KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The postseason began here exactly one month before it ended, in a ballpark that hadn’t hosted a playoff game in nearly three decades, with all the heroes of yesterday – George Brett and Bret Saberhagen and the suffering fans who remembered when — assembled to see what might be possible. It’s worth remembering the intricacies and impossibilities of that night, because it set up the month to come.
On Sept. 30, the Kansas City Royals trailed by four runs in the eighth, a run in the ninth, a run in the 12th – and beat the Oakland Athletics in the American League Wild Card Game. That fiasco was a prelude of a baseball renaissance here. A night later, a burly left-hander named Madison Bumgarner silenced a packed, black-clad ballpark in Pittsburgh, a complete-game shutout. October’s themes were identified.
Baseball doesn’t have a “One Shining Moment” montage to end the postseason, but maybe it should. Stitch together what happened over the past 30 days, and the intricacy of each panel would need to be explained – pitch by pitch — in order to be properly admired. Since James Shields threw the first pitch against Oakland and Bumgarner threw the last against Kansas City, 32 games took place. Rank them from most to least fascinating, and there’s a scramble for those top 10 spots, with moments both monumental and minute part of the argument for each.
Those wild card games that began it all, they’re just three years old. Debate the fairness of deciding anything with a single baseball game, sure. But man are they fun. This year, they brought us Ned Yost – the Kansas City manager who is either brilliant or befuddling – lifting Shields, his Clydesdale, and replacing him with Yordano Ventura and his 100-mph heat, two days removed from throwing 73 pitches. How long ago does Brandon Moss’s 418-foot homer off Ventura seem? Eons, particularly given what followed that night, a night that concluded with Salvador Perez’s game-winning single to left.
The wild card games also brought us the 6-foot-5 shadow that would fall over the whole month. Pittsburgh has hosted the National League Wild Card Game each of the past two seasons, much to the delight of a city that, like Kansas City, wallowed in failure for decades. Bumgarner didn’t care about that, doesn’t care about much of anything but his teammates and his family, and his four-hit shutout on October’s first night served only as a precursor, though we couldn’t know then.
This led to four division series that could feel like blowouts now – sweeps by Baltimore over Detroit and Kansas City over Anaheim, four-game matchups pushing San Francisco past Washington and St. Louis past Los Angeles – but felt like grinders on the ground. And even the most meticulous video montage could overlook what might be the most important at-bat of the postseason, contained within.
By October’s first weekend, Jake Peavy had already beaten Stephen Strasburg (chew on that for a winter), and the Nationals’ season fell to Jordan Zimmermann, he of the last-day-of-the-season no-hitter. When the top of the ninth inning opened, the pulseless right-hander had allowed three hits and no walks. He held a 1-0 lead, and he promptly got a strikeout and a fly ball to bring the Nationals within one out of tying the series.
Like so many of these October games, we will remember the headlines – Matt Williams’s decision to replace Zimmerman with Drew Storen with one out to go, Yusmeiro Petit’s six scoreless innings for the Giants, the longest game by time in playoff history, 18 innings of hell on an increasingly chilly Washington night, ended by Brandon Belt’s homer off Tanner Roark. All have their place on the quilt.
But what about the at-bat to set up Williams’s move, that led to all the rest. When the season opened, Joe Panik was a 23-year-old second baseman playing for Fresno in the Pacific Coast League. Here, he was set up to be the final out of a masterpiece. Except he didn’t play along. He took two 94-mph fastballs at which an overanxious player might have swung, balls one and two. He then drilled another, hard but foul, into the seats along the first base line. Zimmermann’s next two pitches, both fastballs, were just off the black. Panik calmly took them, a walk. The snowball started down the hill.
Had Panik gotten himself out, as so many hitters would have, couldn’t the entire postseason have been different?
“When the moment gets big,” Panik said later in October, “I just tell myself to breathe.”
When were we supposed to follow suit? That first week of games included not only that classic, but the introduction of the Royals’ bullpen, Kelvin Herrera to Wade Davis to Greg Holland. Every night around 10:30 p.m., it seemed, they entered our living rooms slinging ungodly fastballs, and they kept Kansas City in two extra-inning games against the Angels that became the foundation for a month that changed baseball in this city. Their final combined numbers for the postseason: a 1.15 ERA over 40-1/3 innings of work in which they struck out 51 batters. They reminded everyone of a different winning formula: forget the starters, for a moment. Shorten the game to six innings, and throw gas.
That’s a lesson the Dodgers could have learned, too, because a $235 million team couldn’t figure out how to get those final nine outs. Los Angeles was doomed, though, by what – the AL wild card game not withstanding – must be the most unpredictable turnarounds of the month. Twice, best-of-his-generation Clayton Kershaw took the mound in the seventh inning, protecting leads with a fastball that can’t be seen and a curveball that drops like an anvil. And twice the St. Louis Cardinals flipped the script. Want a shining moment? Watch Matt Adams, lumbering first baseman of the Cardinals, skip like a schoolgirl playing hopscotch after his three-run homer off Kershaw in Game 4.
That got us to the league championship series, and a couple of moments that feel different now than they did then. In the second game of the NLCS, after Bumgarner had chewed up and spat out the Cardinals in Game 1, a rookie outfielder named Oscar Taveras – full of promise, a piece of a proud organization’s hopeful future — came up in the seventh inning as a pinch hitter and drilled a homer to right, tying the only game the Cardinals would win in the series – a game won by Kolten Wong’s walk-off shot in the bottom of the ninth.
In the ninth inning of Game 5, Taveras came up again as a pinch hitter, and San Francisco countered with lefty Jeremy Affeldt. Tie game, bases loaded. Affeldt, a 35-year-old veteran who would finish October with an intact streak of 22 straight playoff appearances without allowing a run, got the 22-year-old to roll over a little 91-mph sinker. Affeldt fielded the ball himself, ran to first base himself.
No one knew then that Travis Ishikawa – who earned his own panel on the quilt this postseason, given that he thought about quitting the game earlier in the summer – would give the Giants the pennant with a three-run shot off Michael Wacha, making his first postseason appearance. But even that was more predictable than Affeldt’s pitch being the last ever thrown to Taveras, who died in a single-car accident on Sunday, casting a pall over Game 5 of the World Series.
In that fifth game, Bumgarner followed his script, one for which no other postseason starter – not Kershaw nor Shields nor Strasburg nor Adam Wainwright – could even audition, a 5-0 shutout that gave the Giants the lead in the series, and set up Bumgarner’s astonishing five innings of relief work in Game 7. In retiring 15 of the 17 men he faced – two days after he threw a 117-pitch shutout – he stitched the following numbers this October: seven games, six starts, a 1.03 ERA, a .153 batting average against, six walks and 45 strikeouts in 52-2/3 innings.
In the spray of beer in Kauffman Stadium’s visiting clubhouse late Wednesday night, the Giants fired up the song to which Bumgarner, native of North Carolina, enters each game at AT&T Park, the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Fire on the Mountain.” The first verse contains the following lines:
Six long months on a dust-covered trail
They say heaven’s at the end but so far it’s been hell
Six long months. That’s a baseball season. Tack on another month, and there is indeed heaven at the end, a transcendent figure standing among his adoring and appreciative teammates, the symbol of an October that should be remembered not just for how it ended, but for how it played out.
More from the World Series
Boswell: Bumgarner is just scary good
Box score: Giants 3, Royals 2