Three Strikes: Ishikawa takes place beside Thomson in baseball history
SAN FRANCISCO — It was Mark Twain, 149 years ago, who wrote, "San Francisco is a city of startling events." His words never were truer than on Thursday night. Travis Ishikawa, a 31-year-old journeyman who was cut by the Pirates this year, became the West Coast version of Bobby Thomson, a name in Giants and baseball lore never to be forgotten. Days, years and decades from now, Ishikawa still will be asked about that 2-0 pitch from Michael Wacha in the bottom of the ninth of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series as if it happened yesterday.
Ishikawa joined Thomson as the only Giants ever to send their team into the World Series with a walkoff home run. Thomson's clout, "The Shot Heard 'Round the World," ended a 1951 third tiebreaker game against the Dodgers and stands as one of the most famous home runs in baseball history.
As for this second lightning strike of a Giants walkoff, you need not have been one of the deliriously happy people at AT&T Park on Thursday night to appreciate the magnitude of the moment. A simple appreciation of the perseverance of the human spirit would do just fine to behold its real import.
What Ishikawa did in a baseball sense alone was immutable, an instant fixture in the oral and visual history of the game. He provided an iconic Giants moment on the date of two of the franchise's most infamous, season-ending defeats. On the same date in 1962, Giants first baseman Willie McCovey lined out to Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson with the tying run on third base and the winning run on second in Game 7 to end the World Series. On the same date in 1912, Giants centerfielder Fred Snodgrass dropped a routine flyball to begin the 10th inning, an error that led to two unearned runs that handed the Boston Red Sox the World Series title.
Snodgrass lived to be 86 years old. And yet when he died, The New York Times summed up the man's nearly nine decades on this earth with the coldest of eternal scoring decisions: The headline above his obituary said, "Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly."
Now Ishikawa, 31, always will have Oct. 16, too, but for the right reasons. That swing, that moment, will live beyond him as if preserved in amber. It also stands as a fitting salute to an organization that over the past five years keeps finding the right players, even if they come from the oddest places. Under general manager Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy, the Giants get players back on their feet. Their success the past few seasons with veterans looking for another shot has been superb, with the roster of refurbished players including Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross, Marco Scutaro, Pat Burrell, Gregor Blanco, Ryan Vogelsong, and now Ishikawa.
Ishikawa spent the 2012 and '13 seasons mostly playing in the minor leagues on the East Coast, away from his family in the Bay Area. Last year, he counted that he had seen his wife and three children, now ages 13, 6 and 4, just 14 days out of the baseball year. He bounced among four organizations — those of the Brewers, Orioles, Yankees and White Sox. At one point, he was so miserable he called a friend in Seattle and began crying. "I just don't know if this is what I want any more," he said.
He took another shot this year. He signed a contract with the Pirates. They cut him after just 15 games. The Giants called. They wanted to stash him in the minors, see what he could do. Their Triple A team is in Fresno. This was home. He had met his wife years ago in San Jose, literally by accident. He was hit in the mouth with a pitch one night in the minors, and the next morning, with his mouth swollen, he met a pretty dental assistant that he would marry. Fresno was worth a shot at getting back to San Francisco.
He found himself later not just in the big leagues, but, with four games left in this season, in leftfield, an almost totally unfamiliar position to him. It took two injuries for the door to open: A back injury to centerfielder Angel Pagan and an oblique injury to Michael Morse forced Bochy to push Blanco to center and give Ishikawa a turn in left.
If you didn't know how green he was in left, you knew upon the first ball hit to him in Game 5, when he misplayed an out into a run-scoring double. Who could know then that the same leftfielder would own the night forever? Who could know that a guy who spent the past three years bouncing among six organizations and stuck in minor league outposts in Nashville, Norfork and Charlotte would be as eternally remembered as Bobby Thomson?
When Bochy was asked why the Giants have hit on so many older players, he mentioned the San Francisco climate. The cooler summer weather keeps the older players fresher, he said. There may indeed be something to that, but the culture established by Sabean and Bochy and the evaluations of their scouts are more responsible. And now they've done it again. Ishikawa might be the most famous find of all.
2. Wacha heck was Matheny thinking?
The first job for a manager is to put his players in the best possible position to succeed. St. Louis manager Mike Matheny failed the 23-year-old Wacha Thursday night in the very last breath of the Cardinals' season.
"Not difficult at all," Matheny said of his decision to use Wacha in the ninth inning of NLCS Game 5 Thursday night. But he immediately contradicted himself when he added, "We put him in a tough place without giving him much work lately. That's on me."
