San Francisco Giants

Series of pivotal moments led to Giants’ walk-off homer

The Giants celebrate their victory after Travis Ishikawa hit the game-winning home run in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series at AT&T Park on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 in San Francisco.
The Giants celebrate their victory after Travis Ishikawa hit the game-winning home run in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series at AT&T Park on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 in San Francisco. rpench@sacbee.com

-- In retrospect, a game like the Giants’ 6-3 walk-off win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night tends to have a handful of pivotal moments, and there were plenty before Travis Ishikawa’s home run sent the Giants into the World Series. A few, in reverse order:

* Jeremy Affeldt fields Oscar Taveras’ bases-loaded comebacker in the ninth inning and runs it to first base to preserve the tie. Affeldt had pitched in three of the first four games of this series and said he was trying to "save my bullets" in the bullpen, but knew when the Cardinals pinch-hit the left-handed Taveras that he’d be coming into the game.

"I just told myself the only to get outs against these guys is to throw in the strike zone," Affeldt said. "Thankfully the ball sunk when it did and he hit it how he did.

"I’m pretty sure everybody held their breath when I ran and got it."

Affeldt gloved the ball and kept on running -- stepping on first base and continuing until he’d almost reached the Cardinals’ bullpen down the right-field line. The brace he wears on his knee, Affeldt said, "doesn’t have a brake system."

"That’s why it took me about seven minutes to walk all the way back," Affeldt said. "And that’s because I was out of breath."

Any thoughts of flipping the ball to Brandon Belt instead?

"Absolutely no chance that I’m throwing the ball right there," Affeldt said. "If I even try to underhand it, I was afraid I was going to drop the thing or something."

* Brandon Crawford backhands Kolten Wong’s sharp grounder off Pablo Sandoval and throws to second for an out, preventing a bases-loaded, one-out situation. Off the bat, second baseman Joe Panik said he thought Wong had a hit with the potential go-ahead run already on second base.

Instead, Sandoval deflected it on a dive and it re-directed to Crawford, who made a pivot throw across his body to Panik covering second base.

"Being the shortstop he is, it’s unbelievable how he was able to catch it and get rid of it quick, throw it right in my chest," Panik said. "It’s not the easiest thing to do."

Crawford, though, made it look almost routine. Asked how he even knew where the bag was, with his back turned, Crawford shrugged and said: "Ground balls, a lot of practice."

"It’s happened a few times before," Crawford said of the play, "but you never expect it to happen like that. It’s just kind of reaction."

* Michael Morse ties the game with a pinch-hit homer in the eighth. Morse had missed the last six weeks of the season with a strained left oblique muscle and hadn’t hit a home run since August 15. Cardinals reliever Pat Neshek had held right-handed hitters to a .236 slugging percentage in the regular season.

But Neshek hung a 1-1 slider, and Morse hammered it over the left-field wall to send the AT&T Park crowd, the Giants dugout and himself into a frenzy. Morse couldn’t contain his excitement as he rounded the bases, raising his fists, practically skipping at times.

"I don’t think I’ve ever seen a reaction like that on a non-walk-off," Crawford said. "But we all felt the same way."

It wasn’t exactly out of character for Morse.

"He’s an emotional player," Crawford said, grinning. "He acts like that sometimes when he hits a double with nobody on in the regular season."

This swing, though, was a little bigger. Morse had had just five at-bats since August 31 when he came up against Neshek. He said the last thing somebody said to him before he walked to the batter’s box was Posey saying, "Hey man, just touch it. With your strength you can hit a homer."

"Yeah," Posey said, "he’s 6-6 and built like a house."

When Morse arrived back in the Giants’ dugout, he said, Madison Bumgarner, for whom he had pinch-hit, was the first player to greet him.

"He said, ‘Hey big fella, I knew you were going to do it,’" Morse said. "For him to say that to me, it was really awesome."

"I had a feeling," Bumgarner said, "he was going to do something good."

Morse said he planned to "go back in the video room and just keep watching it over and over." No doubt plenty of people in the sellout crowd at AT&T Park, which clamored for Morse until he took a curtain call, will do the same.

"Man, it was rocking tonight," Morse said. "I swear I felt the earth shake."

* Joe Panik getting the Giants on the board with a two-run homer off Adam Wainwright in the third inning. It snapped a streak of 242 consecutive plate appearances by the Giants without a home run, going back to Brandon Belt’s game-winner in Game 2 of the NLDS. It also matched Panik’s regular-season home run total with the Giants in 269 at-bats.

