Commentary

Cardinals endure in NLCS Game 3

Defeat Giants 3-1 despite loss of Beltran, long rain delay, stretched bullpen

Updated: October 18, 2012, 7:58 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- So what won't those St. Louis Cardinals put themselves through to win a postseason baseball game, huh?

That whole one-strike-away thing? Mastered. That death-defying, six-runs-behind-and-live-to-tell-about-it act? Done.

That fabled infield-fly-rule magic? Been there. Done it. And that old gong-the-starter-in-the-second-inning trick? Perfected that one, too.

So you know all that nutty stuff that happened to them in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday? Why the heck would that be a big deal?

A 3½-hour rain delay in the bottom of the seventh inning? … A starting pitcher who allows 12 baserunners in 5⅔ innings? … The scary sight of Carlos "Mr. October" Beltran grabbing his knee and leaving the game in the second inning? … And ripping through the bullpen before the raindrops and then having to ask the closer to rip off the first six-out save of his life?

No problema.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Beltran
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsCarlos Beltran's day ended after his first at-bat, a 4-6-3 double play. He left the game with a left knee strain.

"That's the fun of it. You can win a game so many different ways," the Cardinals' David Freese said after his team's leisurely 6½-hour journey to a 3-1 win over the Giants on Wednesday.

Well, yes, you can, ladies and gentlemen. And the Cardinals are living proof. Now, Freese also said something about how "you can lose a game so many different ways." But that doesn't seem to apply to this team. Not at this time of year.

You can throw an endless parade of aces at these guys. You can waterlog them. You can practically drown them. Doesn't seem to matter. You look up, and they're shaking hands at the end of another fascinating evening in October.

Not so long ago, they were scrambling to become the last team to sneak into this postseason field. Now they hold a 2-1 lead in this NLCS, and they're two games from a trip to a second straight World Series, after a game that wasn't just strange. It was pivotal.

And why was that? Over the past 13 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, 20 previous best-of-seven series have been tied at one game apiece. The team that won Game 3 in those series has gone on to win 17 of 20 times. Oh. That's why.

So afterward, the Cardinals could yuk it up about how they killed a 208-minute rain delay: Eating pretty much every food-like item in the clubhouse. … Listening to Chris Carpenter and Jake Westbrook sing. (Sorry. Set list not available. This isn't Backstreets.com.) … Playing every iPhone game ever invented. … And watching a YouTube clip Allen Craig dug up, of a guy mistakenly diving into a frozen swimming pool, about 612 times.

But through all the frivolity and all the calories and all the raindrops, they never lost sight of the important part of this crazy, endless day:

"In the back of our minds, we knew what was coming up," Freese said. "And that's the end of the game. … So I think everybody in here -- we had a lot of laughs. But we knew we still had work to do."

Actually, as it turned out, they'd already done most of the hard work, by taking a 3-1 lead before the monsoon arrived. And their most important wave of the bat all day came from a man who had no idea he'd be playing such an important role in this game.

That would be Matt Carpenter, one of this team's many secret weapons -- a 26-year-old thumper who keeps climbing off the bench, filling in at four different positions and opening eyes every time he swings a bat.

Carpenter had started only one game in the previous 18 days. And he didn't start this one, either. But in the bottom of the first inning, Beltran tweaked his chronically troublesome left knee while running to first base. And moments later, manager Mike Matheny was sending Carpenter out to play right field.

"It was definitely a surprise," Carpenter would say later. "I didn't even realize that Carlos had hurt himself. Next thing you know, Mike came up to me and told me to grab my glove, and I was going in right field."

It could have been a devastating development, losing a guy such as Beltran, who just happens to be the all-time leader in career postseason OPS (1.327). And it still could be, because Matheny clearly seemed worried afterward about Beltran's availability for the rest of this series and maybe beyond. (More info on him expected Thursday.)

But the depth of this team -- particularly in all its young boppers and smokeballing relievers -- continues to show up when the games mean the most. And Carpenter was just the latest and greatest example.

He went marching up there against Giants ace Matt Cain with two outs in the third inning, for the first NLCS at-bat of his lifetime. And what did he do? He cranked a monstrous two-run homer that sailed all the way over the right-field bullpen -- the longest home run (true distance: 429 feet) hit by a Cardinals left-handed hitter all season at Busch Stadium, and the second-longest homer hit by anyone in the 41 postseason games since the park opened in 2006. (The longest: 439 feet, by Andre Ethier, in the 2009 NLCS.)