Matheny asked Wacha to pitch the bottom of the ninth with the Cardinals and Giants tied 3-3. He asked him to pitch in that spot even though Wacha was pitching for the first time in 20 days. He asked him to pitch in that spot even though Wacha never before had pitched out of the bullpen in a tie game in his major league career. He asked him to pitch in that spot even though Wacha had warmed up earnestly in the seventh inning, then sat down and cooled, thinking Pat Neshek and Trevor Rosenthal would take care of the final six outs.
And after all of that, Matheny asked still even more out of Wacha. The ninth inning began with a base hit by Pablo Sandoval. Now the bullpen had to get busy behind Wacha, with lefthanded specialist Randy Choate and righthanded groundball specialist Seth Maness throwing.
Wacha retired Hunter Pence on a flyball, but then he couldn't throw a strike to Brandon Belt. Wacha was as rusty as you would expect from a starting pitcher asked to pitch high-leverage relief on 19 days of rest. This was the Roadrunner hanging on to a weak limb on the edge of the cliff. The only mystery was when the fall was coming.
Ishikawa, a lefthanded hitter, was due up. Matheny had three choices. He could bring in Choate to pitch to Juan Perez, who would likely pinch-hit for Ishikawa. He could bring in Maness to pitch to Ishikawa. Maness got double play grounders in 24 percent of such opportunities this year, more than double the major league average. Matheny has so much faith in Maness that he brought him into Game 2 in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and the score tied — and Maness nailed down the out to get the game to Kolten Wong and his walkoff homer.
And then there was Matheny's third choice: to stick with a rusty, wobbling Wacha against Ishikawa. Matheny took the worst of three options, and the cameras caught this gleeful look on the face of wild-eyed Pence that told you the Giants knew they had this game right where they wanted it. Wacha threw ball one. Then he threw ball two. Ishikawa told himself that no way would Wacha want to walk him, to load the bases and pitch with even more pressure to throw a strike. He knew Wacha was desperate for a strike. He told himself to wait for a fastball over the plate. Wacha obliged.
And that is how Matheny made San Francisco Giants history possible. Ishikawa slammed a home run over the high wall in rightfield and with that swing, to borrow from Russ Hodges, the Giants won the pennant, the Giants won the pennant, the Giants won the pennant.
That Ishikawa became a brother of Thomson's in the fraternal order of famous home run hitters was made possible only by the choices of Matheny and Wacha. The manager's decision to use Wacha at all, and then to stick with him, will live in Cardinals infamy. This was worse than Braves manager Bobby Cox bringing in a lefthanded starting pitcher, Charlie Leibrandt, to pitch to righthanded Kirby Puckett of the Twins in the bottom of the 11th in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. It was worse than Yankees manager Joe Torre sticking with a starting pitcher, Jeff Weaver, in relief in the 12th inning of Game 4 of the 2003 World Series against the Marlins, long enough to lose the game on a home run by Alex Gonzalez.
It was worse because Leibrandt and Weaver were veteran starters who had been getting regular work, and because they didn't pitch in win-or-go-home games. Managers consistently jeopardize games by not using their closer in tie games on the road, preferring to save them for the chance they get a lead. But using Wacha with all that time off was something altogether more risky. Matheny had allowed Wacha to collect all that rust, unable to find him an appearance, however brief, anywhere through his team's first eight postseason games. The days of rest kept piling up until there was no way Matheny could have known what he had in Wacha.
By NLCS Game 5, Wacha was the spin of a roulette wheel. Sure, he won the NLCS MVP a year ago, but that was a kid taking his regular turn in the rotation. This year Wacha was shut down with shoulder trouble, and when he did pitch late in the year he was unimpressive. Matheny may have remembered the Wacha from last year, when the Cardinals pushed him through their preferred innings limit on a World Series run, but there was no way he could have expected such a pitcher in this unfair spot.
Bottom nine, tie game, one run away from the end to your season. Matheny picked a risky time to take a flier on how well Wacha might be throwing the baseball in his first game in almost three weeks. Even Matheny knew he had put the kid in a tough spot.
3. News and notes
• This will be the second all-wild-card World Series (Angels-Giants, 2002) and the first in a full season in which neither pennant winner won 90 games.
• Get ready for the battle of the bullpens: San Francisco relievers have posted a 1.78 ERA this postseason while holding hitters to a .154 average with runners in scoring position (8-for-52).
• San Francisco is now 30-11 under Bochy in the postseason while winning nine straight series. The 1996-99 Yankees went 31-10 in their first 41 games under manager Joe Torre.
• NLCS MVP Madison Bumgarner has thrown four quality starts in this postseason. The 15 other starters in LCS play have combined to throw one.
• There's not much history between the Royals and Giants. Only three players have appeared in 200 games for each team: Brent Mayne, Michael Tucker and Jim Wohlford. Only two pitchers have appeared in 300 games for each team: Jeremy Affeldt and Bud Black.