KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It had to come down to this, didn't it? In a postseason filled with surprise departures and improbable twists, the final fork in the road leads to a baseball stadium adjacent to a football stadium amid a gargantuan parking lot in the American heartland.
The San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals have reached that magical stage of October when pitchers' leashes are short-to-nonexistent, deep breaths are imperative and nobody knows who will emerge as this year's Bill Mazeroski, Edgar Renteria or Luis Gonzalez. They'll meet before 40,000-plus fans Wednesday night and determine who gets the bigger rings, the more lucrative shares and the opportunity to soil the clubhouse carpets one popped cork at a time.
For the 37th time in history and only the second time since 2002, a World Series will be going to a deciding Game 7. The Royals took care of that with a 10-0 victory over San Francisco that was a foregone conclusion after two innings.
Almost immediately, the postmortems shifted to the anticipation surrounding the finale and the tension and sense of history-in-motion that will envelop Kauffman Stadium. To borrow from Kansas City manager Ned Yost's favorite circus phraseology, everyone is operating without a net now. It's baseball, Karl Wallenda-style.
"A Game 7 in the World Series is a gift for everyone. It's pretty special," Giants outfielder Hunter Pence said. "It's incredibly entertaining for fans, for the world and for the game of baseball. Every time you step on the field, there are infinite possibilities. You can't predict the unpredictable."
Of this we can be sure: Tim Hudson and Jeremy Guthrie, two pitchers with a combined 719 big league starts between the regular season and the postseason, will get the starting assignments in Game 7. Hudson, in particular, has a compelling story. In July 2013, he was carted off the field with a gruesome ankle injury that cast his future in doubt. He signed with San Francisco as a free agent, is playing in his first World Series at age 39 and has a chance to bring it home for the Giants.
In the postgame interview room, Hudson displayed the kind of serene exterior that makes his fellow Giants feel he's in control of the situation and will give them a big-time effort when they need it most.
"This is why you play the game," Hudson said. "This is why you compete. This is why you work so hard -- to hopefully have this opportunity. I'm going to have some fun. I've waited a long time for this."
But the phrase "Johnny Wholestaff" was never more appropriate than now, in Game 7. Everybody but Yordano Ventura and Dennis Leonard will be available for Kansas City, and San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy's options include everyone but Peavy and Mike LaCoss.
Madison Bumgarner's name appears prominently on Bochy's list. But to what extent, San Francisco's manager can't be sure.
Bumgarner, the dominant figure of the 2014 postseason, was most recently seen twirling a 117-pitch complete game at AT&T Park on Sunday to raise his postseason record to 4-1 and lower his ERA (1.13) and WHIP (0.67) to ridiculous levels. Bochy declined to speculate about whether he'll be available for one inning or two or 20, 30 or even 40 pitches Wednesday night. But Bumgarner has the ability to cast a giant shadow over the proceedings in the same way Randy Johnson did when he jogged out of the bullpen and threw 17 pitches in relief of Curt Schilling in the Diamondbacks' 3-2 win over the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.
"I guess the best thing I can tell you is we'll watch him," Bochy said. "We'll see where he's at and how he's doing out there. I can't tell you how far he could go or how many pitches he could go. I think you read him and see how he's doing out there."
Given the urgency of the situation, everything changes now. Starters who typically have the luxury of going two times through the opposing batting order before having to worry about being lifted might look out and see action in the bullpen after a four-pitch walk or a bloop single. Relievers who are accustomed to entering games at designated times will have to be ready for anything. When Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Santiago Casilla and San Francisco's other relievers arrive at the park, they'll know the standard rules do not apply.
"We have a lot of faith in Huddy, but I'm sure we're all going to be ready to go out of the gate," Affeldt said. "There might be guys double-barreling the whole game -- I don't know."
If the ideal script plays out for Kansas City, Guthrie will carry a lead into the fifth or sixth inning and hand the ball to Kelvin Herrera, who will pass it on to Wade Davis, who will give it to Greg Holland in the ninth with an opportunity to close it out. Kansas City's big three took the night off Tuesday after a travel day Monday, but Holland got up and threw a side session in the ninth inning to stay sharp after three days off.
"You don't want to go out there in a 10-run game and potentially face the same hitters you might be facing the very next night in a pivotal Game 7," Holland said. "And you also don't want to go out there and end up having to throw 25 to 30 pitches to get through an inning. I just wanted to get on the mound and get some work in. It's more routine than anything."
With the American League rules in effect, double switches and pinch hitters won't come into play in the Series finale, but there's always a position player or two who will emerge. Will it be Eric Hosmer, who's hitting .377 in the postseason, or Mike Moustakas, who broke Willie Aikens' single-season team record with his fifth postseason homer Tuesday night? They've lived up to their early, mega-prospect hype on the big stage this October.
Hosmer, who was 8 years old and sitting in the stands at Pro Player Stadium in Miami when Renteria produced the climactic single to beat Cleveland in the deciding game of the 1997 World Series, has embraced every minute of his first October experience.
"It's been a crazy ride," Hosmer said. "You always hear people say that postseason baseball is a different animal, but to finally experience it, you realize what everyone is saying. Everyone is living and dying with every pitch. You look in the crowd in both San Francisco and here, and there aren't many people sitting down during the game. Just from my family being here watching, I know how exhausted they are after every game."
The same sense of anticipation applies on the San Francisco side. Will the big Game 7 moment be provided by Pablo Sandoval, he of the illustrious October portfolio, or Pence, whose knack for landing in the middle of big situations knows no bounds? Or could it be Buster Posey, who has yet to produce the big impact hit befitting his status as the Giants' marquee player? Posey is hitting .262 with no extra-base hits in October, and he grounded into a deflating double play in a big spot against Ventura on Tuesday.
When players in both clubhouses looked ahead to Wednesday's finale, certain themes applied. Affeldt stressed the importance of "breathing," and several Giants and Royals said they'll come to the park intent on sticking with their normal routines. Home teams have captured the past nine Game 7s, going back to 1979, when the Pittsburgh Pirates won in Baltimore to complete a 3-1 Series comeback against the Orioles. But the Royals know precedent counts for only so much at this point.
Strangely enough, the Series will come down to nine suffocating innings after five relatively drama-free games. San Francisco recorded its three victories by scores of 7-1, 11-4 and 5-0. Kansas City won the two Ventura-Peavy matchups by a combined score of 17-2 and beat the Giants 3-2 in the only squeaker of the Series the latest time Guthrie and Hudson faced off.
Both the Giants and Royals will find comfort in time-honored platitudes heading into Game 7. All hands will be on deck, and they'll take things one pitch and one inning at a time. In the end, someone will sit on a podium and say he has been dreaming about the big moment since he was a kid playing Wiffle Ball in the backyard.
Holland, Kansas City's closer, was asked if that fantasy is something he visualizes. Did he expect to go to bed late Tuesday night and dream about leaping into Salvador Perez's arms in celebration after recording the final out?
"I won't be thinking about Game 7," Holland said. "I'll be changing diapers and trying to get some rest."
It's been an eight-month grind since spring training, and players, managers and coaches for both the Giants and Royals will be ready to empty their tanks in Game 7. They have all winter to rest.