SAN FRANCISCO -- This is how it had to be. This is how it had to end. Didn't it?
How could a Giants-Cardinals series end any other way? How could it not come down to an epic Game 7 National League Championship Series staredown between two teams that think October is supposed to be the ultimate high-wire act?
In one corner on Monday, you will have the St. Louis Cardinals who will attempt to become the first team ever to win three winner-take-all games in the same postseason.
In the other corner, you will have the San Francisco Giants who already have won five win-or-go-home games in the past two weeks -- and will attempt to join Steve Balboni's 1985 Royals as the only teams ever to win six games like that in the same postseason.
So how could they not give us one last episode of "Survivor"? One team goes on to the World Series. The other gets voted off October Island. This is how it had to be. This is how it had to end.
But for this Game 7 to happen, it took one more October miracle by a Giants team that never seems to get tired of miracle-making.
One more time on Sunday, these Giants arrived at the ballpark knowing they had to win. And one more time, they found a way, led by their newest 36-year-old folk hero, Marco Scutaro, and their favorite former Orix Buffalo, Ryan Vogelsong.
"We just love each other," said Scutaro, after his team's 6-1 Game 6 wipeout of a Cardinals team that could have sworn it was in the driver's seat in this series 72 hours earlier. "And I want to see my team the next day."
"We've been counted out four or five times, and we keep showing up," said Vogelsong, after seven of the most spectacular innings he has ever pitched (four hits, one run and a career-high nine strikeouts). "And we'll show up again tomorrow."
If it all seems kind of familiar once they do show up, it will be because this is the precarious life these men have been living since Oct. 9, back when there were still eight teams playing. Five times since then, they've played a baseball game in which losing meant sayonara. All five times, they've won.
"I don't know if this brings out the best in us," said reliever Jeremy Affeldt, "or we just have no other option."
But whatever it is, it almost doesn't matter anymore. We always look for explanations at times like this, for stuff we have trouble comprehending. But maybe no explanation is even possible. Sometimes, in sports, stuff just happens. And now it is happening to the Giants.
After all, can we really explain the improbable saga of Ryan Vogelsong? Can we really make sense of how any man could do what he did Sunday night, after a trail that led him through 10 minor league towns, four different organizations, three sub-.500 seasons in Japan, Tommy John surgery, a desperation trip to the Venezuelan winter league at age 33 and getting released by the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs a mere 28 months ago?
That isn't a journey Justin Verlander could relate to. Let's put it that way. But it has led Ryan Vogelsong to this time, to this place, to an October stage he has been searching for all his life. So maybe, he has concluded, it was all just meant to be.
"I just think that God had a plan for me this whole time," he said Sunday night. "And it's finally gotten me to where ultimately I've wanted to be, and that's the postseason."
So on this magical night, he walked to the mound at AT&T Park and couldn't believe his eardrums. As the ballpark around him throbbed with the kind of energy, the kind of passion, the kind of earache-inducing decibel levels a man encounters very few times in life, Vogelsong couldn't help but rise to the level of the electricity that surrounded him.
"I feed off the fans in this stadium," he said. "And they were into it early. And the adrenaline is going. And it puts miles per hour on your fastball."
So there he was, a guy whose average fastball traveled less than 91 miles per hour this year, whooshing 16 smokeballs up there in the first inning, almost all of them at 93 or 94 mph. There he was, pumping third strikes past Jon Jay, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig. And as he headed for the dugout, you could feel pulses racing from San Rafael to San Jose.
"It really fuels you out there, when your pitcher is out there giving that kind of performance," Hunter Pence said later. "What he gave us is really indescribable."
It didn't seem possible that this park could get any louder than it was in the top of the first. But then, in the bottom of the first, the Giants put up a quick run on Chris Carpenter. That would be the same Chris Carpenter who has won more series-clinching postseason games in his day (three) than any National League pitcher who ever lived, with the exception of Tom Glavine and John Smoltz (who also won three). And as the Giants surged to that early lead, it was time to reach for the cotton balls.
Then came two more Vogelsong strikeouts in the top of the second. Followed by four Giants runs in the bottom of the second that would blow a hole in this game as wide as the San Andreas Fault.
One run would score on a planned play that almost never works -- the old show-bunt, pull-the-bat-back, then-hack-away trick, this one off the bat of Vogelsong, a fellow who went 5-for-55 at the plate this year, with zero RBIs. But he got a huge RBI on this one, when shortstop Pete Kozma charged, fumbled it and got nobody out.
