San Francisco Giants

Ishikawa becomes Giants’ unlikely walk-off hero

San Francisco Giants first baseman Travis Ishikawa (45) hits a three run walk off home run to win Game 5 of the National League Championship Series at AT&T Park on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 in San Francisco.
San Francisco Giants first baseman Travis Ishikawa (45) hits a three run walk off home run to win Game 5 of the National League Championship Series at AT&T Park on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 in San Francisco.

-- Jon Jay swung and Travis Ishikawa broke to his left toward where he thought the ball was headed -- only to see it keep slicing, and keep carrying, carrying, over his head and to the wall. By the time Ishikawa tracked it down and fired it back into the infield, Jay stood on second and Tony Cruz had crossed home plate with the first run of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.

"I spent the rest of that defensive inning," Ishikawa said, "thinking about how I might’ve just cost us the game."

Among the remarkable qualities of sport is its ability to humble and concurrent capacity for redemption. And as Ishikawa, the 31-year-old journeyman back with the team that drafted him at age 18, spoke Thursday night, it was not as the player who cost the Giants the game, but as the man who won it for them.

Ishikawa came up with two on and one out in the ninth inning of a 3-3 game and blasted the Giants into the World Series with his walk-off home run against St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha. As he watched the ball carry over the brick wall into the arcade seats in right field, Ishikawa flung his arms out to his sides and sprinted around the bases, heading for home plate, where most of his teammates were gathering to greet him in a circle of delirium.

Only some of them didn’t wait that long. Jake Peavy was the first to try to hug Ishikawa -- halfway between second and third base.

"I didn’t know he hit the ball out of the ballpark," said Peavy, who wears contacts. "I sure didn’t.

"But when you get to the this point in time," Peavy added, standing on the field at AT&T Park and surveying the aftermath of the Giants’ pennant-clinching 6-3 win, "sometimes your eyesight and emotions get the better of you."

Ishikawa said he didn’t realize it was Peavy rushing toward him near shortstop. He ended up needing to navigate a maze of men in white and orange and black just to touch home plate. But he hardly realized that, either.

"I was just trying to push people out of the way to make sure I touched all the bases," he said. "That’s about all I remember."

Well, not exactly. Given a few more minutes, Ishikawa said he could relate "exactly what I remember."

"I knew it was going off the wall, and I knew (Joaquin Arias, the runner on second base) was going to score on it. So I was throwing my hands up in the air. As everybody started yelling, all I could think about was maybe this is going to be a home run. I saw it get over the fence.

"And the next thing I remember is being thrown to the ground in the dog pile."

It was Ishikawa’s first walk-off home run at the major-league level, but that wasn’t the most unlikely part. It was the Giants’ third home run of the game after they’d gone six without hitting one, but that wasn’t the kicker, either. It wasn’t just that the Giants are headed to their third World Series in five years that had Peavy shaking his head and remarking: "What a great story."

Peavy was referencing the path Ishikawa had taken to that ninth-inning at-bat. Drafted by the Giants and a member of their World Series team in 2010. Sent to the minors in 2011 and granted free agency at the end of the season, beginning a whirlwind tour of four other organizations in three years. The Brewers, the Orioles, the Yankees, the Pirates. Back and forth between the majors and Triple-A.

Ishikawa was in Pittsburgh’s opening day lineup this year but designated for assignment in April, signing a minor-league deal soon thereafter with the Giants, who were looking for first-base and left-handed-hitting depth in their system. Ishikawa was a first baseman, always had been and took pride in his defense there. But when his playing time dipped in Fresno, he approached the staff and told them he could play some outfield, too.

He started getting time in left field. But he was still a level below where he wanted to be, with little guarantee of returning to the majors anytime soon. Admittedly, he entertained thoughts of retirement, of being with his family in the Bay Area all the time and earning a living some way outside of hitting a baseball.

"It’s all about perseverance," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said Thursday night, "and he didn’t give up. He said there’s a time or two when he thought about it. And I’m sure it’s all worthwhile now."

Brandon Belt’s concussion opened a door for Ishikawa to return to the Giants. Michael Morse’s oblique strain created a need in left field. Ishikawa made his first three starts in left at the end of the regular season, and impressed the Giants with how fluidly he seemed to handle the transition. Seldom did he look like a first baseman playing left field.

Until Thursday night.

Jay’s drive in the third was tricky but catchable. Ishikawa, though, took a bad route and as he tried to pirouette back to his right and reach his glove overhead the ball sailed past him for a double.

It left Madison Bumgarner in a tough spot, with runners still on second and third with one out. But Bumgarner knuckled down, getting Matt Holliday on a flyout to center field too shallow to score a run and Jhonny Peralta to hit a line drive to left field that Ishikawa, this time, secured for the third out.

"These are the best players in the world and they make it look easy, but it’s not an easy game," Bumgarner said afterward, when asked about the misplay. "Stuff like that is going to happen. But you can’t look back and dwell on it. You have to move on."

That, Ishikawa said, was the message he received upon returning to the Giants dugout.

"Every single guy on this team, every single coach on this team, came up to me, slapped me on the back and said, don’t worry about it, you’re going to get ’em, stick with it," he said. "That’s just the character of this team. They don’t let anybody down."

As Ishikawa walked to the plate in the ninth inning, Posey said he turned to Bumgarner in the dugout and remarked: "As a kid, you dream of these moments, having the opportunity to send your team to the World Series."

It isn’t often that real life turns out like the dream. But there was Ishikawa on Thursday -- the first-baseman-turned-left-fielder, the player who thought about hanging them up and thought better of it -- turning on a 2-0 fastball and watching it sail through the crisp air of an October night into the frenzied crowd beyond the right-field wall, circling the bases as fireworks exploded above him.

"That’s awesome," Bumgarner said. "It could’ve have happened to a better guy."

"To come out early in the game and feel like he let us down, to be up in that spot, to pick the whole team up, the journey, how he got here," Peavy said. "This guy is just a constant pro."

There was a touch of irony in the finish. As Ishikawa pointed out, Thursday was the first time all series he had stayed in the game into the ninth inning. In the first four games, he was taken out in the later innings for a defensive replacement. But on the night he made perhaps the most costly mistake of his short time as a left fielder, he stayed in the game until his own swing ended it.

As he headed for home, Ishikawa said, he found himself trying to avoid the teammates who were rushing to mob him.

“I didn’t know what the rules are of people touching you,” Ishikawa said. “I know third-base coaches can’t touch you when you’re rounding to score, so I was trying not to let them touch me. But after that -- I remember touching bases, I don’t remember anything else after that.”

There’s some irony in that, too. Because odds are, everyone else will never let him forget it.

Call The Bee’s Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015. See his baseball coverage at Follow him on Twitter at @matthewkawahara.

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