SAN FRANCISCO – Somewhere near the end, when the San Francisco Giants had all but finished the St. Louis Cardinals, when they'd played themselves all the way back again, their second baseman spread his arms, tilted back his head, opened his mouth and drank in the rain.
The ballclub that had struck down so many parties mid-breath over nearly two weeks, that had harshed more buzzes than a nosey housemother, would not miss a moment of cheer, even as a swampy infield swallowed its feet. Turned out, the Giants' spirit was a long way from their shoes.
Game 7 of the National League Championship Series was remarkable first for being necessary. Then it was remarkable for the outcome. On Monday night at AT&T Park, finally through a driving rain, the Giants completed their sometimes clumsy, ultimately whimsical tour to the World Series.
From a 3-1 series deficit, they won when they could not lose, over and over and over. They'd reached the NLCS from a 2-0 hole in the division series, and blind-sided the Cincinnati Reds in the same manner, with three wins when the alternative was unacceptable. They beat the Cardinals, 9-0.
When the end was near, when they'd persevered across six elimination games and the home crowd refused to come in from the rain, when all that awaited was the World Series and the Detroit Tigers, the NLCS MVP took a swig from the sky.
Marco Scutaro, the second baseman, batted .500 in the series. In those six win-or-say-bye games across two series: Scutaro batted .391, Giants starters allowed seven earned runs in 33 innings, their relievers allowed two earned runs in 21 1/3 innings and they outscored the Reds and Cardinals 36-9.
"After we were eight runs up or nine, something like that, and ninth inning, Game 7," Scutaro said, "I mean, just so much stuff going through my head. Just unbelievable."
They'd played the better part of two series with one foot in the offseason. They'd played with the other clubhouse cloaked in plastic sheeting. They'd warmed more beer than a blackout in San Francisco's Duboce Triangle.
Two years ago, when they'd run to the World Series with a similar cast, the Giants hadn't trailed in a series. This would be different, then.
"Maybe we're just procrastinators," said Brian Wilson, who emerged as a star in the 2010 postseason and has spent this one in the dugout, healing from elbow surgery. "We're real intelligent, we just hand in our homework late."
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Over six games, three in Cincinnati, one in St. Louis, then two in San Francisco, every pitch, it seemed, could have ended their flirtation with elimination. Every at-bat carried more weight than the last. Every inning that passed could have run them from their season.
They played four times to survive. They played twice to win. They won a single game – Game 2 of the NLCS – they technically didn't have to. The rest carried the punishment of a handshake and a promise to stay in touch.
"Nothing could go wrong," third-base coach Tim Flannery said. "It goes back to the weird stuff we say, that if you honor the game the game honors you. When that stuff starts happening, you think, 'Well, here we go again.' The door opens, you walk in humbly."
In a quiet moment of the eighth inning Monday, Cardinals third baseman David Freese turned to Flannery and, with a sigh, said it looked like the series would end well for the Giants. Brandon Belt had homered. The Giants led by nine runs. Flannery turned away.
"Nuh-uh," Flannery said. "I've seen you guys do it too many times before."
He – all of them – would honor the game until the end, until the rain fell and the last ball fell into Scutaro's glove, setting off a scattered and heartfelt celebration.
"The cockroaches," Flannery said, "even enjoyed the weather at the end. They thought that was beautiful."
They had so much to be thankful for. The 94-win Giants, runaway winners of the NL West, were fit for elimination on Tuesday, Oct. 9. Cincinnati – the city, its team – beamed. Only a funny in-between hop in the 10th inning handcuffed veteran third baseman Scott Rolen, Buster Posey scored from third, the Giants' bullpen threw five scoreless innings, and the Giants won, 2-1.
That was 13 days ago.
The following day, the Giants, who hardly ever hit home runs, hit three of them, one each by Angel Pagan, Gregor Blanco and Pablo Sandoval. Taken from the rotation, Tim Lincecum allowed a single run in 4 1/3 innings. The Giants won, 8-3.
Unfathomably, they'd forced a Game 5, still in Cincinnati, still pushing their luck. In the fifth inning, they'd score six runs, four of them on a thunderbolt grand slam off Mat Latos by Buster Posey. It was just the third grand slam in the franchise's postseason history, and the Giants were the first NL team to come back from two games down in a division series.
Their former manager, Dusty Baker, slumped postgame. "It hurts big-time," he said.
Having spared themselves a mid-October farewell, the Giants found themselves in the same predicament after four games of the NLCS. So arrived Game 5, on Oct. 19, against the Cardinals, whose reputation didn't lend itself to collapse. The Giants gave the ball to Barry Zito, so unreliable he'd been left off the postseason roster two years before. He got 23 outs and didn't allow a run. The Giants won, 5-0.
"Yes, I believe God has a plan all the time," right-hander Ryan Vogelsong said. "Outside of that, it started with Barry in Game 5."
Two nights later, the season turned to Vogelsong. He pitched seven shutout innings. The Giants had earned their way back into the series, back into their season, and that's when Monday arrived. Four days after the Tigers had buried the New York Yankees, two days before the Tigers would have an opponent, the Giants led, 7-0, before the sun had set. Matt Cain was composed in a Game 7. The Giants sent 11 batters to the plate in the third inning, the first six reaching base.
Flannery waved home one man after another. They hadn't just won, they'd won on a tightrope that stretched across six games over two weeks. All those pitches, all those at-bats, all those decisions, they'd worked. Well, first they didn't, and then they did.
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"What had to happen," Wilson said, "the perfect domino had to be played. Anything out of the ordinary very well could have had us back at home.
"When you're down like that, you play for a lot more than just the game."
Wilson had a lot of time to watch. Zito reincarnating himself as a viable pitcher. Vogelsong adding chapters to his own story. Scutaro taking the biggest hit you won't see on a Sunday, and becoming the series MVP. Sandoval, a mercurial player, posting his best numbers in the elimination games. In them, he was 10 for 24. The bullpen was seamless. It all worked. They kept showing up, kept pushing, kept honoring the game and themselves.
"Sometimes," Zito said, "you're doing stuff in the moment and you don't know the implication it could have. It's just surreal. You look back and realize how incredible it is."
Just then, the effervescent closer Sergio Romo crashed into Zito. He carried a replica of Tuesday morning's paper. A large photo of Romo's celebration ran under a massive headline.
"Barry!" he cried. "Barry! What does this say?"
"What does this say, Barry?"
The joke stayed between them. Zito deadpanned, "Giants Win the Pennant."
Romo shrieked and ran off. In the hubbub of the clubhouse, the last one could hear of Romo were the words, "Oh my God!"
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