The Giant moment
Hunter Pence's crazy broken-bat double breaks open Game 7 of the NLCS
SAN FRANCISCO -- Fifty years ago, the last time a Game 7 arrived on the foggy side of San Francisco Bay, the story was a line drive that found the wrong glove at the wrong time. The great Willie McCovey could tell you all about it.
But not this time. Not on this night. Not with this edition of the San Francisco Giants.
On this night, the story was a line drive that basically refused to be caught.
This time, the story was a line drive that faked left, went right and made you think some things and some teams were meant to be.
Like this team.
There's no easy way to explain what these San Francisco Giants are doing heading to the World Series. For the second time in three years. After winning six consecutive extinction-defying elimination games in 13 days.
But a crazy, Flubber-powered line drive off the bat of Hunter Pence, on an electrified Monday evening at AT&T Park, is as good a place to start as any.
Did he hit it once? Did he hit it twice? Did he hit it three times with the same swing?
Did it follow a flight path that was pre-approved by the FAA? Did it wobble like a knuckleball? Spin like a Frisbee? Unintentionally start out in the left-turn lane and then realize it meant to turn right?
No one will ever be able to fully explain it. Not Pence, the man who hit it. Not Joe Kelly, the man who threw the pitch. Not Pete Kozma, the shortstop who couldn't catch it. Not even Sir Isaac Newton, who probably thought the law of gravity would some day apply to baseball.
But whatever happened, it was Hunter Pence's line drive on vertigo that became The Moment in a Game 7 the Giants will never forget, the first Game 7 any Giants team has ever won, in 130 seasons of playing baseball.
It was a hit that cleared the bases, ignited a five-run third inning and sent the Giants rampaging toward a 9-0 stomping of a St. Louis Cardinals team that spent the last three games of this National League Championship Series getting outscored 20-1, and wondering where that beautiful October magic went.
But that's not all. It was a hit that was also a symbol. A symbol of how the baseball gods always seem to smile on teams like this. A symbol of how this team made the impossible turn possible throughout this crazy month of October.
If you don't believe there are sometimes cosmic forces involved in the sporting universe at times like this, all we can tell you is: Watch the replay of Hunter Pence's hit a few hundred times. Then get back to us.
"That had a lot of high powers involved in that one," said the bearded philosopher himself, Brian Wilson, after watching that hit in real life.
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Uh, how high was that, he was asked?
"Above my pay grade. That's for sure," Wilson retorted.
But even a man as in tune with the powers of the cosmos as Wilson had a tough time assessing how many laws of nature that hit broke -- the law of gravity, the law of physics or both?
"I don't know," he said. "You'd have to ask Einstein. Or Newton."
Heck, might as well, because asking Pence himself wasn't much help.
He recalled the situation just fine: bases loaded, nobody out in the third inning. Giants leading 2-0. Kelly trotting in from the bullpen after Cardinals manager Mike Matheny mercifully decided it was time to gong his starter, Kyle Lohse. "Living on a Prayer" blaring across the ever-infectious stadium sound system.
Then here came Kelly's very first pitch of the day -- a 95 mph fastball, tailing in on his fists. What Pence remembers telling himself was: "Be ready for something away, but if he comes inside, stay inside the ball."
So that's all he did; he kept saying it over and over. He kept his hands inside the ball. But what happened next, he wasn't too sure about.
Bat met ball once -- and broke, just above the handle.
Then, as the barrel was separating itself from the handle, it met that ball again.
"That's a two-stroke penalty in golf. But here it's worth three steaks -- three RBIs."” -- Brian Wilson on Hunter Pence's broken-bat hit in the third inning
And, finally, just as the barrel snapped, the baseball literally rolled up this curved slab of wood and slung off the end of the bat, spinning like few baseballs had ever spun before.
Kozma broke to his right toward the shortstop hole, because that's where the baseball was heading -- for the first millisecond. But the ball itself had other plans.
It took a 15-foot right turn that had to be seen to be comprehended and somehow skidded into center field. Then the center fielder, Jon Jay, charged right on by it. And by the time all this madness had settled down, one big run two big runs make that three big runs had scored on a ball that hit the same bat three different times on the same swing.
You're kidding, right?
"That's a two-stroke penalty in golf," Wilson quipped. "But here it's worth three steaks -- three RBIs."
"Wow. That was a big hit for us," said Sergio Romo, "no matter how many times he hit it."
"It definitely had some funky spin on it," Giants bench coach Ron Wotus said. "I know it got by the shortstop. I'm not sure how."
"Hey, I've had a lot of broken-bat hits," Pence said. "But never in a Game 7."
And never, ever, one like this. Asked afterward, as he dodged champagne attacks, if he'd seen the replay, Pence said yes, he had -- on the giant video board. Asked what he thought after watching it, Pence could muster only one word: "Innnnnnn-teresting."
