SAN FRANCISCO – The road to the National League Championship Series was long and pitted.
The flight to the National League Championship Series was worse.
The San Francisco Giants waited out the final hours of a good and honest week of baseball in a ballroom in Cincinnati, then on a bus to Kentucky, then on an idling airplane bound for, surely, the east coast. Their little hardball miracle behind them, the Giants, like the rest of us, watched on television as the Washington Nationals sought to finish the St. Louis Cardinals, then nodded along with reports that the Cardinals turned the Nationals into short-armed, dizzied and semi-tragic October casualties.
The Cardinals have a way of bringing out the worst in a team, right along the time they rediscover the best in themselves. A ball clears a wall-shy right-fielder, a year later another gets slippery for a second baseman and his shortstop. The strike zone goes narrow and shifty for a pitching staff that for six months was best in the league at limiting baserunners. Slowly, that pitching staff is surrounded, operating from a broom closet, and the end won’t come.
The Giants had come from a two-game hole, on the road, with three days to make something of it. The Cardinals had come from a six-run crater, on the road, with two hours to make something of it.
Pick your feat of seam-headed supernatural, both of which conspired to bring together the past two World Series champions, somewhat circuitously.
See, the Giants would have settled for a concrete flight plan. The NL West champions had ridden the Buster Posey grand slam, the Sergio Romo slider, and finished the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday afternoon at Great American Ball Park. By Friday evening, they were up the road from that very stadium, in a big room with chandeliers, tiny pieces of food with toothpicks, and televisions punched to TBS.
The idea was to wait out the Cardinals-Nationals series in Cincinnati. In so doing, the Giants would save themselves a cross-country trip if the Nationals won and simply hop home if the Cardinals won. On Friday night, they’d watch the game together. In the seventh inning, they’d roll off to the airport. By the ninth, they’d board the airplane. By the last pitch, they’d be on the runway.
“We had,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said, “what I thought was a pretty good plan.”
Except, well, you know.
No disrespect intended to the Cardinals, but by the ninth inning the plane had just enough fuel in its tank to carry the Giants to Washington D.C. In the cabin, the likes of Matt Cain and coach Shawon Dunston pulled up the game on their iPads, drawing teammates and front office types. Dunston shouted the play-by-play for those in the back.
“Single!” he’d shout.
And so the Cardinals’ rally rose to life in a metal tube on a tarmac in Kentucky.
“We were in a weird position,” Buster Posey noted.
Some players, elbowed out of sight and voice range, called their wives, who walked them through the developing ninth inning at Nationals Park. Well ahead of the iPad feed, they’d gasp and screech, then dash to Cain’s side to see it for themselves. Drew Storen was a strike away. He was a strike away again. Then along came Daniel Descalso and then Pete Kozma, and seconds after the Giants were headed east, they were headed west, assuming the bottom of the ninth wasn’t anything like the top of the ninth.
It wasn’t, of course. What Storen couldn’t get done in 33 pitches, Jason Motte cleaned up in 12, 11 of them strikes, through Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman.
While the Giants buckled up, the Cardinals raged in a clubhouse that a half-hour before seemed to hold a reservation for the Giants.
“I’m going to have to watch that game over again,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “It still hasn’t really sunk in, at least to the extent of what these guys did. … It was one that goes into a category like I’ve never seen before.”
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Indeed, so unexpected was the Cardinals’ victory by late evening, was a Cardinals-Giants matchup in the NLCS, was a game Sunday in San Francisco, the, uh, plane would need more fuel. Yeah, they were going to need another 1,800 miles out of that bird.
It would require an hour.
“I think the boys were getting a little restless,” Bochy said.
The plan was beginning to soften up some.
Soon enough, the plane was pushed back from the gate. At which point a light glowed in the cockpit. One of those lights. Something about the hydraulics. It would mean another 90 minutes on the ground.
The Giants reached San Francisco about an hour before the Cardinals.
None of which will show itself on the field come Sunday night, in a series in which both franchises could claim the greater momentum, the more rigorous comeback, the brighter future.
But sometimes it’s important to consider the journey. It’s a helluva road.
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