MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

NLCS can't get any better -- until it does

Cardinals show scrappiness late, but in the end, Giants just have more

NLCS can't get any better -- until it does

SAN FRANCISCO -- Travis Ishikawa rounded the bases joyously, leaping and screaming, this most improbable story of the San Francisco Giants getting another stunning chapter.

Just when you think baseball's postseason can't possibly deliver again, it does, incredibly.

  Date Recaps Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 11 SF 3, STL 0 video
Gm 2 Oct. 12 STL 5, SF 4 video
Gm 3 Oct. 14 SF 5, STL 4 video
Gm 4 Oct. 15 SF 6, STL 4 video
Gm 5 Oct. 16 SF 6, STL 3 video
Remember one thing about this sport. It can't get any better than this. It just can't. Don't bother trying to get your mind around it, at least not all of it. Simply sit back and enjoy the ride.

Here goes.

Ishikawa won the National League pennant for the Giants on Thursday night. He's the perfect guy to do it because he reflects what these Giants are about in terms of resilience and hard work and confidence. Ishikawa did it by smoking a fastball over the right-field wall with two teammates on base and the game tied in the bottom of the ninth inning.

That quickly, the NL Championship Series ended with the Giants beating the Cardinals, 6-3, and winning the series, 4-1.

This was a string of close games, a series in which two good baseball teams fought like champions, punching and counter-punching.

The Cards tried furiously to avoid elimination and force the series back to their home ballpark. And they were close enough to see it happening, taking a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning.

Their ace, Adam Wainwright, did exactly what they hoped he would, allowing two earned runs in seven innings. But these Giants are sprinkled with magic dust. Also talent and toughness and smarts.

Ishikawa's walk-off homer

Video: Ishikawa's walk-off homer

Anyway, Cardinals reliever Pat Neshek, who hadn't allowed a baserunner in three previous appearances in this NLCS, let a pitch catch too much of the plate as he was trying to protect that one-run lead in the bottom of the eighth.

And Michael Morse -- a spiritual leader of the Giants early in the season, an injured player down the stretch -- came off the bench to hit a towering game-tying home run down the left-field line.

Statcast: Morse's homer ties it

Statcast: Morse's tying homer

At that point, this series seemed headed toward an inexorable conclusion. An inning later, Cards manager Mike Matheny made an odd decision in calling on right-hander Michael Wacha, who hadn't pitched in 20 days.

Wacha retired just one of the four hitters he faced, and it ended with Ishikawa launching a towering home run to right.

One of the narratives of this series was that the Giants had to find different ways to score runs because they'd hit only two home runs this entire postseason.

And then this. The game that won them their 21st pennant -- second most in all of baseball, behind only the 40 of the Yankees -- they rediscovered their power.

Rookie second baseman Joe Panik homered in the third inning. And Morse and Ishikawa delivered in the late innings.

So now the Giants take another step in attempting to win their third World Series in five seasons, this against the Kansas City Royals, a team that is 8-0 in this postseason, a team with the best defense and best bullpen on the planet.

This pennant is an especially sweet one for the Giants. At times, they did a good imitation of baseball's best teams. At other times, they didn't look like a team capable of pushing into October.

They lost one of their aces, Matt Cain, to ankle surgery, and along the way a long list of others missed various amounts of time.

Leadoff man Angel Pagan played his last game in mid-September. He'd been the guy that made San Francisco's offense go. The Giants were 57-39 with Pagan on the field and 31-35 without him.

With Morse also injured, Giants manager Bruce Bochy was scrambling to find offense. That's when he gave Ishikawa, a first baseman, three starts in left field late in the season.

That tuned Ishikawa up for the postseason, and now he will be part of the lore of this great franchise. His home run shook AT&T Park to its bones. Ishikawa was mobbed by teammates at home plate, and after that, a touching scene played out, a scene that speaks volumes about San Francisco as a baseball town.

Those fans, more than 40,000 of 'em, stood and screamed and waved orange towels. And then they simply stayed around for at least a half-hour after the game. There were ovations, one after another, as various players stepped onto the stage at second base for the trophy presentation.

Perhaps the loudest cheer was for Bochy, the guy known around the game for his honesty and decency and strategic genius.

Even as players went down, even as the Giants struggled, they believed. They've always believed. They have nine players who've been part of the three championship teams, and amid all that success, a confidence has grown.

Even when they limped along late in the season, they were absolutely convinced they were going to run down the Dodgers in the NL West. That didn't happen, but the Giants still ended up back in the same place, back in the World Series.

On the other side of the field, Matheny remained in the visitors' dugout for several minutes once the game ended. He took in the Giants' celebration, but that's not why he was there. At some point, Matheny caught Bochy's eye.

And that's when Matheny did what he'd been hoping to do. He tipped his hat to the Giants' skipper, a touching gesture.

In that way, Matheny was congratulating the winner. Later, he would say he was proud of his guys, too, acknowledging that sometimes teams are unable to write the ending they'd like to write.

Like the Giants, Matheny's Cardinals were a team that had trouble making the pieces fit in a rollercoaster of a season. Like the Giants, the Cardinals kept pushing and fighting and clawing.

They did themselves proud on a bunch of different levels. In a magical postseason, the Giants just had a bit more.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.