SAN FRANCISCO – The ball flew and the San Francisco Giants were going to the World Series again. The third-base coach immediately dry heaved. A veteran pitcher nearly tackled a baserunner, still technically – or maybe spiritually – in play at the moment, out near shortstop. The manager jumped on those tired legs of his. Inside the perfect little ballpark on the edge of the bay, the people went nutty, as a walk-off three-run homer in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series requires. One by one, the St. Louis Cardinals turned their backs and walked away.
"I blacked out," the Giants right fielder, Hunter Pence, said. "I was too elated. I kind of lost my mind, so I couldn't hear, couldn't see, couldn't think. I was just overjoyed. Just absolute anarchy. Chaos. In my head. And in the stadium."
Behind by a run in the eighth inning, they'd homered to tie it, Mike Morse running the bases like he'd only then come upon happiness for the first time. (They'd not homered in the series before Game 5, and then they hit three.) Tied in the ninth, they'd put two men on and homered again, they'd won 6-3, and Travis Ishikawa then broke a handful of friendly tackles on his way home. Tim Flannery, the third-base coach, watched Ishikawa go by, tossed his helmet in celebration and began to wretch. It's a game that settles pretty deep in some, especially here, where the local team will play for its third championship in five seasons.
"It's crazy," Flannery said.
These Giants, their 25 seems to add up different than others. Always have. So they win with pitching, Thursday night with the ace Madison Bumgarner out front for eight innings. And they win by fouling up less than the other guys in a game that cannot ever be perfect. And they win in the margins, by the authority of manager Bruce Bochy, through the authority of his convictions.
They were runners up in the National League West. They beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh in the wild-card game, the game nobody wants to play. They beat the 96-win Washington Nationals in the division series and the decorated Cardinals in the NLCS. Now they were to take on the Kansas City Royals, anointed America's team because few saw them coming, and they feel good to the soul, and they hardly ever do this – the World Series – anymore.
The Giants do it all the time, with different men lining up to play a similar game, and yet it still feels improbable. That was Mike Morse, a last-minute addition to the NLCS roster, hitting the second pinch-hit home run of his career. That was Travis Ishikawa, a regular-season first baseman turned postseason left fielder and a former Giant who'd returned four years later to become a Giant again. He hit his first postseason homer and embarked on the route taken once by Bobby Thomson all those years ago, all those miles ago.
"It was just so – it was just nice," Ishikawa said.
These things happen here, like they did in 2010 and again in 2012. They sing Journey songs and honor Metallica and fall in love with ballplayers who don't all fit the prototype, but do fit the culture. Flannery laughed and worked his way around the diamond, ticking off positions on his fingers, observing that the third baseman, Pablo Sandoval, "Doesn't look right," (as he is somewhat rounder than most), and the first baseman, Brandon Belt, "looks like a giraffe and has a weird swing," and the right fielder, Pence, "has a weird everything."
"That's who we are," he said.
They find it fun and special, and when they bounced together in the middle of the clubhouse and chanted something about winning and turned up Bumgarner's theme song – The Marshall Tucker Band's "Fire on the Mountain" – it seemed they celebrated their oddly shaped kinship at least as much as they did their achievement.
Together, they had played themselves into the biggest moments of the baseball season and, together, they had not simply survived them, but owned them. Why not? They had before. So when the ninth inning arrived Thursday night, when Cardinals manager Mike Matheny summoned a reliever – Michael Wacha – who hadn't thrown a competitive pitch in three weeks, and when everyone could see that Wacha was not up to the Cardinals' part of the moment and Matheny had made a huge mistake, the Giants stole it for themselves. Sandoval singled. After Pence flied out, Belt walked on four pitches. Wacha missed with two fastballs against Ishikawa. The count was 2-and-0. The Cardinals' season was about to end. With two fresh relievers warming to his left, Wacha threw a fastball, one that Matheny would have to answer for.
"I put him in a tough place," Matheny said. "That's on me."
In his final gesture of the season, Matheny stood in front of his dugout and extended his red cap toward Bochy. "Good luck," he said. "Good luck." They'd played the three games here without their best player, Yadier Molina. They'd committed the errors and misplays that fed the Giants' ulterior game. And they'd held a lead in Game 5 with six outs to go, in large part because Adam Wainwright had rediscovered the ace within, and then the lead was gone, and so were they. In the hallway behind their dugout, a woman applauded each Cardinal as he passed from the tunnel into the clubhouse, and that would be the sound of their final game.
See, Ishikawa had swung 2-and-0.
"I knew he didn't want to get behind 3-and-0, chance of walking the bases loaded," he said. "So, you know, I was just trying to be aggressive. …Obviously got a good pitch."
The fastball arrived straight and directly in the line of his preferred swing, and the ball carried quickly through the heavy night air.
"My thought was, 'If this gets out, it's going to be fantastic,' " Ishikawa said.
The ball rose toward the brick wall in right field. Joaquin Arias, the pinch-runner for Sandoval, froze on his way to third base. Belt, from first, trotted toward second. In right field, Oscar Taveras turned and ran.
In the coach's box, Flannery held up his hands. Easy fellas, it seemed to say, let's be sure. But this was more than a fly ball.
"My God," he thought, "it's going to be off the wall."
So he waved frantically.
"We're going to win," he thought.
And then the ball left the park, by a couple feet, and fell into the first row, and suddenly Jake Peavy was running past Flannery toward Ishikawa, who was rounding second, and Flannery wondered about that. Peavy later justified his premature attack on Ishikawa. He hadn't been wearing his glasses and had no idea the ball had actually cleared the wall.
"I didn't know if it was legal or not," Flannery said, "but I knew the other runs had already scored, so we were OK."
They were all OK. They were going back to the World Series. A franchise of stability, of Bochy on the top step and Brian Sabean in the GM's office, of a way to play that makes sense and looks best in October, of pitching and just enough of everything else, it was all OK. That ball flew and, yeah, it happened again.
"That's when I started dry heaving."