Almost every team who qualified for the MLB Postseason this year did so with the help of an out-of-nowhere, breakout star. The Baltimore Orioles had Steve Pearce, whom even they released in April, but who ended up hitting 21 home runs and steadying the heart of the batting order as the team charged to the AL East title. The Los Angeles Dodgers had Justin Turner, a non-tendered former New York Met whom they scooped off the winter scrap heap, and who hit .340 as a utility man and lefty-masher for them. The Pittsburgh Pirates nearly saw Josh Harrison, a throw-in in a 2009 trade and previously a fringe-level bench player, win the batting title as their starting third baseman. Wade Davis brought his ERA from 5.32 to 1.00 for the Kansas City Royals by moving to the bullpen again. J.D. Martinez, released by Houston (themselves the worst team in baseball for three straight seasons) just before the season, became the third slugging stud the Detroit Tigers needed to catalyze their offense.

There really hadn’t been anyone like that for the San Francisco Giants. Yusmeiro Petit emerged as a major weapon for the pitching staff, but the team couldn’t quite decide how to use him, and some of his effectiveness was swallowed by the rash of injuries that befell his fellow hurlers. What the team would have really loved, but what never quite materialized, was a truly useful extra bat, someone who could lengthen the lineup in the absence of first Angel Pagan, then Mike Morse, then both. The closest they came to truly patching the holes, at season’s end, was reclaiming an old standby, Travis Ishikawa.

Ishikawa had passed through the hands of five other organizations since he left the Giants, but after being released by the Pirates in April, he’d re-signed and accepted assignment to Triple-A Fresno. He had always been a first baseman—as he is now 30 and has shown no affinity for other positions when tried, we can safely say that he always will be a first baseman—but he gave the corner outfield spots a try in Fresno, with mixed results in about a dozen games. A Brandon Belt injury opened up some playing time at first base, and Ishikawa acquitted himself fine there, as ever. He also played eight games in the outfield, including three starts, after Belt returned. He wasn’t good out there, but he was good enough not to remove on sight, and he provided above-average offense (in a tiny sample, but never mind that) at a spot where no other Giant could offer it. He has started nine of the team’s 10 playoff games in left field, and he rewarded manager Bruce Bochy well in Game Three of the NLCS alone, with his bases-clearing first-inning double.

*   *   *

Game Five, however, gave no feeling of one likely to be left in the hands of anyone as anonymous as Ishikawa. It matched Adam Wainwright and Madison Bumgarner, and despite Wainwright’s clear elbow problems, that’s as juicy as an October pitching matchup gets. Surely, someone would dominate, and then their bullpen would either hold up or implode spectacularly, and that would be the story of Game Five.

It sort of was. The game was low-scoring into the late innings. Each man pitched well. The story, though, is less about how well they pitched, than it is about how they pitched well at all. That’s especially true of Wainwright.

To understand where Wainwright was coming from, entering this start, you have to understand the mentality and history of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Bob Gibson casts a long shadow in St. Louis. It’s not that anyone of sound mind holds today’s pitchers to the standards of Gibson (or his contemporaries); it’s just that Gibson set a tone. In nine World Series starts, Gibson pitched 81 innings. He completed eight of those nine games. Gibson was all about winning when winning was there to be done, and the Cardinals have never moved away from that fundamental philosophy. One needn’t go back to Gibson, or even John Tudor, to find an example of this. Chris Carpenter, in 2011, picked up the slack for an absent Wainwright and pitched 36 playoff innings, after throwing a complete game on the final day of the season to get them into the playoffs. Carpenter faced more batters that year, including his postseason workload, than anyone since Randy Johnson in 2001. A Cardinals ace in October must not only take the ball, but take it with grim purpose, even if doing so means pain, and even if doing so is a sacrifice of one’s arm for the good of the team.

That might have nothing to do with Wainwright’s repeated insistence that he is healthy, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. It might mean nothing to him. I suspect, however, that it influenced him. Wainwright long looked up to Carpenter, and is a devout enough member of the Cardinals organization to know its history, especially Gibson’s history. He’s also blessed and burdened, as most great athletes are, with immense pride, and that might mean refusing to excuse patches of poor performance, and it might mean taking the responsibility of pitching a big game even when one knows he isn’t up to the task, at least not in full.

