For the third time in five years, the Giants are going to the World Series. Game 5 of the NLCS was another thriller in what was a classic series. On Thursday night, two aces dueled, the balls flew out of the ballpark, and -- on the 11th anniversary of Aaron Boone’s homer in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS -- Travis Ishikawa became the fifth player to hit a pennant-clinching walk-off home run in the wild-card era. Another night, another white-knuckle thriller. It was a great series that saw two one-run games, two walk-off home runs and three games decided on the final at bat. Now it’s wild-card vs. wild-card: Giants vs. Royals in the World Series.
Three quick thoughts from tonight’s clincher in San Francisco.
1. Travis Ishikawa wins it with a walk-off home run
The decision will be second guessed for days, weeks, and probably months to come. With the middle of the San Francisco due up in the bottom of the ninth, Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny turned to starter Michael Wacha, and with lefty Travis Ishikawa up with two men on, he went with his young right-hander. Not lefties Randy Choate or Marco Gonzales, and not right-handed reliever Seth Maness. This was asking a lot out of Wacha, who was taking the mound for the first time in 20 days. Wacha last pitched on Sept. 26, and posted a 5.40 ERA in 16 2/3 September innings. Not surprisingly, Wacha was rusty, throwing six straight balls. Ishikawa was sitting on a fastball, and the pitch came on a platter: The left fielder ripped a ball to the right-field seats. Ishikawa, 30, nearly quit baseball earlier this year after the Giants reassigned him to the minors. It’s a great story to close out a memorable NLCS.
It was a night of memorable home runs. Who had Joe Panik to end the Giants’ home run drought? San Francisco had gone six games without a homer. The Giants hadn’t homered since Brandon Belt’s solo home run in the 18th inning of Game 2 of the NLDS. That covered 242 plate appearances without a homer when the rookie Panik stepped up to the plate with a runner on in the bottom of the third. The second baseman with one career home run ripped hit a two-run shot to right.
The Cardinals answered with a pair of unexpected home runs in the top of the fourth. Matt Adams blasted a 78 mph curveball into right field. "Big City" had been swinging a hot bat. He had three home runs over the last six games. But the last time Bumgarner allowed a home run to a lefty was April. (Adams homered off Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw this postseason.) Then Tony Cruz, who hit one home run all year and had only three home runs in 482 career plate appearances, hit a cutter to the left-field seats to put the Cardinals up 3-2.
Then it was Michael Morse, pinch-hitting to start the bottom of the eighth, ripping an 83 mph inside slider to left field to tie the game 3-3 as AT&T Park exploded. It was the fifth postseason pinch-hit home run in Giants history. It was the second pitch of the night from Pat Neshek, who was pitching for the third night in a row and was called on to relieve Wainwright, who had thrown 97 pitches. Unlike his decision in the ninth, it’s hard to criticize Matheny for going to the bullpen.
2. Madison Bumgarner and the bullpen do the job
The best starter of this year’s postseason took the mound for San Francisco, and while he wasn’t as dominant as he’s been this October, Madison Bumgarner was still very good, allowing three runs over eight innings. The first run wasn’t Bumgarner’s fault. The Cardinals scored when Travis Ishikawa misread a Jon Jay line drive to left field. The ball sliced away from Ishikawa (who didn’t play left field until the last four games of the season) as he moved to his left, and then sailed over his head. With men on second and third with one out, the Cardinals couldn’t capitalize as Bumgarner escaped the inning without allowing any more runs. Bumgarner later allowed the solo home runs to Adams and Cruz, and then cruised over the next four innings, with all his pitches working. The bullpen that has been so brilliant this October did its job with a scoreless top of the ninth. After Santiago Casilla recorded the first two outs but loaded the bases, Jeremy Affeldt got out of the jam by getting Oscar Taveras to ground out after which AT&T Park exhaled.
3. Adam Wainwright looked like an ace.
The big question of the night was what the Cardinals would get out of their ace, and Adam Wainwright had his game face on and his curveball working. Wainwright, whose been facing questions about his elbow, wasn’t dominant early, but he got better as the game wore on and actually out-pitched Bumgarner in the tense pitcher’s duel. His heater topped out at 93 mph and he seemed to get more comfortable with his curveball as the game progressed. He began to effectively use his signature pitch to set up his fastball. The big inning was the sixth, facing the 3-4-5 hitters the third time around, in a one-run game. Wainwright struck out Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, and Hunter Pence all on vicious curveballs. It was his most impressive inning of the night, and he knew it, bouncing off the mound with a big pump fist.
Wainwright pumped a 93 mph fastball, his hardest fastball of the night, past Ishikawa for the second out in the seventh. He allowed two runs over seven innings and struck out seven, five on his curveball. He threw 34 pitches over the last three innings, and only allowed one ball out of the outfield. After struggling in Game 1 of the NLCS, after struggling against the Dodgers in the division series, Wainwright turned in a brilliant performance with his team’s season on the line. It was even more important given that the Cardinals weren’t set up well with the bullpen a night after Matheny had to turn to his relievers early and often in Game 4.
All week Wainwright insisted that his arm felt better and that he’d ironed out his mechanical issues. Wainwright turned in a vintage performance in Game 5. It just wasn’t quite enough to keep the Cardinals’ season alive.