Giants gain upper hand over favored Nats

Of the four division series, this one has the biggest favorite: Washington Nationals over San Francisco Giants, in large part because Madison Bumgarner will start only one game, and in large part because of the way the Nationals played down the stretch. So of course the Giants won the opener 3-2. Five critical moments:

1. Sergio Romo vs. Bryce Harper.

Romo was demoted from closer during the season, but Bruce Bochy is still giving him the ball in key situations. After soft singles from Anthony Rendon and Adam LaRoche put runners at first and second (Rendon probably should have made third on LaRoche's single down the left-field line), Romo fanned Ian Desmond on his patented slider and then got Harper to ground into a fielder's choice on a 1-1 sinker.

It probably wasn't the matchup Bochy wanted, given that Romo allowed an OPS .250 points higher to lefties, but he had used lefty specialist Javier Lopez in the sixth against LaRoche and then his other left-hander Jeremy Affeldt in the seventh against Denard Span (with two outs and nobody on). He then hit for Affeldt in the eighth.

If Harper had delivered here, would we be ripping Bochy like we do Ned Yost? Does Bochy get more of a free pass because he's won two World Series? Or, in the end, is it the players who win and lose, who make the big pitches or the bad pitches, and not the managers?

(Santiago Casilla closed it out with a 1-2-3 save. As we watched the Giants close out a win on the same day the Tigers imploded, we could see the importance of late-inning bullpen depth. Maybe the Giants can win their third World Series in five years with their third different closer.)

2. Hunter Strickland vs. Desmond.

Not to get all Roget's Thesaurus on you, but: Wow. Bases loaded, bottom of the sixth, the 26-year-old rookie right-hander and his upper 90s gas in to rescue Jake Peavy and Javier Lopez and protect a 2-0 lead. Desmond, the Nationals' cleanup hitter, a .433 career hitter with the bases loaded and with the bat speed to turn on any pitch.

The sequence: 99 mph outside, 98 swing and a miss, 99 on the corner, 100 swing and a miss. Before the season, I wondered if Bochy would have the confidence to use Strickland, who had pitched just seven innings in the majors, in a tight spot. Question answered.

3. Bryce Harper and Asdrubal Cabrera homer in the seventh.

Oops. The next inning wasn't quite as successful. The Giants had added another run in the top of the seventh off Craig Stammen on Joe Panik's triple off the wall and Buster Posey's infield single off Desmond's glove. But Harper crushed a 2-1, 97 mph fastball -- see graphic above! -- and Cabrera turned on a 1-2 97 mph heater. Big league hitters can turn on 97 mph heat down the middle. And we had a ballgame again.

4. Wilson Ramos grounds into a double play

It wasn't the prettiest of games by the veteran right-hander, as it took him 104 pitches to get 17 outs. But he didn't give up a hit until Harper's infield single in the fifth and he was immediately erased on a double play, leading to many tweets about Peavy's neck.

Based on both ERA and FIP, Peavy was bad with the Red Sox and good with the Giants, a result of a suddenly reduced home run rate and reduced walk rate. I don't know if he improved as much as he simply changed parks and his luck evened out. With Boston, he gave up home runs on 12.3 percent of his fly balls; with San Francisco, just 3.5 percent. His strike percentage went up from 63.5 percent to 67 percent, minor but important, but maybe just a result of not seeing as many balls leaving the park.

Anyway, he had a 2.17 ERA in 12 starts with the Giants and allowed just three home runs in 78.2 innings. He reminds some of David Cone in the latter stages of his Yankees days. His fastball velocity has diminished, but he throws the entire toolshed of pitches up there, any pitch on any count. He was kind of effectively wild on this day, walking three guys, but that kind of pitcher can be tough to hit. Fun to watch.

5. Strasburg exits after five-plus innings.

Umm, that's not exactly an inspiring tweet considering the Nationals could have started Jordan Zimmermann, the guy many consider the team's best pitcher who was also coming off a no-hitter, or Doug Fister, who had a better ERA than either of them and has an excellent postseason track record from his Tigers days.

Anyway, Strasburg wasn't hit hard -- eight singles, six of them grounders up the middle. So give the Giants credit for putting the ball in play (and maybe exposing Cabrera's lack of range a bit at second base), but also knock Strasburg for not being able to put them away.