Friday, October 17, 2014

Big Joe Turner Got Nothing On Me (We're Going to Kansas City!)

The San Francisco Giants defeated the St Louis Cardinals, 6-3, at AT&T Park last night to win the National League Championship Series, four games to one, and thereby advance to the World Series, their third in the last five years.  HAWWWWWWWWNNNNNNNNK!

With a mighty blast-- Travis Ishikawa's three-run walk-off home run onto the right field promenade in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game-- the Giants concluded this scratching, clawing, biting, game-of-inches series in a blaze of glory. No wild pitches, no passed balls, no fielder's choices or bases-loaded walks; not this time. All six San Francisco runs scored via the long ball, three home runs, and two of them have already passed into legend. Having already won three games in the "any which way you can" manner, the Giants won this one in a manner reminiscent of Bobby Thomson and the Miracle of Coogan's Bluff. Is there anything this group of 25 men can't do on a baseball field? Don't bet on it.

And so it will be the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals meeting in the 110th World Series beginning next Tuesday night at Kauffmann Stadium in Independence, Missouri. For the second time since the baseball postseason was expanded, it will be a "Wild Card World Series." The other was in 2002, and we all know how that turned out, but to quote the late Lou Reed this morning, "Those were different times."

As are these. The Cardinals may have lost in five, but they put up seven games' worth of battle to do so. This Cadillac of major-league franchises has no reason to cry. If there was a significant difference between the teams, it was probably found in the bullpen, where too often Mike Matheny was unable to find the answer he needed, while Bruce Bochy usually was. Last night featured a pitching duel between aces Madison Bumgarner and Adam Wainwright, and it was Wainwright who got the better of the deal, Wainwright who reminded all the recent doubters that he is, after all, a 20-game winner, and Wainwright was the one who left  the game with a chance to win it. That he didn't-- well, again, if there's a difference between these clubs, it's found along the margins, at the very end of things where games have to be finished.

"Bum" was strong from the start and was bringing his good stuff, but he didn't have the brilliant, authoritative command he'd had in Game One of this series and in the Pittsburgh playoff. He gave up two hits in the top of the first, which were wiped out by a timely double play. He walked two, an unforgivable sin in Bumgarner's world, in the third, one of whom scored the game's first run on Jon Jay's windblown fly ball to left that eluded Ishikawa. And in the fourth he was touched for two long home runs, one by Matt Adams, who regularly does this sort of thing, and one by backup catcher Ted Cruz, who doesn't. It was enough to make a jittery fan wonder if this would be a short night for the Giants' ace, and if "Bum" himself picked up any such vibe, he immediately set out to quash it. Down they went in order from the fifth through the eighth, Adams, Cruz, Kolten Wong, all of them, twelve in a row. Had he needed further motivation, all Bumgarner had to do was look across to the enemy dugout at Wainwright, who also grew stronger and more assured as the game went along. We've already noted Wainwright had something to prove, and people, he proved it.  Except for the third, Wainwright commanded the Giants' lineup. He stranded a runner in the first, and got a double play with two on and none out in the fourth-- an inning in which he uncharacteristically walked two men too. And from the fifth through the seventh he, like "Bum", was untouchable. Joe Panik's towering home run to right in the third-- mercy, Mother, he hit only one all year-- with Gregor Blanco aboard, gave the Giants a 2-1 lead; "Waino's" teammates got it back with those two homers in the fourth, and the revived St Louis ace left the game after seven, ahead 3-2.

Maybe he should have stayed in. Matheny didn't have to bat for him, not yet, but the Cards' M.O. all year had been similar to the Giants': get to the eighth, you got your setup man, get to the ninth, you got your closer. So, in the bottom of the eighth, out came herky-jerky Pat Neshek and his sidearm delivery, with Peter Bourjos taking over defense for Matt Holliday in the outfield. Hitter that he is, "Bum's" day was done and he knew it. Leading off was Michael Morse, "the kinda guy you want up there in a one-run game, the kinda guy who can tie this thing up with one swing of that ol' lumber." Yeah, sure, and how often, really, does that happen?

Well, it happens on October 16, 2014, in San Francisco, evidently. Morse absolutely crushed a 1-1 slider high and deep and far over the left-field fence, one of those no-doubt-about it cannon shots, and oh, you should have seen him, the big guy went absolutely crazy with joy. Sidelined for two months as his teammates struggled to score runs, watching his big-contract year fizzle after its great start, wanting to get into a World Series after ten up-and-down major-league seasons, and most of all, desperate just to contribute something-- fellow citizens, this was Mike Morse's moment. He rounded the bases with an ear-to-ear grin, shouting at the sky, the world, the Giants' dugout... goodness, it was a sight to see. And even though Neshek retired the side without incident, you couldn't help but notice that they looked more than a little deflated over there in the visitors' dugout.

