SAN FRANCISCO -- Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth spent the afternoon of July 31 soaking in a Kauffman Stadium hot tub, two veterans who seemed headed for an overpaid, underperforming tenure with a Royals team that was already 15½ games out of first place.
The thirtysomethings weren't oblivious to the reality of the game, of course, and understood their value to a contending team, so they spent their time amongst the suds wondering if and where they might get traded.
Little did they know how it would turn out, that they'd be bundled together and shipped to the Braves and play a deciding role in Friday night's dramatic comeback win. Farnsworth, who with no notice replaced an injured Billy Wagner in the 10th inning, escaped a bases-loaded jam and earned the win after Ankiel crushed a game-winning home run in the top of the 11th. Atlanta's 5-4 victory tied their NL Division Series at one game apiece.
"We probably thought we'd be in the playoffs," Farnsworth said of his trade-deadline conversation with Ankiel, "but we never expected this."
Ankiel wasn't even sure about the first count.
"My initial feeling was that I wouldn't get traded," he said late Friday night, foam from a celebratory shaving-cream pie still dangling from the hair on the back of his head. "I had only been healthy for a week after a quad injury. The way it worked out was a blessing."
It was a game of firsts -- and maybe a few lasts. Ankiel's blast was not only his first career postseason home run but also his first postseason hit of any kind. For four pitches Giants reliever Ramon Ramirez had stayed away from Ankiel, keeping the ball on or near the outside corner and running the count to 2-and-2, before his fifth pitch -- all fastballs -- ran over the middle of the plate.
Ankiel only contributed a .210 average and two homers in 47 games with Atlanta, but his manager was confident his latent power would rear its head at some point.
"You know, I talked to [Royals manager] Ned Yost when we got him," Bobby Cox said. "He said, 'He can carry your club for a period of time,' and we've been waiting for that. And he had a great night tonight defensively and offensively."
A determined Giants fan fished the ball out of McCovey's Cove and began a relay to throw the ball -- or at least a ball, as the origin of is difficult to guarantee -- back over the stadium's exterior wall and eventually land in front of San Francisco right fielder Nate Schierholtz. It was an impressive effort to retrace the ball's considerable arc, though they could not so simply press rewind on the damage done.
Wagner, the veteran closer set to retire at season's end, may have thrown his last pitch sooner than expected. After fielding a bunt in the 10th inning, he fired to first base but immediately clutched his side, slinking to the ground in obvious pain, then exiting the game.
Farnsworth was staying periodically loose in the bullpen, stretching every five minutes or so, he reckoned, when he was inserted into the ballgame without having thrown a pitch until his first warm-up toss on the game mound. This was not Farnsworth's first trade-deadline deal -- it was his third, actually -- but after getting the final five outs, he nabbed his first career postseason win.
The Giants had positioned themselves perfectly in the early going, thanks to a three-run homer from Pat Burrell in the first inning and an RBI single from starting pitcher Matt Cain in the second, as Atlanta had scored more than three runs only four times in its previous 13 games. It seemingly set up the Braves for a last gasp in Atlanta in Cox's last season -- he too, like Wagner, will retire -- as the Giants try to prove they have the starting pitching to make a run at the franchise's first World Series title since moving to San Francisco.
Cain couldn't quite match the historic performance of Tim Lincecum the previous night, but he never had the electric strikeout stuff of his teammate anyway. Cain pitched his own style -- he's more of a flyball pitcher -- and got nine flyouts to go with five groundouts and a still respectable six strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings, allowing just one run, unearned.
With two out and two on in a three-run ballgame in the top of the eighth, Giants manager Bruce Bochy summoned All-Star closer Brian Wilson for a six-out save. As he ran into the mound, with his 51-percent-black cleats -- he tried wearing all orange but the league insisted on majority black, so he colored them over -- and left the bullpen barren, a lone rosin bag remaining on the otherwise deserted mound. Bochy had called upon his best reliever in the tightest spot and the major league leader in saves ought not need reinforcements.
But Wilson couldn't finish the job on this night. A slow roller to Pablo Sandoval at third resulted in a throwing error to plate one run and keep two runners on. After a sacrifice bunt, Alex Gonzalez hit a ball into the left-center field gap, scooting into second with a two-RBI, game-tying double. He, too, was a midseason acquisition of Atlanta general manager Frank Wren.
"Frank said he was going to add depth," Braves left fielder Matt Diaz said of the trades, "and look how we won tonight."
The Gonzalez at-bat against Wilson and the Ankiel home run showed two things: 1) The Giants' pitching staff, which seemed nearly untouchable through the first 16 innings of the series, is not invincible even against this injury-depleted Braves lineup; and 2) Atlanta's re-tooled roster is plucky, with just enough punch to pull a comeback.
That wasn't reassuring in the early innings. Before Braves catcher Brian McCann's RBI single in the sixth, the Giants hadn't allowed a run in their last 29 innings of this season, dating back to their penultimate regular-season game. The Braves, meanwhile, hadn't scored a postseason run in 24 innings, dating back to the eighth inning of Game 4 of the 2005 NLDS -- a game they lost in 18.
First-base umpire Paul Emmel may also have staked claim to the last umpire to throw Cox out of a game -- his third career postseason heave-ho and 161st overall.
Juan Uribe's long throw from the hole to get Gonzalez may have pulled Aubrey Huff's foot off the first-base bag -- the replay was inconclusive -- but Cox came out to argue. He yelled at Emmel, who made the costly wrong call on Buster Posey's steal of second in Game 1, then Cox turned his attention toward home-plate umpire Paul Nauert, before returning to Emmel.
Cox argued plenty and the tantrum seemed to have run its course, but Cox was still in the game, so he removed his cap and spiked it into the ground. Emmel promptly ejected him.
"Well, I brought that up," Cox said of the previous night's error. "The only run that scored last night, he was out. But still I respect the umpires, and they're human. So am I. And I'm not always right."
Certainly not, but Cox's faith in Ankiel -- who despite his weak offensive stats this season has started both games in center field -- was one decision that's been right.
For Ankiel it was, he said, undoubtedly the biggest home run of his career. It's no doubt his finest postseason moment, too, as in his first run as a pitcher, it was in an NLDS game against the Braves that he developed his uncontrollable wildness and the mental block that derailed his pitching career, ultimately sending him back to the minors and to the outfield for a second chance.
"It's been a long, fun journey," Ankiel said. "And I appreciate everything that's happened. What a fun thing, what a cool thing to be a part of, from Bobby retiring to all the way here. I mean, I can't put into words how it feels."
For now, a pair of numbers -- the series score of 1-1 -- will suffice.