ST. LOUIS — Is there anything more difficult in professional sports for a team to accomplish than winning the fourth game of a best-of-seven series?
When a team has captured three games, most everyone, from media to fans to players, has a tendency to look ahead to the next opponent. And in the San Francisco Giants' case, it seemed they had a legitimate reason to.
They had dominated the three games of the National League Championship Series in Candlestick Park and needed just one victory to make their first World Series since 1962, a year before Jose Oquendo was born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.
But, in keeping with this strange baseball season, the team no one thought could close out a series -- the Minnesota Twins -- did so with ease, while the team most thought would be least susceptible to pressure -- the Giants -- wilted.
"I'm proud of my team," Giants Manager Roger Craig said following a 6-0 shutout loss to St. Louis in Game 7 Wednesday, finally ending an NLCS-record 22 consecutive scoreless innings by the Giants.
"We've come a long way in two years," he said. "We'll have nothing to be ashamed of all winter. You have to credit their pitching staff. No runs in two games. They were great."
San Francisco made a number of great plays throughout the series, but none in the last two games. The Giants turned an NLCS-record 10 double plays in the first five games of the series. None in the final two. They hit an NLCS-tying nine homers in the first five games. None in the final two.
The Giants ran into top-flight pitchers in John Tudor and Danny Cox, but they also helped the Cardinals by being overanxious at the plate and finished the series 7 for 49 (.143) with men in scoring position.
Series MVP Jeffrey Leonard was asked what happened to the Giants' bats. "That's a tough question to answer," he said, "but speaking for my teammates, I would say that we got away from our game plan and started swinging at their pitches."
Meanwhile, the Cardinals were suddenly able to hit left-handed pitching, their Achilles' heel in the first six games Their defense also came alive in Game 7, led by shortstop Ozzie Smith. He was the relay man on three critical double plays in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, when San Francisco put its leadoff man on first base each time..
And as for homers, the Cardinals may have had only two in seven games, but this very statistic may be the most chilling rememberance the Giants have when they look back on the final two games in St. Louis.
Not Jack Clark or Terry Pendleton or Willie McGee, but Oquendo, who joined the list of postseason improbables that has the likes of Brian Doyle, Rick Dempsey and Buddy Biancalana on it. Oquendo's three-run homer off Atlee Hammaker in the second inning gave Cox all the support he would need.
The pitch to Oquendo was Hammaker's only bad one of the evening, Craig said, but this season's numbers (1-8, 4.91 ERA on the road and 9-2, 2.57 at home) suggest Hammaker was probably not San Francisco's top choice to pitch on the road.
"I threw a good pitch right before that," Hammaker told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "And I thought I had him struck out. I tried to get a ball inside and I didn't get it in."
"That put us four runs down," Craig said of Oquendo's blast. "In that situation, there was no chance to hit-and-run and that set up the double plays. Ozzie (Smith) played a great game, though."
"We don't have anything we really can hang our head about," first baseman Will Clark said. "It's just too bad it had to end like this. When the season began, no one knew who we were. We put ourselves on the map."
Across the locker room, surrounded by cameras and writers as he had been throughout the series, Leonard put his MVP award on top of his locker. He hit .417 (10-for-24), made several outstanding defensive plays in left, and generally won a draw with the taunting St. Louis fans.
But it didn't seem to matter much. "Everyone keeps asking me about things I've said, and truthfully, I don't remember what I've said," Leonard admitted. "All I said was after the first game that they wouldn't beat us four games if they played like that. Truthfully, I don't know how they did it."