Commentary

One Giant World Series feat

San Francisco went from the brink of elimination to its second title in three years

Updated: October 29, 2012, 3:04 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Three weeks ago, it seemed impossible. A week-and-a-half ago, it seemed unimaginable.

But after what the San Francisco Giants accomplished on a frigid Sunday night in October, maybe we should vow never to use those words again in sports.

They should have been swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Division Series. They were down to their last breath three games in a row in the NLCS. But somehow, some way, they kept on breathing. Somehow, some way, they kept on playing.

And then there they were Sunday, as the clock ticked toward midnight in a ballpark 2,400 miles from home, making the impossible turn possible one last time:

The living legend that was Marco Scutaro drove in one more game-turning run.

The emergency closer, Sergio Romo, finished off a three-up, three-down, three-strikeout 10th inning by punching out the Triple Crown winner -- a fellow named Miguel Cabrera.

And finally, there were no more unlikely baseball games for this team to win. The San Francisco Giants had won this World Series, swept this World Series, survived one last, crazy extra-inning baseball game to finish off this World Series.

But even when it was over, even as "Giants 4, Tigers 3" was flashing on the mammoth scoreboard behind them, even as Romo was leaping into the arms of Buster Posey and pandemonium was erupting all over the infield, the men who had pulled off this miracle couldn't help it. They were still asking themselves: "What just happened?" And who could blame them?

From the precipice of getting swept by the Cincinnati Reds and winning no games in this postseason to sweeping the World Series? Who could have seen that coming? Not even the men wearing those uniforms.

"If you had told me that then, I couldn't believe it," outfielder Gregor Blanco was saying, as the Mumm Napa Brut Prestige sprayed around him on this unforgettable night. "Nobody here would believe it. But we did it."

Oh, they did it, all right. And when you step back and allow yourself to digest what they just accomplished, you realize this one will be reverberating through time for many, many years. Here's why:

• The Giants trailed St. Louis Cardinals 3-1 in the NLCS -- and never lost again. They were the first National League team ever to sweep a World Series after fighting off at least three straight elimination games in the LCS. And they joined the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox as the only teams ever to do that in either league.

• Add in the division series, and these Giants won a total of six elimination games on the way to winning this World Series. Only one other team in history ever did that: the 1985 Kansas City Royals.

• This makes two World Series these Giants have won in the past three seasons. And that, too, is a feat for the ages. Over the past 90 years, only three other National League franchises have pulled that off: the 1975-76 edition of the Big Red Machine, the 1963-65 Dodgers and the 1942-44 Cardinals.

• This team now has won six consecutive postseason series since 2010. And only two other franchises have done that in a three-year period during the division-play era:  the 1998-2000 Yankees (nine in a row) and the 1972-74 Athletics (six in a row).

• Finally, we should remember that merely to sweep a World Series under any circumstances is special. Only four other NL teams have done that in the past 90 years, too: the 1990 Reds, 1976 Reds, 1963 Dodgers and 1954 Giants.

[+] EnlargeBuster Posey
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesBuster Posey was relaitvely quiet this October, but he had a couple of big homers, including one in Game 4.

"This team's awesome, man," said reliever Jeremy Affeldt, as the magnitude of this night began to sink in. "This team's incredible. The first time we won [in 2010], we were able to bring a World Series to San Francisco, and everyone on that team was part of history. Now this team was able to win a second time, to be the fourth team in 90 years or whatever it was to win two of them in three years. And I just feel so fortunate to be a part of a team that makes history like this. It's been an amazing run."

Amazing? Heck, how about unprecedented? No team ever took a path to the parade floats quite like the journey this team took.

"Comeback" doesn't describe it. "Reincarnation" is more like it.

Think back to the insane afternoon and evening of Oct. 9 in Cincinnati. These Giants trailed, two games to none, in a division series in which a third loss would have sent them home. And then, with their entire season on the line, they picked THAT night to get no-hit into the sixth inning, to get one hit in the first nine innings and to strike out 16 times altogether -- and they WON. In extra innings. On an unearned run.

That was how this wild ride began. Think about it. Did you really think that team was going to wind up sweeping the World Series less than three weeks later? If you did, you need to apply for a job with the Psychics Hotline immediately.

"Unbelievable," said this team's center fielder and leadoff man, Angel Pagan. "That was a tough situation. But we understood it was a tough situation. And we weren't ready to go home."

And once they won that one, they were off. Hunter Pence became their favorite motivational speaker. Ryan Theriot talked them into throwing quite the bizarre assortment of inanimate objects around the dugout. And there was no stopping them. Words were flying. Sunflower seeds were flying. And the Giants were off and flying.

They won Games 3, 4 and 5 in Cincinnati. Then off they headed to the NLCS, only to fall behind three games to one in that series and find themselves having to leave their fate in the hands of the reclamation project known as Barry Zito.

One shocking 5-0 win, and one worldwide Twitter hashtag phenomenon (#RallyZito) later, life for this team would never be the same. And life in San Francisco for Barry Zito would never be the same.

"Most special day of my pitching career to this point, for sure," Zito would say Sunday, amid the din of this victory party, 10 mind-warping days later. "The World Series was an incredible honor to pitch and start. But when your back is so far against the wall and you're going against a lineup like St. Louis in their home yard, that's nuts. So many things were against us as a team. They had all the momentum. It was just surreal."

Starting that night, they would outscore the Cardinals and Tigers by a combined score of 36-7. Their pitching staff would compile a 0.98 ERA over the rest of the postseason. Their starters would give up a TOTAL of five runs in their next seven starts -- as many as Justin Verlander allowed just in the first four innings of Game 1.

[+] EnlargeRyan Theriot
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesRyan Theriot, the unlikely DH in Game 4, scored the winning run.

