ST. LOUIS -- And so, after the sloppiness of Games 1 and 2, the kind of contest most expected to comprise the entirety of this World Series between baseball's two best teams arrived in Game 3. Until the ninth inning, anyway.
Then came perhaps the most bizarre ending to a game in the 109-year history of the Series.
The Cardinals won it in the bottom of the ninth, 5-4, on an obstruction call at third base against Will Middlebrooks that allowed the winning run to score in front of 47,432 delirious (and somewhat confused at the end) fans at Busch Stadium.
The Cardinals lead the best-of-seven series two games to one and are halfway to their third championship in eight years. Game 4 will be played Sunday night.
"Tough pill to swallow," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "I don't know how he [Middlebrooks] gets out of the way when he's lying on the ground. I guess by the letter of the rule, you could say it's obstruction."
The rule in question is Rule 2.00, which was applied correctly.
"With the defensive player on the ground, without intent or [with] intent, it's still obstruction," said third-base umpire Jim Joyce, who made the call immediately. "The baserunner has every right to go unobstructed to home plate, and unfortunately for Middlebrooks, he was right there. There was contact, so he could not advance to home plate naturally."
The wild final play occurred with one out in the ninth, closer Koji Uehara on the mound and runners at second and third.
With the infield in, Jon Jay sent a ground smash to second, and Dustin Pedroia threw home to get Yadier Molina for the second out. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia then fired to third to try to retire Allen Craig, but his wide throw hit the sliding Craig on the left arm and deflected into leftfield. As Craig got up to come home, Middlebrooks, lying on the ground with his legs up, got his feet tangled with Craig, causing him to stumble.
Daniel Nava's throw home from leftfield beat the sliding Craig, but plate umpire Dana DeMuth called him safe, signaling that Joyce had called obstruction. That incensed the Red Sox and Farrell.
"There's nothing I could have done differently," said Middlebrooks, though he later said he was under the impression there had to be intent on an obstruction call. "You've got to go for that ball. You can't just let it go."
Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, read from Rule 2.00. "An infielder dives at a ground ball and the ball passes him, and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner," Torre read.
The only interpretation, Joyce and crew chief John Hirschbeck said, is whether the runner would have advanced. Because it was a close play at the plate with the obstruction, that was a no-brainer.
"Since it was right there, bang-bang play, obviously that's obstruction, definitely had something to do with the play," Hirschbeck said.
Saltalamacchia said he initially was confused -- and still was afterward. "At the end of the day, if it was obstruction, then yeah, you got to call it, it's part of the game," he said. "But looking at the replay, I don't know the rulebook in and out, but it didn't look to me like obstruction."
The bizarre ninth capped a game of comebacks, with the Red Sox rallying twice -- from 2-0 down to tie it in the sixth and from 4-2 down to tie it in the eighth.
Red Sox starter Jake Peavy allowed two runs, both in the first inning, and six hits in four innings. Cardinals righty Joe Kelly allowed two runs and two hits in 51/3 innings.
Game 3s have proved critical in the past. The team that has won Game 3 in a World Series that had been tied at 1-1 has gone on to win 37 times (67.3 percent), including the last four times and 11 of the last 12 years. The exception was the Yankees in 2003.
"Obviously, we're mad right now, but you got to have that ability to be able to walk out of the clubhouse and forget about it," Saltalamacchia said. "But it's a lesson, it's a lesson you go through. I think we'll be all right."
With David Lennon