Then two more runs would score on the latest, greatest work of bat artistry from Scutaro, who reached base three times in this game, and is now 9-for-19 since the Matt Holliday Railroad Company slammed into his hip bone in Game 2.
This time, Scutaro smoked a two-run double into the left-field corner that stretched the lead to 4-zip. But before you use the expression "breathing room" to describe what that hit gave Vogelsong, you'd better check with Vogelsong himself first.
"I was looking for the oxygen," Vogelsong said after his mad sprint home from first base on that hit.
"Couldn't breathe. Sorry, brother," Scutaro apologized.
"You can do it any time, buddy," Vogelsong replied. "I'll take it."
Oh, he took it, all right. He took it and wouldn't give it back.
It took him 16 hitters into his evening before he even gave up a hit. Seven straight innings, he kept the Cardinals' leadoff hitter off base. In six of those seven innings, he struck out at least one of the Cardinals' hitters he faced.
And as he hopped down the dugout steps into a high-five parade at the end of the seventh, to raucous chants of "Vo-gey, Vo-gey," he'd just written a whole new chapter to one of the most uplifting, most unlikely success stories in the recent history of this sport.
Ryan Vogelsong pitched his first big league game on Sept. 2, 2000. Twelve years and 95 starts later, he set a new career high in strikeouts, in the most important game he has ever pitched. Wow. Who writes these scripts?
"What a ride for him," said the man who closed this game for Vogelsong, Sergio Romo. "Ups and downs. I've said many times I'm very proud of that man. Very proud to know him. Very proud to watch him be happy on the mound and do what he does best.
"He's a great teammate. He's a great dad. So you look at everything about him; he deserves this. He's worked hard. He's been through a lot. I don't know if I'd have the strength that he's had, to even go through the things that he's been through."
But if that's the case, he'd better summon whatever strength he can muster, because Game 7 awaits. And Game 7's are not for the weak of heart or soul.
The Giants have been around for 130 seasons now. And they've never once won a Game 7. Not in New York. Not in California. Not anywhere in between. Their 0-5 record in Game 7s is the worst of any franchise in existence.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, have won 11 Game 7s -- one of them just one October ago in a World Series you won't have to think hard to recall. Their .733 winning percentage in Game 7s (11-4) is the best of all time, among teams that have played at least three of those games.
"You've got two teams in exactly the same boat," Affeldt said. "And that's as good as it gets."
But hold on. Are they really in the same boat? Uh, not if they're sailing the same seas we're looking at. By winning Games 5 and 6 after falling behind in this series, 3 games to 1, the Giants have put themselves in a position that couldn't possibly look more promising:
• Over the past 35 postseasons, 14 previous teams have won a Game 6 at home to force a Game 7. Thirteen of those 14 teams then also won Game 7. (The only exception, though, is a team that lost to none other than the Cardinals -- Carlos Beltran's 2006 Mets.)
• But remember, the Giants also had to win a Game 5 on the road just to survive to play (and win) this Game 6. And it's now been 40 years since any team in that position then lost a Game 7 at home. The last home team to lose Game 7 after winning two straight elimination games just to get to that point: Joe Morgan's 1972 Cincinnati Reds (to Dave Duncan's Oakland A's). Home teams in that spot are 4-0 since.
• And only one other team in that position has ever lost a Game 7 at home, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. That was Boomer Scott's 1967 Red Sox (to Bob Gibson's Cardinals). So that means that, in the history of baseball, teams like the Giants -- that have won Games 5 and 6 to force a Game 7 at home -- have a .714 winning percentage in those Game 7s (5-2).
So in theory, just about every star in the sky seems to have lined up to shine on the Giants. But there's only one trouble with those theories: They don't play the games. That's in the hands of the human beings. And you never know what human beings might be capable of at times like this.
"You know what, man? We don't worry about if we've won or if we've lost [these kinds of games]," Affeldt said. "I told you guys that in St. Louis. The odds, man, that's for the writers. That's for you guys to do the odds and the averages. For us, we're just going out there and trying to win every game we can. We're in the same situation we were in in Cincinnati. We're in the same situation we've been in for three days: You win or go home."
And how perfect is that? This is how it had to be. This is how it had to end. One more Game 7. Let the ultimate win-or-go-home game begin.
"We're all looking forward to it," Hunter Pence said. "All of us -- and the baseball nation."