In 2003, I remember the chatter about how historic it was for my team, the Chicago Cubs, to have a 3-1 lead in the NLCS only to have the then-Florida Marlins storm back and beat us in our own house. The San Francisco Giants are this year's 2003 Marlins after being down 3-1 and winning yet another elimination game to knock off the St. Louis Cardinals. This coming after staving off three "backs to the wall" games in Cincinnati earlier this postseason.
The Giants apparently have no problem rattling off three wins in a row even when they are away from home. But when the Marlins did it to my Cubs team (after we beat them in Games 2, 3 and 4), history was made.
When I look back at that history, I often think about what really changed during that series. We always look for a moment and a momentum shift that explains it all, but the players usually are surviving pitch to pitch. I know from the time we entered the race (around when I was traded to Chicago at the deadline), we were on pins and needles. Every single pitch from that time forward was a World Series pitch. We even played a five-game series against the Cardinals in September that was the most intense series I had ever imagined. It seemed like we should have had a ticker-tape parade after winning four of five, only to find out we still had a month of the regular season left to go. It was difficult to take time for perspective or history when we were obsessing about a check-swing call or watch whether our manager, Dusty Baker, might come to blows with Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa.
To sum up the 2003 NLCS, it was easy to look at Steve Bartman and see the answer to the momentum question. We were winning handily, then in a Chicago minute we were staring at the Marlins dogpile after Game 7. It all came down to this creepy foul ball to explain the shift in power. It was a clear mark in the timeline that made us go from close to far. But that was not the whole story by a long shot.
I always tell people to pay attention to what happened in Game 5.
Josh Beckett had the same swagger he had today, except he had the young arm to go with it. The Marlins had an exciting staff that matched us in the young gunslinger department. We had Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. The Marlins had Beckett and Dontrelle Willis, who was the NL Rookie of the Year that season.
In Game 5, we were coming in knowing we were one game away from taking it all. So much so that some discussions were about how much better it would be to win at home. I had my hand in helping us win Game 3 in extra innings. In Game 4, we jumped on the Marlins with four runs in the top of the first. Aramis Ramirez finished the game with six RBIs, and Matt Clement and current Rays setup man Kyle Farnsworth kept the Marlins' offense at bay. We were seemingly just one step ahead of them.
I have this theory that an ace is a pitcher who negates home-field advantage and ignores momentum. An ace makes his own momentum. Going into Game 5, we had all of it. We had won three games in a row after a 9-8 loss at home in Game 1. Our offense was firing, our bench was rolling, our starters were starting off well, our relievers were coming together.
Beckett went on to pitch a two-hit shutout, striking out 11 and walking one. It was as if we were the team down 3-1 with panic in our eyes. It was as if all the pressure was on us as the home team trying to prevent a team from winning on their home turf. Beckett made it look like the Marlins were the team in control.
After that game, the result was mostly ignored. It was, "Oh well, nice job by Beckett, we still have Prior and Wood, at home so what?"
Fast-forward to Game 5 of the 2012 NLCS. Barry Zito found his magic. We forget that there was a time when Zito was nearly unhittable. I faced him at his best when he was in Oakland. Back then, he threw 3-2 backdoor curveballs just for sport. No fear. He acted like a strikeout pitcher even when his fastball topped out at 89 mph. This guy knew how to change perception and change momentum.
Sure, he has struggled mightily since he signed a long-term deal with the Giants, but he never packed his bags to go home. He stayed out there and kept trying to adjust, and also kept trying to use his fielders instead of the catcher's glove as his options to get outs. Then in Game 5, he found what gave him his calling card. He kept a fantastic Cardinals offense off balance by using his slow curveball with precision. He simply pitched like an ace, a pitcher who knows how to be successful.
So it didn't matter that the Cardinals went into Game 5 having won back-to-back games, including an eight-run, 12-hit attack in Game 4. It mattered that Zito had a plan and knew he could change momentum, even while pitching on the road.
The Cardinals scored one run in the final three games of the series. They were out of sync, and the Giants' pitchers just kept learning from what Zito was able to do. Change speeds, use breaking pitches effectively and trust your defense.
If you want to know what makes the San Francisco Giants a good team, just watch how they responded to their predicament after Game 4 (or what they did to the Reds after they caught that break on Scott Rolen's tough error in Game 3 of the division series). They pitched their way right out of a huge hole, one that may have been as ominous the one the Marlins dug out of in 2003. The Giants had to win Game 5 on the road at a time when the Cardinals were a breath away from steamrolling Zito, the pitcher who was left off San Francisco's postseason roster during their run to winning the World Series in 2010.
Zito delivered. Yes, Marco Scutaro was the NLCS MVP, after hitting a ridiculous .500 in the series. Yes, the Cardinals' "Bartman" moment may have been when in Game 2 Matt Holliday started his controversial slide into second base from practically third base to awake a Giants team that was not really sleeping.
But someone took the weight of a championship, a professional Cardinals team who knew they could win, and in one reversal, flipped them on their back to stay. That was done on the arm of Barry Zito. I am not saying to pick up Zito for your fantasy team for 2013, but please don't call him an "unlikely" hero. He has been great before.