Giants vs. Cardinals NLCS: San Francisco reaches World Series with big win in Game 7

October 22, 2012

There are a thousand tiny moments in a baseball season, several thousand more in a baseball career. Most fade into summer nights, becoming part of the makeup of the men who play this game, generally unnoticed. Others, though, come in the crispness of October, with towel-waving, full-throated fans surrounding a diamond on which every play will be analyzed.

The San Francisco Giantsoverwhelming 9-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series on Monday night was a compilation of so many men, each enjoying his moment. Matt Cain, the veteran starter, pitched the Giants into their second World Series in three years with 52 / 3 innings of scoreless ball. The Giants got hits from all nine of their starting players, runs from seven of them. Four relievers allowed the Cardinals little hope.

And at the heart of this: The Giants played their sixth game of this postseason which, had they lost, they would have started their offseason. They came back from a three-games-to-one deficit in the NLCS, and they will host the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the Word Series on Wednesday because of that uncommon, flirt-with-disaster resilience. In the final three games of this series, they outscored the Cardinals 20-1.

“I love every single guy in there,” said second baseman Marco Scutaro, who had three of his 14 NLCS hits Monday and was named series MVP. “We’ve been in this situation before, and we came through. We did it again, and we’re National League champs.”

Those achievements can’t be taken away from the Giants, who had never won a Game 7 in team history. “This is a special group,” Manager Bruce Bochy said.

But the moment that turned this game — and yes, a nine-run game can have a turning point — is one that will follow Pete Kozma into the offseason and, potentially, beyond. It came in the third inning, with the bases loaded and nobody out, and the Cardinals trailing 2-0, having just lifted starter Kyle Lohse.

The hitter: right fielder Hunter Pence. The reliever: hard-throwing Joe Kelly. Kozma is the Cardinals shortstop, a former first-round pick who is in the majors — and therefore, at the crossroads of a Game 7 — because of an injury to starter Rafael Furcal in August. Kozma’s postseason started splendidly, and he delivered a signature moment: the two-run single that completed St. Louis’s logic-defying comeback against the Washington Nationals in the fifth game of their division series.

But here, Kozma faced a different moment. Kelly’s job was to get Pence to hit a groundball. And on his first pitch, a 95-mph fastball, he did just that. The pitch was so effective it shattered Pence’s bat.

“That’s exactly what we were hoping for,” Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny said.

Kozma, watching the ball off the bat, broke to his right. And in that moment, his role in the game, the series and this postseason changed. The ball, somehow, hit Pence’s still-breaking bat again. And then, ever so slightly, once more. It changed directions.

“I’ve seen a double-hit maybe a couple of times,” second baseman Daniel Descalso said. “But three times?”

The effect in the ballpark was odd. Why did Kozma head toward third when the ball headed toward center? By the time he tried to break back, there was mayhem. The ball landed on the infield dirt, but scooted into the outfield.

“The baseball gods helped us with that ball,” Bochy said. “. . . You get breaks in this game, you hope to take advantage of them.”

That change in direction froze the Cardinals. Two runs scored easily. And when center fielder Jon Jay bobbled the ball, Buster Posey, who started the play at first base, scored the Giants’ fifth run.

“It’s baseball,” Pence said. “You can’t explain it even if you play it.”

Thus, what had started as the groundball the Cardinals desperately needed turned into an unfathomable two-run double, with Posey’s run coming on an error credited to Jay. And in the aftermath, Kozma unraveled.

When a single and a walk loaded the bases again, still with no outs, Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford hit a chopper to short. By now, the ball seemed to seek out Kozma. He charged and had one play: first base. Instead, he threw home. It was too late, and the Giants went up 6-0. An out later, Angel Pagan hit another ball to Kozma. Pagan is fast enough that he likely would have beaten out the double-play relay. But Kozma didn’t give the Cardinals a chance, tossing too high to second, getting only the out there.

So the crowd at AT&T Park rocked as the Giants rolled to a five-run inning, and the rest of the night was a San Francisco celebration. They will have Justin Verlander and the rested Tigers, who finished a sweep of the New York Yankees last Thursday, to deal with Wednesday. They will likely counter with Barry Zito, the veteran left-hander whose best effort in a Giants uniform was his last — seven scoreless innings in Game 5 to send the series back to San Francisco.

“Hopefully, next round, we’ll make it a little easier on ourselves,” Zito said.

In St. Louis, this collapse will go down in Cardinals lore. There is the joy of 11 World Series titles, most recently last year, and the steadfastness this group has shown — famously down to its last strike both in last year’s World Series and this year’s division series, and winning both.

But there are, too, notable instances when the stitches came undone. They lost three-games-to-one leads in the 1968 World Series to Detroit, the 1985 World Series to Kansas City and the 1996 NLCS to Atlanta. And now this.

“It’s just too bad this is the one they’re going to have to chew on for the whole winter,” Matheny said, “because this team has a lot to be proud of.”

So many Giants had their moments Monday night, with more still to come. The Cardinals’ moments, bizarre and otherwise, are over now. And those that might have prevented a ballgame from becoming a blowout belonged to Pete Kozma.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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