And it would be another 56 innings before the Giants trailed again, at any point in any game of any series. That was the second-longest streak of its kind, within a single postseason, in the history of October baseball. Only the 2007 Red Sox (60 innings) had a longer streak.

But when Miguel Cabrera lofted a two-run, fourth-inning homer into the right-field jet stream Sunday to give the Tigers a 2-1 lead, it was more than just the end of that streak. You could see the Giants' magical postseason flashing before their eyes.

A loss would have meant having to face Verlander again in Game 5. A loss also could have meant leaving their fate in the hands of the weather gods, and a way-too-ominous forecast over the next three days. So while it would only have been one loss, it would have been a defeat with the potential to throw this entire World Series into chaos.

"If this game didn't go the right way, we had a chance to be here a while," said team president Larry Baer. "And when you're playing so well, you hate to see games rained out and slow the momentum. So the forecast was a real, compelling reason why we wanted to try to [win] this one, because that's a good team. And if they get rolling, who knows what could happen?"

What he didn't know, though, was that, hours earlier, his players had met in the visitors clubhouse at Comerica Park to talk over what was at stake. And what they told each other was: We need to win this thing right now. Today.

"We talked about it quite a bit," said the man who would score the winning run in this game, DH du jour Theriot. "We said, 'We have to take the same mentality we've had throughout this postseason. We have to win today. If we don't win today, we've got Verlander and then who knows what, and it just does not set up real good for us. And we don't want to give them a chance to do what we did.' We knew it could be done because we'd already done it. So we didn't want to give them an opportunity."

Before Cabrera's home run, an incredible 234 consecutive Giants hitters had gone to the plate over seven games without ever facing the pressure of having to erase somebody else's lead. But that all changed when Cabrera's typhoon-ball left the yard, giving Detroit its first lead of this World Series. It didn't last long.

Only nine batters later, Posey pierced a hole in the October breeze, hooking a stunning two-run home run around the left-field foul pole. And the Giants were back on top 3-2, thanks to a blast that made this the first game in World Series history in which both leagues' batting champs hit a long ball.

Then, however, another gale-aided home run, by Delmon Young, would tie it in the bottom of the sixth. And the drama thickened.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Affeldt
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesJeremy Affeldt was lights out in Game 4 -- and the rest of October.

Affeldt would stalk out of the Giants' bullpen to strike out Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Young with a man on first in the eighth. Phil Coke would match those K's by whiffing Pence, Brandon Belt and Blanco in the ninth.

But in the Giants' dugout, the mantra remained the same: Win today.

"We've seen the weirdest things happen in this postseason," Affeldt said. "And we were in the middle of all of them. So we knew we had to act like, in every game, the Series was on the line. And tonight was like the whole postseason. They came back on us. We came back on them. They came back on us again. But our mentality never changed. We played like we HAD to win this game."

And so, in the top of the 10th, they did what they've been doing all month: They found a way.

Before Theriot stepped to the plate to lead off the inning, Coke had faced seven hitters in this World Series -- and had struck out every one of them. No pitcher had ever struck out seven hitters in a row in any World Series ever played. But Theriot didn't know that. And didn't want to know that.

What he knew, he said, was that he wanted no part of Coke's put-'em-away breaking ball. So he looked for a fastball up, slapped it into right field and got himself in position to score the most important run of his career.

With one out and Theriot on second after a Brandon Crawford sac bunt, Pagan thought he was about to become the hero -- only to have Coke punch him out on a killer 1-and-2 breaking ball. But "after he struck me out," Pagan said, "I knew who was coming to the plate."

And that was Mr. October himself, Scutaro, a guy who seemed as if he'd been doing everything right since the day in late July that the Giants traded for him.

"I was just praying to God that he could pick me up," Pagan said. "But I didn't have any doubt in my mind that he could do it. He loves to be in those types of situations. And look at him. He came through. Again."

Scutaro would work the count to 3-and-1, as a steady drizzle dropped from the heavens and the noise inside Comerica Park began to swell. As Coke stared in for the sign, Scutaro tapped his bat against his spikes, wiped the raindrops off his bat and wriggled back into the box.

Coke rocked and fired. Scutaro saw a letter-high fastball, on the outside corner, heading his way and let his bat fly one last time. He stroked it into short center. And as that baseball floated through the sky, Theriot knew what he had to do.

"My first thought was: 'GO,'" Theriot said, with a laugh. "I said, 'They're not stopping you, so just go.' The second it left his bat, I wanted to be halfway to third already, and not let anybody stop me."

At that point, there wasn't a third-base coach, a middle linebacker or an 98-foot-high brick wall on Earth that could have stopped him. So he roared around third, whooshed across home plate and hopped to one knee, pumping both fists and screaming into the night.

"Ecstatic. Just total excitement. I mean, whew," Theriot would say, still breathless at the thought of it, an hour later. "Everything just kind of culminated there at that one moment. Just amazing. I don't even remember what I was screaming. But I was definitely screaming something."

This, friends, was Giants baseball. They're only the fifth team in history to win a World Series after a season in which they finished last in the major leagues in home runs. But we bet they lead the universe in 5-foot-10 guys singling in 5-foot-11 guys after a single and a bunt -- proof once again that not all Giants have to be, well, giants.

"In stature, no," Theriot said. "But in will and desire, yeah, I would probably say we are Giants."

And now there's one more thing you can say they are:

Champions.

For the second time in three years.

There will be those who rush to call a team that does that a dynasty. There will be those who look at the outside-the-box way these Giants go about it and beg to differ. But you know what? The men who just climbed once again to the top of this mountain don't care what you call them. And why should they?

"I don't know if it's a dynasty," said Affeldt. "I just know we've been part of something amazing."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com