"Growing up watching postseason baseball, seeing guys coming up with big hits in the NLCS, World Series, you think, ‘It could be me someday, just keep working hard,’" said Panik. "And you always dream about it. But to be able to do it is totally different."

The time Panik referenced there wasn’t so long ago. The 23-year-old became the seventh Giants rookie to hit a postseason homer and first since Posey in 2010. Called up in June, the New York native simply continues to prove that even as the moments get bigger in the postseason, they aren’t too big for him.

Panik said his first playoff home run, which hooked just inside the right-field foul pole at AT&T Park, was "hard to describe. You first hit the ball, you see it has the height and the distance. You’re just hoping it stays fair. Once it landed and you hear the crowd erupt, it was something special."

The Giants had gone six games without a home run. So of course, in the series clincher, they scored all six of their runs via the long ball.

"I guess we saved the best for last," Panik said. "I always say it doesn’t matter how you score. You just gotta score."

* Out of order, but Mike Matheny bringing in Michael Wacha in the ninth inning of a 3-3 game with the Cardinals’ season on the line. The Cardinals still had their closer, Trevor Rosenthal, among other relievers unused in the bullpen. Instead, needing to preserve the tie, Matheny brought in Wacha, who had not pitched in the postseason and hadn’t pitched in a game since Sept. 26.

"That’s on me," Matheny said afterward, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I don’t know if anyone could expect him to be as sharp as he normally would be. I put a lot on him. I put him in a tough spot. That’s on me."

Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright was excellent for most of his seven innings, retiring his final 11 hitters, striking out six of nine at one point and keeping the Giants hitters off balance by mixing the speed of his delivery as well as his pitches. He departed with a 3-2 lead after seven innings.

Wainwright is one of the Cardinals’ leaders and, again according to the Post-Dispatch, he threw his support behind Wacha following the game. "There’s nobody I would rather have on the mound right there," Wainwright reportedly said, "than Michael Wacha."

Still, the Cardinals saw their season end with their closer unused in the bullpen and the very last player on their roster to get into the NLCS on the mound.

* Madison Bumgarner buckling down after the fourth inning to cap the Cardinals at three. Given a 2-1 lead on Panik’s homer, Bumgarner gave it right back in the fourth on homers by Matt Adams and Tony Cruz. But after Cruz’s at-bat, he retired the final 13 batters that he faced, keeping the Giants in position for the comeback.

"It wasn’t like it was terrible pitches," Bumgarner said of the home runs. "But at the same time they put some good swings on it. A lot of times you can miss and get away with it, but give them that."

In the wake of Thursday’s win, it was Bumgarner who found himself hoisting the NLCS Most Valuable Player trophy. He won Game 1 with 7 2/3 scoreless innings. In Game 5, he completed eight innings before ceding his spot in the order to Morse.

"I knew he was probably going to hit for me after the eighth," Bumgarner said. "When I was out there pitching the eighth inning, I thought, I really need to get through this inning and give him a chance to do something good when we come up."

Bumgarner said Morse "picked me up right there." But Bumgarner had already picked up a teammate himself, limiting the damage of Ishikawa misplaying Jon Jay’s double in the third by inducing two fly-ball outs that stranded runners on second and third. Even after the Cardinals re-took the lead, Bumgarner said, "There was always a feeling we were going to win, somebody was going to come through for us. And they did."

Asked about being named the series’ MVP, Bumgarner said: "Man, that’s unbelievable.

"I don’t know if I really deserve it," he said. "But I’m really thankful for it. There’s a lot of guys you could give it to. There were contributions from everywhere."

All leading like a trail to Ishikawa’s homer in the ninth.

* The game story is here. More on Ishikawa’s path to walk-off hero is here. The Bee’s Marcos Breton wrote about another "magic" night at AT&T Park. Affeldt, meanwhile, said he’s sure Kansas City will be rocking when it hosts Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday.

The Giants will be there. It’s the first World Series meeting of two wild-card teams since 2002, when the Giants lost to the Angels. It’s also the first Series ever to have two teams that won fewer than 90 games in a season not shortened by strike or war.

You could point to that and argue the Giants weren’t supposed to make it. You could say they run on "luck," scratched by the Nationals, clawed out a 3-1 lead over the Cardinals before blowing them away on Thursday night. But the fact is, the Giants are the National League champions for the third time in five years.

"This is a true ballclub," right-hander Jake Peavy said. "People say we’ve got our holes, we don’t have any left-handers off the bench, we don’t have this, we don’t have that. I’ll tell you what we do have. We have 25 guys, a coaching staff, an organization, a city that believes somehow, some way, we can win.

"And at the end of the day, that’s really all you need."

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

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