I was off by two batters and one classic rock reference.
As the bottom of the ninth approached in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants on Thursday night, I tweeted the following:
“Prediction: Hunter Pence hits game-winning homer and hops around the bases on one leg like Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull.”
Well, even Nostradamus clammed the occasional quatrain. Pence, batting second in the inning with Joaquin Arias (pinch-running for Pablo Sandoval) on first, merely flied to right, thus depriving the baseball world of a limb-flailing, pennant-clinching spectacle I was certain would have looked something like this. But then Cards reliever Michael Wacha served up a walk to Brandon Belt, followed by a 2-0 pitch that Travis Ishikawa crunched 401 feet into the right field seats for a three-run homer; Ishikawa’s subsequent air-punching run around the bases was decidedly less than Tull-tastic – and much closer to Bruce Springsteen’s awkward-but-determined moves from the “Dancing In The Dark” video – but the Giants were headed to the World Series against the Kansas City Royals, just the same.
A wonderfully unlikely hero, the 31-year-old Ishikawa had been plucked from the scrapheap by the Giants in late April, following his release from the Pittsburgh Pirates. After spending half the summer with the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate in Fresno, Ishikawa was called up to the parent club at the end of July, and spent the rest of the season utilized primarily as a pinch-hitter and a late-inning defensive substitute. A lifetime .259 hitter, he hit .274 with two homers and 15 RBIs for the Giants during the regular season; in the NLCS against the Cardinals, he hit .385 and knocked in 7 runs, the last three of which more than made up for Ishikawa’s brutally awkward misplay of Jon Jay’s deep fly to left in the third inning, which allowed the Cards to draw first blood against Giants ace Madison Bumgarner.
But even if Ishikawa hadn’t come through with National League’s first pennant-winning home run since Bobby Thomson hit one for the New York Giants way back in 1951, you just knew that the Giants were going to find a way to win this thing, and most likely in a ridiculously dramatic fashion. Of course, the Cardinals had already engaged in some last-ditch heroics of their own: hulking first baseman Matt Adams (who swings like a cross between Adam Dunn and one of the ballet-dancing hippos from Fantasia) atoned for his immense fielding gaffe in Game 4 with a game-tying solo shot off Bumgarner in the fourth, and light-hitting catcher Tony Cruz – filling in for the injured Yadier Molina – gave the Cards a 3-2 lead two outs later with a solo homer of his own. And with Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright appearing to have regained his badass form after a pair of rough post-season outings, it looked increasingly likely that the series would return to St. Louis for a sixth game.
But when Cards manager Mike Matheny yanked Wainwright after the seventh inning – even though he’d only thrown 97 pitches and was still looking sharp, and even though this was an elimination game – you could sense the tide perceptibly turning in the Giants’ favor. Such suspicions were immediately confirmed when Michael Morse (heretofore best known for getting suspended three times for PEDs before his career even got off the ground, and for jogging the bases clockwise at the behest of an umpiring crew after hitting a contested grand slam in 2012) tied the game with a pinch-hit homer off of Pat Neshek, who’d just been brought in to replace Wainwright.
The momentum continued to palpably shift in the top of the ninth, when the Cardinals loaded the bases but failed to plate a single run, in part because of a freak play where Kolten Wong’s grounder to the hole bounced off the glove of the sprawling Sandoval and into the hands of shortstop Brandon Crawford, who turned what had looked at first like a RBI single into a force play at second. And when Matheny brought in rusty-armed Wacha for the ninth, instead of Seth Maness or closer Trevor Rosenthal – the Cardinals’ skipper would later offer the cringe-worthy explanation that “We can’t bring [Rosenthal] in in a tie-game situation. We’re on the road.” – everyone knew it was just a matter of minutes before Bumgarner would be shotgunning an entire liquor store in the Giants’ clubhouse.
But while Matheny made some deeply questionable bullpen decisions in Games 4 and 5, and Cardinals reliever Randy Choate literally threw away Game 3 in the bottom of the tenth, credit has to go to the Giants for continually capitalizing upon the Cards’ mistakes throughout the series.
The Giants are going to the World Series for the third time since 2010 not because it’s “an even year,” as many of their fans insipidly claim, but because they’ve got a brilliant manager in Bruce Bochy, and because they’ve got a damn good team with a revolving cast of characters (in several senses of the term) who are all capable of assuming the hero’s mantle at any time. Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt were all largely M.I.A. at the plate in Game 5, but Thursday night’s power surge came courtesy of Ishikawa, Morse and rookie second baseman Joe Panik, the latter of whom had hit only one round-tripper all season before victimizing Wainwright with a two-run blast in the third. And when normally reliable reliever Santiago Casilla proved uncharacteristically wild in the ninth, Bochy was able to call upon Jeremy Affeldt to slam the door. Of such marvelously interlocking parts are pennant winners made – and sometimes, World Series winners, as well.
Dan Epstein’s latest book, Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76, is now out via Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. He’s on Twitter at @BigHairPlasGras