That pity-party was over with before the between-innings commercials ended. "Boch" sent out Santiago Casilla, Mister Lights-Out himself, to hold the fort in the ninth, confident his team could mount a rally in the bottom of the frame. Working his third day in a row, something he'd not been asked to do all season, Casilla was game, but tired.  He walked a guy with one out-- "He never walks anybody!"-- and after a base hit-- "Two hits in two nights? Whussup wit' dat?"-- came the fantastic defensive play of the night, one that can't be forgotten amid the spectacle that soon followed. Designated nemesis Wong ripped a sharp grounder between short and third. Pablo Sandoval did a full-body dive, ticked the ball with his glove, and as it happened (as it was meant to happen?) the deflection went right to Brandon Crawford, who managed a contortionist's quick throw to Panik at second, just in time for the force. Nine times out of ten, that's a RBI single to left. The tenth time, it's an infield single, bases loaded, one out. This-- well, you can chalk it up to what Matheny, in his classy and gracious postgame interview, called "the breaks." A lot of people call it luck, and to quote the venerable Branch Rickey, "Luck is the residue of design."  By break or luck or design, by hook or by crook, the game was still tied, and Santiago Casilla was still in trouble. Big trouble, after he then walked Cruz to load the bases for pinch-hitter Oscar Taveras. It's rare for any manager to pull his closer, but that's what Bochy did; Casilla had simply been asked to do too much. In came Jeremy Affeldt. Bumgarner won the series MVP award, and no one can say he didn't deserve it. But over three postseasons, making appearances like this, there needs to be some sort of Jeremy Affeldt Award. Four games this series, three games against Washington, a long string of zeroes in the scoring line: Affeldt got Taveras on a comebacker. Threat over, they left 'em loaded. Time to end this thing.

Matheny called on Michael Wacha, the Cards' fifth starter, for the ninth. Not Trevor Rosenthal, not Carlos Martinez, but Wacha. A year ago he was the MVP of the NLCS; he beat Clayton Kershaw. This year he'd struggled a bit, and when he walked out on the mound it was his first appearance since September 26. It showed. He had the heat, but his command was off. Just like Casilla's had been. Who would rescue him? Three 98-MPH fastballs to Sandoval leading off, then a hard changeup, drilled into right for a single. Hunter Pence, ever eager to be the hero, hit one hard but directly at Taveras in right. Brandon Belt, the patient man with the eagle eye, looked at four low fastballs and walked to first, the winning run now in scoring position. And here's Ishikawa. He took two pitches low, as Belt had. "He's gonna walk the ballpark!" we said about Wacha; two men were warming up down in the Cards' bullpen. Would they be ready in time? "You don't swing at this pitch," said Harold Reynolds on the FOX telecast as Wacha launched the last pitch of the series. Ishikawa kept his own counsel and swung, and it was gone the moment he hit it. Foghorns blared, fake fog billowed, fans broke into tears, cheers, and open beers, and an overwhelmed family member texted our own sentiments to us exactly: "ISHI FOR MVP!!!"

Yes, Bumgarner is the series' most valuable player, and rightly so. But if there's a Most Archetypal Player for the San Francisco Giants in 2014, it just might be Travis Ishikawa. He never has played more than 120 games in a season. He got a ring back in 2010 as Aubrey Huff's backup first baseman, and as a reward for that, he spent all of 2011 in the minor leagues. Then he went on a three-year four-team odyssey-- Brewers, Orioles, Yankees (for one game) and finally the Pirates, who were so impressed with him back in April that they gave him his unconditional release after 15 games. Offered a minor-league contract by his original team, the Giants, he signed it, and found himself in Fresno, age 31, wondering if perhaps this was the end of the line. Called up once Angel Pagan went down for the season, this career first baseman, typically used as a late-inning defensive replacement, found himself playing out of position in left field.  Earlier in the evening, he had let Jon Jay's twisting fly ball play him and go over his head for the RBI double that was the difference in the score for eight innings. Travis Ishikawa has hit 22 career home runs in 881 at-bats. Now, Travis Ishikawa joins Chris Chambless, Aaron Boone, and Magglio Ordonez as the only men to hit walk-off LCS-winning home runs, sending their team to the World Series with one swing of the bat. Call it the Bobby Thomson Award.

It was a magnificent series, one of the best, on par with the Giants' win over Philadelphia in 2010 and maybe even better. The way Bumgarner and Wainwright matched one another almost exactly, inning for inning, getting better as they went along, illustrates the way both these teams play the game and play each other. The way Matheny, standing amid the scattered mausoleum that was the Cardinals' postgame dugout, tipped his cap to the celebrating Giants on the field, reveals the class and character of the man, his team, and the St Louis organization. It's easy to talk about what's wrong with baseball these days. Sometimes you have to look a little harder to see what's right about the game, and sometimes you needn't look very hard at all.

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