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Giants' biggest hero in Game 6 fits team's 'improbable' bill

PHILADELPHIA -- Every big home run has a distinct sound. There was the Albert Pujols home run off Brad Lidge in Houston, the one that sucked the air and life and every last whisper out of the stadium and the city. There was the Derek Jeter home run that sparked a wall of sound that melted slowly into repeated and ever more heartfelt renditions of Sinatra's "New York, New York." There was Kirk Gibson's home run in Los Angeles, where the cheers started loud and only grew louder and louder as people realized, as Jack Buck would memorably say, exactly what they just saw.

Juan Uribe's home run Saturday night in Philadelphia had its own sound. It was the sound of air seeping out of a balloon. The ball was suspended in the air for quite some time, and it did not quite look like a home run until the ball cleared the wall, and all the while there were low cheers, then hopeful murmurs, then less-than-hopeful murmurs. And then the ball was gone. And only then, there was silence.

And if I could give voice to the silence, it would be the voice of a Philadelphia cab driver who said this: "I can't believe they're going to lose to these (bleeping) guys."

These bleeping guys. These are your National League Champion San Francisco Giants. They beat the Phillies 3-2 Saturday in the most improbable victory since, well, probably since Wednesday when they beat the Phillies by a run. And that was probably the most improbable victory since they beat Roy Halladay and the Phillies in Game 1 of this series by a run.

These bleeping guys. The series MVP, Cody Ross, was released by Florida this year. Their best pitcher throughout the series was probably Javier Lopez, who had a 9.26 ERA with Boston last year and had been drafted twice, waived once, traded three times and declared a free agent twice more. The guy who hit the big home run, Uribe, was signed by the Giants last year to a minor-league contract.

And you know who was probably Saturday's biggest hero for San Francisco?

"Hey," a reporter said to me as I stood next to a bearded guy who was getting drenched with Budweiser. "Who is this guy?'

"Jeremy Affeldt," I whispered.

The reporter left. "That guy had no idea who I was, right?" Jeremy said.

Jeremy Affeldt. We go way back. We go back to a day in Bradenton, Fla., this had to be 2002, a boring spring training game, nothing happening, when suddenly the Kansas City Royals put in this kid, this mediocre prospect named Jeremy Affeldt. Nobody knew anything about him. He'd put up only decent numbers in Double A. The scouts yawned. I yawned.

And then ... he started pitching. And jaws dropped. Ninety-five mph fastball. Electric Barry Zito-like curveball. What the heck was this? Suddenly the scouts stood up straight. The Royals general manager at the time, Allard Baird, started leaning forward, and leading forward more, until he was practically on the shoulder of the guy in front of him. Affeldt threw two innings. He struck out five. The other batter fouled out. As a scout said: The kid ain't Koufax. But for two innings in Bradenton, Koufax couldn't have been any better.

So, I was hooked. I became the biggest Jeremy Affeldt fan around. Affeldt is convinced that my columns in The Kansas City Star got him his big-league job, and because of this he credits me with his career. It has been an up-and-down career. At first, he was starting, but that didn't work too well. He had hangnail problems. He moved to the bullpen where he had brilliant moments and not-so-good ones. I remember once he pitched two sizzling innings against Minnesota. I also remember he once lost a game in New York because he slipped on the rosin bag while trying to start a double play.

He settled in, became a pretty reliable lefty, was on the 2007 pennant-winning Colorado Rockies, came to San Francisco last year and was good enough that he finished with a 1.73 ERA and even got one 10th-place MVP vote.

This year has been tougher. Injuries. Inconsistency. That sort of thing.

And then, suddenly, it was Saturday night, and it really looked like the Phillies were going to run away with this game, force a Game 7. The Giants were looking kind of dead out there. The Phillies scored two in the first, and the Giants were lucky to get out of that first only having given up two runs. The Giants scraped in the top of the third for two runs to tie the tame. Then, bottom of the third inning started with a walk to Philadelphia's Placido Polanco. Then Giants' starter Jonathan Sanchez plunked Chase Utley with a pitch.

"I just didn't have it tonight," Sanchez would say.

Then, something odd happened: Utley and Sanchez started jawing at each other. The two have a bit of a history; apparently last year Sanchez threw a ball close to Utley's head, maybe by mistake, maybe not, there's a difference of opinion. Well, they started jawing, and then the benches cleared, and then the BULLPENS cleared. Affeldt was warming up at the time.

"You stay here," bullpen coach Mark Gardner told Affeldt. "You warm up."

So he did, and the Philadelphia fans were, it's fair to say, less than impressed with Affeldt's choice.

"They yelled a lot of things," Affeldt said. "Apparently, I'm a bit feminine."

But he warmed up and when the non-fight was over, he was called in to pitch. First and second. Nobody out. Tie score. And Ryan Howard was up for the Phillies.

