ST. LOUIS — This is how the St. Louis Cardinals survived the free agent departure of Albert Pujols without a glitch. The Cardinals don’t beat teams with stars or the long ball highlight-reel plays. That hardly hits their image.
The Cardinals win with pitching and timely hitting. They capitalize on mistakes. They play sound defense. Their pitchers get ahead of the counts and don’t take chances.
As mundane as they might appear when baseball is looking to sell its superstars during the postseason, the Cardinals are two wins from reaching the World Series. Again, they were outhit by the Los Angeles Dodgers but made fewer mistakes and took home a 1-0 win with brilliant pitching.
The Cardinals took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series by stymieing the Dodgers’ mighty lineup, thrilling the sellout Busch Stadium crowd with strikeouts, steady defense, and stranding runners.
St. Louis collected two hits Saturday but used gutty pitching from starter Michael Wacha, and the bullpen extended its shutout streak of the Dodgers to 9⅓ innings, making an unearned, fifth-inning run stand up.
Reigning Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw was stellar in six innings, throwing just 72 pitches, but an A.J. Ellis passed ball moved David Freese to third base and he scored on a sacrifice fly from John Jay for the game’s only run.
The Dodgers played a fairly clean game but the Cardinals thrive on vulnerability. And in two days, the Cardinals have won despite opposing Zack Greinke and Kershaw, who were a combined 31-13 during the regular season.
“We don’t deny what’s happened here the last two days,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. “Those were two very good wins, two very tough wins when you face starters like that. When you go into the game today the way their pitcher was throwing and we get two hits, we ended up leaving one guy on base and that was the first [hitter] of the game. Those situations usually come back and bite you.”
Without hot-hitting Hanley Ramirez because of sore ribs, the Dodgers were inept again with runners in scoring position. Los Angeles is 1 for 17 with runners in scoring position in the series and has struck out 24 times in 76 at-bats.
In the sixth inning, Kershaw led off with a single and moved to third when second baseman Matt Carpenter’s throwing error on Carl Crawford’s infield single grounder put both runners in scoring position.
Against Wacha, Mark Ellis swung early in the count and popped to first base. After Adrian Gonzalez was intentionally walked, rookie Yasiel Puig, likely the National League Rookie of the Year after a sparkling 100-game stretch, looked lost.
Wacha offered an arsenal of fastballs and Puig appeared more frustrated after each pitch, finally whiffing meekly at a 3-and-2 low and outside fastball. Wacha then struck out Juan Uribe in four pitches and strutted off the mound, much to the delight of the home fans.
“Yeah I was definitely amped up getting out of that jam,” said Wacha, who has allowed one run in 14 postseason innings. “I haven’t had to pitch out of too many jams like that. Yadier [Molina] behind the plate, he gets me some calls, that’s for sure.”
Puig, expected to be a major factor in this series, is 0 for 10 with six strikeouts.
“It’s the same swing I’ve always had, the same swing I had against Atlanta,” Puig said through a translator. “I just didn’t succeed today.”
Said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly: “Obviously [Puig’s] frustrated. Yadier back there does a good job of yo-yoing him, showing him enough breaking balls and showing him the fastball and it’s back to the breaking ball. That’s where I think we see his inexperience kind of come up, how to handle what’s going on and what he’s looking for.”
Kershaw was not unhittable but he was the beneficiary of good defense. David Freese led off the fifth with a double into the left-field corner, causing a raucous response from the Busch Stadium faithful.
Ellis looked crossed up with Kershaw and missed a low fastball, allowing the ball to roll to the backstop. Freese moved to third. Kershaw responded by striking out Adams. Then Jay failed on a squeeze attempt on a 1-and-1 count, fouling off the bunt.
He followed with a medium-hit fly to left and against the weak arm of Crawford, Freese scored easily. It was unearned. In the first two games of the NLCS, Dodgers starters have allowed two earned runs in 14 innings.
“It’s extremely tough,” Gonzalez said. “It’s frustrating for us as an offense. We have to do our job. We haven’t come through so far these two games.”
The Cardinals had a juicy chance in the first inning as Carpenter led off with a triple but Kershaw brushed off that adversity quickly, getting Friday night hero Carlos Beltran to pop to third, striking out Matt Holliday, then getting Molina on a grounder to short.
The major league’s ERA leader was nearly flawless for the next three innings, retiring the side in order in the second and third, After walking Beltran in the fourth, Holliday bounced into a double play and Molina ended the inning with a grounder to third on a 3-and-0 pitch. Mattingly replaced Kershaw with pinch hitter Michael Young in the seventh.
“We had our chances but you have to give credit to Wacha, he pitched better than I did,” Kershaw said. “They won. That’s the bottom line. He was impressive.”Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.