Monday, October 20, 2014

The Giants Win The Pennant: Fragile Beauty and the Summoning of History in the National League Championship Series

So often in life, everything can change in an instant. Baseball is no different. Around three hundred pitches are thrown every game, each one potentially a missile of abundant joy and ceaseless heartbreak. There is a fragile tether to the game. In one moment, everything can appear in your favor. The presence of a single mistake can ruin such momentum and pull you to place akin to those forsaken. One pitch. One swing. On Thursday night in San Francisco, two swings sealed the fates of the Cardinals and Giants. The former would shatter the hopes of a St. Louis rally. The latter would become a moment forever etched in San Francisco history.


For the Cardinals, game five was a must. Down three games to one, they were stuck in a win-only scenario. On the hill, ready to squash any threat of a series comeback, was Madison Bumgarner. Two years earlier, it was the Giants down by the same count of games. They were able to mount a comeback, taking the series in seven, on their way to a second World Series title in three years. To keep the champagne on ice, St. Louis sent their ace, Adam Wainwright, to the mound. It was a clash of postseason brilliance. All was going according to plan until the third inning.

In the top half, Bumgarner walked catcher Tony Cruz. Following a Wainwright sacrifice bunt to move Cruz to second, he walked Matt Carpenter. With no outs and two men on base this early in the game, it seemed as if the Cardinals might solve the Giants' ace, much the way they solved the once-thought-unbeatable Clayton Kershaw. A few pitches later, center fielder Jon Jay sent a ball to left field, where it was misplayed by Travis Ishikawa, who was visibly inexperienced at the position. Cruz scored on the play, and it appeared as if the Cardinals might survive. The next two batters fell to easy fly balls in the outfield. The Giants escaped further damage. In the bottom half, it was time for San Francisco's unlikely power bats to begin their show. With one man on and two outs, rookie Joe Panik sent a Wainwright offering down the right field line, just fair enough to go for a home run. It was his first postseason long ball. With one swing, the Giants went from down a run, to up a run. Wainwright looked equally beatable.

The next inning, Matt Adams tied the game with a solo shot to right. The absolutely lifeless response of the San Francisco crowd showed how valuable that run was in the spectrum of this game. Each inning the Cardinals trailed, it was an inning closer to that borderline perfect bullpen coming in and shutting the door. Three batters later, Tony Cruz stepped in. With one swing, the Giants trailed again, as Cruz sent Bumgarner's pitch back into deep left field. It was so blatantly a home run, that Ishikawa only took a few steps before resigning it as gone. The Cardinals had new life. The next few innings would see Bumgarner and Wainwright settle in to their ace pedigrees. The game would begin to sway, however, in the eighth inning when Wainwright was replaced with Pat Neshek.

Six outs from victory, the Cardinals turned to their bullpen. It was a reasonable strategy, seeing how often they were able to hold one-run leads. Michael Morse, a free agent signing back in December, was first into the box against Neshek. He was pinch-hitting for Bumgarner. With one ball and one strike, Morse got ahold of an eighty-three miles per hour slider that hooked right into his wheelhouse. It was a towering shot to deep left field. The AT&T Park crowd knew it was gone, and once the ball cleared the fence, madness broke out. Their dream of a third World Series trip in five years was beginning to look real again. On one swing, the fate of two cities changed dramatically.

The St. Louis half of the ninth inning was tense. With one out, Matt Adams walked. Randal Grichuk singled. With a possible run looming, Adams was replaced by the much faster Daniel Descalso at second. Kolten Wong grounded into a fielder's choice, moving Descalso to third but cutting down Grichuk. Two outs. Wong stole second, eliminating the force play there. Tony Cruz walked. The bases were loaded. Jeremy Affeldt was brought on to face the enigmatic uber-prospect Oscar Taveras. Affeldt trapped Taveras into a soft chopper just right of the pitcher's mound. He grabbed the ball and sprinted to first. With plenty of time to spare, Affeldt stepped on the bag, ending the inning and keeping the game tied heading to the bottom of the ninth.

Pablo Sandoval, the 2012 World Series most valuable player and chief offensive threat for San Francisco, led off the inning with a single into right. Two batters later, Brandon Belt walked. St. Louis had put in Michael Wacha to hold the game into extra innings. Later, manager Mike Matheny would claim his decision was based upon the theory of not bringing in the closer in a tie game on the road. The decision would prove fatal. The next at-bat of the game would be stamped in Giants lore, and leave and indelible wound in the postseason history of the mighty St. Louis Cardinals.

With two men on and one out, Travis Ishikawa stepped into the batter's box. Earlier in the game, he had been the goat. Misreading a line drive to left field had let in the first run of the game. Ishikawa was a late-Apri pick up by the Giants. He had been let go by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Later he would mention how he had thought about leaving the game entirely. He found himself in a place to send his team to the World Series with a hit. Wacha started with two inside pitches, one nearly hitting Ishikawa in the knee. The third pitch would be different. I'll remember the call by Joe Buck for quite some time. It wasn't his echoing of history as he so often does, but this sort of prophetic nature to how it began. As Wacha delivered the fated fastball, Buck said Ishikawa's name in that sort of leading manner one might say on a highlight reel. Ishikawa caught up to the ninety-six miles per hour pitch and made contact. Buck, echoing the infamous Russ Hodges call of Bobby Thomson's pennant-winning home run in 1951, captured the moment.

HITS ONE INTO RIGHT
THE GIANTS... WIN THE PENNANT

The ball cleared the field of play. AT&T Park erupted in insatiable joy. As Ishikawa rounded the bases, he could not put his arms down. The bench cleared, pitchers, position players and coaches. As he rounded third, Ishikawa removed his helmet and spiked it into the ground. With all the fervor of a redeemed soul and the heart of a child on a sandlot, the unlikely hero sprinted home to the arms of his team. Baseball can often feel stranger than fiction. It is in these moments that the true fragile beauty of the game is evident. With one swing, a man who was so close to leaving the game behind just months earlier became a timeless hero to a franchise so well-steeped in such things. As it was when Bobby Thomson hit that eternally chilling home run to send the New York Giants to the World Series, the sentiment of New York Herald Tribune writer Red Smith echoes brilliantly alongside Ishikawa's pennant-winning shot:

Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.

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