Thus, Wainwright took the mound Thursday night, without his best stuff or his full health, but with more than most people have on their best night.

He wasn’t better than Bumgarner, though. Madison Bumgarner averaged just over 92 miles per hour on his fastball in 2014, a career-best mark. On Thursday night, he averaged an even 94 MPH, a boost in velocity that widened his margin for error and made it even harder to make firm contact against him. In his first two innings, Bumgarner threw 20 pitches. Eighteen of them were strikes. The Cardinals notched two hits in the first frame, and Bumgarner was saved on a line drive with both men on when it turned into a double play. Clearly, San Francisco’s ace was in attack mode, but the Cardinals are a tough team to attack. They have a number of hitters who specialize in squaring up any pitch in the strike zone. Bumgarner looked great, but had his hands full nonetheless.

Wainwright started just as aggressively. He threw 39 pitches through the first three innings, 21 of them fastballs, and he, too, had more velocity than usual on his heater. Notably, though, his cutter was not there for him. Wainwright had admitted, days before, that throwing the cutter caused elbow discomfort, and specifically, that it was harder to throw that pitch than to throw his curve while dealing with the elbow soreness.

To jump ahead just a bit in our story, here are the breakdowns of Wainwright’s pitch usage for the full season, and on Thursday night, side-by-side:

Adam Wainwright, Usage Comparison

Pitch Type Percentage of Total Pitches, 2014 Season Percentage of Total Pitches, Thurs., Oct. 16, 2014
Four-seam Fastball 17.6% 37.1%
Cutter 29.5% 13.4%
Curveball 27.8% 35.1%
Sinker 22.4% 12.4%
Changeup 1.7% 2.1%

The cutter would not be part of Wainwright’s game plan most of the night, because it was too ineffective. Of the 13 he did throw, eight went for balls. The Giants swung at four. One made contact. It was Joe Panik, in the third inning, and Panik turned on that cutter, yanking it out of the park for two Giants runs.

By then, though, the Cardinals had given Wainwright some breathing room, and they would soon give him more. Bumgarner lost the plate in the third inning, just to one batter, and put Tony Cruz on base. Wainwright bunted Cruz to second, at which point Bumgarner issued his second walk, to Matt Carpenter. This time, though, he didn’t lose command; he actively chose to keep piling breaking balls at Carpenter’s feet. Carpenter fouled off the good pitches and laid off the bad ones, and trotted to first. Bumgarner seemed unfazed.

It was then that Bumgarner made one of his two mistakes all night. With two on and one out, he wanted to get ahead, and clearly, he didn’t fear Jon Jay. Therefore, he threw a first-pitch cutter that had a whole lot of the plate.

Against many hitters, that still might have been an effective pitch. It would have gotten well out on the end of the bat of any hitter looking to pull the ball. Jay, though, had exactly what he wanted: a chance to punch yet another ball sharply to left field. Jay was 14-for-29 in the playoffs, doing most of his damage going the other way with line drives and ground balls. He had not yet cracked an extra-base hit, though, when he got that elevated cutter and drove it to left-center field.

He still wouldn’t have had any, with most any other fielder in left field. The play didn’t require any skill—only the experience of fielding fly balls, to inform one that the ball would carry and slice back toward them. Travis Ishikawa didn’t have that. He took too shallow a route, then compounded the problem by overrunning the ball toward center field. It cleared his head by five feet and bounced to the wall. Cruz scored to give the Cardinals a 1-0 lead.

Then, after Panik’s homer, the Cardinals got to Bumgarner twice in the top of the fourth. Matt Adams led off the inning, and with two strikes on him, Bumgarner tried a curveball, knee-high on the outer half of the plate. It was a really good pitch, actually, other than that it didn’t appear to be executed with any special conviction. If it had been, Bumgarner might have thrown it a bit more outside, forcing Adams to adjust and go the other way. The pitch he actually threw didn’t do that, and Adams absolutely punished the tiny error. He pulled the ball for a home run, tying the game, and given the energy that had surrounded his two previous postseason homers, it felt like a game-changer. The Cardinals dugout went slightly berserk.

Bumgarner got the next two men, but then, he made his second mistake. It was a wandering cutter that failed to get in on Tony Cruz, and Cruz spun on it, sending a line drive into the left-field seats. The Cards suddenly led 3-2, and Bumgarner was pitching in bad luck while Wainwright was finding a rhythm. The series was not over yet, after all.

