DETROIT — The modern sports world is too easily punctuated by exclamation points. Spend the money! Make the trade! Fire the guy!
In baseball, never is this more apparent than at the July trade deadline. Fans and columnists scream that a team must do something big — they must! — in order to win.
The Dodgers spent those final days of July in intense negotiations with the Boston Red Sox. The Dodgers already had acquired Hanley Ramirez, and they would have grabbed Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford right then too, had the Red Sox not wanted to surrender their season so soon.
Brian Sabean, the general manager of the San Francisco Giants, was also working on a trade. He flew to Colorado, so he could scout Marco Scutaro, the infielder who emerged as the most valuable player of the National League Championship Series, then delivered the game-winning hit in the World Series clincher.
The Dodgers won the headlines. The Giants won the ring.
“It doesn’t bother me if we don’t get the credit,” Giants President Larry Baer said. “Sometimes under the radar is good.”
The Giants won the World Series for the second time in three years, the seventh time overall. For the first time since 1980, the Giants can say they have more World Series championships than the Dodgers.
The lesson for the Dodgers and their fans is not that spending money should be out of fashion. The Giants spend plenty of money too. They sold out every game this season.
Truth be told, they made their biggest late-season acquisitions without even knowing. They added a quality starter and a dominant reliever from within their clubhouse.
Barry Zito crawled out from the under the rubble of his $126-million contract and became unbeatable. The last 14 times the Giants gave the ball to Zito, they won.
Tim Lincecum stopped fighting the loss of his overpowering fastball and embraced middle relief, every bit as dominant this October as Francisco Rodriguez was for the Angels 10 years ago. In 13 innings out of the bullpen, Lincecum gave up one run, two walks and three hits. He struck out 17.
While fans love to judge a manager by his in-game strategy, clubhouse management is more crucial to the long-term success of the team. Bruce Bochy juggled Zito, Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner in and out of the playoff rotation while keeping all three convinced he would use them rather than bury them.
To get three players to buy into less playing time under any circumstance is not easy. To get three players to buy in during October — let alone when two of the players are former Cy Young Award winners — demonstrates the respect Bochy commands.
No, the lesson for the Dodgers and their fans is this: the trade deadline is a tiny piece of a championship puzzle, and the foundation for success in the NL West and in October is the same: great pitching backed by great defense.
Yes, the Dodgers would not have advanced to the NLCS in 2008 without the Manny Ramirez donation provided by the Red Sox. And, yes, the Dodgers traded for Gonzalez and Crawford for six years, not one.
But look at the position players the Giants signed and developed: Lincecum and fellow starters Matt Cain and Bumgarner; closers Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo; catcher Buster Posey, the likely NL MVP, first baseman Brandon Belt, shortstop Brandon Crawford, and third baseman and World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval.
The Giants selected Posey, Bumgarner, Lincecum and Cain in the first round of the draft. The Pittsburgh Pirates, picking ahead of the Giants in each of those years, selected third baseman Pedro Alvarez and pitchers Daniel Moskos, Brad Lincoln and Bryan Bullington. The three pitchers won a combined nine games for the Pirates.
These Giants might have perished in the American League East. They might never have made it to October. They hit the fewest home runs in the major leagues.
“Everybody wants to see the home run,” Giants pitcher Jeremy Affeldt said. “Those are fun to watch. That offense is fun to have. When you’re putting up a lot of runs, it’s great.”
Yet, of the nine teams that put up the most runs in the majors, three made the playoffs. Of the nine teams that gave up the fewest unearned runs, seven made the playoffs — the Dodgers were one of the two that did not.
But the factors that tend to dominate in October — pitching and defense — also tend to rule the NL West. Pitching and defense wins in the big ballparks in San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles, where the Giants and Dodgers each play 100 games per season.
So, while fans clamor for big bats, Affeldt warns of skimping on middle relief. That’s what killed the Angels this season. If the middle relief is unreliable, then the starters might stay in too long, piling up the innings they could be saving for October, or tiring in games that could prevent their team from getting there.
“That’s when the home run happens,” Affeldt said, “and then you’re losing.”
The starters also might stay in too long if their defense has failed them, forcing them to make extra pitches. Crawford and outfielders Gregor Blanco and Angel Pagan put on a defensive clinic in the World Series.
“When pitching is your strength, you want a good defense,” Bochy said. “That shows up every day. Hitting sometimes, it comes and goes, but as long as you can stay in more games, the better chance you have of winning them. That’s how we play.”
The Giants’ priority is preparing for their second parade in three years. The Dodgers’ priorities, at least based on the World Series, ought to be 1) a candid conversation with Hanley Ramirez in which he agrees to play third base; 2) a long-term contract extension with ace Clayton Kershaw, who otherwise would remain eligible for free agency after the 2014 season.
Kershaw said Sunday the Dodgers have not offered him a long-term deal, but said he would be open to one. For the second time in three years, he watched the Giants win the World Series in person. It’s about time for them to watch him do it.