LOS ANGELES — Thanks to two big swings and some excellent defense, the St. Louis Cardinals are one win from the World Series.
Just like last year.
Matt Holliday and pinch-hitter Shane Robinson connected for the first home runs of the NL championship series, sending St. Louis past the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-2 Tuesday night for a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven playoff.
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves,” Holliday said.
In a series starved for offense, the Cardinals scored as many runs as they did in the first three games combined, when the teams totaled nine.
Game 5 is Wednesday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, with the Cardinals looking to clinch their 19th pennant. Zack Greinke is set to start for Los Angeles against Joe Kelly.
Of course, St. Louis had a 3-1 lead in last year’s NLCS before dropping three straight to San Francisco, the eventual World Series champion.
“We don’t feel this is over by any means,” infielder Daniel Descalso said. “You don’t want to have that feeling again, losing three games in a row when you’re so close to getting there. Just because you’re up 3-1, it doesn’t mean anything. Nobody’s going to roll over for you. We’ve got to keep pushing and keep grinding.”
It was a painful defeat for the Dodgers — in more ways than one. Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez, playing with a broken left rib, left in the middle of the sixth after striking out three times.
“It felt worse than yesterday,” Ramirez said. “It makes me angry.”
Hitless in his previous 22 at-bats at Dodger Stadium, Holliday drove a two-run shot off Ricky Nolasco an estimated 426 feet to left field, capping a three-run third inning that gave the Cardinals a 3-0 lead.
“That’s about as good as I can hit one,” said Holliday, who was 0 for 13 in the series before connecting.
“I wasn’t really doubting my swing at all. I felt actually really good with my at-bats. Sometimes in this game you don’t always get the results that you want even if you feel like you’re having good at-bats, so I just wanted to stay with it,” he said.
Seeking a second World Series title in three years, St. Louis turned three important double plays and picked off a runner at second base in the seventh. Defensive standout Pete Kozma, inserted at shortstop in the sixth, started a difficult double play and darted in to complete the pickoff.
“A great heads-up play by him,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “Then it has to be natural instincts and athleticism by (reliever) Carlos Martinez, and I don’t know many guys pull that off. He has such athletic moves. He’s quick in everything he does. Then to have the guts to wheel and let it fly like that in a game like we have right now, it’s off the charts.”
Second baseman Matt Carpenter also keyed St. Louis’ sharp work with the gloves, one night after some sloppy play was costly in a 3-0 defeat.
Carpenter had an RBI double in the third that scored Descalso, who hit a leadoff single. Carpenter came around on Holliday’s homer after there were none in the first three games for the first time in NLCS history.
Martinez pitched two scoreless innings to help nail down the win for starter Lance Lynn. Trevor Rosenthal got three outs for his second save in the series.
After a leadoff single by Andre Ethier in the ninth, Yasiel Puig grounded into a double play. Juan Uribe struck out to end it, leaving the Dodgers on the brink of elimination.
Now, they’ll count on Greinke and ace Clayton Kershaw to pitch them back into the series.
“Kind of the best thought I have is, I’ve got one of the best pitchers in baseball pitching tomorrow,” Mattingly said. “If we come out here and play well tomorrow and get a win, I’ve probably got the best pitcher in baseball pitching the next day.”
Robinson’s home run bounced off the top of the wall in left field on a 1-0 pitch from J.P. Howell with one out in the seventh, extending the Cardinals’ lead to 4-2.
“For a little guy, he’s got surprising power,” Holliday said. “I mean, honestly, he’s got some thump.”
Lynn allowed two runs and six hits in 5 1-3 innings. He struck out five and walked three.
The right-hander lost his only other start this postseason, giving up five runs over 4 1-3 innings in Game 2 of the division series against Pittsburgh.
The Dodgers were down 4-2 in the seventh when Nick Punto doubled with one out. Martinez, however, picked off Punto before throwing another pitch and then retired Carl Crawford on an inning-ending groundout.
“It was a lonely place to be,” Punto said.
Trailing 3-2, the Dodgers put the potential tying run on base in the sixth when Puig singled to chase Lynn. Uribe grounded into a double play against Seth Maness to end the inning.
The Dodgers stuck with Nolasco as their starter even though he hadn’t pitched since Sept. 29. He struggled in his last three starts in September, giving up at least five earned runs in each.
Nolasco was passed over for his scheduled assignment in Game 4 of the division series, when the Dodgers used Kershaw on three days’ rest for the first time in his career. Kershaw pitched well and took a no-decision in a 4-3 victory over Atlanta that clinched the series.
Before this one, Mattingly had said Nolasco was being put in a difficult position after not pitching for so long. Mattingly said Kershaw and Greinke both offered to start on short rest at Dodger Stadium.
Nolasco allowed three runs and three hits in four innings. He struck out four and walked one.
“I felt my stuff was good for the most part,” he said. “Just that one pitch was the difference in the game.”
Los Angeles scored twice in the fourth to cut it to 3-2. Adrian Gonzalez hit a leadoff double and scored on Puig’s single. A.J. Ellis singled to drive in Andre Ethier, who walked.
But just when it appeared the Dodgers had grabbed the momentum, pinch-hitter Skip Schumaker bounced into an inning-ending double play.
NOTES: Cardinals 3B David Freese came out after six innings for defense. He left Monday’s game with a cramp in his right calf, but Matheny said Freese was fine. … St. Louis won a Game 4 on the road for the first time in NLCS play. … The Cardinals also squandered a 3-1 lead in the 1996 NLCS against Atlanta. … Nolasco, who is from nearby Corona and grew up a Dodgers fan, made the first postseason start of his career. … Schumaker was 3 for 21 with no RBIs as a pinch-hitter during the regular season, and struck out in his only other at-bat as a pinch-hitter in the postseason. … There was a pregame moment of silence for MLB umpire Wally Bell, who died Monday at 48. … Tuesday marked the 25th anniversary of Kirk Gibson’s famous pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the ninth at Dodger Stadium, giving Los Angeles a 5-4 win over Oakland in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. … Hall of Fame manager Tom Lasorda, who at 86 is special adviser to the team chairman, tossed out a first pitch from midway between the mound and home plate that missed the target. Mattingly, who was catching, gave him a mulligan. Lasorda managed that 1988 team, the Dodgers’ last appearance in the World Series. … With the government partially shut down, there was a pregame flyover of vintage aircraft by a nonprofit organization founded by a group of World War II fighter pilots. … Among the famous faces in the crowd were Tom Cruise and Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad.”