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Giants continue October heroics with classic NLCS win against Cardinals

"We're going to Kansas City. Saddle it up," Giants right fielder Hunter Pence shouted during the postgame celebration. "We're burning it down!" 

SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants make magic every other October, an even-year tradition that now seems so certain you might as well put them on your World Series calendar for 2016. After championships in 2010 and 2012, it was understandable that there had been just a touch of casualness to this latest postseason run, if not from the players, at least from the Bay Area fans. After all, nothing is ever as good as the first time, or the second.

But then Thursday night happened.

Michael Morse happened, and Travis Ishikawa happened, and the Giants topped themselves. They fashioned an ending that was nothing short of incredible, even for them. It was perhaps the most memorable evening of these three unforgettable autumns. The Giants finished off the Cardinals in the NLCS with Ishikawa's walk-off three-run homer for a 6-3 victory that sent them into their third World Series in five years.

By the time Ishikawa's blast off Michael Wacha settled into the rightfield bleachers, all the old electricity filled AT&T Park. Everything old was new again. The joyful noise had risen first when Morse, something of a forgotten man due to an oblique injury that sidelined him for weeks, pinch hit in the bottom of the eighth and crushed a Pat Neshek slider, sending it over the wall in left to tie the game, 3-3. Morse all but floated around the bases, pumping his fists in elation over finally contributing. "It makes everything worth it," Morse said. "Everything happens for a reason, and maybe me getting hurt, missing a month, going down to the Instructional League and getting some at-bats was meant to prepare me for this moment."

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Giants catcher Buster Posey had whispered something in Morse's ear as he went to the on-deck circle. "All you have to do is touch it, big fella," Posey told him. "With your power, if you touch it, you can get it out of here." Said Morse afterwards: "When Buster talks, you listen. So all I tried to do was make contact. Just touch it. And he was right."

But that was nothing compared to what happened two innings later, when Ishikawa came up with two men on and one out. Ishikawa has been a marginal Giant until this postseason. He was on the 2010 championship team, but was released after the season and ended up getting his World Series ring in jeans the following April since he was no longer a part of the team. A first baseman by trade, he eventually made his way back to San Francisco and even into the starting lineup when Morse's injury created an opening in leftfield. "The road I've taken, you never would have guessed that it would end up here, the way it did tonight," he said.

Ishikawa ended things as dramatically as you can end things with his game-winning bomb. He fired his helmet to the ground in celebration as he came down the third base line and disappeared into a sea of teammates as he reached the plate. "I don't remember touching third," Ishikawa said. "I don't remember touching home. The last thing I remember was being thrown down with my jersey ripped off and then finally I was just so out of breath from yelling and screaming and I had to have guys help me stand back up to finish celebrating."

If there's one thing the Giants know how to do by now, it's celebrate. "Deliriously happy," rightfielder Hunter Pence said in the raucous, champagne-soaked clubhouse. "Thrilling," said Posey. "Amazing," said Madison Bumgarner, the Giants' ace who gave them eight strong innings in his duel with the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright.

ishikawa celebration in line

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The Giants do this sort of thing with such regularity that there is a tendency to chalk their success up to something mystical, to some every-other-year gift from the baseball gods. "Everybody thinks we're lucky," Bumgarner said. "It ain't luck." He's right; that's a simplistic explanation. The Giants pitch well, they catch the ball, they run the bases with daring and intelligence, and they keep their mistakes to a minimum. When a team does all those things, their opponents will usually crack eventually, and that's what the Cardinals did.

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San Francisco was consistently better in the big moments. The Cardinals were valiant, but in the last three games of the series, all Giants wins, they were the ones who blinked every time. There was reliever Randy Choate's wild throw that handed the Giants the Game 3 win. There were first baseman Matt Adams' defensive misplays in the seventh inning of Game 4, which allowed the Giants to piece together the winning rally. And in Game 5 there was a critical decision by Cardinals manager Mike Matheny that proved to be St. Louis' undoing.

After Wainwright had allowed just two runs in seven innings, Matheny pulled him and sent Neshek, his regular set-up man, out to start the eighth with a 3-2 lead. This despite the fact Wainwright had retired his last 10 batters, six of them on strikeouts, and had thrown only 97 pitches. Wainwright has struggled with a balky elbow in the postseason, but appeared to be getting stronger. Still, he tried to defend Matheny afterward. "I was running low on gas," Wainwright said. "I think he made the right call." It was a curious move on Matheny's part, and it backfired when Neshek gave up the homer to the first batter he faced, Morse.

That decision devastated the Cards. Matheny's next move doomed them. He chose Wacha to pitch the ninth, even though Wacha, normally a starter, had not pitched since Sept. 26 because of a stress reaction in his shoulder. Wacha had also warmed up twice earlier without getting into the game. In essence, Matheny made a young pitcher go through a totally unfamiliar routine before putting him on the mound with the season on the line. "I realize I put him in a real tough spot," Matheny said. "Just a tough spot to be in. Not the spot we wanted him to be in."

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That's what the Giants do. They manipulate opponents into spots they don't want to be in. That has been part of the secret to manager Bruce Bochy's success, and Bochy has also shown a willingness to deviate from his regular-season script, which many managers, Matheny included, might do well to emulate. In the top of the ninth, Bochy pulled his closer, Santiago Casilla, with two outs and two runners on, and sent out lefty Jeremy Affeldt to face lefthanded pinch hitter Oscar Taveras. Affeldt got Taveras to tap back to the mound and the scare was over, setting the stage for Ishikawa's heroics.

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Afterward, in the middle of the clubhouse din, the Giants gathered with champagne and beer bottles in hand and goggles safely in place. First they gave the floor to pitcher Tim Hudson, a 16-year veteran who will now pitch in his first World Series. "I've been waiting a long time for this," Hudson yelled over the blaring music. "I came to San Francisco for this, because I knew the kind of team this is. I knew the kind of things that happen here."

Then it was the silver-tongued Pence's turn, and he turned his teammates' attention to the equally charmed Royals. "We're going to Kansas City. Saddle it up," Pence shouted. "We're burning it down!"

And with that, everyone yelled in agreement and the champagne showers began again. The Royals, undefeated in the postseason, will be formidable opponents. But on this night, like so many October nights these past few years, it seemed that nothing and no one could stop the Giants.