ST. LOUIS – Crack open this National League Championship Series and look at the surprises inside.
Extra innings, questionable managerial decisions, Dodgers on the ropes, Cardinals on the ropes, Carlos Beltran's arm neutralizing the Dodgers, Zack Greinke's arm neutralized by the Redbirds, potential phantom tag … and all that was stuffed inside of Game 1, the final verdict of which was delivered when, who else, Beltran ripped an RBI single in the 13th to win it for St. Louis 3-2.
It was the longest NL playoff game since the Astros edged the Braves 7-6 in 18 innings in 2005.
If the rest of this NLCS is this much fun, we might not be able to take it.
Or, check that. If Beltran continues to trample over everything in sight the way he tends to in October, Don Mattingly and the Dodgers might not be able to take it.
“That's about as good a game as you can possibly play,” Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter said of Beltran. “Throw a guy out at the plate, drive in all of the runs … you can't possibly play a better game than that.”
No, but as everyone left Busch Stadium in the wee hours of the morning, St. Louis' Mr. October was going to get another opportunity in little more than 13 hours. Either Clayton Kershaw must stop him or … hide the Dodgers women and children.
Only thing Beltran didn't do was clean up after the Clydesdales.
“Carlos is amazing,” Cards utilityman Daniel Descalso said. “He's a threat during the season, but in October he seems to find another gear.”
He knocked in all three St. Louis runs, driving in the first two against Greinke in the second with a double over Andre Ethier's head in center, then the game winner in the 13th. He threw out Mark Ellis at the plate from right field in the 10th inning in what may well become the signature moment of this NLCS.
Only photo op he didn't take was grooming the Clydesdales.
He was a one-man wrecking crew, inflicting even more damage than the Dodgers did to themselves in a nightmare of a Game 1 for them.
Mattingly went for broke in an ill-advised eighth inning move attempting to break a 2-2 tie, sending fleet Dee Gordon in to pinch-run for Adrian Gonzalez.
Removing your cleanup hitter early is hair-raising enough, and the only way this works is if Gordon swipes second and winds up scoring.
Instead, he not only inexplicably didn't run, he got a poor jump on Yasiel Puig's ground ball into the hole at deep short, and Pete Kozma was able to field it and throw Gordon out at second.
The immediate sin wasn't that Gonzalez was gone, but that Gordon was inserted into the game and then his sole asset – his speed -- wasn't utilized.
The long-range sin was that, wouldn't you know it, the game hurtled into extra innings. And found Michael Young. In both the 10th and the 12th, the Cardinals intentionally walked Hanley Ramirez to get to Young.
First time, it was after Mark Ellis' triple, and Young popped to right field shallow enough that Beltran was able to launch a rocket that nailed a tagging-up Ellis to end the inning. And yes, Yadier Molina did tag Ellis, though it happened so quickly at the plate that it appeared as if it may have been a phantom tag.
“Just a great play,” Young said. “The plan was to get something I could hit in the air. I thought I got all of it. When I saw Beltran call off [Jon] Jay, I knew it was going to be tougher. But it still took a perfect throw.”
Next time, after Carl Crawford's single, the Dodgers elected to have Ellis sacrifice him to second … which immediately invited the Cards to walk Ramirez, the Dodgers' best hitter this month, a second time. After which, Young promptly bounced into an inning-ending 6-3 double play.
Mattingly talked later about having to “shoot your bullet when you get a chance.” Had it worked, he would have gotten away with it and come off as a gutsy genius. When it didn't work, it looked bad. Real bad.
But as popular as second-guessing every single like Grade A stalkers is this month, do not confuse the fact that the Dodgers failed to help themselves with this notion that they beat themselves. Because that just isn't true.
Beltran and the Cardinals took this from them, plain and simple. The Dodgers went 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position and left 11 runners aboard, including five in the first three innings. That's when young St. Louis starter Joe Kelly was vulnerable, and the Dodgers had every chance to knock him out. They didn't.
So Beltran took it to them.
Ellis's one-out triple in the 10th looked like the turning point. And it was, just not in the direction we all thought it would go.
As Young's pop to medium right-center descended, Jay was close to camping under it. But as Beltran approached, Jay veered away. It was clear what was happening.
“I heard him coming,” Jay said. “He obviously has the plus arm out there. It was all his. I'm glad he was able to make the throw.”
Jay was thrilled for two reasons.
One, it saved the game.
Two, it saved Jay a sleepless night: He took an awful route to the ball that Ellis had belted, and it was because of that that the ball slipped past him and Ellis wound up on third.
“Today wasn't a good day for me, personally,” Jay said. “But we got the win, and thank Carlos for that.”
Yes, three innings after saving the Cards with that throw, he saved them with his bat. Descalso got an assist by starting things with a one-out single, leading to the obvious question: How in the world does a guy stay ready through what by then seemed like two games?
“A lot of pacing in the dugout and in the batting cage,” Descalso said. “A couple of times I thought maybe I was going to go in, and then they decided to do something else. “
He worked ahead in the count against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, got a 2-2 breaking ball and then figured Jansen would challenge him.
“I was trying to get a base hit any way I could,” Descalso said.
He did, Carpenter drew a walk and up stepped Beltran.
“Once I put myself in a hitter's count, I was looking for a pitch to hit because I knew he was going to throw a pitch that I was going to be able to hit,” Beltran said.
“Right down the middle,” Beltran said. “To me, it was a pitch right down the middle. I don't blame him, because he's trying to make a pitch. He's behind in the count and he's trying to make a pitch.”
Truthfully, the Dodgers seemed behind in the count from the time Greinke wobbled right after his team had taken a 2-0 lead in the top of the third.
Bottom of the inning, following two quick strikeouts, Greinke served up a base hit to the pitcher, Kelly, then walked Carpenter.
“Instead of attacking us like he had been all game, it looked like he was trying to avoid the big inning,” Carpenter said.
“Nibbling, for lack of a better word,” he added.
So with runners on first and second, Greinke fell behind Beltran 3-1.
“He threw a changeup on one of the few mistakes that he made today right there,” Beltran said. “And I was able to hit it good.”
Beltran already has nine RBI this postseason, and the guy is hitting .345 (51 for 148) in 40 career postseason games.
And now the Dodgers are down a game in this series, losing a game Greinke started and could have won. This isn't the Los Angeles script. With Hyun-Jin Ryu shaky and Rickey Nolasco more shaky, the Dodgers' path to the World Series must be cleared by Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.
This win was enormous for St. Louis.
“It was big,” Carpenter said of the win. “I don't think you can have a more hard-fought game.
“Whether they want to admit it or not, losing a game in that way is tough.”