ST. LOUIS -- The marathon pressed on for 13 tension-packed innings. It featured 13 pitchers, two perfect throws from the outfield and one apparent phantom tag at home plate.
But ultimately it was October savant Carlos Beltran who brought an end to this rousing Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, lining a run-scoring single in the bottom of the 13th to push the Cardinals past the Dodgers, 3-2.
"I'm so glad he's on my team right now,'' said Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who knows Beltran as both a teammate and adversary. "This guy is unbelievable.''
In a virtuoso performance, Beltran prevented the Dodgers' potential go-ahead run from scoring in the 10th inning, then knocked in the winning run, giving him three RBIs.
"To me, it was a pitch right down the middle,'' said Beltran, who ripped Kenley Jansen's offering into rightfield to drive in Daniel Descalso.
Beltran raised his fist in the air, tossed his helmet aside, then waited for his teammates to mob him on the bases. Most of a sellout crowd of 46,491 lingered into the late night at Busch Stadium, dressed in red, prepared to wave white towels during every critical juncture.
Beltran's hit gave the Cardinals their fifth walk-off victory of the season and their first in the postseason since David Freese's 11th-inning homer stunned the Rangers in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. "It's the playoffs,'' Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter said. "And Carlos always finds a way to get it done.''
After Juan Uribe put the Dodgers on top 2-0 with a bases-loaded single in the third, Beltran fashioned a rapid response in the bottom of the inning, drilling Zack Greinke's 3-and-1 pitch off the top of the fence in right-center for a two-out, two-run double.
Cardinals starter Joe Kelly held the Dodgers to two runs in six innings but was outdone by Greinke, who had a season-high 10 strikeouts and allowed two runs in eight innings.
He got some help in the seventh when Yasiel Puig used his powerful arm to end a Cardinals rally. After sprinting in to snag Freese's liner to rightfield, he uncorked a strike to double off Jon Jay at first base.
Yet in the 10th, Beltran found a way to one-up Puig's throw. Jay's misplay in center led to Mark Ellis' triple. But when Ellis tried to tag up from third base on a flyout by Michael Young, Beltran uncorked a perfect one-hop throw to the plate.
On replays, it was unclear whether Molina actually tagged Ellis with his glove. But the throw clearly beat Ellis to the plate, Molina hung on when Ellis crashed into him, and the Cardinals dodged a bullet.
Of course, Young was hitting only because Dodgers manager Don Mattingly pulled cleanup hitter Adrian Gonzalez for pinch runner Dee Gordon in the eighth. But Gordon never even got the chance to steal second.
It proved to be a costly tactical error. With Gonzalez out, the Cardinals intentionally walked Hanley Ramirez twice, essentially neutralizing two bats in the Dodgers' lineup that were capable of changing the game with one swing.
Five innings later, Beltran delivered the fourth game-winning postseason RBI of his career, giving the Cardinals a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
"We joke it's like you've got to put a mirror under his nose to check if he's breathing because he's so calm, cool and relaxed,'' Carpenter said of Beltran. "It's like jazz music is playing in his head while he's out there.''