Commentary

The Cardinals' rules of winning

Everything great about the Cardinals was on display in their third-inning rally

Updated: October 19, 2013, 11:34 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- If you could sum up the essence of a baseball team in one inning, this was that inning. This was that team.

And this was why the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals are heading for their second World Series in three years.

Just put the bottom of the third inning of Game 6 of the National League Championship Series on a continuous-loop video and call it their 2013 highlight film.

Sit back and watch them grind one great at-bat after another against a Cy Young winner standing 60 feet away. ... Admire the short strokes, the focused approaches, the discipline to lay off pitcher's pitches. ... Recognize the toughness it takes to force a pitcher as great as Clayton Kershaw to make 48 pitches just to get through a single inning.

It was only one inning in a long season and a heart-thumping postseason. But if ever one inning could define a team, this was it.

This was the Cardinals, at their relentless best, wearing down the best pitcher in baseball with a four-run, five-hit, 10-batter, 48-pitch grind-a-thon that was about to lead them back to the 19th World Series in franchise history.

Now obviously, there was more to the Cardinals' 9-0 Game 6 wipeout of the Dodgers on Friday than just one inning. That name, Michael Wacha, comes to mind, for instance.

[+] EnlargeMatt Carpenter
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesMatt Carpenter's 11-pitch at-bat got the rally started in the third.

Two weeks ago, most of America was wondering who the heck he was and where he came from. Next thing we knew, he was out there Friday night, outdueling Kershaw for the second time in this series, spinning seven more insanely dominant innings of two-hit, shutout baseball and winning an NLCS MVP award. At age 22.

But as Adam Wainwright would say later, the champagne dripping off his NLCS championship cap, "I'm not surprised by what Michael Wacha did. Not anymore. But to score that many runs off Clayton Kershaw ... I don't know. I'm at a loss for words."

And if Adam Wainwright is at a loss for words, ladies and gentlemen, that might be a bigger upset than Kershaw huffing and puffing through a 48-pitch inning. If Adam Wainwright is at a loss for words, maybe there are no words to adequately describe what the Cardinals did to the best starting pitcher on earth.

But "shocking" would be a good place to start.

"I didn't think something like that could ever happen against a great pitcher like Kershaw," said David Freese. "Ever."

But as we've come to learn over the past few years, this is a special team -- a team that always has a plan, and a team that always has a remarkable feel for each October moment. So as the Cardinals pulled into the parking lot Friday afternoon, they knew exactly what the world was thinking ...

That they were still haunted by the nightmare of what happened to them last October, when a 3-games-to-1 lead melted away on them, faster than you could say "Rally Zito" ...

And that Kershaw -- a fellow who had allowed a total of one earned run in his previous five starts combined -- had waited all his career for the chance to rise to this moment, win this game and force a Game 7 on Saturday night.

So there was legitimate reason for the outside world to wonder if the Cardinals were in real danger of suffering their second consecutive dose of October heartbreak. But inside their world, there was a determination that that was not going to happen, that it was unacceptable to let that happen.

"There was a very, very good sense of urgency in this group today," said Matt Carpenter, the man who would author his team's most important at-bat of this postseason in this game. "Nobody wanted to be a part of what happened to us last year. So guys walked into this clubhouse today, and you could just kind of sense it. They were ready to go. The intensity was there from the first pitch on."

St. Louis got runners into scoring position in each of the first two innings, and Kershaw wriggled out of those messes. But then came the third inning. And if this team wins the World Series, it will never forget what happened in that incredible inning:

• The Cardinals sent 10 hitters to the plate against Kershaw -- the first time any team had batted around against him since Aug. 14, 2009. That was 979 1/3 innings ago, if you count the postseason. Unreal.

• By the time they were through, they'd scored four runs off him in that inning -- the first time any team had done that against Kershaw since July 24, 2012. That was 352 innings ago. Amazing.

• They even scored four runs, at one point, in a stretch of six hitters. Before that inning, only four of the previous 167 hitters Kershaw had faced had scored. Seriously.

• And they ground through so many ferocious at-bats, back-to-back-to-back, that, ultimately, it would take Kershaw 48 grueling pitches to get back to the dugout. Yep, 48. Last time he faced the Cardinals, he needed only 72 pitches to get through six innings.

"He just couldn't find that third strike, couldn't find that third out," said his catcher, A.J. Ellis. "But that's just a great team over there, a team that won't give anything away. They keep fouling balls off, working the count and finding hits. They have a great team philosophy over there.

"They have a great organizational philosophy about how they approach the offensive side of the game. And that's the reason you see them every October, playing baseball."

Two Octobers ago, when the Cardinals won their 11th World Series in franchise history, the man in the middle of it was also a man named Carpenter. But it was Chris, not Matt.

On this night, though, it was that other Carpenter's turn.

As he dug in to face Kershaw for his second at-bat of the night, there was one out and nobody on. And Matt Carpenter had one overpowering thought in mind: Whatever he did, he was going to make Clayton Kershaw sweat.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Ed Zurga/Getty ImagesSt. Louis wore out Clayton Kershaw, who threw 98 pitches in four-plus innings and induced just five swinging strikes.

