Barry Bonds is the most feared hitter in baseball, and even though he has only one hit in five at-bats against St. Louis in the National League championship series, he's having as big an impact on the playoffs as he did on the regular season.
The mere threat of Bonds in the San Francisco Giants' lineup has opened things for his teammates, who have feasted on fat pitches left over the plate.
St. Louis pitchers have sometimes seemed preoccupied with the goal of keeping first base open so they can walk Bonds, and the rest of the Giants have made them pay in taking a 2-0 lead heading into today's Game 3.
Shortstop Rich Aurilia bats two spots ahead of Bonds and he jumped all over St. Louis right-hander Woody Williams with two home runs in the Giants' 4-1 victory in Game 2. Although Bonds failed to get a hit in three official at-bats, he made a difference with his presence after stepping up big in San Francisco's 9-6 Game 1 victory.
In the series opener, Bonds drove in two runs with a laser triple, walked three times and scored twice. Bonds spoon-fed Benito Santiago several golden opportunities and the veteran catcher took advantage with two singles and a two-run homer, and three of his four RBIs came after Bonds had been walked.
That's having an impact.
But Bonds has done that to everyone this season and he has done it in many ways, not only with home runs. Bonds shattered Ted Williams' 51-year-old on-base percentage record of .551, posting a .582. According to STATS Inc., if you turned every one of Bonds' 149 hits into outs, his remaining OBP of .338, built with a major league-record 198 walks, would still be better than the .332 by American League MVP candidate Alfonso Soriano of the New York Yankees
Bonds, who has reached base in 14 of 30 plate appearances during the playoffs, has finally been getting the job done in postseason play. The one knock on him over the years has been his playoff failures, but he's hitting .273 with a .452 on-base percentage and a home run in every 7.3 at-bats in this year's playoffs, compared to .196, .319 and every 97 at-bats in his previous playoffs.
Bonds has completely unsettled pitchers the last two seasons. And the key to his effectiveness has been his patience. He doesn't swing at bad pitches and handles the inside pitch with power. He has a super-quick bat and a pure-hitter swing. An equal opportunity batter, he hits righties and lefties the same.
Even pitchers who have handled Bonds well over the years give the San Francisco slugger his due. Dodger veteran Jesse Orosco--in his younger days, he pitched against Barry's father, Bobby--is one of five active pitchers who have held Barry below a .190 batting average with at least 25 at-bats.
Orosco said that facing today's Bonds is every bit as difficult as it looks.
"Let me just say it this way, any pitcher is not too fond about facing him, even if you've had some success against him in the past," said Orosco, who has held Bonds to a .160 batting average. "He's a very feared hitter up there. You don't get that many intentional walks without a reason. Sometimes pitchers do not mind when a manager tells him to walk [Bonds]."
Over the last two seasons, Bonds has walked 375 times.
Jon Lieber of the Chicago Cubs has done the best against Bonds, holding him to five hits in 36 at-bats (.139); followed by former Dodger Ismael Valdes of Seattle and Orosco at .160, John Thomson of the New York Mets, .185, and Greg Swindell of Arizona, .188.
But like most pitchers who have had success against Bonds, Orosco had most of his when Bonds was younger and played for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"Barry was very aggressive when he was young, more like his father," Orosco said. "I faced him when he was real young and then I went off to the American League. He's more patient now. He's taken a different approach and it works for him."
But there is a way to reduce Bonds' effectiveness.
It will not be easy, but the Cardinals can get it done today in Game 3 with left-hander Chuck Finley, who has walked Bonds twice and given up one hit in Bonds' four at-bats against him.
Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal has said the key to pitching to Bonds is to not pitch to him in any certain way and to keep moving the ball inside and outside.
That's exactly how the Cardinals attacked Bonds on Thursday, and Williams was able to get him out with ball movement. Williams jumped out to 0-2 counts the first two times he faced Bonds but had to go to full counts each time before getting him out.
Williams challenged Bonds, but not with a lot of fastballs. Williams threw curveballs for strikes and had Bonds swinging at sliders out of the strike zone. The third time Bonds faced Williams, he worked a walk and then finished his night by striking out in four pitches against left-hander Jeff Fassero.
If St. Louis learned anything from Game 2, it's not to back down against Bonds. Cardinal Manager Tony La Russa seems determined to get Bonds to swing at pitches out of the strike zone, and he's doing a good job of that by getting his pitchers to go after him aggressively to get ahead in the count.
You also can't be afraid to pitch hard inside. It's a tactic some pitchers do well, while others just make things more difficult for themselves because Bonds never backs down. But if you can do it right, the deeper in the count you can get Bonds, the better chance you have of getting him out. He hit .420 on first pitches during the regular season and only .280 when the count was full.
Finley still can bring some heat and he was able to move the ball around well against Arizona in the first round of the playoffs. But he didn't have to face Bonds, who will surely make his job more difficult today.