A victory from out of left field

LOS ANGELES -- James Loney was dead.

He wished he had hit the ball a little lower, maybe then it would bounce in front of Matt Holliday and he'd have a shot. He wished he had hit the ball a tick higher, because it's tailing away a bit, so maybe it would get over Holliday's glove and he would get on and there'd be reason to hope.

But he hit it right at Holliday. With two outs and his team down 2-1 in the ninth inning. He was dead. He knew it before he reached first base.

Only it turned out he wasn't.

It turned out he hit the ball to the perfect spot, on the ideal line, through that one thin chute in time and space where the white of the leather, the glare of the Dodger Stadium lights, the flash of 50,000 waving towels and the fading light of the Los Angeles October sky conspired to make the ball invisible, uncatchable.

And so it was that Holliday, the third-most proficient (14 runs saved) left fielder in baseball this year, and a guy who committed only one error in 62 games with the Cardinals this year, took the ball in the gut not the glove, watched it fall to the ground and scrambled in the grass after it.

And so it was that Loney, like some gobsmacked Lazarus, stood beaming and alive on second base just seconds later.
"I was shocked," he said, still breathing heavy, still grinning in a giddy Dodgers clubhouse afterward. "I couldn't believe it."

Neither could the 51,819 Los Angeles fans who lost their ever-loving minds at the sight of him standing there.

Neither could Holliday, who stood alone and dazed somewhere out in the middle of left field.

"It was kind of a half-liner, half-fly ball," Holliday said, still trying to make sense of the Cardinals' 3-2 loss, standing expressionless and pink in the cheeks in front of his locker after the game. "I got caught. I can catch a ball hit right at me. It went in the lights, and I couldn't see the ball. Hit me in the stomach. Couldn't see the ball. I was just hoping it would hit my glove."

What's the old William Carlos Williams line? So much depends …

Indeed. So much would have been different.

If the Loney liner had hit Holliday's glove, we'd be talking about a series tied at one win apiece and about an advantage for the Cardinals heading back to St. Louis.

We'd be waxing poetic about Adam Wainwright's extraordinary outing (8 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 7 K, 1 BB) when his team needed him most. After the Dodgers got past Chris Carpenter in Game 1, it fell to Wainwright to restore order, and he was more than up to the task.

Outside of an Andre Ethier home run in the fourth inning, Wainwright was dominant Thursday, wielding his curveball like some wicked scythe.

The Dodgers were 0-for-12 against the curve. Six of Wainwright's seven strikeouts were clinched on the bender. He threw it for strikes 27 of the 39 times he threw it, and the Dodgers swung and missed on half of the times they dared to offer at it at all (8 of 16).

"Wainwright was a horse today," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said afterward. "I mean, he was incredible."

"You just hope you can scratch something out from him," Los Angeles third baseman Casey Blake said. "He didn't give us anything."

But good as Wainwright was, the Dodgers managed to stay close, down just one run heading into the ninth, thanks to a strong 6 2/3 innings from second-year lefty Clayton Kershaw (9 H, 2 R, 4 K, 1 BB), and a shutdown eighth-inning appearance by closer Jonathan Broxton, who blanked the Cardinals' 3-4-5 hitters on nine pitches.

And that meant they were ready when Holliday lost the ball.

With Loney at second, Blake shook off a tough check-swing strike call and fought back from an 0-2 count to draw a nine-pitch walk from St. Louis closer Ryan Franklin.

"I had to step out and calm down a little bit," Blake said. "Talk to myself and say, 'Relax. See the ball.'"

Next came Ronnie Belliard. Eager for the chance to turn promise into reality, he inside-outed the first pitch (a curveball, ironically) he saw from Franklin.

"I don't know. I think my last two at-bats I just swing at everything I see," he confessed in the postgame interview room. "I went out there, hey, hopefully he'll flick me one and I'll stay through it, and that's what I did."

Tie score. Fans losing their religion all over the joint. Towels waving. Seats shaking.

"Loudest I've ever heard Dodger Stadium," center fielder Matt Kemp said with a giggle when it was over.

Then it was Mark Loretta's turn to step into the spotlight Holliday had inadvertently turned on.

Loretta is 38 years old. This was the fifth postseason game he has played in in a 17-year major league career. And oh by the way, he stepped into the box knowing he was 0-for-15 lifetime against Franklin.

But something had been set in motion when Loney's ball knocked the wind out of Holliday. And Loretta was just riding the wave. Of course he would get a hit.

"I really didn't have a lot of nerves," he explained later. "Once Casey got on base, we really felt like the pressure shifted to them. Felt like we were in the driver's seat."

Second pitch. Single fisted up and over second base and onto the center-field grass. Mob scene between first and second base. Loretta buried under a mountain of teammates.

Loretta called it the biggest hit of his career, and it was one of the bigger hits in Dodgers postseason history. Only once before has a major league team that trailed with two outs in the ninth inning or later been the beneficiary of a botched play and gone on to win that game. The other time was Mickey Owen's infamous passed ball in Game 4 of the 1941 World Series against the Yankees.

But come-from-behind wins and walkoffs are nothing new for the 2009 Dodgers. This is how they do it. They've won five games this year in which they trailed in the ninth inning or later. And they led the major leagues with 12 walkoff victories in the regular season.

"We've won a lot of close games and walkoffs," Loretta said. "We feel like we're never out of it. We feel like if we keep it close, we always have a chance."

Ethier, whose 22nd Dodger Stadium home run of the season kept the team within striking distance Thursday, echoed him: "We've had a lot of practice at this over the course of the season. No one panics. Everyone wants to go up there and have fun. Everyone on this club wants to be the guy in that situation."

The Cardinals, no matter what happened Thursday, feel the same way. They're hurting, knowing how close they came, how cruel that diving invisible ball was, but they're not shrinking.

While Loretta and his teammates walked on air in the Dodger clubhouse, Holliday stood tall in front of his locker, owning the moment. And his teammates were right there with him.

"Matt Holliday is an outstanding major league baseball player," Franklin said. "It was a fluke thing."

"This is a team game. No matter how you win it or lose it," Wainwright said. "We had our chances."

The Cardinals are not going anywhere. They know the next time out it might be one of them who rises from the dead, one of the Dodgers who watches victory slip through his grasp.

"Anybody who thinks this series is over has got another thing coming," Wainwright said as he dressed for the Cardinals' long trip home. Not boastful, but not bowed either. "It's a tough one, but this team has too much resolve to give up now."

Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.