- Wayne Drehs
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CINCINNATI -- The pungent smell of champagne filled the air the second the clubhouse doors opened. Around the corner, wrappers and corks covered the floor and streams of alcoholic beverages shot in every direction. All around the room, eyes were red and stinging. The moment they all had dreamed of, the moment that everyone outside this room thought was impossible, had somehow actually happened.
A mere four days earlier, the San Francisco Giants had boarded a plane in California with most everyone assuming it would be no more than a day or two until they'd be back. They'd return to their home ballpark, of course, but only to pack their bags for the winter. Not to play another baseball game.
There just wasn't any reason to believe. In two games at home this postseason, they hadn't hit. They hadn't pitched. And they looked lifeless. One more loss and it was over. No National League team had ever come back from a hole like this. Yet now, three victories later, here they were, jumping and frolicking because they had taken one step closer to the ultimate end-of-season goal.
It hadn't been easy. An extra-inning win in Game 3, thanks to a handful of Cincinnati Reds miscues. A five-run win in Game 4, thanks to dominating relief from their one-time ace. And then on this day, jumping out to a 6-0 lead in the fifth inning only to have the Reds bring the tying run to the plate in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings and the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.
It would all end with some 40,000 Reds fans on their feet, waving their rally towels, screaming as loud as they possibly could and then hanging their heads as 17-year major league veteran Scott Rolen swung, missed and strike three sailed into the glove of San Francisco catcher Buster Posey.
Giants 6, Reds 4.
"I just can't put it into words," Giants outfielder Angel Pagan said, his voice growing more and more hoarse with each word. "It's just perfect. It's the way it was meant to be. This team is so close. We're like brothers. We play for each other. We lift each other. And that's why we were able to do this. I just can't believe it."
Baseball is and always will be a game of numbers. It's the one sport where every pitch, every swing, every fast-twitch moment is scrutinized, analyzed and dissected with the goal of better understanding what's happened in the past while trying to figure out what might happen in the future. It's a game built on execution and precision. Not emotion. The season is long. Get too high -- or too low -- and failure is likely to follow. But the story of how the Giants turned this series around centers on emotion and playing with a purpose.
Oh sure, timely hitting, executing your pitches and stellar defense help, too. But this was more than that.
On Tuesday night, when San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy gathered his players around him in the clubhouse before batting practice, he just wanted to give them hope. Sure, no National League team had ever come back from an 0-2 deficit since division play began in 1995. No team had ever won three straight on the road to climb out of an 0-2 hole. And the Reds hadn't lost three games in a row at home all season.
But Bochy's job was to inspire. So he implored the 25 men staring back at him in San Francisco jerseys to ignore the numbers and forget the odds. He mentioned coach Tim Flannery, a role player on the '84 San Diego Padres team that came back from an 0-2 deficit to beat the Cubs 3-2 in that year's National League Championship Series. He told the biblical story of Gideon, who was outnumbered and outmanned but managed to defeat the Midianites using a trumpet, a jar and a torch.
"And that's when Hunter got up," Flannery said.
Hunter, of course, is San Francisco outfielder Hunter Pence, who as of that exact moment had spent just 70 days as a member of the Giants organization. He's a player known for the awkward way in which he does just about everything on a baseball field, from the way he hikes his pants up to his knees to the one-of-a-kind choking-up, hunched-over approach he has at the plate. On Thursday he took batting practice with holes visible in his socks.
On the ride to the ballpark on Tuesday, Pence had heard a few veterans chatting that someone, anyone, needed to step up and say something to inspire the team. He hadn't had a hit in the series. But as Bochy finished his talk about torches and trumpets, he asked if anyone had anything they wanted to say.
Pence stepped forward. He hadn't thought about what to say or run the moment through in his head. He just stood up and started talking, louder, louder and then louder still.
He spoke about wanting to play another day with the men in that room. He yelled about never having this much fun before in baseball and not wanting it to stop. He urged his teammates not to give in and to play for each other. The words resonated with everyone in the room. And before long, everyone was screaming, yelling and high-fiving one another.
"I hadn't seen him talk a whole lot," reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. "His eyes bead out of his head, he has a real interesting swing. But he's a fired-up guy, an amped guy and when he started talking and pacing and getting louder and louder and louder it was like, 'This is going to get loud. And it's going to be awesome.'
"It was one of those, 'Don't look 'em in the eye or he'll head-butt you.' He started slamming into stuff and yelling at us. I'm not a rah-rah guy, but I was high-fiving him too. I was clapping. It was awesome."
When they write the story of the 2012 San Francisco Giants, this is the moment they will talk about. It all seems too simple. Too ideal. This notion that some guy who had been on the team for a little over two months could light the spark that would turn the season around and help San Francisco make National League history. But to a man, the Giants players insist that's exactly what happened.
"Without him and his want and his willpower I'm not sure we would have done this," Posey said. "He rallied us. He was our rock that Game 3 and he wouldn't let anybody stop believing."
Pence claims he doesn't remember the specifics of what was said. He just wanted the Giants to play together as a team, have fun and get after it.
"The first two games happened really quick and it was just like, 'Splash, you're down 0-2,'" Pence said. "The Reds were playing so good. We just needed to unite. It was a tough situation we were facing. And I don't know, everybody might have been trying to do too much, overthinking everything. That speech relaxed me. And I don't know what it did for everybody else. I hope it helped."
Without Pence, of course the Giants were going to play hard. Every team plays hard, until the final out and all that. The Reds battled until their last strike. But Pence gave his teammates something to think about, an inspiration to dig even deeper and try to believe when no one else thought they should.
"He helped give us the right mentality," Affeldt said.
"He reminded us why this is so important, how your team is what you play for," Pagan added.
It continued in Games 4 and 5, with Pence gathering his teammates in the dugout, and in Drew Brees-like fashion, reminding them of the core of that original message. Play for each other. Leave nothing to chance.
"He gets everybody together, screams at them and then tells them to look into each other's eyes," Flannery said. "Today's message was simple: 'Let's make history.'"
After it was finally over, after Posey's grand slam broke the game open in the fifth and the Giants' bullpen held on in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth, the first three players Flannery noticed celebrating in the clubhouse were Pence, second baseman Marco Scutaro and Pagan. It was Pagan's diving catch in the bottom of the eighth that ended one of the Reds' scoring threats.
"The first thing they did when they got in here, Scutaro, Hunter and Angel got in the corner and were like, 'We get to see each other tomorrow,'" Flannery said. "These guys just really love each other."
In the end, there will be more flights and more games for the San Francisco Giants. Somehow, someway, their season is not over. But now the question is where do they go from here. Literally. With the Washington Nationals beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the other division series in the bottom of the ninth, the Giants' plan was to stay in Cincinnati another day -- if not two -- to determine where they will open the NLCS. Should the Cardinals win, they will head home to San Francisco. If the Nationals win, the Giants will head to Washington. It's not like they really care at this point.
"Every team you're on is special. Every team you play for is different," Pence said, his hair soaked with champagne. "Right now, we're loving playing baseball. We play hard. We play for each other. And we just don't want it to stop."
In improbable fashion, the Giants won three straight games in Cincinnati to advance to the NLCS.