SAN FRANCISCO -- With one chance left to clinch their N.L. Division Series at home and avoid a return trip to Washington, the pressure Tuesday night was ostensibly on the Giants. But under the microscope of October baseball, where moments are magnified, the wild-card Giants were the more poised team than the 96-win Washington Nationals, and they are instead bound for St. Louis as a result.
The Giants beat the Nationals, 3-2, to capture the NLDS in four games and advance to the N.L. Championship Series for the third time in five years. They will face the St. Louis Cardinals in a rematch of the 2012 NLCS, with Game 1 scheduled for Saturday at Busch Stadium.
"These guys, they're relentless," manager Bruce Bochy said amid the spray of beer and Champagne in the Giants' clubhouse. "They were warriors on the road in Pittsburgh; we got two in Washington. It gets back to the old adage that we used in '12, 'Never say die.' And these guys didn't."
It ensured that either the Giants or Cardinals will represent the N.L. in the World Series for the fifth consecutive year. As St. Louis' victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers went final Tuesday afternoon on the out-of-town scoreboard at AT&T Park, those fans who had arrived early broke into a cheer at the Dodgers' postseason exit.
Their night got better from there.
They saw a vintage gritty performance from Ryan Vogelsong and a memorable catch in right field by Hunter Pence. They saw the Giants take an early 2-0 lead, give it back, and go ahead for good in a bizarre sequence in the seventh inning. They saw Santiago Casilla get Wilson Ramos to ground out to Joe Panik for the final out, the rookie second baseman calmly fielding the ball and flipping it to Brandon Belt to touch off the celebration.
"Everything seemed to slow down," Panik said.
They saw the Giants win their seventh consecutive postseason series, this one against the heavily favored Nationals, who finished the regular season with the N.L.'s best record. The Giants entered as the wild card, but have now won 15 of their last 19 playoff games, and now 26-10 in the postseason under Bochy.
"A lot of things aren't supposed to happen," said Vogelsong, who after a poor September delivered 5 2/3 innings allowing one run in his first outing in nearly two weeks. "That's all I can say on that."
After Bryce Harper tied the score 2-2 in the top of the seventh with a towering home run off Hunter Strickland, the Giants pieced together their decisive rally in the bottom of the inning. Panik and Buster Posey singled off reliever Matt Thornton, and right-hander Aaron Barrett walked Pence to load the bases.
That brought up Pablo Sandoval, who two innings earlier had batted with the bases full and popped out. This time, Sandoval didn't need to swing the bat. Barrett threw a wild pitch to bring in Panik with the go-ahead run.
The Giants handed their one-run lead to Sergio Romo, the erstwhile closer, and Romo set down the top of the Nationals lineup in order in the eighth. Santiago Casilla came in for the ninth and retired the first two hitters to bring up Harper. With the crowd on its feet, twirling orange towels and holding up cell phones, Casilla walked Harper, but came back to retire Ramos and send the Giants into the next round.
The Giants' three wins in the series came by scores of 3-2, 2-1 and 3-2. Their starters in the series allowed just four earned runs in 34 2/3 innings for a 1.04 ERA.
"They had plans going into it, and from starters all the way to relievers just executed their pitches," Posey said. "It's a good offense over there. That just tells you how dialed in those guys were."
Vogelsong, who hadn't pitched since Sept. 26, came out throwing 94 miles per hour on the radar gun in the first inning. He did not allow a hit until Ian Desmond singled leading off the fifth inning. Harper followed by taking an outside fastball for a double to left field to cut the Giants' lead to 2-1.
By then, Vogelsong's fastball was registering more often around 90 mph. But he jammed Ramos on a line-out and retired Asdrubal Cabrera on a groundout, and after pinch-hitter Nate Schierholtz walked, Vogelsong got Denard Span to ground out to end the inning.
Vogelsong returned for the sixth and threw his final pitch to Jayson Werth, who hit it to the wall in right field. Pence caught it slamming into the fence, glove arm extended as his back hit the wall.
"One of the best catches, with what was at stake," Bochy said. "I didn't think he had a chance to get it. That lifted the club. That was huge."
Vogelsong pointed out toward Pence before departing to a standing ovation. He became the first starting pitcher in major-league history to allow one run or fewer in each of his first five career postseason starts. In those starts, Vogelsong has a 1.19 ERA, and the Giants have won all five games.
"It's been an up and down year for him and I said there must be a reason why he's on the mound tonight," Bochy said. "He's going to find a way to get it done for us, and he did."
The Giants had jumped to a 2-0 lead in the second inning aided by an error on Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez. After Brandon Crawford singled, Juan Perez hit a dribbler back to the mound that Gonzalez let squirt under his glove. Vogelsong reached on a bunt that neither Gonzalez nor third baseman Anthony Rendon fielded, loading the bases, and the Giants scored on a Gregor Blanco walk and a groundout by Panik.
It was a scrapped-together rally befitting the taut nature of this series, and the Giants' season as a whole. Afterward, Posey reflected on a season in which the Giants raced out of the gate and nose-dived in mid-summer.
"We felt like we were a team that if we got in the playoffs could do some good things," Posey said.
"I think we were the underdog in this series. We'll probably be the underdog in the Cardinals series, too."
Not that it matters.