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Kolten Wong's walk-off wins wild one

ST. LOUIS -- Albert Pujols never hit a walk-off October home run for the St. Louis Cardinals. Mark McGwire? Nope. He never hit one, either. Stan Musial? Nah, not him, either.

But Kolten Wong, all 5-feet-9 of him? He'll be dancing around the bases for the rest of his life. Heart pounding. Arms waving. Helmet flying. Fireworks exploding. His feet almost forgetting to touch the bases, not to mention the earth itself.

This was Kolten Wong's freeze-frame October moment. At 10:50 p.m. Jubilation Daylight Time. On a Sunday night he'll never forget.

One minute, his team was trying to absorb the shock of losing Yadier Molina, then losing a hard-fought, one-run lead when a runner scored from second base, on a wild pitch, after a walk, with (gulp) two outs in the ninth. And if you can't imagine what that feels like, try simulating it on your Play Station some time.

But then, in a moment that would wash all that other stuff away (well, most of it), up stepped Kolten Wong, rookie second baseman, to do what so many Cardinals legends had never done:

End an incredible October baseball game with one magical wave of the bat. Send a fairy tale of a home run flying through the rapidly spreading fog that had enveloped a drained and shell-shocked ballpark. Watch it land in the second row of the seats in right.

And then try to remind his feet that there were a bunch of bases out there he needed to touch.

"Almost missed second, and I almost missed third," Wong reported afterward, still breathless over the "numero uno" hit of his life, the walkoff homer that sent the Cardinals to a thrilling, improbable 5-4 win over the Giants. "So I knew I had to touch home plate. And I made sure I touched it."

Yeah, those bases have been sitting in the same place, in every corner of the infield, for as long as he's played baseball. But in a moment like this, it was hard to keep track of them all. And you could guess why.

"Just celebrating," Wong laughed. "Jumping. All of that. Really, I don't know what was going on."

Well, he had plenty of company in that sensation, considering the madness that ensued Sunday night in the final three innings of an unreal Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. But now that we've had a chance to absorb it all, let's fill all of you in on what was going on out there:

• Kolten Wong had just hit the fourth walk-off postseason homer in Cardinals history. The three that preceded his were launched by Ozzie ("Go Crazy Folks") Smith in the 1985 NLCS, by Jim Edmonds in the 2004 NLCS and by David ("We'll See You Tomorrow Night") Freese, in that epic Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. Cue the videotape.

• Meanwhile, Wong had also joined Bill Mazeroski (1960), Alfonso Soriano (2001) and Jeff Kent (2004) as the only second basemen in history to hit walk-off October homers. Good group.

• And if you believe baseball's official listed heights, Wong also tied another record with this home run, by joining 5-foot-9 Kirby Puckett (1991 World Series) as the shortest men ever to hit a postseason walk-off bomb. Assuming any of these guys are telling the truth about how tall they actually are, that is.

• But it was the record Wong's team set Sunday that might have overshadowed all of that. On a night when they found themselves perilously close to going down in this NLCS, two games to none, the Cardinals hit a game-tying home run in the seventh inning (by Oscar Taveras), a go-ahead home run in the eighth (by Matt Adams) and then another go-ahead home run in the ninth (by Wong). And how many other teams, you ask, have ever hit home runs in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings of any postseason baseball game? None, of course, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.

So digest that for a second. And now remember this: If the Cardinals hadn't hit every one of those three homers, not to mention a third-inning shot by Matt (Mr. October) Carpenter, their season would be on life support right now.

Instead, they survived. Survived every funky trick up the Giants' magic sleeve. Survived losing Molina, their captain, their catcher, their most irreplaceable player. And survived 3 hours, 41 minutes of nonstop tidal waves of emotion. Up, down, down, up. Then rinse and repeat.

"That," said Carpenter, "was a really emotional game, for a lot of reasons. The ups and downs consisted of losing leads, getting leads and losing key players. I mean, there was a lot of things that happened that could have made this group quit or get deflated. But we did a really good job of continuing to play, and trying to have good at-bats, and found a way to win. And that was a really big game for us. Being down, two games to [zero], going to San Francisco, was not the way you want to be. So that was a must-win."

