Just after midnight Saturday morning on a moonlit runway in Cincinnati, Tim Lincecum and Pablo Sandoval stood hunched over Matt Cain's iPad on the Giants' team plane, shouting and shaking their heads in disbelief. After defeating the Reds in their division series on Thursday afternoon, San Francisco had been marooned for roughly 30 hours in the Buckeye State until the winner of the Cardinals-Nationals division series was sorted out -- and with it the site of Game 1 of the NLCS. When they boarded their charter flight in the ninth inning, the Giants -- like the rest of America -- assumed they were headed to Washington.
"Whoever made the call to stay and watch the end of that game, I give them credit," said San Francisco catcher Buster Posey. "Because I was ready to hop on the plane to D.C."
But when wives and friends began lighting up their cell phones with text messages, Cain fired up the game on his iPad to the delight of teammates who were openly rooting for the Cardinals to rally from a 6-0 deficit to pull off one of the craziest comebacks in baseball history.
"I was cheering for St. Louis," said third baseman Pablo Sandoval. "Everybody was. We were excited to go back home for home-field advantage."
San Francisco got its wish when the wild-card Cardinals defeated Washington 9-7 after a stunning two-out, four-run rally in the top of the ninth in Game 5. And on Sunday night at 8 ET in San Francisco, the Giants' Madison Bumgarner (0-1 with an 8.31 ERA in the NLDS) will face the Cardinals' Lance Lynn (1-1 with a 7.36 ERA in four relief appearances in the first round).
While the Giants are happy to be back in the bay, it's hard to fathom why any team in its right mind would want to face the cardiac Cardinals right now. The 2011 World Series champs have picked up right where they left off after last year's improbable postseason run, seemingly thrilled to battle back while down to their last strike, collectively superhuman in pressure-packed situations.
With Carlos Beltran on third base and two out in the final inning of Friday night's elimination game, Yadier Molina and David Freese each drew two-strike walks to load the bases. Daniel Descalso singled in Beltran and Adron Chambers (who had pinch-run for Molina) to tie the game at 7, and Pete Kozma singled in Freese and Descalso to give the Cards a two-run lead they would not relinquish.
Beltran, who watched every minute of St. Louis' come-from-behind antics from his living room last October before joining the team this season, says that when he got to third in the ninth he told third base coach Jose Oquendo he sensed the Cardinals were going to win. "Everyone was calm," said Beltran. "When you go through the experience before and you get the opportunity to be in that position later on, there is no panicking."
And how did the Cardinals come back from being down 6-0, a hole no team facing elimination has overcome before? "Everybody was relaxed and focused. Nobody was trying to do too much," said Beltran. "They were approaching at-bats like, 'Let me do the best I can right here and pass it off to the next guy.' It was an experience that will be with me for the rest of my life."
Of course, had the Cardinals not rallied in such dramatic fashion to knock the NL's No. 1 seed out of the postseason, the Giants would be getting all the comeback ink. After dropping the first two games of the NLDS to the Reds at home, San Francisco did something a National League team has never done before: take the final three games of a five-game series to advance. And perhaps more impressively, the Giants did it on the road.
Beltran, who played for the Giants for the final two months of last season, knows firsthand that San Francisco will try to give the Cardinals a dose of their own medicine this week. After all, the Giants have big-game experience, too, having won the World Series in 2010.
"The first couple of games that I came here we won 1-0 and 2-1 and [manager Bruce] Bochy said to me, 'Welcome to San Francisco. This is how we play here,'" said Beltran. "It seemed like we always waited until the ninth inning to come back. I was glad I don't have any heart problems because if you suffer from your heart, you can't play here in San Francisco."
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny expects the series between the past two World Series champions to be epic: "I see a knock-down, drag-out fight ahead of us."
After Bumgarner and Lynn square off in Game 1, the Giants will send Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain to the mound in Games 2 and 3, respectively, while the Cardinals will counter with Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse. Adam Wainwright will start Game 4 for St. Louis. Bochy says he has yet to make a decision between Lincecum and Barry Zito for that contest. Lincecum will be available out of the bullpen in Games 1 and 2.
After pitching out of the 'pen last October as a rookie and last week during the NLDS, Lynn will make his first career postseason start Sunday, something he says he is more comfortable with. "Starting is something I've been doing my whole life," said Lynn.
Bumgarner, who pitched brilliantly during the Giants' 2010 World Series run (2-0 with a 2.18 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings), will look to rebound from a lackluster start in the division series in which he allowed four runs in 4 2/3 innings in a loss.
For two teams that got here by refusing to lose, something will have to give eventually. But it won't surprise anyone if the American League World Series entrant is left stranded somewhere on a runway in the middle of the night waiting for one of them to finally deliver the knockout blow.