Something was different when Wainwright took the mound in the fourth frame, though. He was less trusting of all of his hard stuff. He would throw 24 pitches to get his next three outs, and 11 of them were curves. The Giants put Wainwright on the ropes with a walk and a single to lead the inning. Then Brandon Belt tagged a ball, put his barrel directly on it, sent a line drive screaming through the infield. Alas, it was caught, and the Cardinals doubled off Pablo Sandoval, the lead runner. It was close at second base, but just like that, two were out. Wainwright walked another, though, and had to fan Brandon Crawford to escape. Suddenly, the curveball seemed to be the only pitch Wainwright trusted, and it seemed he was about to break down.

The opposite happened.

Wainwright and Bumgarner each found a groove, beginning in the fifth inning, and each would ride it until he left the game. Wainwright was especially dominant. He retired the side in order in the fifth, sixth and seventh, notching five of his seven total strikeouts during those three innings. He threw 34 pitches, 15 more of them curveballs. He seemed to be just missing Giants’ bats, baffling them by pitching off his breaking ball, dodging bullets, but he did it so well that it never felt like he was in trouble. In reality, of course, he was in trouble the whole time. A pitcher whose arsenal diminishes due to discomfort throwing a certain offering always is. Wainwright pitched with guile, intelligence and intensity those last few innings. He also got lucky that the Giants were unable to adjust to his modified approach.

Bumgarner cruised in a more classic way. From the Cruz home run onward, he kept the ball more on the edges of the strike zone, maintaining the aggressiveness afforded by his sharp stuff but better respecting the Cards’ eagerness to attack pitches in the middle of the plate. His velocity never faltered, his pitch selection didn’t shift, he simply pounded the zone with pitches his opponents could not handle. With Jay at bat in the eighth, Bumgarner even made sure to show him something he hadn’t seen in the two earlier at-bats where Jay had hit him, dropping down sidearm in a 2-2 count.

When the dust settled, it was 13 straight outs for Bumgarner, who threw 72 strikes on 98 pitches. He had gotten the Giants through eight innings, one swing away from a tied game, despite the defensive gaffe from Ishikawa and despite the unforgiving treatment of his minor mistakes by Adams and Cruz. Of course, the game had fallen somewhat into stasis at that point. As Mike Morse stood in the on-deck circle awaiting the chance to lead off the bottom of the eighth, three full innings had been played without a man reaching base. The hour grew late, and Pat Neshek was in to set up the Cardinals for a chance to get back to St. Louis.

Morse was a strange fit for the Giants, who signed him as a free agent over the winter. Morse’s defining characteristic, the single thing he does better than almost anyone in baseball, is his opposite-field power. He’s a monster in this regard. A giant of a man, Morse has a long-armed, leveraged swing that generates long fly balls to right-center field, with plenty of backspin. It’s one of the most durable skills a batter can have, this feel for punishing the ball to the opposite field, but AT&T Park makes it all but useless. Tom Verducci said, on the FOX broadcast, that there have been only 16 home runs by right-handed batters to right field since the park opened, 15 seasons ago. That seems impossible, but if it may be true of any park, this would be the one. By my count, Morse did manage two opposite-field bombs at home, which is impressive (mind-blowingly so, if Verducci’s figure is accurate), but his effectiveness took a hit from the choice to come to San Francisco.

Now, he was to bat for the fourth time in the NLCS, having just gotten back onto the roster after an injury cost him September and the first part of October. Everyone in the park knew he would be looking to hit a home run, and thanks to the limitations of the ballpark, everyone knew he would be trying to pull the ball.

It didn’t matter. On a 1-1 count, Morse got a ball right in his wheelhouse, turned on it, and had both arms in the air before he finished his swing—or so it seemed. The game was tied; the stasis was broken, never to be restored.

Santiago Casilla pitched the top of the ninth for San Francisco. He was not quite himself; the Cardinals put runners on with a walk and a single, with one out, bringing Kolten Wong to the plate.