"I was just trying not to strike out," Carpenter said with a laugh. "I mean, honestly. He struck me out in my first at-bat. He got ahead of me again. And I was like, 'Man, I'm not striking out.' And I just kept trying to fight through it and foul pitches off, and I was able to do it."

Yeah, you might say that. He would see 11 pitches in that at-bat. He would foul off eight of them, including seven in a row at one point.

He fouled off five fastballs. And two sliders. And one curve ball. And then, Kershaw came back with a slider, thigh-high and out over the plate. And Carpenter roped it into the right-field corner for his 58th double of 2013.

And the most memorable of his life.

"I definitely think that was a frustrating at-bat for him," Carpenter said. "I mean, he really was making good pitches. I was just finding ways to foul them off. And he kept coming at me. He kept fighting. And that was the ultimate fight, in terms of a battle in an at-bat, that I've ever had. And I definitely think it took something out of him."

"I was inside [the clubhouse], watching that at-bat on TV," said Freese. "And at the moment Carp got that hit, you could see Kershaw's reaction. He was like: 'You've got to be kidding me.' That was amazing. To string together an-bat like that against a pitcher that great is really tough."

As Carpenter's mano a mano with Kershaw went on and on, and on and on, and on and on and on, it turned into more than just an at-bat. It was a wave that kept growing, a storm that kept building, an event within an event that swept up every man, woman and child who witnessed it.

"The crowd was getting into it," Carpenter said. "And every pitch I fouled off, they got louder and louder. And that kind of sharpened my focus. And the other part was just the guy I was competing against. He's the best pitcher in baseball, and I know that he's not going to give in, either. He just finally made a mistake, and I was able to hit it. It was an exciting thing to be a part of."

But as Carpenter pulled into second base, pounding his palms together, all he'd really done is get this ball rolling. It was still a 0-0 game. And somebody had to follow that act.

So who better than Carlos Beltran, chasing a World Series dream of his own on this epic evening?

"I'll tell you what," Beltran would say later, amidst the most joyous celebration he'd ever been a part of, on the night he knew he would finally play in his first World Series. "When Carpenter fought through that at-bat, all it did for me was give me a lot more confidence. Watching him fight for that at-bat and being able to come through, I just went up there with the same mentality. I said, 'Man, you need to fight. Right now.'"

Beltran's fight would last just four pitches, not 11. But pitch No. 4 was a 2-1 fastball at the knees that he was able to slap barely past the grasp of the second baseman, Mark Ellis, for the single that started the Cardinals' many orbits of the bases.

"And when I saw that ball go into right field," Beltran would say, after his 37th career postseason RBI, "I was so happy that I got that run in off of this guy, who is so tough."

But for Kershaw, the horror show was only beginning. Yadier Molina singled in a second run. Freese bounced a hit into left. Matt Adams worked a walk that filled the bases. Then Shane Robinson, starting his first game of the postseason, sneaked a two-run single through the right side that made it 4-0. And "the rest," Wainwright pronounced, "was history."

[+] EnlargeMichael Wacha
Elsa/Getty ImagesMichael Wacha, who allowed just three baserunners in seven innings, had more support than necessary.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly inexplicably left Kershaw out there until he'd absorbed a seven-run pounding in four-plus innings. It was the first time he'd allowed seven runs or more in fewer than five innings since May 4, 2010 -- 129 starts ago.

In fact, it was just the fourth time in postseason history that any starting pitcher had allowed seven runs or more, without finishing the fifth inning, in a deciding game. The other three were David Wells in the 2002 ALDS, Charles Nagy in the 1999 ALDS and Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown, in the 1906 World Series. So this would go down as the worst loss ever, and worst performance ever, for a Cy Young Award winner in a game like this. Hard to believe.

"But that's just the mark of a great team," said A.J. Ellis, the man who caught Kershaw on this night and many other far better nights. "They never give up an at-bat over there. That's why they are who they are."

Funny he should say that, because throughout the Cardinals' season, throughout their journey to the best record in the National League, there were people who scoffed at their .330 batting average with runners in scoring position -- the highest average in those situations by any team in the past 30 seasons.

They heard that feat being called fluke-ish and unsustainable. And there were times, during this offensively challenged postseason (in which they'd hit a piddling .193/.270/.312 before this game), that those labels seemed more accurate than ever.

But then there are nights like this one, when the toughness of this group in the biggest moments reminds you that while the numbers might not be sustainable, the philosophy and the culture of the St. Louis Cardinals are as enduring as it gets in this sport.

They won a World Series two years ago with Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman and Chris Carpenter. They're about to try to win another one with Michael Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Beltran.

"I sit around here sometimes and look around at all the new faces," said Freese. "And somebody told me we only have six players who are on this team [during this postseason] who played in that World Series in 2011. I think that's awesome. It's just a special thing to put this uniform on."

And it's always a special week in October, any October, when another World Series arrives in the baseball-crazed city of St. Louis, Mo. Well, here comes the Fall Classic again -- thanks to a third-inning assault on the best pitcher in baseball that will be replaying itself in the DVRs in all their brains for even longer than it took Clayton Kershaw to get that third out.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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