Sunday, October 13, 2013

NLCS Game 1: Beltran 3, Dodgers 2

By Jeff Kallman

You'd be hard pressed to find any member of the St. Louis Cardinals in deep shock that Carlos Beltran saw fit to win Game 1 of the National League Championship Series just about by himself. They're not necessarily surprised that Beltran decided, somehow, to drive in all three St. Louis runs. They're not even taken aback that, just for good measure, Beltran himself cut down the would-be Los Angeles Dodgers two-all tiebreaker.

But they might have wished he hadn't taken thirteen innings to do it.

"Understand," Beltran said after his single down the right field line off Dodger reliever Kenley Jensen meant a 3-2 Cardinals win, "this is not about me. In order for a team to win a ballgame, a lot of things need to happen right, the right way. We have to pitch, we have to play defense, and we have to come through offensively."

It took almost five hours to get the game to the two on, one out, game-winning stroke. At the rate things were going until the bottom of the 13th began in earnest, there may have been reasonable fears that both teams were going to empty their bullpens and start reaching for starting pitchers.

And it was a game that looked at times as though the Cardinals were so anxious to make the Dodgers feel welcome in Busch Stadium that they were trying to hand them the game on a platter. When the Dodgers weren't looking so anxious to be honorable guests that they seemed trying to hand the Cardinals likewise.

Rookie Joe Kelly, the Cardinals' starter, wasn't exactly working spotlessly against Dodgers starter Zack Greinke, when he ran into third-inning trouble with Crawford doubling a one-strike pitch to left and moving to third on an infield groundout, before Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez walked back to back to load the pads.

Kelly got lucky when Yasiel Puig bounced one right back his way, but then he forged his own rotten luck when he threw a certain double play ball home instead of ending the inning. Oh, sure, he nailed Crawford. But he fed Jose Uribe a fat enough first pitch to swat up the pipe for a two-run single.

Lucky for Kelly that Greinke ran into bottom of the third trouble after striking out both David Freese and Pete Kozma to open. Kelly himself singled his way on, Matt Carpenter wrung a full count walk, and Greinke then fell into the hole 3-1 to Beltran. Beltran promptly blasted the next pitch off the top of the right center field wall to send Kelly and Carpenter home with the tying runs.

Kelly had company in his mental mistake misery in the seventh, by which time he was out of the game in favour of Randy Choate. Yadier Molina opened with a base hit to left but Jon Jay bounced one back to the box. Greinke had plenty of time to nail Molina for the force. Then Freese lined one to Puig playing right field, and Puig — you'd have thought he was a fifth infielder on this one — whipped a perfect strike into first to catch Jay flatfoot trying to scramble back to the pad.

That wasn't Jay's only mental mistake on the night. The usually astute Cardinals center fielder started on the bad path when Mark Ellis ripped a triple into left with one out in the 10th. Lucky for Jay, he had Beltran on the other side of the outfield and Michael Young, filling in for Adrian Gonzalez, coming to the plate after Hanley Ramirez was handed a free pass. Young lofted a fly to right center lazy enough for Beltran to call off Jay, haul it down and throw Ellis out at the plate.

They'll be scratching heads for days trying to conjugate why Dodgers manager Don Mattingly removed Gonzalez for pinch runner Dee Gordon in the Los Angeles eighth after Gonzalez worked out a leadoff walk … and elected not to hit and run with Puig at the plate against St. Louis reliever Carlos Gonzalez. Puig's force-out grounder left you wondering, why not hold onto Gonzalez and hit and run with him aboard and then lift him for the pinch runner?

Or hold onto Gonzalez, period? Michael Young isn't Adrian Gonzalez, and he isn't a whole lot of Michael Young anymore, either. Gonzalez had a better chance of not lofting that lazy fly to Beltran in the tenth. And lifting Gonzalez really hurt the Dodgers two innings later. Because after Carl Crawford opened with a base hit and took second on Ellis's sacrifice, guess who got the free pass again so the Cardinals could pitch to Young? And guess who was pitched to and dialed Area Code 6-4-3, on a night the Dodgers went 1-for-10 with men in scoring position?

Oh, yes. Between them, Kelly pitched stoutly enough and Greinke pitched the way you expect him to pitch, tenacious and unshakeable, even after he was pried for the tie in the third. Greinke lasted eight innings before the Dodgers began emptying the pen (Brian Wilson for two innings, J.P. Howell for one, Withrow for an inning and a third, and Jensen); Kelly lasted six before the Cardinals started their running of the bulls. (Choate, Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal for two, John Axford for one, Lance Lynn — once thought of as a possible Game One starter until manager Mike Matheny opted for Kelly — for two.)

Only nobody's going to remember those two. They may not even remember Puig, the Dodgers' super-rook, looking like a virtuoso veteran in right field, but an overanxious freshman going 0-for-6 at the plate. Beltran made bloody well sure of both.

"That's a preview," Beltran said after the game, practically predicting a seven-game dogfight between the two teams. "Today was a good game and that's what it's all about. They didn't want to lose and we didn't want to lose."

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