Unlikely hero Shane Robinson provides the big hit to push the Cardinals to a 3-1 NLCS lead

Tim Brown

LOS ANGELES – The ball came off Shane Robinson's bat and every eye in the house followed it. In left field, Carl Crawford turned and evaluated the tiny white speck as it soared against its black backdrop.

It couldn't. Surely, it couldn't.

Robinson dashed toward first base, his head down and cocked to the left. He'd gotten a lot of that pitch. Crawford turned his pace into a gallop.

Maybe it could.

Robinson had hit five home runs as a big-leaguer in 397 trips to the plate. At 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, that's a lot. In Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, at Dodger Stadium, where the fences are deep and the night air thick, those walls might as well have been in Pasadena and the air the viscosity of Jell-O.

"I wasn't 100 percent sure," he said.

The visitors' dugout at Dodger Stadium is on the first-base line. As the ball reached its apex, the rail of that dugout became crowded with St. Louis Cardinals.

"You start screaming," David Freese said, "and try to blow it out."

Crawford reached the fence, felt for it, his gaze still following the ball. Robinson looked to second-base umpire Greg Gibson for a call. The ball struck the top of the wall. The crowd gasped. Robinson looked again at Gibson. Crawford lowered his head.

It had. It really had.

Gibson signaled a home run. Robinson rounded second base. Dodger Stadium went quiet. He'd come to the plate in the seventh inning of a one-run game, batting for the pitcher, thinking of a single through the middle, looking fastball from Dodgers reliever J.P. Howell, a lefty who'd given up two home runs in 67 innings, 71 1/3 including the playoffs. Middle, middle, middle, he thought, and then Howell threw a changeup, and Robinson's bat barrel met that pitch out in front by a few inches, and Robinson had pulled it, and the playing field gets shorter in that direction.

As moments go, the birth of his child, a daughter named Tinley, he said, "was a little above it." He grinned. OK, way above it. His phone buzzed nearby. Maybe his dad in Florida was still awake. That's who he wanted to talk to first, after his wife, Jessica, who was at the game, somewhere up there among all the people who'd come to see the big boys play, who'd witnessed some of that, but in the end would remember Shane Robinson turning on a pitch that eventually would put the Dodgers on the brink of elimination, and the Cardinals a win from advancing to their fourth World Series in 10 seasons.

It had. It really had.

The Cardinals beat the Dodgers 4-2. They lead the series 3-1 with an afternoon game here Wednesday against Zack Greinke. In a totally Cardinals event, in the way they win in funny little places where other teams lose, Robinson had hit a ball nobody had expected.

Three pitches later, that ball that had come off Robinson's bat, that had covered 360-some feet in slow motion, that had caromed from the top of the wall into the bleachers, was spit back onto the field, toward Crawford. He picked it up and flipped it to a ball boy along the left-field line. The ball boy caught it in his glove, lifted the lid from the bucket he sat on, and let that ball roll out of his glove and into the bucket with the others.

Eight years ago, as a sophomore at Florida State, Robinson had been the national collegiate player of the year. A year later, he was drafted by the Cardinals in the fifth round. He'd played in 221 major-league games, 234 including the playoffs, when manager Mike Matheny sent him to the plate. The Cardinals had scored three runs in the third – two on a Matt Holliday home run that threatened the parking lot – but not much after that. The Dodgers had scored twice in the fourth. They'd sit a run back, measuring Cardinals pitchers, reaching for the at-bats that would tie the series. The anniversary of Kirk Gibson's World Series limp-off home run came Tuesday. Pre-game, the video board showed a retrospective, and Tommy Lasorda, who sent Gibson to the plate in 1988, threw out the first pitch. For many in L.A., the Gibson moment is a deeply spiritual experience. For others, it's a reminder that 25 years have passed since anything really lasting happened in this ballpark.

Given the significance of the 25th anniversary, and the customary gift associated with it, Holliday was thoughtful enough to hit a fastball that nearly struck a 2014 Chevy Silverado displayed just beyond the left-field bullpen.

"Oh man," Robinson said, "I was screaming the whole time it was in the air. The whole two minutes it was in the air."

He smiled. Some men are put together like Holliday. Others, like Robinson, bounce home runs off the ledge that stands above the out-of-town scoreboard, and they feel like Holliday's 426-footer.

"I hit 'em like that sometimes," Robinson said of Holliday's blast. "Just not tonight."

Robinson must push the game, lest it push him. Like other guys like him. Like the Dodgers' Nick Punto, also 5-foot-9, and once a Cardinal, and a churning ballplayer who needs every inch he can steal. And so in the bottom of the seventh, that Robinson home run and the two-run lead it bought the Cardinals hanging over a game that felt pivotal, Punto had struck a two-out double. He'd come in to play shortstop for Hanley Ramirez, whose broken rib had brought too much pain, and he was at second base with one out and the Dodgers behind two runs.

This would be the Dodgers' chance. Against the suffocating back end of the Cardinals' bullpen, the Dodgers would need that run, and then, of course, another. But that run first. So Punto stole an extra foot on his lead. And then another. He'd have to score on a single.

"I saw him get quite a few steps off," Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma said.

He darted to the bag. Reliever Carlos Martinez looked over his right shoulder, spotted Kozma, and spun off the rubber. Kozma, the regular shortstop, hadn't picked a runner off second base all season.

"The timing was perfect," he said. "And he was just off far enough."

In a tangle of Punto's headfirst slide and Kozma's glove and then his knees, Punto was out. The Dodgers were done, all but done.

And the Cardinals were right there again. Right where they were a year ago, up three games to one over the San Francisco Giants, a good three hours from the World Series. They didn't win another game.

They'll get Greinke first. If that doesn't go well, Clayton Kershaw next, back in St. Louis.

All they could do is get to 3-1, try it again, swing hard at a changeup and watch it go, put their heads down and hope for the bounce.

Maybe they could.