Bullpen comes up big in Giants' comeback

Bullpen comes up big in Giants' comeback

CINCINNATI -- It only takes one good arm to hoist a champagne bottle, which worked out perfectly for Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt because that's about all he had to work with Thursday.

"It hurts, but it feels so good," Affeldt said, unclear on whether he was talking about his sore left thumb or the sting of sticky goodness in his eyes.

No one ever said this was going to be easy for the Giants, who dropped the first two games of the National League Division Series before methodically marching back for three consecutive victories, the last one a 6-4 win over the Reds in Game 5 before a stunned, sold-out crowd at Great American Ball Park.

Reds vs. Giants

Affeldt, one of five relievers manager Bruce Bochy employed after Matt Cain departed, was rewarded for his scoreless inning of work in the seventh with trying to dodge a Gregor Blanco screaming line drive into the dugout a half-inning later.

Affeldt jammed his thumb trying to get out of the way. He was wearing a brace afterward, though he insisted it was only a precaution. The team will get X-rays on it before the NL Championship Series starts, but Affeldt was not about to miss the most improbable of celebrations.

"It's not a big deal," Affeldt said of the injury.

What was, however, was the sturdy performance by the Giants' bullpen, a persistent theme in the final three games of this series, as San Francisco's relievers allowed two runs over the final 14 innings of this series -- all coming in these three victories -- to ensure the team advanced to the next round.

"We got that last out and obviously euphoria hits," said Bochy.

In order to make sure it did, Bochy again leaned heavily on his bullpen after Cain yielded three runs in 5 2/3 innings. Rookie reliever George Kontos, who didn't allow a run in four appearances during this series, bailed Cain out by getting the final out of the sixth inning with a runner on base.

"The biggest thing for me was keeping my composure and not let things get out of control," Kontos said. "Focus on one pitch, that's it. One pitch."

Then it was up to Affeldt, who, like Kontos, went unscored upon in this series. He struck out Xavier Paul to start the inning then allowed a single to Brandon Phillips before getting Zack Cozart on a fly ball. Affeldt then allowed an infield single to Joey Votto, which figured to end his time with right-handed thumper Ryan Ludwick coming up.

But he wasn't done.

Defying the left-right matchup against Ludwick, who hit a home run in the sixth inning, Bochy opted to stay with Affeldt. He battled Ludwick, eventually getting him to hit a comebacker to end the inning as the Giants clung to a 6-3 lead.

"He's really locked in and I didn't want to leave anything over the plate for him," Affeldt said. "That was a battle. Honestly ... it was rewarding to get him out. He's been around a long time. It was an honorable battle."

When Affeldt hurt his thumb the next inning, Bochy was forced to go with the other left-hander in the bullpen, Javier Lopez, to try to get Jay Bruce to start the eighth, which he did, on a comebacker. Then Bochy went and got Santiago Casilla, who allowed two more singles before Angel Pagan bailed him out with a sprawling catch in center field of a ball Dioner Navarro hit to end the inning.

The ninth inning proved to be another tightrope for the Giants, who seemed to be pitching with a slew of baserunners in each and every inning. Sergio Romo allowed a walk and hits to Votto and Ludwick before retiring Bruce on a fly ball and then striking out Scott Rolen to end the game.

"They've been unbelievable all year," said Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford.

There are certainly a lot of familiar faces in this bullpen from the last time the Giants started a playoff push -- minus closer Brian Wilson, of course -- the one in 2010 that ended with them winning the World Series.

The difference so far, at least with this series, is that the starters' outings were shorter than Bochy has experienced before. Cain went five innings in Game 1 and 5 2/3 innings in Game 5, and Madison Bumgarner went 4 1/3 innings. Ryan Vogelsong went five innings, and Barry Zito went 2 2/3 innings.

The bullpen didn't just save the day Thursday, they saved three of them.

"Everyone was on edge down there [in the bullpen] watching, but when the phone rang, we were ready to go," Kontos said. "Our bullpen gave us a big pickup in this series."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.