September 02, 2011
Trailing by 10 1/2 games in the standings, the St. Louis Cardinals traveled north to Miller Park knowing that any hope of a September surge in the NL Central hinged on winning, and probably sweeping, the Milwaukee Brewers in a three-game series.
From the outside, it seemed like a long shot. After all, the Brewers had gone 21-3 at home and 36-12 overall since July 5, turning what had been baseball's tightest race into an apparent (cheese)cakewalk.
With their backs planted firmly against the wall, St. Louis came out exactly like a team in that position should on Tuesday and Wednesday, stealing two victories with good pitching, one big swing of the bat by starting pitcher Jake Westbrook(notes), and an unlikely assist via Ryan Braun's(notes) embarrassing faceplant.
Smelling blood, or at least sniffing one last chance to climb back into relevance, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa managed the finale on Thursday — an 8-4 victory that clinched a sweep — like there was no tomorrow. Well, aside from sending rookie Brandon Dickson(notes) to the hill for his first major league start. But the 26-year-old right-hander had a short leash.
A big reason LaRussa was able to execute his aggressive managerial game plan was because Thursday's game eerily copied what happened Wednesday offensively, with Rafael Furcal(notes) and Albert Pujols(notes) each connecting for first-inning solo home runs to stake St. Louis to a 2-0 lead. Dickson held Milwaukee's offense at bay through two, and Pujols followed with a grand slam in the third inning to extend the lead to a comfortable 6-0.
Comfortable for only a short while, because Dickson allowed a two-run homer to Corey Hart(notes) that trimmed the advantage to 6-3 in the bottom of the third. La Russa stuck with the rookie through that frame, but at the first hint of trouble in the fourth, he went to the bullpen. And it was an unusual call, as La Russa turned to Octavio Dotel(notes), typically a setup man and at times a closer, to play an unfamiliar role as a long reliever.
How unfamiliar was Dotel? Well, it's the earliest he had entered a game in more than 10 years. And — wouldn't you know? — he flourished, striking out five over 2 2/3 scoreless innings for his longest outing since tossing three innings with the White Sox on Sept. 9, 2009. Honestly, you might be hard-pressed to find a more dominant appearance in his 13-year career.
The official scorer also credited Dotel with the victory.
Safely through six, La Russa turned to the Cardinals saves leader, Fernando Salas(notes), for an earlier-than-usual and rare multi-inning assignment. The only blemish in his two innings was a solo home run by Prince Fielder(notes).
Taking an 8-4 lead to the ninth, La Russa continued taking no chances, giving the ball to red-hot Jason Motte(notes) for the third straight day. Motte's scoreless ninth not only sewed up the big win, but it also extended his streak of appearances without an earned run to 32.
Afterward, La Russa didn't offer much comment on his plan for the afternoon. But he did acknowledge the importance of what the Cards had accomplished before quickly turning the focus to their next piece of business: a series against the Cincinnati Reds. The Cardinals welcome them to St. Louis this weekend ahead of their final series with Milwaukee, a three-game set, beginning on Labor Day.
"We just came here to try to win the series," La Russa said. "Obviously, it wasn't easy. These guys are playing pretty well in their ballpark. Taking three games out of three is awesome. We just need to flip the page and be ready to play tomorrow with Cincinnati."
Just knowing they have a meaningful game Friday should help the players flip the page quickly. And though it still feels like a real long shot, maybe — just maybe — St. Louis can help squeeze out one or two more weeks of competitive September baseball somewhere in the National League.