Well put. Until that swing of the bat, Pence had driven in only one run in this entire postseason -- on a solo homer, in an 8-3 loss. So this was the first time he'd driven in a teammate with any hit in more than three weeks -- since Sept. 30.
But if ever there was any question whether this team was riding one of those once-in-a-lifetime postseason waves, this was the moment when those questions were dispelled. Forever.
After all, what was more impossible -- a baseball hitting a bat three times on one swing or the miracles this team has been making all month?
It's hard enough to win three straight win-or-go-home games in one postseason series. But to do it two series in a row? To become the second team of all time -- joining Onix Concepcion's 1985 Kansas City Royals -- to win six consecutive win-or-else baseball games? Incredible.
There will come a time, maybe in the dead of winter, maybe as they're wrapping the Christmas presents, when it hits these men what they've just done. But on this special night of triumph, with a World Series just over the horizon, it somehow didn't seem so crazy anymore.
After all, this is Giants baseball. "Normal" wouldn't exactly describe it.
"I just think the momentum kind of shifted when we won Game 5 in St. Louis and brought it back home," shortstop Brandon Crawford said. "What was the slogan here, I think it was last year or the year before: 'There's Magic Inside'? That's how we looked at it. We knew we had a shot when we brought it back home."
Did they ever. They stomped the Cardinals 6-1 in Game 6, then just kept piling on in Game 7.
Matt Cain twirled 5 2/3 shutout innings without his best stuff. He also singled in a run, making the Giants' pitching staff the second in history (joining the 1970 Orioles') to drive in a run in three straight games in the same postseason series.
Every player in the lineup got at least one hit. Seven different players scored at least one run. And the NLCS MVP, Marco Scutaro, got three more hits, giving him an LCS-record 14 (in 28 at-bats) in one series.
Before this month, only two players in history -- Moose Skowron in 1960 and Sam Rice in 1925 -- had ever had six multihit games in one postseason series. But Marco Scutaro is now the third. Who knew?
"Just to be part of this team," Scutaro would say later, "and just being in the playoffs and having the opportunity to live this experience, for me, is unbelievable."
But the most unbelievable part of this night was yet to come.
The ninth inning of any Game 7 is always unforgettable. But especially this one. Because it wasn't just 43,000 joyous fans who were weeping. So were the heavens above.
As a late-game shower evolved into a relentless ninth-inning downpour, Giants players found themselves staring at each other, staring at the sky, trying to figure out which would come first -- the final out or a couple of middle infielders drowning.
"That just kind of summed up our whole postseason," Crawford said. "It never rains in San Francisco all season. I don't think we ever had more than a little mist the whole year. And then it just downpours on us."
"The coolest thing," Pence said, "was how the fans reacted to it. They were cheering on the downpour. I've never seen that many people who were that excited about rain coming down. It was a special moment."
It was in danger of getting slightly less special, though, when reliever Javy Lopez walked two of the first four hitters in the ninth, couldn't finish the inning and had to be relieved by Romo -- in mid-deluge.
As Romo attempted to warm up, while the grounds crew dumped dry dirt all over his mound, Crawford found himself looking around at the lake that was forming in the infield, and thinking: "Suppose somebody hits a ground ball?"
"It was really wet," Crawford said. "There was standing water all over the place. I don't know if I would have been able to make a throw to first base if someone had hit one to me."
So as Matt Holliday dug in to face Romo, with the Giants one out away from the World Series, Crawford was just about praying.
"I was hoping he would strike him out," he said. "But a popup's just as good."
And a popup is exactly what Romo got -- a popup off the bat of Holliday that soared into the soggy skies and came down, fittingly, in the glove of Marco Scutaro. And so, for the 19th time in franchise history, it was once again OK to say: "The Giants win the pennant."
Fifty Octobers ago, the last Game 7 in San Francisco had a different ending. Fifty Octobers ago, a vapor trail off the bat of Willie McCovey headed directly into the glove of Bobby Richardson. And that's how the season of the 1962 Giants would end.
But not this time. Not on this night. On this night, the biggest line drive of the game, off the bat of Hunter Pence, was so determined not to be caught, it gyrated away from every glove within 50 feet. And when it did, it connected the dots from one Game 7 to another -- and all the generations in between.
From Willie McCovey to Willie Mays. From Jack Clark to Will Clark. From Bobby Bonds to Barry Bonds. From one owner (Bob Lurie) who almost moved his team to St. Petersburg, Fla., to a new ownership group that has turned this into one of the most vibrant franchises in baseball.
"So I just think," said team president Larry Baer, an original member of that group, "that the body english on that ball was the exclamation point to what has been, for our [ownership] group, a 20-year odyssey. And if you want to go [back] 50 years, it's a 50-year odyssey of redemption."
Oh, that odyssey isn't over, of course. There's a World Series still to play. And these Giants won't be favored to win it. But just don't tell them that beating the Detroit Tigers and Justin Verlander would be impossible -- because doing the impossible is what this team does best.