ST. LOUIS -- For six weeks, Allen Craig had his eyes on the World Series, telling his teammates that if they could push the season deep enough, he would be ready to return from a foot injury that had shortened his season. The St. Louis Cardinals rose to the challenge while Craig immersed himself in his rehab.
Consider it all part of the buildup to Saturday, which placed Craig front and center in one of the most bizarre finishes ever in a World Series game.
It was the most unusual of walk-off wins for the Cardinals, whose celebration was first delayed by confusion and then subdued upon seeing Craig slow to stand up at the plate. He had just scored the winning run in the Cards' 5-4 win over the Red Sox in Game 3 on an obstruction call, the first ever to end a World Series contest.
"We were kind of just figuring out what we were supposed to do," rookie Kolten Wong said. "Celebrate or what?"
"Crazy," said Matt Adams. "I've been playing baseball, not as long as some of these guys, but I've never seen that coming up through or up here."
Added Carlos Beltran: "I really don't know what happened, actually. I just saw a few guys jumping onto the field, and I was jumping after them."
As the umpires sorted out the ending and Red Sox manager John Farrell argued to change it, the Cardinals could exhale along with a Busch Stadium-record crowd of 47,432. All the missed opportunities through the first eight innings had no bearing on the outcome, which boosts St. Louis' Series lead to 2-1 with a pair of home games still on tap.
History sits in the Redbirds' favor now, too. Of the last 12 teams to win Game 3 in a World Series that opened with a split, 11 have gone on to capture the title. The Cards have won six of their seven home postseason games this month.
"Man, this is great," Beltran said. "We've got two more games to go here at home, and we know how well we play here. We're happy. We really like our chances."
Game 3 evolved into a battle of the bullpens, and by the time the bottom of the ninth rolled around, both had already blinked. The Cardinals scored twice off Craig Breslow in the seventh, both of those runs coming off a double Matt Holliday lined into the left-field corner. Boston quickly answered by tallying two against Carlos Martinez in the eighth to tie the game at 4.
Manager Mike Matheny had a potential game-changing chip on the bench in Craig, and he sent him in to pinch-hit following Yadier Molina's one-out single. Craig, having tallied only eight plate appearances since suffering a left foot sprain on Sept. 4, ripped the first pitch he saw from dominant Boston closer Koji Uehara into the left-field corner for a double.
"I was trying to be aggressive," Craig said. "He has good stuff, and you can't wait around for that split or changeup or whatever he calls it. It's a really plus pitch. I got a pitch over the plate, and I was ready to hit it."
Craig's subsequent move around the bases -- or as he called it, "obstacle course" -- would prove adventurous.
Playing in, second baseman Dustin Pedroia speared Jon Jay's groundout and threw home to retire Molina. Craig, advancing gingerly to third on the play, drew a throw from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia that scooted past third baseman Will Middlebrooks.
That's when craziness ensued.
As Craig tried to stand up, he found himself entangled with Middlebrooks. He stumbled and then eventually headed for home in an effort that Matt Carpenter described as "painful to watch." What Craig didn't see was the call third-base umpire Jim Joyce made behind him.
The definition of obstruction in Rule 2.00 states: "If a fielder is about to receive a thrown ball and if the ball is in flight directly toward and near enough to the fielder so he must occupy his position to receive the ball he may be considered 'in the act of fielding a ball.' It is entirely up to the judgment of the umpire as to whether a fielder is in the act of fielding a ball. After a fielder has made an attempt to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the 'act of fielding' the ball. For example: an infielder dives at a ground ball and the ball passes him and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner."
Joyce ruled that Middlebrooks had obstructed Craig's path. When Craig slid into home -- even though the throw beat him there -- home-plate umpire Dana DeMuth ruled Craig safe. Not until he saw his team running out onto the field did Craig realize the call.
