They fought off a very real possibility of both on Wednesday night, holding off a determined Dodgers team to secure a hard-earned 3-2 win at Dodger Stadium. St. Louis won for the 10th time in 12 games and avoided what would have been its first back-to-back losses in more than three weeks.
It marked the seventh straight series the Cards won or split, and they've now gone 24 straight days without consecutive losses. Their lead remains six games over the second-place Cubs in the National League Central thanks to Chicago's win over the Padres.
In closing out a series that felt a lot like October, the Cardinals played playoff-style baseball to secure the win. They got seven fine innings from their starter, some excellent bullpen work and manufactured the winning run without a base hit. You wouldn't want to rely on that kind of formula every night, but when it works it's a thing of beauty.
"Once in a while you sneak a win in a visiting ballpark against an outstanding club," manager Tony La Russa said.
Albert Pujols made the winning run happen, but not the way he so often does. Pujols led off the ninth by drawing a walk against Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton. The slugger stole second base on a 3-0 pitch and advanced to third on a throwing error by catcher Russell Martin. Then he came home to score when Matt Holliday lined a ball to deep center for a sacrifice fly.
"My job as the leadoff guy that inning is to try to get on base and give a chance to the guys that are behind me to drive me in," Pujols said. "Obviously, with a guy like [Broxton], it's going to be pretty tough to score a run. It's going to be pretty tough to get some hits. So somehow I tried to get to second base, and that's what I did. Bad throw and I advanced to third base, and Matt did a great job to elevate the ball."
That set up the back end of the Cardinals' bullpen, and although it was a bit scary, Ryan Franklin got the job done. Dennys Reyes hit Andre Ethier with a pitch to open the ninth, so Franklin had to walk the tightrope with the tying run on base and two nemeses at the plate. He induced a broken-bat grounder from Manny Ramirez and a popup from Casey Blake, two players who have hit him very well, before James Loney flied out to end it.
Loney worked a full count, laying off three split-fingered pitches, leading to a conference on the mound. Franklin, pitching coach Dave Duncan and catcher Yadier Molina finally settled on one more splitter, and Franklin executed the pitch for the game-ender. It was his 31st save in 33 chances, and he hasn't had a tougher assignment all year.
The series came down to the two closers as much as anything else, and twice Franklin delivered while Broxton faltered. It was the third straight night on the mound for Broxton.
"He didn't really give anything up," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "He walked somebody, a fly ball, a strikeout, then a ground ball. We pushed it, he said he was fine, but that part of the order is very tough."
The Cards had led, 2-0, at the seventh-inning stretch, but Adam Wainwright couldn't hold the lead. Wainwright was masterful for six innings before finding trouble in the seventh. He took a no-hitter into the sixth, and made it into the seventh having faced one batter over the minimum. But Matt Kemp's hard line drive to lead off the inning was a portent, and by the time the inning was over, Wainwright had lost his shutout and his chance at win No. 15 on the year.
The next batter, Ethier, jumped a rolling 1-2 curveball from Wainwright and drilled it into the center-field stands, getting the Dodgers on the board. Ramirez followed with a loud out to right field, and Blake punished Wainwright for a hanging curveball on a 2-2 count for a tying homer. Loney doubled but was stranded, and Wainwright handed a tied game over to his bullpen.
"The pitch to Ethier was actually not a bad pitch," Wainwright said. "It just backspun and he did a nice job. The other pitch was just awful and deserves to be hit out. One of them, you tip your hat, and the other one, you get better from it. It was two mistakes. A 2-0 lead in the seventh, I sort of felt like I blew the save there. But we won the game, [so it] didn't matter."
The bullpen delivered, though, as Kyle McClellan pitched a shutout eighth and Franklin closed it out. The Cardinals head south to San Diego with their hot streak intact, waiting to see who can slow them down.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.