Cardinals go the distance

PHILADELPHIA -- These are the baseball games that take that special journey through history, a ride only the October classics get to take.

They don't come along often. Maybe every 10 years. Or every 20. Or every 50. So when you see them, you want to freeze them and savor the feeling, hang onto the memory -- because they won't come around again for a long, long time.

When Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay took the mound on a pressure-packed -- not to mention squirrel-free -- Friday night in Philadelphia, it was easy to imagine they might just conspire to do something great and everlasting. But could you have imagined this?

Could you have imagined an unforgettable 1-0 instant classic, baked in the hearth of a sudden-death, Game 5 NLDS pressure cooker?

Could you have imagined the first 1-0 complete-game shutout in a Game 5 or Game 7 win-or-else postseason setting since the legendary Jack Morris-John Smoltz epic, two decades deep in the rearview mirror -- and just the third such game in history?

Could you have imagined two longtime pals, hooking up for the duel of their lifetimes -- in a game that would send one man's team home and dunk the other in a tank of Ariel Brut Cuvee?

And could you have imagined that, when 11:06 p.m. arrived in the Eastern Time Zone, it would be the Best Team in Baseball trying to digest the shock of a first-round execution, while the reincarnated St. Louis Cardinals group-hugged their way toward their next October adventure in Milwaukee?

What an amazing story, shaped forever by a truly amazing night.

"That team we beat -- they're tough," Albert Pujols said, after the 1-0 nail-gnawer over the Phillies that kept the Cardinals' magic carpet floating through the October sky. "But you know what? We're tough, too."

By now, you know the improbable path these Cardinals took to get here. By now, you know all about the 10.5-game hole they climbed out of in the season's final 31 games, the three-game deficit with six to play, the Carpenter shutout in Game 162 in Houston that finally propelled them into this tournament.

But remember too that just three days ago, they trailed in this series, 2 games to 1 -- and knew the only route to survival was to find a way to beat Roy Oswalt and Halladay back to back in Games 4 and 5.

The odds of that seemed even longer than the Pacific Coast Highway. But in the mind of the manager, a vision was lurking -- and it was a vision of this night.

From the moment Tony La Russa set his rotation for this series, this was what he had in mind -- just to get to this time, this place, this matchup:

To a Game 5 duel for the ages, Carpenter against Halladay.

If his team could just scramble its way into this setting, Tony La Russa figured, anything was possible.

"When you pick your rotation in a five-game series," La Russa said Friday night, his champagne-soaked jersey still on his back, "it really comes down to this: If Carpenter doesn't pitch twice in that series … our chances of winning are not good."

So the manager spun his roulette wheel and took the gamble that made this night possible. He pointed Carpenter toward the mound in Game 2, on short rest for the first time ever. And even though that maneuver didn't exactly work out the way he had planned it in his brain, it all worked out beautifully in the big picture.

Because it set up this.

Pitching Carpenter in Game 2 allowed La Russa to bring his ace back again in this game. And the biggest reason La Russa knew he needed Carpenter in this game was that he also knew it would be Halladay sitting there waiting for him.

Asked after Friday's game if it was this Roy Halladay -- in all his Cy Young glory -- that was what he was worried about, La Russa just nodded.

"Yes," he said. "Unfortunately."

It was no stretch to imagine Halladay painting another eight-inning, six-hit, one-run October masterpiece in a game of this magnitude. It was trying to comprehend that the man he was facing would be even better -- that was the hard part.

But Carpenter is a man who had no fear of this stage, of this lineup or of this duel with one of his closest friends on earth. And so, as spectacular as Halladay would pitch on this night, he wasn't the best pitcher on the field.

Not on a night when Carpenter would unfurl nine innings of three-hit-shutout brilliance of his own -- when only a performance that dominant would do.

As people all around him tried to shower words like "historic" on him afterward, Carpenter went into deflection mode, tried his best to describe this night as merely "another game," another step to "move on to the next round."

But his teammates knew different. Asked if he felt as if he'd just been a part of something special, Skip Schumaker -- the man who would drive in the only run -- understood precisely what he'd just been a part of.

"I felt that coming into this game," he said. "And for them to come out and do what they did, with all the pressure on both of them, was even more incredible."

But just howww incredible was it? Let's try to digest it.

• This was the 340th start of Carpenter's tremendous career, counting the postseason. But it was his FIRST 1-0 shutout.

• And that team he beat, the Phillies, was shut out only seven times all season, tied for the third-fewest times in baseball.

• But this, remember, was on the Phillies' turf. And in their home park, they were shut out just twice after May 22 -- both after they'd clinched first place. One of those two games was started by a fellow named Chris Carpenter.

• Only once in the last three years, since they won the 2008 World Series, had the Phillies lost a 1-0 game in this park -- that one on Aug. 7, 2010, to Johan Santana and the Mets. But no pitcher had gone all nine innings against them to win a 1-0 game in Philadelphia in a decade and a half -- since June 29, 1996, a day when Curt Schilling got outpitched by (who else?) Jeff Fassero.

