One swing changed Mark DeRosa's whole outlook. One swing ended Matt Holliday's slump. And one win changed the whole feel in downtown St. Louis. Holliday's walk-off home run in the ninth inning gave the Cardinals a much-needed 3-2 win over the Cubs at Busch Stadium on Friday night, instantly erasing much of the worry that had begun to encroach upon the Redbirds' world.
The win increased the Cardinals' lead over the Cubs in the National League Central to 10 full games. St. Louis has 14 games remaining in the regular season, while Chicago has 16. The Cards' magic number for clinching their fourth division title in six years is down to six. The number had been dropping very slowly in recent days, but on Friday it dipped by two.
"It's one step closer to where we want to be at the end," said closer Ryan Franklin, whose one game came two days earlier when he spiked a slump with a scoreless, hitless inning against the Marlins.
They had to work hard to get there. Starter John Smoltz had a rocky first inning, and the Cardinals spent most of the rest of the game catching up. They tied the score in the eighth and didn't lead until Holliday's game-ender.
Three straight doubles put Smoltz and the Cards in a 2-0 hole, a deficit that seemed all the more daunting with Ted Lilly on the mound for the visitors. The Cards' troubles against left-handed pitching are well-documented, and Lilly has been especially tough on them.
"I came out a little too amped up to want to do well," Smoltz said, "and threw the ball a little too hard and my location cost me in the first inning. I don't like starting in a hole, but I battled and kept it right there. The team battled. Lilly threw a great game, but fortunately we put all that talk of not playing well away for just a little while."
Smoltz didn't allow another run over the next five innings. He moved away from using his fastball, which he wasn't especially pleased with, and got better results.
"He changed," said Cubs leadoff man Ryan Theriot. "Early in the game, the first at-bat, his heater was pretty straight. In my second at-bat, he was a different pitcher. He was using his cutter and his sinker as well and a good slider all night. There's a reason why he'll be a Hall of Famer."
Lilly, meanwhile, didn't permit a hit until the fourth inning, when Julio Lugo singled, but the Cardinals stranded the runner. In the fifth, though, Ryan Ludwick led off with a single. DeRosa poked a triple to left field, scoring Ludwick. DeRosa had been 3-for-23 with a double and an RBI on the Cards' current homestand, and 8-for-43 in September.
For him, the big hit was critical, maybe a season-changer.
"One hundred percent," he said. "I've got a lot of moving parts in my swing. So when it goes, it goes. After my first at-bat, I felt confident. I felt comfortable in the box. So I expect to carry this out."
Brendan Ryan's sacrifice fly tied the score, and it remained that way until the ninth. Kyle McClellan pitched two pivotal innings of relief of Smoltz, and Franklin came on for the ninth. The closer, who had been slumping before his solid outing against the Marlins on Wednesday, struck out the first two batters he faced. Theriot singled, but Franklin picked him off to end the top of the inning.
That brought up Holliday, who hasn't been in a deep funk but was 1-for-12 and 6-for-30 before the ninth. Aaron Heilman fell behind the slugger, 3-1, and left a fastball over the plate. Holliday jumped it, sending a crowd of 45,959 into a frenzy.
"It was a fastball away, and I thought I made a pretty good pitch," said Heilman. "It's never a good pitch when it goes over the fence. That's a tough way to lose."
But it was a great way to win.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.