"I was just trying to get home and didn't have a lot in the tank, to be honest with you," Craig said. "That's probably the fastest I've tried to run [since the injury]. ... It was just a crazy play. I had to do the obstacle course to get home and sprint home as fast as I could for the first time in a couple of months. That's the hardest I've tried to run."
Craig was awarded home plate because, according to Rule 7.06: "If a play is being made on the obstructed runner … the ball is dead and all runners shall advance, without liability to be put out, to the bases they would have reached, in the umpire's judgment, if there had been no obstruction."
Afterward, while the most prevalent emotion in the Red Sox's clubhouse was one of dismay, the umpires involved explained the call. Their point of emphasis was that intent on Middelbrooks' part was not required for obstruction to be called.
"The rule is that the runner has every right to go to home plate at that particular play unobstructed without any liability," Joyce explained. "He doesn't have to get out of the way. He just has the baseline, and unfortunately, the defensive player was there."
It was also necessary that Craig run hard to finish out the play, as the rule allows an umpire to use his discretion as to whether the player would have advanced had he been unimpeded. That was an easy call for DeMuth because of the bang-bang play at home plate.
"Tough way to have a game end, particularly of this significance," Farrell said. "I don't know how [Middlebrooks] gets out of the way when he's lying on the ground. ... That's a tough pill to swallow."
It was the first time since Aug. 6, 2004, that a Major League game ended with an obstruction call. On that night, the Rays defeated the Mariners when a player obstructed the runner's view on a potential sacrifice fly.
"It was an odd play, but if there's something I would comment about that play or that inning, it was the gutsy performance of Allen Craig," Carpenter said. "I don't think people realize how tough this injury is. This was Kirk Gibson-esque. For him to come off the bench and hit a double and then to score and hustle and basically -- hopefully he didn't do it -- but it looked like he blew himself out trying to get the winning run, that's what the postseason is all about. That was a gutsy performance."
Craig did reaggravate his foot while running the bases and spent about 30 minutes in the trainers' room after the game. He would not speculate on whether the injury would limit his availability for the rest of the World Series.
Before the Cardinals secured their second World Series walk-off win in franchise history, they twice lost two-run leads.
They jumped out to a 2-0 advantage before starter Jake Peavy recorded his second out. Four of the first five batters singled, with Holliday and Molina each driving in a run.
Molina's hit initiated a mound visit from Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves and got Felix Doubront warming in the bullpen. But the Cards couldn't chase Peavy or pad their lead. A lineout to right field and a groundout stranded two.
"I knew I couldn't give up any more runs," Peavy said. "There was no room for error after the first."
That would be all the scoring the Cardinals would do off Peavy, who was lifted after four innings. He closed his start with his best work of the night, navigating around a bases-loaded, no-outs jam to keep the Cards' lead at two. It was the first of two times on Saturday that St. Louis would advance a runner to third with no outs and not push him 90 feet further.
The Red Sox took immediate advantage of the Cardinals' inability to extend their lead, scoring once off starter Joe Kelly in each of the next two innings. Regardless, Kelly's 5 1/3-inning start was good enough to set St. Louis up for the win. He opened the game in dominant fashion, rolling through an 11-pitch first in which he didn't throw a pitch under 95 mph. With the help of a terrific defensive stop by Carpenter, Kelly retired the first nine batters on 34 pitches.
"He had good stuff," Matheny said. "Joe pitched a good game. The last two months of the season, he's been very good, very consistent for us."
Holliday, who leads the club with five hits this World Series, was poised to finish the night with his third game-winning RBI hit of the postseason until the Red Sox clawed back against what had been a dominant Cards bullpen.
Boston loaded the bases against Martinez, leading Matheny to turn to closer Trevor Rosenthal for a five-out save.
Before Rosenthal could garner the two outs necessary to close the inning, the Red Sox had scored twice on a pair of balls hit to infielders. He would have to settle for a win instead of the save, as his 1-2-3 ninth preceded the Cardinals' walk-off celebration.
"Not sure how it happened," Rosenthal said afterward. "I just know that we won."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.