So how must-win was it? This ought to sum it up: Since the league championship series expanded to seven games nearly 30 years ago, 11 previous teams (not counting the 2014 Orioles) made the mistake of losing the first two games at home. Want to guess how many of those teams came back to win the series? That would be none, naturally.

Which made this as must-win as Game 2's ever get. But what made it even a bigger win was the wacky way it unfolded.

The Cardinals had a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning -- and watched that one disappear in an inning and a half. They fell behind 3-2 in the top of the seventh, then pulled even in the bottom of the seventh, on a pinch home run by Taveras that will merely go down as the first game-tying pinch homer in Cardinals postseason history.

Then up marched Adams in the bottom of the eighth, to do to Giants smokeballer Hunter Strickland exactly what he did to Clayton Kershaw last week -- mash a heroic, late-inning, lead-grabbing home run that shook Busch Stadium like an earthquake. It made Adams the first player to hit two go-ahead homers, in the seventh inning or later, of the same postseason since David Ortiz did it in 2004.

But the Giants weren't through, of course. Because they're never through. If you're familiar with their work this October, it shouldn't surprise you in the least that they rocked shaky Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal with one-out singles by two guys who were 0-for-October -- Andrew Susac and Juan Perez.

And then came maybe the most improbable game-tying run in postseason history: Pinch-runner Matt Duffy, off and running on a 3-2 pitch, motoring home from second on a 98-mph Rosenthal fastball that skipped past the catcher who replaced Molina, Tony Cruz, and bounded off into No Man's Land, as an entire stadium reeled in disbelief.

"That's tough," Cruz would say later. "To get down and block a 99 mile-an-hour fastball, that's really tough. ... I was doing everything I could to keep that ball in front of me. And I got a glove on it. But it bounced over me. I don't know what more I could have done."

Asked if he could ever remember a more shocking way to have a game tied against any team he'd ever played on, Cruz shook his head.

"To be honest with you, no I can't," he said. "What can I tell you? That was an incredible game."

And what made it especially incredible was the bizarre contrast between the almost incomprehensible way in which one team (the Giants) found to scratch out four runs, while the other team (the Cardinals) was keeping it basic by mashing four home runs over the right-field fence.

The Giants, on one hand, scored one run on a broken-bat infield out by a man who was 0-for-the-postseason (Joaquin Arias). They scored a second run on a single by a guy who hadn't driven in a run all month (Hunter Pence). They scored their third run on an RBI hit by a fellow who was 3-for-30 in October (Gregor Blanco). And then came that fourth run, on that ball-four wild-pitch special. Yeah, that's about right.

"They've done it all series," Carpenter said with a touch of admiration for the Giants' mind-boggling offensive resourcefulness. "But with us, we've found a way to hit it over the fence."

With a laugh he added, "Hopefully, we can keep that going. That's much easier."

Oh, it's easier, all right. But it's mind-boggling in a whole different way.

Consider this: The Cardinals scored four of their five runs Sunday by doing something they never did once in the entire regular season -- and, in fact, hadn't done in any of their previous 143 games in Busch Stadium, counting the past two postseasons:

Hit four home runs in a home game. Four.

Which would make no sense whatsoever, except for the fact that, after hitting the fewest home runs in the National League this year, they've now hit 11 in six games of this postseason, and scored 17 of their 23 runs on homers. Crazy.

Now let's put that binge in even better perspective: For no explicable reason, they've averaged a home run every 16.8 at-bats this October. And if they keep that up, that rate would merely rank as the third-best postseason home run rate ever, behind only Babe Ruth's 1928 Yankees (14.9) and the 2004 Killer Bees in Houston (16.4). No kidding.

So, of course, the fellow who put the capper on this Home Run Derby of an evening was the smallest guy on their team, a man who continued to insist, "I'm not a home run hitter," even after one of the coolest home runs in franchise history. But that just helped make this the perfect grand finale for one of October's wildest nights.

"That," said Kolten Wong, "was our whole season. Our whole season has been up-down, nonstop."

But on this night, it ended on the up slope, thanks to a man whose wondrous walk-off homer will be sailing through the fog-bound St. Louis sky for the rest of his life.