• And now let's add in the October history that brings it all home. In the many, many winner-take-all postseason games ever played, just two other pitchers had ever closed out a series by going the distance to win a 1-0 game. One was Ralph Terry, in Game 7 of the 1962 World Series. The other was Jack Morris, in that indelible Game 7 in 1991. And we're still talking about both of them.

But this was actually the Morris-Smoltz game in reverse. Twenty years ago in that game, the only run was scored on the final play of the game. This game, on the other hand, would turn out, amazingly, to be the only postseason game ever played where the only run would be scored before either team made AN OUT.

You do everything you can. You know every pitch is going to mean something, and you're hoping we'd get back in it and overcome it. It's definitely a tough way to go.

-- Roy Halladay

One second, there was Halladay, finishing up his warm-up tosses in a jam-packed ballpark, throbbing with energy. Four pitches later, Rafael Furcal was pounding a triple up the gap in right-center. And that fast, the Cardinals had made a whole city nervous.

Just six days earlier, Furcal had led off Game 1 with a hit against Halladay -- and he fully understood the importance of setting that early tone.

"My approach was to look for something I could drive, because that guy is one of the best in the business," said Furcal, his lost season brought back to life by the July deal that airlifted him out of Los Angeles. "He knows how to get out every hitter. He controls every pitch that he throws. Even 3-0, you don't even know what kind of pitch he's gonna throw, because he can control anything. But I think he tried to come inside with a cutter, and he left it in the middle of the plate. It was a little high, but I make a good swing, and the ball jumped out of my bat."

So there he was, hip-hopping off third as Schumaker settled in for what would become the most important at-bat of the night. Halladay jumped ahead 0-2, but never could put the pesky Schumaker away.

Schumaker fouled off one two-strike pitch. Then another. And another. And another. And yet another. Finally, after five two-strike foul balls, he stroked the 10th pitch of the at-bat into the right-field corner for an RBI double. And as he pulled into second base, he was still trying to digest what he had just done.

"Are you kidding? Against Doc Halladay?" Schumaker laughed later. "I was happy just to put the barrel of the bat on the ball."

Asked if there'd been one or two ferocious pitches he couldn't believe he had been lucky enough to foul off, Schumaker shook his head in disbelief.

"Yeah," he said, laughing again. "Probably, seven of the 10."

But as it turned out, the one pitch he got to hit was enough to change the course of two teams' seasons -- because it was the end of the offense for this night.

Halladay would be seriously threatened in only one more inning, when the Cardinals loaded the bases in the eighth. But even 120 pitches into his night, he had enough left to strike out Lance Berkman then lure Matt Holliday into a soft fly ball. He strung together seven consecutive zeroes after that first inning. But even nine zeroes wouldn't have beaten Carpenter in this game.

Afterward, Halladay stared into his locker for nearly a half-hour, in near-disbelief over what had just transpired.

"You do everything you can," he said. "You know every pitch is going to mean something, and you're hoping we'd get back in it and overcome it. It's definitely a tough
way to go."

He'd known from the first pitch that the other guy on the mound would be ready. But he couldn't possibly have known that first-inning run would reverberate not just through the rest of this night, but through the rest of this postseason and beyond.

And that was because Chris Carpenter took that 1-0 lead and wouldn't let go.

Oh, there were moments in which his defense rose up to make his job a little easier. There was Yadier Molina's laser beam in the sixth to throw out Chase Utley stealing. There was Furcal's diving, whirling, acrobatic play to rob Carlos Ruiz in the eighth. There was Carpenter's own kick save of a Jimmy Rollins bullet up the middle later in the eighth that second baseman Nick Punto charged and turned into a huge out.

And then there were two long, hold-your-breath rockets, off the bats of Raul Ibanez in the fourth inning and Utley in the ninth, that came within a few feet each of rewriting this entire story. Asked later if those balls had made his heart race as they soared through the night, La Russa replied: "That's a nice way to put it."

But mostly, Carpenter just did what he does best -- threw strike one, lured the Phillies into what he called "swing mode," sinkerballed his way to 16 ground ball outs and pitched himself into the history books on what even he admitted was "an unbelievable night."

Yeah, he tried his best to convince us that he wasn't the story, that all that mattered was "getting this team to the next round." But that spin wasn't working real well, because Chris Carpenter had just had himself a night that will go careening through time, its place cemented in October lore.

Well, we know one man who will never forget it, anyway -- his manager.

It was a night La Russa had been waiting for all week, and when he woke up Friday morning, he felt as if game time would never come. So he went for a walk through the streets of Philadelphia, even though he recognized that had a chance to be "kind of dangerous."

What he found on those streets, though, was a steady stream of Philadelphians who were in the mood to be gentle -- because they had total faith, they told him, that Halladay was about to send La Russa's team, and his ace, home for the winter. Boy, were they in for a shock, courtesy of Christopher John Carpenter.

"They were all confident they were gonna beat us," La Russa reported.

"But you know what?" he chuckled. "If they had a crystal ball, they might not have been so nice."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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