For six innings, Mulder looked every bit the ace they acquired him to be this offseason. He came into the game with a 2-2 record and a 2.25 ERA in four postseason starts. Despite running into a dash of trouble in the seventh inning, Mulder allowed just one run on eight hits (three came in the seventh) and walked only one batter in 6 2/3 innings.
The outing was longer than manager Tony La Russa expected to get from Mulder, who finished 16-8 with a 3.64 ERA in the regular season, after a Joe Randa hit in the second inning ricocheted off the side of his left bicep. Mulder said he turned around to look for the ball, and when he bent over he realized the pain he was in.
Cardinals team trainer Barry Weinberg assessed that the ball hit Mulder's muscle and not a joint, allowing him to escape serious injury. Still, Mulder was in pain, and there was question as to how long he could last.
"The way I saw it get hit, I thought maybe another out, an inning or two, but I didn't expect him to get to the seventh," La Russa said.
Mulder didn't just last into the seventh. He seemingly got better after the injury. The southpaw retired 12 of the next 16 batters he faced. In a postgame press conference, Mulder said his bicep looked like a golf ball had been lodged in it.
"I was kind of happy [when Mulder got hit]," shortstop David Eckstein said. "It calmed him down. I think his sinker started to work a lot better and he was able to hit his zone. He wasn't muscling pitches up, his sinker started working and he did such a fantastic job. I know it was killing him, but he's a tough guy."
Mulder loaded the bases by hitting the next batter, Xavier Nady, but struck out Ben Johnson and got pitcher Pedro Astacio to ground out, leaving the bases loaded and keeping the Padres from scoring.
"I couldn't overthrow," Mulder said, acknowledging Eckstein's theory might be true. "There is so much adrenaline, but I was just trying to stay calm and make pitches, even the first inning I got three ground balls. It really didn't affect me that much once the inning started and I started making pitches."
At times this season, Mulder has been streaky. He had put together a nice stretch between August and September in which he pitched at least seven innings in six consecutive games. During that time he compiled a 3-0 record with a 1.31 ERA.
Mulder dropped off in his last two regular-season starts, leaving some question as to how he would perform in his first National League postseason start. Against Milwaukee on Sept. 24, he gave up seven runs in 1 2/3 innings. He then pitched just four innings -- despite no earned runs -- against Cincinnati on Sept. 30, and walked seven batters.
"It's the focus," said Mulder, whose postseason ERA is over a 1 1/2 runs lower than his career ERA. "I know when I am out there in the playoffs, it's a different game. That's why I think there are so many low-scoring games in the playoffs. You need to step it up."
A true rating of Mulder's performance can be determined by the amount of ground-ball outs he gets. On Thursday that number was 17, and he was aided by four double-play balls.
"I like using my defense," Mulder said. "I'm not afraid to give up the hit because you make one good pitch [to the next batter] and you get a double play. That's part of my game in a way, I'm trying to get a double play."
Mulder laid to rest one other concern about his ability to carry his team through the playoffs. In 11 daytime starts, Mulder was 2-5 with a 6.86 ERA. Thursday's 3 p.m. CT start proved that those numbers are nothing more than an anomaly.
"I'm sure you guys will still keep talking about it," Mulder joked. "It's fun to put in the paper, I guess."
Stephen A. Norris is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.