That rocket gave the Cardinals a 2-1 lead that was destined to hold up. And as the man who hit it rounded the bases, he was having trouble digesting what had just happened to him.

"Man, that was crazy," said Carpenter, who is now an incredible 5-for-6 in his career against Cain. "It was just one of those deals. I'm out there battling. I get down, 0 and 2. I battle back in the at-bat. And the next thing I know, I'm jogging around the bases. It was surreal, man."

[+] EnlargeMatt Carpenter
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMatt Carpenter, filling in for injured Carlos Beltran, blasted a two-run homer in the second inning that put the Cardinals up 2-1.

But if it was, it just fit right into this game -- because this whole extravaganza was one giant surreality show from start to finish.

Take Kyle Lohse's fun little outing, for instance. Historians will tell us he started and won this game. But how, exactly?

In 5⅔ innings, he allowed 12 -- count 'em, 12 -- Giants to reach base. He also issued five walks -- for the first time in four years and only the third time in the 174 starts (regular season and postseason) he has made over the past six years. Yet, somehow or other, he gave up only one run. And got a win out of it.

Here's how amazing that was: In the history of postseason baseball, only one other pitcher has allowed that many baserunners in fewer than six innings and emerged as the winning pitcher. That happened as recently as 1929 -- when George Earnshaw did it for those late, great Philadelphia A's in Game 2 of the World Series.

"When you have a game like that," Lohse said afterward, "100 pitches feels like 200."

Lohse finally exited with two outs and two on in the sixth. And his manager reacted by ripping through his three most trusted setup men -- Trevor Rosenthal, Edward Mujica and Mitchell Boggs -- just to get the next four outs.

Which would have been precarious enough even if the sky overhead hadn't looked like a scene from "Twister."

But because it wasn't exactly a secret that enough water was about to pour out of the sky to float a fleet of riverboats, it was getting a little dicey out there.

With a forecast that ominous, "you've definitely got it in the back of your mind," Freese said. "You want to do what you can before the rain hits. But this is the Midwest, man. So you never really know. That's probably the best job in the city [i.e., weatherman]. Get it wrong all year, and just stick around."

Well, this just in: The local weather geniuses didn't get this one wrong.

And as the next 3½ waterlogged hours unfolded, it became increasingly clear that Boggs -- who had finished off the top of the seventh with two important strikeouts -- wasn't going to be able to come back after the skies cleared.

So who did that leave to pitch the eighth? Al Hrabosky? Bruce Sutter? Lindy McDaniel? Nope. Not available. But Jason Motte was.

p>That was news to Motte, though -- for the first three hours of this rain delay, at least.

"I was actually just sitting in here [in the clubhouse], and someone said, 'You got two innings in you?'" Motte reported later. "And I was like, 'Huh?' So I said, 'OK. Sure. I might have two innings in me.'"

And so he did. Motte had saved 58 games (counting the postseason) over the past two seasons. But all 58 of them had one thing in common: None of them were two-inning saves.

Uh, not anymore. He stomped to the mound, after four previous Cardinals pitchers had allowed 14 baserunners and zero 1-2-3 innings -- and just took over the game.

He blitzed through a 1-2-3 eighth inning in nine pitches. He rampaged through a 1-2-3 ninth inning in 10. And that was that. He was only the second reliever since 1989 who was not named Mariano Rivera to record a perfect postseason save of six outs or more. The other, according to Elias: Byung-Hyun Kim, in Game 4 of the 2001 NLCS.

But afterward, it was news to Motte that he'd done anything particularly historic. He couldn't even remember ever waiting out a rain delay before, he said.

"I don't even know what happened yesterday," he said. "I didn't even know what day it was today until someone told me. … It doesn't matter to me. My job is to go out and make pitches and execute. When they tell me to pitch, I take it one at-bat at a time, one guy at a time. And I don't really think about anything else."

Well, on this day, that was probably a good thing -- because if he'd thought about everything that could have gotten in the way of what might have been a series-turning victory, his brain cells might have overloaded.

But as we've noticed over these past two Octobers, nothing seems to slow down the Cardinals. Not blown shoulders or knee ligaments. Not 19-minute litter delays or 208-minute monsoon delays. Nothing.

"Is there anything," someone asked Lohse after this marathon was over, "that could faze this team?"

"I don't know," Lohse said. "And I hope we never find out."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com