In Jeremy Affeldt’s mind, the key play of the Giants’ 3-2 win in Game 7 of the World Series occurred early, before Madison Bumgarner, the hero of the night, even stepped foot on the mound at Kauffman Stadium.
For Affeldt, that moment came in the third inning, with the left-hander himself in the game. The score was 2-2, the Royals having tied it in the second, and Lorenzo Cain had led off the third by lining a single into right field. Eric Hosmer then hit a sharp grounder back up the middle, to the left of Affeldt as he finished his delivery.
The ball appeared headed for center field -- but rookie second baseman Joe Panik stopped it on a backhand dive and, from his stomach, shoveled the ball with his glove to Brandon Crawford on second base. Crawford whipped a relay throw to first base, the ball arriving just as Hosmer came across the bag in a headfirst dive.
Hosmer was originally ruled safe. But Giants manager Bruce Bochy challenged the ruling and, after a review of nearly three minutes, umpires overturned the call. On what had looked like a sure single, the Giants had instead turned a highlight-reel double play.
"It basically kept them from rallying for another inning," Affeldt said. "It allowed me to go out there for another inning and be able to pitch a little longer in the game, and I think that was a big deal. For me, that was probably the biggest play of the night."
Affeldt wound up pitching through the fourth inning before turning things over to Bumgarner, who took the Giants the rest of the way. Afterward, wearing one of the Giants’ newly distributed World Series champion hats and a T-shirt soaked with Champagne and beer, Panik, the 23-year-old from Yonkers, N.Y., said the play had been "just instinctual."
"Hosmer hit it hard, and off the bat I was telling myself, just knock it down and try to get one," Panik said. "I couldn’t get my bare hand to the glove right away, so instinct told me to use the glove. And Craw did a great job turning it over.
"I’ve never done anything like that before. Diving play like that, diving play into a glove flip, it was just instinct taking over."
In the giddy chaos of the Giants’ clubhouse, waves of reporters kept approaching Panik with the same request, to describe the play, and Panik calmly kept repeating the same answer, with nearly the same language. On the field, he had also shown little emotion after starting arguably the best defensive play of the night.
In the stands, his father had not been so subdued.
"That was one of the times where I showed some emotion and jumped from my seat and pumped my fist," Paul Panik said. "I knew it was such a key part of the game."
While media surrounded their son late Wednesday night, Paul and Natalie Panik stood off to the side in the Giants’ clubhouse, watching and wearing the effortless smiles of proud parents. They had been in San Francisco for Games 3-5 at AT&T Park, then flown to Kansas City to watch the culmination of Joe’s whirlwind rookie season, which began with him playing in Triple-A Fresno and ended with his being a World Series champion.
"It’s been awesome, you know?" Natalie said.
"It’s really surreal," Paul said. "Because we really didn’t expect the promotion this year. And for it to happen, and then this amazing ride that happened -- it really is just surreal."
It’s fair to wonder whether the ride would’ve ended the way it did for the Giants without Panik. The Giants were foundering when Panik was called up for good in late June, and while it would be wrong to attribute their turnaround to him alone, Panik assuming the everyday role at second base and in the No. 2 spot in the batting order was key.
Panik batted .305 in the regular season and proved a tough out in the playoffs, hitting his second major-league home run off Adam Wainwright in the NLCS and striking out six times in 78 plate appearances. Ironically, three of those strikeouts came Wednesday night in Game 7. That Panik still impacted the game in the field did not go unnoticed by one of the fans who has watched him the longest.
"We always taught the boys growing up, sometimes if the bat doesn’t work one game, you can always play defense, you can always make a play with the glove and help your team," said Paul Panik. "So it was kind of fitting for him to make that play and help the team."
After the double play, the Royals managed just two hits the rest of the game against Affeldt and Bumgarner. The result was the Giants’ third World Series championship in five seasons, and the first for their rookie second baseman, who figures to be a fixture in their infield for a long time.
"Coming out of spring training I was in Fresno, and if you would’ve told me this is where I’d be (now), I’d think you’re crazy," Panik said. "This has been a fun ride. Little ups and downs in the season, but once we got rolling, we got rolling. And to call yourself a World Champion -- that’s something special."
As another group of TV cameras approached him Wednesday night, Panik politely asked them to wait for a moment. Then he called his parents over and, standing between them, posed for photos in front of where his locker in the visiting Kauffman Stadium clubhouse was covered with plastic tarp, guarding against the bubbly spray that filled the room.
Asked what he’ll remember when he looks at that picture in a few decades, Joe Panik said, "I’m going to remember the fact of what this team did. But more importantly, my family was here to support me. They’ve been with me since the day I was born, and I can’t say enough great things about my mom and dad. Since I was three years old, taking me to the park, to share this moment with them, it’s just special."
"I think the satisfaction of all the hard work he’s put into it, and all the sacrifices that he made," Paul Panik said. "I’m just so happy for him, and just overjoyed that he was able to experience something like this that many major-leaguers don’t experience in their careers.
"To do it in his rookie season -- it’s really just amazing for me."