ST. LOUIS -- It was a World Series game that ended on a run scored by a runner who never crossed home plate.
It was a World Series walk-off, by a guy who could barely walk.
It was a World Series game with an ending so wild and crazy, even the team that won wasn't quite sure how it won.
It ended with the baseball flying in all directions, with a runner and a third baseman tangled up in the dirt, with one team sprinting out of its dugout to celebrate while the other team pointed fingers at the umpire who made a call that will go down in World Series history.
It was madness. It was mayhem. It was unforgettable. And it was almost incomprehensible. All at once.
"Oh, man, honestly, I didn't know what happened," said the Cardinals' Carlos Beltran, after his team's unreal 5-4 victory over the Red Sox on a heart-pounding Saturday night. "I saw the guys celebrating, so I just went out there and celebrated. But I'm like, 'We win. I don't know how we win. But we did.' It's amazing, man."
Yeah, that about covers it, all right. They won. But they didn't know how they won. So let's try to explain it to them, and to everyone else -- because you can watch baseball for the next 17 centuries and never see another game end like this one.
It ended on an obstruction call, and what appears, pretty much indisputably, to be a correct obstruction call, made by third-base umpire Jim Joyce on Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks.
And here's the most important thing you need to know about that call: It doesn't matter if Middlebrooks intended to interfere with the Cardinals' Allen Craig or not. Got that?
It. Doesn't. Matter.
It doesn't matter that Middlebrooks was just doing everything he could to catch an uncatchable throw to third by catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
It doesn't matter that that throw led Middlebrooks right into the runner, and that it was basically unavoidable that he found himself lying in the dirt, flat on his belly, as Craig was trying to scramble to his feet and race home.
It. Doesn't. Matter.
All that matters, Joyce would explain patiently later, is that "the baserunner has every right to go unobstructed to home plate, and, unfortunately, for Middlebrooks, he was right there, and there was contact, so he could not advance to home plate naturally."
So whether anyone meant to initiate any of that contact, it's irrelevant. Once Will Middlebrooks tripped up Allen Craig, and once the umpires determined that he would have scored without that contact, nothing else mattered. And this game was over.
Middlebrooks was charged with the first game-ending interference error in postseason history. Craig became the first man to score the winning run of any World Series game on any kind of error since Ray Knight rampaged home to win the Bill Buckner game in 1986. And however it was that came about, it doesn't change this:
The Cardinals now lead this World Series, two games to one. And one of the most critical umpiring calls in postseason history has just shoved the Red Sox into a hole that history tells us is shockingly difficult to climb out of.
Eighteen teams in the division-play era went into Game 3 tied at one game apiece. Sixteen times, the team that won Game 3 went on to win the World Series. So as hard as this finish would have been to digest for the Red Sox on any night of any year, it was even more painful because of the time, the place and the setting.
"For a game to end like that, wow," said Red Sox third baseman Xander Bogaerts, on an evening when he'd become the youngest player in World Series history to drive in the game-tying run in the eighth inning or later. "[It's the] World Series. I mean, it's not the regular season, game 15 or game 20, you know. It's the World Series, Game 3. I don't know about that ending. To me, it wasn't correct.
"That's a bad way to lose a game," Bogaerts said. "And in a World Series? That makes it even worse."
And you know what else makes it doubly worse? Because of how it ended, there might be like four people on Planet Earth who will ever remember what an awesome game this was for about 3 ½ hours.
The Red Sox's two late-inning comebacks from two-run deficits? All but forgotten. Matt Holliday's two gigantic tie-breaking hits? A footnote. Bogaerts' dramatic game-tying single off Trevor Rosenthal with two outs in the bottom of the eighth? Another faded memory.
And that's too bad, because this was a remarkable postseason baseball game, especially if you were in the middle of it.
"I don't know how to describe it," said Holliday. "It's nerve-wracking. It's fun. It's exciting. It covers the gamut of emotions, when you're trying to win. And it's frustrating. It's exciting. There's all kinds of emotions, especially in a game like that, when you're down, you're up, you're down. So it's quite an emotional roller coaster."
