David Freese's two-run homer got the Cardinals on the board in Game 5. (Elsa/Getty Images)
The David Freese Story? That made-for-Hollywood tale of the local boy, raised in the suburbs of St. Louis, who went on to become a World Series hero for the Cardinals? Turns out it's not over yet. This October, the third baseman who quit baseball at 18 and became a St. Louis immortal at 28 is adding a new chapter to his improbable redemption story.
Adam Wainwright pitched a brilliant complete game and became the fifth pitcher in St. Louis history to go the distance in a postseason winner-take-all game. Matt "Big City" Adams, who grew up an hour from Pittsburgh rooting for the Pirates, launched a two-run home run in the eighth to crush any hopes for a late Pirates rally. Pete Kozma channelled Ozzie Smith with dazzling plays at shortstop. And Freese, who was on the verge of losing his job in August, delivered the biggest hit of the night, a two-run, second-inning home run off Gerrit Cole in Wednesday night's Game 5. It was another perfect, magical October evening for the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. The NL Central champs beat Pittsburgh, 6-1, in the double-elimination game, and St. Louis is headed to the NLCS for the third straight season.
The Game 5 pitching matchup -- Wainwright vs. Cole, ace vs. future ace -- lived up to its billing. Clayton Kershaw has the most famous curveball in the game, but Wainwright's might be better. When the Cardinals' ace is commanding the pitch, he's nearly unhittable, and it was clear early that Wainwright had his curve Wednesday. He struck out Starling Marte looking on a 78 mph curveball to start the game. After walking Neil Walker, Wainwright struck Andrew McCutchen out on another hellacious curveball. He struck out six on the night, all six on the curveball. He threw 107 pitches, all but 33 for strikes.
The last time the Pirates started a rookie pitcher on the road in a winner-take-all playoff game was Game 7 of the World Series on Oct. 16, 1909. Babe Adams shut down Ty Cobb and the Tigers, 8-0. Five days after dominating the Cardinals in Game 2, allowing one run over six innings in Pittsburgh's 7-1 win, Cole allowed two runs and struck out five over five innings. But the rookie made one mistake. With two outs in the second, he walked Jon Jay after an eight-pitch at bat, and Freese came to bat. Cole threw a hanging 82 mph slider over the inside of the plate, a pitch that catcher Russell Martin wanted low and away, and Freese ripped it into the Pirates' bullpen.
It was two years ago that Freese went from an unknown to an October hero. His Game 6 home run against the Rangers in 2011 is there with the World Series homers of Carlton Fisk and Kirby Puckett (the only other players to hit extra-inning walk off homers when facing elimination) as far as iconic home runs in the Fall Classic. Freese was an All-Star in 2012. And then … he kind of disappeared. He struggled through the 2013 season, hitting .262 with just nine home runs, and became an afterthought in the high-powered St. Louis lineup. Stud prospect Kolten Wong joined the Cardinals in August, and manager Mike Matheny had the option of putting Wong in the lineup at second base and shifting Matt Carpenter to third. Freese seemed to be on the verge of losing his job, but Wong struggled, and Freese began to show signs of life down the stretch.
REITER: Baseball's 10 greatest walk-off home runs in postseason history
And this October, his bat has come alive. Freese had a big hit in Game 1, a two-run single to break open the game, and then he added to his legend in Game 5 with his seventh career postseason home run. He's now third in Cardinals history in postseason home runs, RBIs (29) and multihit games (10). Only Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds have better numbers in those categories.
Freese and Wainwright, a pair of Mr. Octobers: It's becoming a familiar postseason formula for St. Louis. Now, it's onto the NLCS.