As if cloaked in a veil of mist and a shroud of fog, the baseball postseason can be cruelly difficult for some to find, especially when the search to get there begins fatherless in a trailer park in Mineral Wells, Texas. Aubrey Huff was six years old when his father, Aubrey Huff II, an electrician working in an apartment complex, stepped in to quell a domestic disturbance he happened upon and was shot and killed. A few years later, smitten by baseball, young Aubrey asked his mom, Fonda, for the extravagances of a batting cage and a pitching machine behind the trailer. She ran up her credit-card bill and somehow found a way to give the boy his wish, and the batting cage was where he found joy.
It was a wise investment. Huff is 33 now, an 11-year major league veteran, and until last week had played more major league games (1,479) without reaching the postseason than any active player except Randy Winn of the Cardinals and Michael Young of the Rangers. The fog finally lifted for Huff as a member of the Giants, playing the Braves in a National League Division Series. After the teams split the first two games, San Francisco was one out away from losing Game 3 in Atlanta on Sunday, 2--1, when Huff took his turn at bat with two runners on base. "I remember thinking, Oh, this is a pretty big spot," Huff said in a deadpan manner, emphasizing the understatement. "I wasn't nervous. I was amazingly calm. It was weird. But I just feel like the baseball gods owe me."
This is the postseason of debt settlement. The active leader for most wins without a postseason appearance (169), Roy Halladay, 33, finally made it, and when he did, with the Phillies, he showed what October has lacked without him. In his first postseason start, in Game 1 of the other NLDS, Halladay no-hit the Reds, the highest-scoring team in the National League, 4--0 to become the second man, after Don Larsen, to throw a no-no in 2,550 alltime postseason starts.
Though Winn (1,717 games played) remained home in October, the next three players on the longest-to-wait list—Young (1,508), Huff and Mike Sweeney (1,454)—all played on. Young hit a key three-run homer in Texas's Game 2 win over the Rays, helping the Rangers take a 2--0 lead in that AL Division Series. (The Rays won the next two games, forcing a winner-take-all Game 5 on Tuesday night at Tampa Bay.) Sweeney, a bench player, and the Phillies advanced to the NLCS with a sweep of the Reds. The 37-year-old Sweeney had just one at bat in the series, but he made the most of his postseason moment: He had a pinch-hit single in Game 2.
Huff, meanwhile, did his part to make sure the Giants-Braves series stayed more labyrinthine than Inception. In the ninth inning on Sunday the weirdly becalmed first baseman stroked a game-tying single off lefthander Mike Dunn; one batter later fellow long-distance postseason traveler Freddy Sanchez (844-game wait) scored the eventual winning run on the third error of the game by Atlanta second baseman Brooks Conrad. The 3--2 victory gave the Giants a 2--1 series lead. They sent the Braves home with a 3--2 win in Game 4 on Monday, advancing to the National League Championship Series for the first time since 2002. It was the fourth straight game in the series decided by one run.
"This is everything Aubrey and I have ever wanted and played for," said Sanchez, 32, who had kept the Game 3 rally alive by singling when his team was down to its final strike.
"This postseason," Giants ace Tim Lincecum said after the win, "is amazing. Two strikes, two outs and we win? These are the moments that get written about for years."
After a season in which pitchers dialed back offensive numbers to 1992 levels, the first week of the postseason gave off an even more antique look—that of the Dead Ball era. The first 14 postseason games averaged 6.4 runs, down 27% from the regular season (8.8). Twelve starters in those first 14 games had never before pitched in the postseason, and they went 5--3 with a 2.08 ERA in their debuts.
The stellar playoff rookies included Halladay and Lincecum, who threw a two-hit shutout in Game 1, 1--0, with a franchise-postseason-record 14 strikeouts. The shutouts by Halladay and Lincecum and another one by Cole Hamels of Philadelphia—a five-hitter to sweep away Cincinnati on Sunday, 2--0—provided more shutouts in one week than were thrown in 368 starts over the previous six postseasons combined.
Moreover, on Sunday, playoff first-timer Jonathan Sanchez set a Giants postseason record for a lefthander, with 11 strikeouts, and the Rays' Wade Davis forced a Game 5 by beating Texas on the road, 5--2, in his first playoff game. It was a quality outing his manager, Joe Maddon, saw coming. "He's kind of cold-blooded," Maddon said the day before Davis took the ball. "On an off day in Toronto the boys went bear hunting, and Wade was the only one that came back with the 300-plus-pound black bear. If he can stay eye-to-eye with a black bear, I think [a postseason start] is not that big of a deal."