The Cardinals won their third straight over the National League's best team on Wednesday night, gutting out a 3-2 triumph in 15 innings when Albert Pujols lined a hit over the head of Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp. St. Louis won for the first time all year in a game it trailed after eight innings and held onto a half-game lead over the Cubs in the National League Central.
The Redbirds rallied in what would have been their last chance not once but twice before Pujols drove home the winner, and the game lasted four hours and 53 minutes. It wasn't the offensive eruption of the previous two nights, but every time the Cardinals needed a run, they got one.
"It almost felt like a playoff game," starting pitcher Joel Pineiro said.
Brendan Ryan opened the decisive frame with a triple down the left-field line against Jeff Weaver. After pinch-hitter Jason LaRue popped up, Julio Lugo drew a walk. Mark DeRosa hit into a fielder's choice, bringing Pujols to the plate with two on and two out. The slugger, who had been slumping before Wednesday, lined his third hit of the game to straightaway center. Kemp broke in on the ball, and by the time he started moving backward, it was too late.
"When you face a guy like that, it's pretty tough," Pujols said. "And then coming out of the bullpen when you've faced so many guys throwing sinker and slider, and here he comes throwing on the other side of the rubber, it's tough, but it's part of your adjustment and obviously I made a good one and I'm glad that I came through."
Pujols had been 7-for-35 with no extra-base hits over his previous nine games. But on Wednesday, he singled in the first, doubled in the fourth and drove in the game-winner in the 15th.
That made a winner of rookie Blake Hawksworth, who surely earned his first big league victory. Hawksworth pitched three shutout innings against one of the league's best offenses. He allowed two hits and an intentional walk, striking out three. Usually a mopup man, he delivered the biggest innings of his young career in fine style on Wednesday.
"It was the first time I'd been in a game like that," said a beaming Hawksworth. "Usually the score is either we're up a lot or we're down a lot, and it's pretty quiet out there. The adrenaline, and trying to stay in the moment, it was a lot of fun."
The Cardinals trailed from the fourth all the way to the ninth, thanks to a superb performance from young Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw and Ryan Ludwick's ill-advised attempt to catch Casey Blake's fourth-inning line drive.
With one out in the fourth, Blake singed a ball straight at Ludwick, who was starting in center field for the first time in 2009. The ball bounced a good bit in front of Ludwick, but he attempted to make a diving catch on it anyway. It hopped up and skipped past him as Blake motored all the way around for a triple. James Loney followed with an RBI single and Los Angeles had a lead that it would hold until the ninth.
"Once in a while it gets by you, and it costs you a run," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "But he is one of our better players about being aggressive with good sense."
On the flip side, meanwhile, the Cardinals were stung by two superb defensive plays from the Dodgers outfield. In the first, Kemp ranged deep to the track to reel in what would have been a run-scoring extra-base hit from Matt Holliday. And in the seventh, Manny Ramirez made one of the plays of the game. With two on and two out, Ryan hit a ball about as hard and as far as he's capable of, taking Ramirez all the way to the left-field wall. Never known for his defense, Ramirez leaped and snagged the ball right at the wall, denying Ryan extra bases for certain and conceivably even a home run.
Still, an inning later, the Cards squeezed out a run against the Dodgers' bullpen to force extra innings. After closer Jonathan Broxton retired Pujols and Holliday to open the ninth, Ludwick poked a single to keep the game going. He took second on a wild pitch, and Colby Rasmus singled Ludwick home. Rasmus had been held out of the starting lineup due to the left-handed starter but played a key role in the late innings.
"I hit it," he said of his less-than-scorched hit. "That's all that matters to me."
In the top of the 12th, Ludwick made a play that erased his earlier tumble. With two out and two on, Blake stroked a single into center off of Jason Motte. As Ramirez motored around to try to score, Ludwick fired home, and Yadier Molina applied the inning-ending tag to prevent the visitors from taking the lead.
"Ludwick made some great plays, and I think Yadi had the play of the game," Pujols said. "I mean that was unbelievable right there. That shows you why he's a Gold Glover. It's not easy to pick a short-hop throw like that. As a first baseman, I can speak, that's pretty hard. That was unbelievable with that runner coming to make that catch."
It was one of many defensive highlights by the Cardinals, who played a fine game behind Hawksworth, Pineiro and all the relievers who pitched in between. Ryan in particular was outstanding, ranging far and wide to help preserve Pineiro's gem.
"They've played awesome defense the past three games," said Dodgers catcher Russell Martin. "We're hitting the ball, but it seems they're everywhere right now."
In short, the Cardinals did nearly everything right on a night when they had to. A team that had been 8-31 when the opponent scored first got a win when the opponent scored first. A team that was winless when trailing after eight, won when trailing after eight -- and after 10 1/2 as well. A team that hasn't been to the playoffs in three years played an awful lot like a playoff team.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.