For four-plus months, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa steadfastly refuses to pay attention to the standings, his only concern being where his team stands in relation to .500. On Tuesday, though, he acknowledged that it's the home stretch. Although the Cardinals lost, 7-3, to the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, all was not lost. The Cubs fell to the Padres down the road in San Diego, so St. Louis maintained its six-game National League Central lead with one fewer day left in the regular season.
Bring something like that up in May, you're likely to get chewed out. In mid-August, it's a different story.
"Once you get to the last two months and you click a game off the schedule," La Russa said. "There is a difference ... You don't pay attention to magic numbers, but that clicks a number off."
If ever a loss will be relatively easy to take in the Cards' clubhouse, it's Tuesday's. They were facing Dodgers ace Chad Billingsley. They sent No. 5 starter Mitchell Boggs to the mound to counter -- a youngster who may lose his job any day now, if reports of John Smoltz's imminent signing prove true. They were on the road. And they'd already won the first game of the series.
Losing never sits easy, but sometimes it's mitigated. Tuesday was one of those times.
"The great, great, great majority of what has to happen from here to the end is us winning games instead of counting on people to lose," La Russa said. "But that's a point. We're in the last two months, and if the second-place team loses, that's something positive that happened today."
Boggs had some good breaks and some bad ones in his four-plus innings, but in the end, it was still a four-plus-inning start. He was touched for nine hits and issued three walks, allowing five runs as his ERA climbed to 4.58. Some ground balls rolled through the infield, and one line drive should have been caught by center fielder Rick Ankiel, but Boggs also benefited from a line-drive double play that bailed him out of a potentially huge fourth inning.
He didn't have a single 1-2-3 inning and worked around two baserunners in each of the first two innings.
"What I had to do early in the game had a lot to do with what happened later in my outing," Boggs said. "I just had to throw too many pitches. I had an opportunity in the first inning to get out of it on eight or nine pitches, but I ended up throwing 20 pitches that inning and 20 pitches the next inning. That's not a recipe for success, and they got to me later in the game. I've got to be a lot better than that."
Billingsley, meanwhile, breezed for much of his outing. Coming back from a hamstring injury, he didn't appear to be compromised in the slightest as he worked through the first five innings with just one baserunner. He hit Jason LaRue to open the sixth, though, and Joe Thurston's pinch-double put the Cardinals in business. Skip Schumaker drove in a run with a groundout and Brendan Ryan singled in a run, and the Cards were in the game.
An inning later, Khalil Greene added an RBI single, but St. Louis got no closer.
"Billingsley threw the ball well tonight," outfielder Ryan Ludwick said. "He was getting ahead and working in and out with his fastball. I just couldn't get much going. It was a little bit of a struggle, but we put some runs on the board. He was working in and out well. He's got a good fastball and he stuck with it. Didn't throw a lot of breaking balls tonight. Pounded the zone and we didn't really get much going."
He was matter-of-fact in his assessment, as were many of the Cards. They're already looking ahead to Wednesday and another chance to gain ground or at least hold firm. The season got one day shorter on Tuesday, and they're still in firm control of the division race. Sometimes that's all you can ask for.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.