In one of the most unpredictable MLB postseasons in recent memory, the script wasn’t supposed to read like this.
For the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals – the only two teams that have represented the National League in each of the last four years – their respective runs to this stage of the playoffs were unexpected, to say the least. The Redbirds, winners of the NL Central, managed to beat who many consider to be the NL MVP in SP Clayton Kershaw not once, but twice, en route to a stunning four-game victory over the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers. The Giants, meanwhile, took out NL-best Washington in four games with a combination of clutch pitching, timely hitting and just a few bounces that, ultimately, ended up going their way.
And, headed into the NLCS – a rematch of the classic 2012 series that saw the Giants come back from a 3-1 deficit to win in seven games – many considered these two teams to be as evenly matched as any in the National League. Between their impressive bullpens, playmakers on defense and comparable starting rotation, this NLCS was the closest thing to a toss-up as there could be.
But with the roles reversed from 2012 – and St. Louis as hot on offense as any team in the league – it still wasn’t far-fetched to believe that the steady Cardinals would make quick work of what may have been the weakest, most unpredictable Giants postseason squad in the last 20 years. If anything, with their unorthodox methods for producing runs in the NLDS, Los Gigantes would need a few more balls to bounce their way in order to punch their tickets to the World Series.
Suffice it to say, that’s exactly what happened.
In Game 1, despite a dominant performance from pitching ace Madison Bumgarner (7.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 1 BB), the Giants offense was also having a tough time manufacturing runs against Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals’ defense. In the second inning, up 1-0, Cardinals 3B Matt Carpenter failed to field a routine grounder by Gregor Blanco, allowing Hunter Pence to score the first of many unearned runs for San Francisco. Their 3 runs – two unearned – would hold up for the shutout victory, the ball having bounced the Giants’ way.
The same couldn’t be said about Game 2 for San Francisco. In a back-and-forth battle between one offense scraping runs together and another that could employ the long ball at will, the Cardinals used four home runs to control the day. It started with a 390-yard shot by Matt Carpenter in the third to take the early 1-0 lead. After the Giants came back, with yet another unearned run, to take a 3-2 lead in the sixth, a pair of solo shots by Oscar Taveras and Matt Adams in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively, the Giants needed yet another ball to bounce their way – this time, in the form of a throwing error by closer Trevor Rosenthal – to tie the game with two outs in the top of the ninth. Soon after pinch-runner Matt Duffy’s game-tying score, however, reliever Sergio Romo gave up the game-winning jack to Kolten Wong – a hanging slider that didn’t bounce the Giants’ way.
Despite the loss, they were still coming away from Busch Stadium having taken home-field advantage to San Francisco. And, knowing their margin of error, this was a Giants team determined not to give it back.
It certainly looked like a promising proposition to start, as Game 3 began with the Giants spotting starter Tim Hudson four runs in the first, in his first-ever League Championship Series start. Unfortunately for Hudson, he would be unable to hold it, giving up the tying run on a solo HR by Randal Grichuk in the seventh, chasing him out of the game. The margin of error was slim for the Giants at this point, and a simple bounce of the ball could have decided who would take the all-important 2-1 series lead. Who would make the first mistake?
Fortunately for the Giants, it would be St. Louis in the tenth. After a Brandon Crawford walk and a green light from two failed bunts gave Juan Perez a single to put men on first and second, leadoff hitter Gregor Blanco proceeded to bunt to advance the runners. Against reliever Randy Choate, he laid down a perfect bunt – a bunt that Choate proceeded to throw wide to Kolten Wong on first base, sending the ball careening into shallow right field. It was just enough for Crawford to take home plate from second, take another unearned run from the Cards, and give the Giants the series lead.
Game 4 was the same story – more fortunate bounces of the ball for the Giants. Starter Ryan Vogelsong, who had been stellar in previous postseason appearances, allowed four runs in only 3.0 innings pitched – including Kolten Wong’s second HR of the series. San Francisco was behind the 8-ball, staring a series tie in the face after only 2-and-a-half innings.
