the 2004, chemically-enhanced world champion Red Sox, who hit 222 homers. That was a team fans wanted to watch on television. Same with the Yankees.
Now we have a game suited for purists, i.e. old folks who grew up reading John R. Tunis books. We have pitching, defense, and no homers. We have Royals and Giants and Cards. Oh, my.
Terry Francona is a baseball lifer who managed the 2004 chest-thumping Red Sox and managed against the white-hot Royals and the Giants during the 2014 season. Francona’s Indians stayed with the Royals until the final weekend of the season, beating Kansas City 10 times in 19 tries in 2014. The Son of Tito is not surprised at the postseason success of the Royals.
“We played them at the end of May and they were hovering around .500,’’ said Francona. “I remember thinking they were going to take off. They have a lot of good young players who are just starting to realize how good they are. They don’t hit the ball out of the park, but they run the bases and play defense and have good pitching. You could kind of see this coming. Once they got it going, it just snowballed.’’
Indeed. The Royals trailed Jon Lester and the A’s, 7-3, with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning of the one-game playoff, but rallied to win in extras and have not looked back. KC’s sweep of the Orioles gives them an 8-0 record in the 2014 postseason.
“They catch the ball better than anybody I’ve seen,’’ said Francona, who starting watching big league games when his father was a major league outfielder in the 1960s. “Every time you hit a ball into the outfield, it’s an out. They are a hard team to defend, a little like the 2004 Angels. They can run you into trouble and they’re not afraid to get thrown out stealing. They are really good at it. They’ve got like four leadoff hitters and they are able to run for Aoki, who has about 20  stolen bases.
“I love [James] Shields. There were some questions when they gave up Wil Myers for him, but he’s a top-of-the-rotation pitcher and every time he goes out there you know you’re going to get seven and he’s going to give you a chance to win.
“His mentality helped their young pitchers. And those guys in the bullpen have video game numbers.’’
Shields is on schedule to pitch the first game of the World Series.
Francona believes the Royals got a late boost from the leadership of veteran lefty slugger Raul Ibanez, who was acquired in August (Ibanez thus far has not been part of the postseason roster).
“He brought a voice to them and I think it really helped,’’ said the Tribe boss. “He kind of reminded those young players of how good they are and how they are perceived throughout the league.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they got better when he got over there. Jason Giambi did that with us. It carries a lot of weight when you have a guy everybody respects.’’
Francona’s Indians were swept by the Giants early in the season.
“They never beat themselves,’’ he said. “They just have a bunch of guys that know how to play. They really play the game right and they give themselves a chance to win every day. They play hard and their guys know their roles.’’
The Giants are one game from making the World Series but they failed to homer again and have two in nine games.
McCovey Cove gently weeps.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org