Cardinals reach breaking point in NLCS with snap of Hunter Pence's bat

SAN FRANCISCO – The first deluge began at 6:09 p.m. local time. It lasted 26 minutes. In its wake, it left several things: five runs, four hits, two walks, an error, a broken bat, a never-before-seen swing and a baseball team undone by the detritus. There was more, of course, because Game 7 of the NLCS involved eight other innings, too. And yet nothing better encapsulated the series the St. Louis Cardinals blew than that slice of misery.

For the next two hours, the Cardinals stared at their own failure. It was there on the scoreboard, in bright lights, for the ravenous denizens of AT&T Park to see, for the San Francisco Giants to relish, for the world to know. And it was there on the replay that time will wear out when it tries to piece together how the Cardinals frittered away this series with a 9-0 skunking that was every bit as emasculating as the score would indicate.

Of baseball's previous 50 incarnations of Game 7, just three came by a larger margin of victory. None, certainly, included the moment best left to physicists, though perhaps not even science could do justice to the improbability of a pitch hitting a bat, shattering the bat, deflecting off the bat, connecting with the bat a third time, faking out a shortstop, flummoxing an outfield, plating three runs and changing the course of two franchises.

In a series oddly bereft of signature moments, this was it: Hunter Pence's how'd-he-do-that swing, borne of his herky-jerky approach, the movement on Joe Kelly's 95-mph sinker, a cosmic kiss or maybe an amalgamation of the three. Whatever it was, it produced something entirely unique, something that left Pete Kozma naked.

Kozma is a 24-year-old rookie forced into duty by shortstop Rafael Furcal's season-ending elbow injury, and he had acquitted himself so well, helping save the Cardinals' season in Game 5 of the epic NLDS comeback and push them ahead to a 3-1 advantage in this series. He was a great October story: a kid playing well above his skill level – he is, at best, considered a utility infielder – into the hairy part of the postseason.

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And then this. This thing nobody ever had seen.

"Never," Furcal said.

"Nope," third baseman David Freese said.

"That'll explain the ball movement," Kozma said.

He hadn't seen the video. Only a couple of the Cardinals had, the ones curious to bound back into the clubhouse and watch the replay. It only reminded them of how their season fell apart faster than Pence's bat.

Sure, it had started in Game 5, when Barry Zito rolled into Busch Stadium and spun 7 2/3 shutout innings. And it continued Sunday, when Ryan Vogelsong bedeviled them with better stuff than he has thrown all season, his PED of choice the energy in this ballpark. Then came Monday, Game 7, the best baseball has to offer, and Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse handicapped the Cardinals by giving up a run in each of the first two innings, then loading the bases in the third before manager Mike Matheny yanked him for Kelly.

Up stepped Pence, whose unorthodoxy is his defining characteristic. There isn't a single thing he does pretty. His swing, his gait, his throws, his beard – red-headed stepchildren all, beaten with ugly sticks and fitted for dunce caps. Pence stepped in against Kelly, the top button of his jersey undone, the top half of his bat lacquered black and the bottom natural wood. Kelly's sinker bore in. Pence swung. His bat cracked where the colors met, but it didn't break. Only a splinter shattered off, stabbing the A in GIANTS across his chest. The rest stayed intact to put some sort of unnatural funk on the ball.

Earlier in the day, down in the tunnel beneath the Giants' dugout, Pence had talked with Will Clark, one of the purest hitters in team history and now a special assistant. Pence had struggled this postseason, mustering more pregame pep talks (two) than RBIs (one). Clark had a message for him: Don't be afraid to get jammed with a pitch. Good hitters do, and they make chicken salad of it.

"There's so many things you never, ever see in baseball, and hitting a baseball three times is about the epitome of that," Clark said. "Good hitters get jammed because they see the ball for a long time. He got jammed to the nth degree. A lot of things happen when you put the ball in play."

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Here's what happened after the triple-hit: Pence ran, unaware that Kozma had broken completely wrong. By the down-and-in location of the pitch and the trajectory of Pence's swing, Kozma thought the ball was going to his right. Instead, he stopped, scrambled and watched it sneak by the opposite side, a magic bullet that pierced the Cardinals' heart.

"The ball did a little banana and went up the middle," Kozma said. "It peeled, sliced."

"Everything went fast," catcher Yadier Molina said. "One, two, three pitches. Bases loaded. It went fast."

"And then," Lohse said, "it just kind of got a little ugly after that."

Two runs scored, and a miscommunication between outfielders Jon Jay and Matt Holliday let in a third. Brandon Belt followed with an infield single, Gregor Blanco walked the bases loaded and Kozma's ill-advised throw home on a Brandon Crawford chopper came late and allowed another run to score. His inability to start a double play quickly on another ground ball let in the fifth run, and by then it was 7-0, a deficit from which even the Cardinals couldn't resurrect themselves.

The only thing left was to play out the string. St. Louis couldn't hit Matt Cain, or anyone, for that matter, mustering one run over the series' final three games. Cain exacted some revenge on Holliday as well, burying a fastball into his back in the top of the sixth inning, vengeance for his hard takeout slide at second base on eventual NLCS MVP Marco Scutaro in Game 2. Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter screamed from the dugout: This was not the time, the place, for payback. The Giants begged to differ.

In the bottom of the sixth, Pablo Sandoval swung at a 3-0 pitch, a no-no in blowouts. And the next inning, Gregor Blanco, standing at first, ran on a 3-2 pitch with no outs and a seven-run lead, another unwritten rule broken. This wasn't insult to injury. It was an insult about your mama, then another about your mee-maw and one more about your sister for good measure. The Giants didn't just want to send the Cardinals off to their winter. They wanted to embarrass them on the way out.

[Related: Hunter Pence's game-breaking, bat-breaking hit]

"We try to have fun, and we were showing them what it means to play at this home," Sandoval said. "All the fan support we get here: We did it for them."

They were sopping up every last bit of it, excited at the prospect of a second World Series in three years. They had to finish the final innings first, chanting "Let's go, Giants" and mocking Holliday in left field. They didn't bury Kozma, their empathy still whole enough, instead leaving him to boot another ball in the seventh inning, his skills unable to coalesce with the moment.

Kozma spent the final innings kicking dirt around. He split-step with every pitch, jumped back and forth, dipped his head, tried to look like this whole thing wasn't overwhelming him. In his last plate appearance, Kozma worked a seven-pitch walk. He was forced out at second on the next play. He ran off the field, leapt over the line, took a couple pats on the butt and one on the back, and returned with his teammates to the top step.

Almost immediately thereafter came the second deluge, the one from above, when the heavens opened up and wouldn't relent. It still wasn't enough to wash away this game, this feeling that even if the Cardinals had overcome the defection of Albert Pujols and the retirement of Tony La Russa and the injuries to Lance Berkman and Furcal and Carpenter and the other roadblocks that made a run this deep unlikely, they still blew this series, this chance, this moment.

The rain continued to the last strike, when Holliday popped out – to Scutaro naturally. This series had a funny sense of humor, and the Giants were the ones laughing, jumping together in puddles of rain like kids without a care in the world. The Cardinals quickly escaped to the warmth of their showers, to the quiet of their bus, to the sadness of their flight home, to a place far from the final deluge, which left in its wake two broken things: a bat that would live forever in the Giants' lore and a team that would not in the Cardinals'.

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