But then that roller coaster came screeching to a halt in the bottom of the ninth. And all those emotions would overflow, practically before your eyes.
There was Craig, unable to start at first base because of a lingering foot injury that has limited his ability to play defense, coming off the bench to line Koji Uehara's very first pitch into the left-field corner for a huge double.
And then there was Jon Jay, thumping Uehara's killer splitter toward the middle of the diamond, to kick off the surreal chain of events that would end this game.
One second, Dustin Pedroia seemed to have saved this game with one of those classic Pedroia moments -- willing himself to make a lunging, backhanded stab of Jay's sizzling two-hopper, then picking himself up to nail Molina at the plate.
But before the Red Sox could even begin to exhale in relief, Saltalamacchia was making a decision that could induce nightmares all over New England for about the next decade.
He decided it was time to launch an ill-advised heave toward Middlebrooks in a futile attempt to keep Craig from advancing to third base. And once that throw tailed away from Middlebrooks and caused that two-car collision in the breakdown lane, virtually everything else that had happened in this game had just become officially irrelevant.
So now let's hear from the people who lived through this manic October moment:
From Middlebrooks: "I mean, what am I supposed to do? ... I was just trying to get myself up. The first thing I thought was [the ball] hit the baserunner, and it was somewhere around close. I was just going to get up and pick it up. As I'm trying to get back up, I get pushed back down, because he was going over me. "I feel if the baserunner was in the baseline, he's going over my feet at the most. He was inside where I dove for the ball. There was no place for me to go. ... I don't understand it. I don't understand it. I have to dive for that ball. I'm not in the baseline. I feel like if he's in the baseline, he's at my feet. So, I don't understand it."
From Saltalamacchia: "From what I saw on the replay, Will was laying on his stomach, and he lifted his head up. He didn't lift his body up, didn't try to jump out of the way. Allen was on the inside part of the base and tried to jump over him and tripped. I don't see how that's obstruction when he's laying on the ground."
And from Craig, the guy who never did quite make it to home plate but scored the winning run anyway: "I felt like I was running home in slow motion. I'm just trying to make a play. It wasn't the prettiest way to finish, but we won the game."
Asked if he thought Middlebrooks had tried to trip him on purpose, Craig replied: "I don't think I can say that, because I wasn't focused on that. I was like, 'I gotta get home,' and he was in my way. I can't tell you if he was trying to trip me or not. I was just trying to get over him and score. I haven't even seen the play, to be honest with you."
And one reason he hadn't had time to see it, even a half-hour after the game, was that he appeared to re-injure his foot somewhere along the way and needed to get it treated. He limped badly on the way to the plate, staggered more than slid home, and was still lying, face-first, in the dirt as both a celebration and a rhubarb erupted around him.
"I don't think people realize how tough that guy is or how tough this injury is," second baseman Matt Carpenter would say of Craig later. "So to me, this was Kirk Gibson-esque. For him to come off the bench and to hit a double, and then score and hustle and basically look like he blew himself out trying to score the winning run, that's what the postseason is all about. That was a gutsy performance."
Craig's status for Game 4 and beyond wasn't immediately clear. But his status as an official October St. Louis folk hero was as clear as it gets. And his status as a Gibson-esque figure was also made official by the Elias Sports Bureau with this little nugget:
Craig was the first player to rap an extra-base hit as a pinch-hitter and then score the game-ending, game-winning run in the same inning of a World Series game since -- you guessed it -- Kirk Gibson hit that "I don't believe what I just saw" home run off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1, 1988. So there you go.
But Gibson's hit, of course, wasn't just a walk-off. It was one of the most famous walk-off hits in World Series history. But would "walk-off" be the right word to describe what happened on this night, when a World Series game ended on a pile-up at third base, a man lurching home on a sprained foot and an umpire's call?
"Yeah, that was a walk-off," said Matt Holliday. "But it was actually kind of a fall-off."
And that's exactly what it was -- an ending that gave new meaning to that term, "Fall" Classic -- in more ways than one.