SAN FRANCISCO - The 98th World Series will be played entirely on the left coast, by two long-denied franchises that did not win their respective divisions, and yet there is little doubt that the best teams emerged from the first two playoff rounds.
The San Francisco Giants scratched out a tense, 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals last night at Pacific Bell Park to win the National League Championship Series in such decisive fashion that a return trip to the Midwest was not even necessary.
Kenny Lofton lined a single off reliever Steve Kline with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning to score David Bell and carry the Giants to a five-game victory that set up an Interstate 5 Fall Classic against the first-time American League champion Anaheim Angels.
The Giants charged out of third place in the NL West to challenge the Arizona Diamondbacks for the division title, then dispatched the 101-win Atlanta Braves to reach the NLCS. Despite their terrific finish, they still were considered slight underdogs against the Cardinals, but swept the first two games at Busch Stadium and took two of three at Pac Bell to reach the World Series for the first time since 1989.
The sellout crowd of 42,673 went absolutely bananas when Bell flew home with a headfirst slide and saved the Giants a flight to St. Louis for any further games in the series.
They went crazy again when veteran catcher Benito Santiago - whose dramatic home run won Game 4 - was named the Most Valuable Player of the series.
Four-time MVP Barry Bonds, often criticized for being selfish and not interacting with his teammates, led the rush from the Giants' third base dugout to congratulate Lofton.
"It's a feeling I can't explain. Maybe in a few days I'll be able to tell someone how I feel," said Bonds, whose bases-loaded sacrifice fly tied it in the eighth.
"This is just a special group of guys," said Giants manager Dusty Baker, who admitted that he considered pinch hitting for Lofton just before one of the most exciting moments in franchise history.
"Kenny had a couple of tough days here. I thought about pinch hitting for him, but I thought, `No, don't be crazy, let Kenny win the game.' ... I knew he was focused. I knew you couldn't keep Kenny down. I believed in my heart. The whole team believed."
Of course, Lofton couldn't resist taunting Kline and the pointing toward the Cardinals dugout after he reached first base - a carryover from some unpleasantness in Game 1 - but not even that childish lapse could diminish the impact of this magic Giants moment.
What a heart-stopping finish.
What a heartbreaking end for the Cardinals, who endured so much over the course of a 2002 season that was both tragic and inspiring.
What a final, heroic performance by Cardinals starter Matt Morris, who carried a shutout into the eighth inning and worked right up to the final batter in the ninth. Kline came on after Bell and veteran utilityman Shawon Dunston delivered back-to-back two-out singles. Lofton lined his first pitch to right field, where Cardinals outfielder J.D. Drew fielded it on one hop and made a desperate throw to the plate.
It wasn't close, and the first-ever all-wild card World Series will begin on Saturday at Edison International Field.
"To come back and win the way we did yesterday and today just tells you what kind of team we have," shortstop Rich Aurilia said. "Hopefully, we've got more more wins in us."
Veteran reliever Tim Worrell, the fourth pitcher to take the mound for the Giants after starter Kirk Rueter pitched six scoreless innings, got the victory for 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief. Morris took the loss, but deserved a far better fate for bouncing back so magnificently from a disappointing performance in Game 1.
Morris has overcome a lot of obstacles during an injury-marred major-league career, including the emotional devastation of losing his close friend Darryl Kile earlier this season, but Game 5 clearly was his greatest on-field challenge.
He responded by retiring the first nine batters he faced and holding the Giants hitless into the fifth inning, quite in contrast to his rocky 10-hit performance in the opener of the series at Busch Stadium.
"Matt threw the ball as well as anybody who has thrown against us this year," Aurilia said. "He pitched a phenomenal game. We just got a couple of clutch hits when we needed them."
The Cardinals ace looked like a different pitcher this time, but he did evoke memories of that first game when he drilled Lofton with a pitch in the fourth inning.
Lofton sparked a bench-clearing confrontation when reliever Mike Crudale hit him with a pitch in Game 1, and it was widely suspected in the Giants' clubhouse that the alleged purpose pitch was in retaliation for the way Lofton showboated after hitting a home run off Morris earlier in the game.