"Keep this thing close," Affeldt would remember manager Bruce Bochy telling him. "Because we're going to win this game."

And for a night, for Jeremy Affeldt, it was like Bradenton again. Maybe he wasn't quite as dominant -- but these are slightly better hitters he was facing. He dropped a strike-one curveball on Howard, busted him inside with a fastball, tried to get Howard to chase a couple of outside pitches and then finally blew him away with a 93-mph fastball up. One out.

"Huge," Affeldt said. "It was so important that I get Howard out without the base runners advancing. I just had to take the sacrifice fly out of play. I was thinking about only one thing. No runs. They could not score any runs. We had just tied up the game. We needed to hold them without a run."

He battled with Jayson Werth for eight pitches before finally getting him to fly out ("That would have been the sac fly," Affeldt would say). He threw an outside fastball that Shane Victorino grounded out to end the inning.

"I think that was when the game changed, you know?" said Philadelphia's Raul Ibanez, who was a teammate of Affeldt's in Kansas City. "I think when we had that early lead, and we were threatening, I think our thought then was that we were just about to put the game away. But then ... Jeremy was good."

It's impossible to measure aura, of course, but damn if it didn't FEEL like the aura of the game had changed. Affeldt came out for another inning -- Affeldt had not pitched two innings since June. He got Ibanez to ground out, he struck out Carlos Ruiz, he coaxed a fly out from Roy Oswalt, and that was that. The game had taken on a whole different feel. When he went into the game, the Phillies still seemed to have that overwhelming confidence ("There will be a Game 7," Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel had told his players), the crowd was loud ... but when Affeldt left the game it suddenly felt a bit like a battle of attrition.

And if there's one thing the San Francisco Giants know how to do, it's win a battle of attrition. There's no way you can look at this lineup -- with only two of the same player who were in the Opening Day lineup -- and predict a World Series. The Phillies have two former MVPs (Howard and Jimmy Rollins), a player who before his injury was widely considered one of the five best players in the game (Utley), the certain-to-be Cy Young winner (Halladay) and numerous other stars. This was a paper mismatch, but seven-game series don't go to the BETTER team, they go to the team that PLAYS better, and that was the Giants.

"There are times we hit well," Giants general manager Brian Sabean says. "And there are times we pitch well, of course. And we field pretty well most of the time. But what I think we do really well is compete."

Saturday, with the score tied, the Giants kept making big pitches to get out of mini-jams. In the fifth the Phillies loaded the bases, but Madison Bumgarner got Victorino to ground out. In the sixth, Ibanez led off with a double, he was sacrificed to third, and then Bumgarner struck out pinch-hitter Ben Francisco and got Rollins to fly out to center.

Then came Uribe. His homer in the eighth inning came on the first pitch he saw from Phillies reliever Ryan Madson. It was an 89-mph slider that caught too much of the plate. Uribe poked it to right. It would not have been a home run in San Francisco. But this was Philadelphia. The ball flew just over the wall, and right fielder Werth watched it go.

"I saw Werth's back," Manuel would say, "and I said, 'Oh no!'"

The home run did take the life out of the crowd. They tried to get excited in the bottom of the inning, when the Phillies put runners on first and second with one out. But the threat ended when Carlos Ruiz hit a line drive that was caught by first baseman Aubrey Huff. And Victorino, who had a day he'd like to forget, was doubled off second.

The crowd was so crushed that even when the Phillies rallied in the ninth, the fans could not seem to get their hearts into it. Rollins walked with one out. The crowd was still quiet. It was only two batters later, when Utley also walked that they started getting into it. Howard was back at the plate to face Giants closer Brian Wilson.

And they battled for seven pitches.

"I couldn't get my pitches down," Wilson would say, and it's true, he kept leaving his pitches up, dangerous pitches against Howard.

Finally, with the count 3-2, Wilson decided the season was on the line and he had to throw his best pitch, a slider on the outside corner. He knew if he left it up, Howard might crush it.

"Well," he would say, "I knew that if he did that, we would have another game tomorrow."

He threw the absolute perfect pitch, low this time, a slider at the knees, outside corner. It was more or less an unhittable pitch -- or at least impossible to hit with any authority. Howard took the pitch, leaving the decision in the hands of home plate umpire Tom Hallion. And Hallion rung him up, strike three, sending Giants players on to the field for their own celebration.

The Giants now play the Texas Rangers in one of the oddest World Series match-ups in baseball history. Neither team in their current city has won a World Series, the Rangers have never even been there before. They both have rather remarkable No. 1 starters (Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum) they both have exciting young players (Josh Hamilton and Buster Posey) and they both leave behind big cities and wounded fans who wonder how did those bleeping guys win?

"It took 25 guys," Affeldt would say. "No, more, it took 35 guys. Forty guys. However many guys we had. It took all of us. And then some."

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