ST. LOUIS – In the end, nearly all of 13 innings gone, Carlos Beltran turned on a cut fastball and blew it down the right-field line. Daniel Descalso ran home from second base, and the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals chased down Beltran, and in the dampness of early Saturday morning here the Cardinals had beaten the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-2 in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
On the 379th and final pitch in a game that had been tied for a full nine innings, in which the Cardinals' bullpen did not budge and earnestly awaited a hit such as this, Beltran sent the people here into the night with their white hankies and the recurring notion that he is special at the best time of year.
The Cardinals won this game first. Ask any of them. After 13 minutes short of five hours, having struck with authority just once against Dodgers starter Zack Greinke (Beltran, again), they'd been better by just enough to turn up the music and laugh afterward.
[Photos: Dodgers vs. Cardinals in NLCS]
"At the end of the day," said Beltran, "I thank God that we were able to come out with the win."
And then, somewhere back in the haze of empty innings, and baserunners left waiting for their caps and gloves to be ferried to them, and a fabulous throw from right field to the plate that cut down what might have been a Dodger run in the 10th inning (Beltran, yet again), there was a decision from the top step across the diamond. If that decision did not lose the game for the Dodgers, it neither appeared to help them over the final five innings, and it occasionally damaged all they touched, and ultimately chased them out of Game 1.
In one very aggressive reach to take a lead in the eighth inning, in a game that had stood tied at 2 since the third inning, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly made the play. Adrian Gonzalez had led off the eighth with a five-pitch walk. He thus became their second baserunner since the third inning. Already, the Dodgers had done little against Cardinals starter Joe Kelly, or the two relievers who followed. Who knew if there would be another chance?
"It's one of those," Mattingly said, "that you've got to shoot your bullet when you get a chance."
So, with none out, with Yasiel Puig going to the plate, in a tied game on the road, against the best catcher in baseball, Mattingly sent Dee Gordon to first base. Gonzalez jogged to the bench, where he'd spend the next six innings, or until Beltran's final big moment.
"If we don't use him there and the next guy hits a ball in the gap and he doesn't score," Mattingly said, "we're going to say, ‘Why didn't you use Dee?'"
Gordon did not attempt to steal second, though he was given only two pitches to try. On the third, Puig grounded into a fielder's choice. Gordon was out at second base.
"Obviously, Yasiel swung early," Mattingly said, "and it didn't work out for us."
On the very next pitch, Juan Uribe grounded into a double play. The inning was over. Gonzalez was done. So, eventually, were the Dodgers.
Technically, Adrian Gonzalez does not run well. Anecdotally, from first to second base, it would appear he is running up the down escalator.
So, yeah, he's thick-legged, heavy-hipped, 31-year-old, fourth-Molina-brother slow. It's not his fault. To be fair, he scored from second base on a single Friday night, and it wasn't close, so to describe him as glacial would be an exaggeration, if not at all an insult to actual glaciers.
All of which is to say, you'd understand a manager's instinct to have someone else run for him, should the opportunity come. Were he, say, behind by a run and needed the one-hit lightning strike run. Or were anyone other than Yadier Molina behind the plate, coiled, aware, maybe even a tad offended the Dodgers believed Gordon could be so bold.
"Of course," Molina said. "You have to be ready."
A funny thing happened when Mattingly sent Dee Gordon to run for Gonzalez. Unwittingly, he'd sent Dee Gordon to run for Hanley Ramirez as well. He'd marginalized not simply the Dodgers' best hitter, but their two best hitters. Ramirez, who'd batted .500 in the division series, did not see another pitch for the remainder of the game. In a game that could have been decided on one pitch, neither Gonzalez nor Ramirez took another swing, so Mattingly could take his one shot.
See, Ramirez bats in front of Gonzalez, the left-handed hitter who'd batted .333 in the last series and hit 22 home runs and drove in 100 runs in the regular season. There is no gain, on many nights, to pitching around Ramirez. Gonzalez was on the bench, however, and at first base and in the cleanup spot – behind Ramirez – was Michael Young, the sturdy pro who had a mere 29 at-bats, including the division series, in a month.
When Mark Ellis tripled with one out in the 10th inning, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had Ramirez intentionally walked. Young then hit a short fly ball to right field. Beltran caught that ball, then fired it to the plate to gun down Ellis, who had attempted to score.
When Carl Crawford led off the 12th inning with a walk, Mattingly had Ellis sacrifice Crawford to second base, again leaving first open and Ramirez coming to the plate. Matheny again had Ramirez intentionally walked. And Young grounded into a double play. The Dodgers had lost Gonzalez for the entirety. Then they'd lost Ramirez when it mattered, over and over.
An inning later, Beltran came up with two men on base, and there was nowhere to put him, and he ended the game. That there was still a game to win, there in the 13th inning, maybe that was because the Cardinals willed it and pitched it. Or maybe it was because the Dodgers – and Mattingly – hadn't allowed it to end.
Afterward, Mattingly was sure he'd made the proper call. He'd taken his shot, it didn't work, and he – his team – was vulnerable for it. He'd asked for a ball in the gap, the one that would send Gordon flying around third, that would put them ahead, and it hadn't come. Maybe it changed nothing. Maybe everything.
"We're trying to win a game," he said. "We can look back on every decision."
No. Just one.