The win gives the Cardinals a 2-0 stranglehold on their best-of-five National League Division Series. With one more win, the Redbirds will advance to their third National League Championship Series in the past four years and fifth in 10 years.
A team that scored five runs by home runs in Game 1 of the series won Game 2 without a big day from the heart of its batting order. The Cards sluggers, save the torrid Reggie Sanders, endured quiet days. Albert Pujols walked in a run and beat out an infield single and Sanders added a two-run double, but for the most part Thursday's story was small ball, as executed by the bottom of the batting order.
"The first half of the game, we played a little small ball," said Abraham Nunez, who walked, doubled and scored twice. "You've got to do whatever you can to try to score runs. You can't give outs away. Whatever you have at the moment is what you've got to take."
Mark Mulder breezed through 6 2/3 innings for his first postseason win as a Cardinal, pounding the bottom of the strike zone in typical Mulder fashion. It was the second fine start in as many Division Series games for the Cardinals rotation, following Chris Carpenter's six shutout frames on Tuesday.
Mulder, like Carpenter, was aided by exceptional defense. The Cardinals turned four double plays behind him, and a staggering 17 of his 20 outs came on the ground. The left-hander improved his career postseason ERA to 2.05 in five starts. Mulder was struck on the left arm by a line drive in the second inning, but stuck around to deliver an outstanding performance.
"I know when I'm out there in the playoffs, it's a different focus," Mulder said. "You're more focused. That's why I think you see so many low-scoring playoff games."
The four double plays tied an NLDS record for twin killings in a game. St. Louis has turned seven DPs in the series, with five different configurations (6-4-3, 5-3, 6-3, 4-6-3 and 3-6-3).
"Our middle infield was huge today, but they've been outstanding all year," said Pujols. "If we can't score enough runs, we'll play defense. Everything wins in this game. This is not like a 162-game season. It's a short series and we need to win any way we can."
A Cardinals bullpen that scuffled on Tuesday had a stronger showing on Thursday. Julian Tavarez permitted a run, but Randy Flores rung up pinch-hitter Mark Sweeney with a bases-loaded strikeout to preserve a four-run lead in the eighth. Jason Isringhausen tossed a perfect ninth to end it.
"Everybody else doubted us after the first game, but that's no big deal," Isringhausen said. "We didn't lead the league in ERA for nothing. We went out there today and pitched a little better, and it showed."
St. Louis scored its first two runs without the usual prerequisite -- base hits. A leadoff walk to Nunez and an error on a Yadier Molina grounder in the third brought up Mulder, who successfully sacrificed for only the second time all year. David Eckstein hit a bouncer right at first baseman Xavier Nady, but Nunez avoided a tag at home and it was 1-0. A walk to Jim Edmonds loaded the bases, and Pujols drew an RBI free pass for a two-run lead.
Mark Grudzielanek singled to open the next inning, and Nunez was in the middle of things again with a double over the wall in right. Yadier Molina hit an almost identical ball at Nady to the one hit by Eckstein, and once again the first baseman and catcher Ramon Hernandez couldn't connect to get the runner at the plate. After Mulder struck out, Eckstein laid down a squeeze bunt for the fourth run.
"That's very big for us," said Eckstein, the Cards' designated squeeze man throughout the season. "We have many ways to go and attack you, and we play a lot of bombers, but also when we have to, we can play small ball and find ways to manufacture."
The lead remained at 4-0 before three base knocks in a row got the Friars on the board in the seventh. A hit batter marked the end of Mulder's outing, as he gave way to Tavarez. The right-hander retired pinch-hitter Ryan Klesko with two on to escape the inning. The Cards responded with some welcome insurance in the bottom half, when Sanders doubled down the left-field line for his seventh and eighth RBIs of the series.
"It's all about key situations -- capitalizing on it," said Sanders. "We've been able to do that, and I guess that's why we've been scoring as many runs as we have.
"I'm really just trying to seize those moments and at least put the ball in play and let something happen. That's all you can do in those situations."
Following an off-day Friday, the series resumes in San Diego on Saturday, with the Padres needing a win to keep their season going. Matt Morris will try to close it out for the Cards, facing off against old teammate Woody Williams.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.