ST. LOUIS -- The man the Giants hope can get the last out against the most irrepressible team in baseball is a tattooed, undersized pitcher who grew up in a dusty desert town where locals dismissed him and his baseball dreams.
Where he was told he'd someday return, a failure seeking comfort in familiar and modest surroundings.
Those words of doubt pierced Sergio Romo's heart, gnawed at his soul. More than a decade later he is one of the best relievers in baseball, and the words still bounce about his mind.
The taunts are not what make Romo tick, but they keep him ticking. They are at the core of a conspicuous insecurity that is perhaps the foremost source of his determination.
Romo put away St. Louis in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series on Monday in much the same fashion as he finished Cincinnati in the Division Series last week, with mesmerizing sliders and unmitigated conviction, punctuated by a volcanic burst of emotion.
And now, as the Giants and Cardinals take their series to St. Louis for Game 3 on Wednesday, the right-hander yearns for the chance to send another team home for the winter.
"Do I know they're going to fight it out? Yes," Romo says of the Cardinals. "But I'm going to fight it out as well. And I kind of like my chances, especially with the guys playing behind me. They're pretty solid."
With the best-of-seven series tied at one game apiece, both teams are three wins away from the World Series. If the Cardinals somehow seem a bit closer, history provides an explanation.
St. Louis won the World Series last year by throttling Texas with two last-chance rallies, each summoned when the Cardinals were down to their last strike.
And last week, trailing in decisive Game 5 at Washington, the Cardinals, again down to their last strike, came back to steal a playoff game and series from the Nationals, who had the best record in baseball.
The Cardinals are the hardest final out in the game, and they stand between San Francisco and its second trip to the Series in three seasons.
But the Giants have been fairly resilient themselves, and nobody embodies that more than their latest bearded closer.
Brian Wilson, the bearded closer who rode the wheels off the fame train after team's 2010 World Series title, underwent surgery in April and missed nearly all of this season. The New Beard belongs to Romo, who owns the physique of a middleweight fighter, with the scrap and fury to match.
Romo, 29, grew up in sub-sea level Brawley, an Imperial Valley town where more than one in four homes has a single parent, the median household income is $36,000 and through which passes the New River, reportedly the most polluted in North America.
"It all started with the color of my skin and where I'm from," Romo says. "Not too many people have gotten out of the Imperial Valley. I'm very proud to say I'm from Brawley. That's the place that made me the person I am now. It's not easy coming from a place where -- it's not that it's not good enough or doesn't have enough to offer -- no one really knows about Brawley. It's so small. It's hard to get seen out there. To be from there and accomplish what I've accomplished, it means a lot."
Romo's journey is one of trial and error, with the best of him often pitted against his worst, as depicted by one of his many tattoos -- the monster of many faces on his right shoulder. The demon conveys his competitive drive, the melting face his fear of letting his life to go waste. There is the prankster within, the beast, the coward, the fool.
"I've learned the hard way," he says. "I've had things thrown in my face, things not going my way, maybe some bumps in the road that I thought I wouldn't recover from."
Romo was only 5-foot-7 upon graduation, and his father, Francisco, was concerned about his son's maturity and ambition. He directed him toward the Navy, and the kid was minutes away from signing enlistment papers.
"It was either the Navy or college to try to play baseball," Sergio says. "So my dad gave me two years at a (junior college) to prove to him that I had a chance in baseball."
Sergio first went to Orange Coast Community College in Costa Mesa, where he was stuck behind a roster of more imposing pitchers. He then headed to Arizona Western CC in Yuma before transferring to University of Northern Alabama, where it got ugly.
Romo's defiant, irreverent ways clashed with his coach, who removed him from a game during which he likely would have broken the school's strikeout record and shortly thereafter took away his scholarship.
A washout, just as the locals back in Brawley had warned.
Romo didn't quit. He found his way to Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colo., where he went 14-1 and broke six school records. He clearly was gifted, though he still was impulsive, still did foolish things.
The Giants selected Romo in the 28th round of the 2005 draft, after which he arrived at the team's short-season affiliate in Salem, Ore., and went 7-1. Sparkling at every rung of the ladder to the big leagues, he reached San Francisco in 2008.
Listed at 5-10, Romo is closer to 5-8. Listed at 183 pounds, he's closer to 165. He is that cliché about which it is said desire can't be measured.
Reds slugger Jay Bruce, who mashed 34 home runs in the regular season, is Romo's most recent high-profile victim. With one out in the bottom of the ninth in Game 5 last Thursday, Bruce came to bat representing the winning run. After 12 pitches that took three days, Romo got him to fly out before striking out Scott Rolen to end the game.
The battle with Bruce symbolized Romo's life struggle. He's the underdog who never gave in, never retreated, persisted until he achieved.
Aside from his family and his high school coach, not many folks back in Brawley could believe what they'd seen Romo do to end a playoff series.
"If I listened to 90 percent of the people there, I wouldn't be where I'm at," Romo says. "A lot of people from the valley were saying, 'You're going to be back, just like everybody else.' And my mindset was, 'Yeah, I'll be back. And when I come back, you guys will all see me differently -- guaranteed.' "