Fortunately for Vogelsong, San Francisco’s offense, and their bullpen, picked him up. Long reliever Yusmeiro Petit, coming off the stellar six-inning performance at Washington in Game 2 of the NLDS, continued his pitching dominance in three innings of 1-hit ball to quell the Cardinals offense. Meanwhile, the offense would cut the lead to 1 in the third, then took the lead on two more unearned runs – a fielder’s choice by Blanco and a Joe Panik groundout – that would hold up the rest of the way, with scoreless inning performances by Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla, to put them in position for a World Series berth in Game 5.
However, even with the commanding lead, and Bumgarner on the mound in Game 5, it was still far from over – this was a Cardinals team who knew how to persevere, and had the power offense and pitching to bring them back from the brink. It was evident with their collective performance in the series-defining game, as they started by getting to Bumgarner early. The Cardinals took a 1-0 lead in the third after a Jon Jay fly ball was misplayed by LF Travis Ishikawa to score Tony Cruz. The lead would be short-lived, and the Giants would take the lead in the most unexpected of ways: with a two-run HR by Joe Panik. While it was Panik’s first postseason jack, it was also the Giants’ first HR in the postseason since Brandon Belt’s solo shot to win Game 2 of the NLDS against Washington.
The lead would not hold, however, as Bumgarner would give up solo bombs to Matt Adams and the aforementioned Cruz in the fourth. It was certainly unexpected for the Giants ace, considering his stellar ERA in the playoffs, but his mistakes nonetheless had the Giants trailing. And with starter Adam Wainwright finding his own postseason stuff against the San Francisco offense, it looked more and more like the 3-2 score would hold up. But Bumgarner would right himself as well, recording 12 straight outs to end his day with 8.0 IP, 5 H and 3 ER.
Then came the pivotal eighth inning, where the near un-hittable reliever Pat Neshek came in and faced off against Michael Morse, pinch-hitting for Bumgarner. It was his fourth at-bat of the series, but he had not been effective since an oblique injury sidelined him for the better part of 45 days. But he wasn’t about to let this moment – or the perfect pitch to jump on – to pass him by. On a 1-1 pitch, Morse hammered it to left field for the game-tying home run.
Despite the boost by the offense in the eighth, a bounce of the ball could have went the Cardinals’ way in the ninth. With Casilla on the mound, one out and runners on first and second, Kolten Wong hit a ground ball that caromed off Pablo Sandoval’s glove. Fortunately, Brandon Crawford was there to back up Sandoval and get the fielder’s choice for the inning’s second out. Had he not been there, two runs likely would have scored. After Casilla loaded the bases on a walk, in stepped Jeremy Affeldt to go up against pinch-hitter Oscar Taveras. After a tense three-pitch at-bat, Affeldt took a grounder and raced Taveras to first base. Affeldt won, and the score was tied headed to the bottom of the ninth.
It was odd for Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to go with former starter Michael Wacha in a bid to save his closer for a closing situation. Nonetheless, he trusted that Wacha would have quick three-out stuff to take the game to extra innings. But after Sandoval singled to right, and Brandon Belt reached on a four-pitch walk, in stepped Travis Ishikawa.
Travis Ishikawa – the man who had gone 0-for-2 in his previous two at-bats; the man who plunked an outfield play to give the Cardinals lead in the first place; the man who, at the beginning of the season, questioned whether it was worth it to stay in professional baseball after being designated for assignment in Pittsburgh. So, on a 2-0 fastball from Wacha, no one expected Travis Ishikawa to do this:
It was over. While Bumgarner would go on to win NLCS MVP, it was Travis Ishikawa – in one of the most unbelievable endings to a Giants playoff game in recent memory – that sent his team to the World Series. With the bounce of the ball being so fortunate to the Giants, who would have guessed that it would be a ball traveling out of the park that would win it for this team?
But this is what defines this Giants team. When you least expect it, they will come up with a play – a catch, a hit, a performance, a home run – that will surprise you. And, even with all the ups and downs they had experienced this season, it was what could now be considered old hat for the Giants in the postseason – a trip to the World Series – that surprises most of all.