ST. LOUIS — There was little doubt across Busch Stadium as to what was coming late Friday night, as midnight came and went and Game 1 of the Nationals League Championship Series careened and meandered towards an as-yet-unwritten ending. The St. Louis Cardinals have been killing the dreams of postseason foes for years now — in some instances surgically, in others with blunt-force trauma — and the only questions left were who would do the honors this time, and how and when.
The answers came at 12:25 a.m. central time, at the end of a four-hour, 47-minute marathon: Carlos Beltran, line drive into the right field corner, bottom of the 13th. Perhaps this one had a higher degree of difficulty than most, but the end result was the same: Cardinals win, some other poor souls lose.
The poor souls in this case, losers by a score of 3-2, were the Los Angeles Dodgers, who now understand what so many other franchises have learned the hard way these last dozen years or so: the Cardinals do not die easily.
Game 2 is Saturday afternoon, with Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw — the 2012 Cy Young Award winner and presumptive 2013 repeat winner — facing Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha. Both teams will be dealing with overtaxed bullpens after using a combined 11 relievers in the grueling series opener.
“If the rest of the series is like this game,” Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said, “it should be a pretty good one.”
As another NLCS opened in St. Louis, the Cardinals’ third in the last three years and eighth in the last 14, a crowd of 46,691 gorged itself on pre-game history and tradition – a trip around the warning track by the Budweiser Clydesdales, a ceremonial first-pitch featuring Hall-of-Famer Bob Gibson – then settled in to watch the Cardinals do what they do.
While a parade of rookie pitchers did the heavy lifting in shutting down the Dodgers’ lineup, the Cardinals played nearly flawless defense behind them, and waited until the Dodgers gave them an opening. Actually, the Dodgers gave them many — including ill-fated managerial moves and squandered opportunities at the plate (1 for 10 with runners in scoring position, 11 runners left on base) — but it wasn’t until the 13th that the Cardinals turned them into victory.
With one out in the bottom of the 13th, pinch-hitter Daniel Descalso, the 18th player used by the Cardinals, hit a soft liner into center field off Chris Withrow for a single. Second baseman Matt Carpenter followed by drawing a four-pitch walk.
That brought Beltran, arguably the most prolific postseason hitter of his generation, to the plate. Mattingly brought in his closer, Kenley Jansen, to face him, and Beltran worked the count to 3-1, then lashed a 92-mph cut fastball down the line in right, with the winning run scoring without a play. Beltran was credited with a single, but only because he stopped running — and threw his fist into the air — after rounding first.
“Right down the middle,” Beltran said of the pitch from Jansen. “I don’t blame him. He’s behind in the count and trying to make a pitch.”
Take a moment to ponder Beltran’s postseason career: Over four Octobers with three different franchises, he has 16 homers, 34 RBI and a .345 batting average in 40 games. The only thing missing from his playoff resume is a World Series appearance, and the Cardinals are now three wins away from giving him one of those.
On Friday night, Beltran drove in all three Cardinals runs — smashing a double off the wall against Dodgers starter Zack Greinke in the third inning, just out of the reach of sore-legged Dodgers center fielder Andre Ethier, who was playing in the outfield for the first time in nearly a month.
Beltran also made the defensive play of the game, cutting in front of center fielder Jon Jay to catch Michael Young’s shallow fly ball in the 10th inning, then firing a perfect one-hop throw to the plate to gun down the would-be go-ahead runner.
“As soon as Young hit the ball, I felt I was going to have a better angle than Jon Jay,” Beltran said. “So I called for the ball five or six times.”
Cardinals rookie starter Joe Kelly, a bespectacled right-hander with mid-90s heat, limited the Dodgers to two runs over his six innings of work, the runs coming on Juan Uribe’s two-run single – the latest in a series of postseason heroics for the veteran Uribe, who also hit the series-clinching homer against the Atlanta Braves four nights earlier.
After Kelly came Randy Choate, the veteran lefty specialist who has made a career retiring one left-handed batter at a time – which is what he did Friday night, retiring the only batter he faced on a foul pop on the first pitch.
And after that came two more rookies — 24-year-old Seth Maness for two outs, then 22-year-old phenom Carlos Martinez for three. The former began the year in Class AAA, the latter in Class AA. To that point in the game, 23 of the 24 outs secured by the Cardinals’ pitching staff had been done so by rookies.
Two scoreless innings from rookie closer Trevor Rosenthal — age 23, fastball in the upper 90s — made it 29 of 30 outs secured by rookie pitchers.
The late innings pivoted around one curious decision by Mattingly, who chose to send in speedster Dee Gordon to pinch-run for cleanup hitter Adrian Gonzalez at first base with nobody out in the eighth, following a leadoff walk.
Normally, such a move would only be made if the runner gets to second base – precisely because of what followed, with Gordon, unwilling to attempt a stolen base against Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, forced out at second on a grounder to short. Just like that, Mattingly had burned both a top hitter (Gonzalez) and a key late-inning move (Gordon).
“You gotta shoot your bullet when you get a chance,” Mattingly said in explaining the move. “You get a guy on in that inning, you gotta take a shot at scoring a run.”
Naturally, it was Gonzalez’s spot in the order that came up in the top of the 10th with the game on the line — runners on first and third, one out, the score still tied. Only now it was veteran reserve Michael Young at the plate, instead of Gonzalez, and Young could only lift a fly ball to shallow right-center, where Beltran made his catch and game-saving throw to the plate.
Once more, the cleanup spot in the Dodgers’ order came around with runners on first and second and one out in the 12th, and this time Young hit into a more conventional double-play — 6-4-3 — to end the threat.
Mattingly’s move, then, was one that backfired not once, not twice, but three times. When the St. Louis Cardinals are in the opposite dugout, and Carlos Beltran is in their midst — and when the calendar has been turned to October — you simply can’t afford to slip up in such a way. They will get you every time.