Wong had the walk-off home run that won Game Two for St. Louis, and another homer in Game Four that solidified him as a central figure in the story of the series. He tapped into significantly more power than he had once had, and more than one would ever suspect from his short, slight frame, when he made some changes in his setup early in the season. He opened his stance slightly, deepened his crouch somewhat and brought his hands way down, just below his chest. It all allowed him to address the ball more violently, keeping his bat in the strike zone as long but increasing the speed of the stroke. The adjustments have allowed Wong to impact the ball the way more traditional power hitters do, hitting it hard on all trajectories and to all fields.

He smacked a ground ball to the left side this time, and it looked, for just a moment, like a go-ahead single. Pablo Sandoval dove to his left, but could only deflect the ball off the end of his glove. Strikingly, it lost no speed; it just changed direction. It still seemed destined for the outfield, but Brandon Crawford had never broken stride going to his right, and Sandoval’s deflection was enough to push the ball back to him. Crawford snagged the ball cleanly and got a force out at second base. The air went out of the Cardinal rally right then. A walk later, Jeremy Affeldt came on and retired pinch-hitter Oscar Taveras on a groundout. The bullpen had held fast.

What came next was what the Postseason had been diligently preparing us for all along. To open the bottom of the ninth, Michael Wacha trotted in from the Cardinals bullpen. Wacha, a starter forced into relief by a shoulder injury that plagued him all season, hadn’t pitched to live batters since Sept. 26. He could not have been called upon in a higher-leverage situation, nor with a much tougher task before him: Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt were due up.

St. Louis manager Mike Matheny made a miserable decision by calling upon Wacha. He put his player in a position to fail, at a time when failure would follow him all the way through the offseason. He brought him into a situation to which he is not accustomed, on an irregular and troublesome rest schedule. Royals manager Ned Yost did (almost) precisely the same thing earlier this month—twice.

In the Wild Card Game, which the Royals took from the Athletics, Kansas City held a 3-2 lead in the top of the sixth inning. Starter James Shields had already allowed a home run to Brandon Moss, who was due up with two runners on base. Yost relieved Shields—the right choice—by calling upon Yordano Ventura—the wrong one. Ventura was on just one day of rest, a starter on a throw day, and he hadn’t appeared as a reliever but once all season. He now entered with men on base, and no time to find a rhythm. Promptly, he gave up a home run to Moss, nearly costing Kansas City their season. Yost chose Ventura because it was the sixth inning, and his three-headed monster of excellent relief arms (Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland) usually don’t come in until the seventh.

Yost repeated his mistake in Game One of the ALDS against the Angels, when he brought in Danny Duffy to pitch the 10th inning. Duffy is a starter who’s been buried in the Kansas City bullpen, seasonal fatigue leaving him ineffective and vulnerable to injury. Yost asked him to pitch on the road, in a spot where any run scored would cost the Royals the ball game, because he refused to use closer Greg Holland in a tied game. Duffy, however, pitched well, striking out one and allowing one hit, and he took the win when the Royals scored in the top of the 11th.

Matheny’s choice more closely resembled the Duffy call, but right away, it had the feel of the Ventura one. Sandoval singled, hard, to right field. Hunter Pence flied out, but then Wacha walked Belt. There were two on and one out, for Travis Ishikawa.

The grass at AT&T Park is arresting to the eye. It’s a deeper green than the grass most places, and this stands out because the park is one of a very few—sometimes there are no others at all—that doesn’t feature mowed patterns in the outfield. It’s unbroken green out there. Ishikawa had struggled in his introduction to that grass, struggled to find a home there. He had nearly given the game away, but now he had a chance to win it. After nearly being swallowed in the untextured abyss of the minor-league veteran scrap heap, Ishikawa had made it back.

Ball one.

Wacha couldn’t locate his fastball, let alone find the touch and feel of the changeup that made him the NLCS MVP last year. He just had to survive, but doing so almost surely would mean getting lucky, another ball hit hard at someone and a runner slightly late getting back to the bag, the way Bumgarner and Wainwright had escaped their tightest jams of the night. Randy Choate was up in the Cardinals bullpen, so any m-ishit, any chopper or pop-up or freeze from Ishikawa would allow Matheny to get Choate in to face Crawford. Wacha didn’t have it.

Ball two.

Ishikawa could lock in on the pitch he wanted, now. Keyhole Wacha. Make him throw one middle-middle. That deep green beckoned. Almost anything would win the game, any hit to the outfield. Joaquin Arias, plenty fast, had pinch-run for Sandoval, and paced off second. Maybe the things most charming about that outfield, that untextured abyss, is the stark way things stand out against it.

Crack!

Ishikawa knew it was enough right off the bat. That the ball carried into the crowd atop the wall in right field mattered not at all. It was going to at least get off the brick, so Arias would have scored easily. Several Giants met Ishikawa between second and third base, ready to tackle him, mob him, carry him away. The pennant was won. Ishikawa wouldn’t be stopped, though. This was the culmination, the reward for his perseverance, the greatest moment of his career, and his cleat marks had to find home plate. He had to finish the run.

*   *   *

In 2012, the first MLB Postseason I chronicled on Arm Side Run, it was as if baseball would not let us go. All four Division Series went the full five games that year. The ALCS turned into a Tigers romp over the Yankees, but the NLCS went the full seven games, too. The games kept coming, some of them captivating, others utterly unwatchable, as though they were being orchestrated by someone who knew we were all captive to the action, but couldn’t decide whether they loved or hated us for it. The most undimmed memory I have of that month is of the final outs in Game Seven of the NLCS, which was awful. Rain poured down, the field quickly becoming unplayable, but they played on it anyway, as Sergio Romo (the Giants’ closer, back then) tried to salt away a 9-0 lead.

It was 9-0! Yet, anyone who felt obligated to take in all of the baseball that fall had to sit and watch infielders wading from their starting positions to another small pond in order to catch pop-ups, the Cardinals shrinking into their sweatshirts until the sweatshirts were all there was, the whole thing. Nor was this an isolated incident. Five of the seven games in that series were decided by five or more runs. If the series had a theme, it was early, one-sided scoring. The whole thing was horrendously anticlimactic, especially after the Division Series round, which featured nine games in which the teams were tied or separated by a single run after seven innings, and eight decided in one side’s final at-bat. Somewhere along the way, a bubble popped, and the promise of a classic October fell flat, but the games kept parading by.

Not this year. No series in the 2014 Postseason has even reached a winner-take-all game. The American League saw sweeps in each Division Series and in the Championship Series, too. Yet, it feels not only like we’re all still lunging after baseball, trying to hang onto it as it rides wildly through the wilderness, but like the tension of this month is unbreakable.

That’s what I was thinking as I watched Game Five of the NLCS on Thursday night. That and:

“I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier.”

Here we have a line that nimbly amalgamates the two most sincere and serious themes popular music tackles, when popular music tackles themes at all: the question of the soul, or morality, or eternity; and the injustice of war. But the line itself means nothing. It’s a vapid little pun. You just chant it, and grow with it, until you’re singing it at the top of your lungs and it feels like it means all those things it almost means, but doesn’t.

The theme of the 2014 Postseason, if there is one, is in that vein: the ridiculous pretending to be sublime, or the sublime masquerading as the ridiculous in the guise of the sublime. It’s hard to recall an October where I felt less like bad bounces, bad calls, bizarre managerial choices or stone-cold fluke performances determined the outcomes. The baseball over the last fortnight has been as well-executed and crisp as any I can remember. Many Octobers consist of one team getting sloppy just a bit later than the other, and winning because of it, or of a sudden burst of dominance from a player we all know, deep down, just plain sucks. That hasn’t happened this year. Things have almost—almost, mind you—gone according to script.

Yet, the Royals and Giants will meet in a World Series no one foresaw, with fewer combined wins (177) than any two Series combatants have combined for since 1973. This will be the first World Series ever to feature two teams who won fewer than 90 games during the season. (A couple quick caveats: 1981, of course, was weird. It doesn’t count. Also, the 2006 and 1997 World Series featured teams whose combined win totals were 178, just one win better than Kansas City and San Francisco.) Maybe I’m being insufficiently critical of things like Randy Choate throwing Game Three of the NLCS away, or the pitching staff mismanagement that led to the Dodgers’ elimination, or the inability of the Orioles offense to bludgeon Jeremy Guthrie or Jason Vargas during the ALCS. I think not, though. Fate has simply burped up a strange matchup of two clubs without much demonstrated excellence on which to fall back, each of them needing to win this, in some way, to ensure their legitimacy in the game’s collective memory. That should make for wonderful baseball.

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