LOS ANGELES — For reasons unknown to man, there is nothing in baseball more difficult to obtain than the last strike, the last out or the last win of a postseason game or series. To confirm this point, all you need to do is ask one of the several teams that have had the champagne bottles ripped out of their hands by the St. Louis Cardinals these past few Octobers.
Or you could simply ask the Cardinals themselves. Because suddenly, they are the ones for whom the last win has proved to be maddeningly elusive. On Wednesday afternoon, for the fourth time in 12 months, they entered a game needing one more win to advance to the World Series, and for the fourth time they failed rather miserably.
In Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, it was the Los Angeles Dodgers who staved off oblivion, overpowering the Cardinals on the mound and in the batter’s box, then holding on through a harrowing ninth inning for a 6-4 victory before 53,183 sun-splashed fans at Dodger Stadium.
Now it must be asked: Could the Cardinals suffer another protracted collapse to match the one from a year ago? In the 2012 NLCS, they took a similar 3-1 series lead on the San Francisco Giants only to lose the next three in gruesome fashion by a combined score of 20-1.
One critical difference this year is that the Cardinals have home-field advantage. Even still, in Game 6 on Friday night in St. Louis, the Dodgers will have the best pitcher in the game, lefty Clayton Kershaw, going against Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha, in a reprise of their Game 2 duel. If the Dodgers win that one, Game 7 would be Saturday night.
“Obviously, it’s a pretty good feeling with Clayton pitching Friday,” Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said. “So we breathe till then.”
On Wednesday, Zack Greinke, the Dodgers’ $147 million right-hander, survived a rocky start to deliver seven strong innings, while Adrian Gonzalez (twice), Carl Crawford and A.J. Ellis hit home runs to spark an offense that had produced just seven runs — and no homers — in the series’ first four games.
“To be honest,” Crawford said, “I just think guys weren’t ready to lose today.”
A ninth-inning rally by the Cardinals against closer Kenley Jansen — which started when right fielder Yasiel Puig lost a flyball in the sun — cut the Dodgers’ lead in half and brought the go-ahead run to the plate. But the Cardinals’ weak bench wound up proving fatal, as pinch-hitter Adron Chambers — he of a .216 career batting average — struck out against Jansen to end it.
Thousands of seats sat empty at the 1:08 p.m. first pitch, the high western sun casting a soft, pale glow across the old park. Within minutes, Greinke was facing a desperate, bases-loaded, nobody-out jam thanks to a walk and a couple of weak singles. The Cardinals players moved to the top step of their dugout. The crowd murmured nervously. But Greinke, his heartbeat never rising beyond a moderate stroll, promptly struck out Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams on a tantalizing curveball, then got catcher Yadier Molina to ground into a double play. Inning over.
“That was the turning point right there,” Molina acknowledged. “I’m frustrated I didn’t come through.”
Molina, in fact, almost singlehandedly kept Greinke in the game. In the third inning, with the score 2-2, he came up with runners on first and third and one out and tapped back to the mound for a 1-4-3 double play. If you were keeping score at home, that’s two at-bats, five runners on base, four outs.
The Cardinals, largely thanks to Molina, had missed their chance to knock out Greinke. The latter suddenly was untouchable, retiring 13 straight batters beginning with Molina’s second double play — until Mattingly lifted him for a pinch hitter after seven innings and 104 pitches. It seems reasonable to assume, given that relatively light workload, that Greinke could be able to contribute out of the bullpen in a potential all-hands-on-deck Game 7.
“It’s always a mental battle, a physical and mental battle against them,” Greinke said of the Cardinals. “I was trying to make adjustments before they do.”
When they faced each other in Game 1, Cardinals right-hander Joe Kelly nearly matched Greinke, delivering six solid innings in a pitchers’ duel that ultimately wasn’t decided until the 13th inning. But four days later, Kelly simply didn’t have the same effectiveness. The Cardinals actually had their bullpen up in the second inning, when the Dodgers scored twice on RBI singles by Juan Uribe and Greinke.
When Gonzalez homered off Kelly to break a 2-2 tie in the third, the Dodgers’ first home run of the series, he flashed what appeared to be a mouse ears sign to his dugout — a cheeky reference to remarks by Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, who accused Gonzalez of “Mickey Mouse” behavior during the Dodgers’ Game 3 win.
“Just having fun,” Gonzalez said.
As the Cardinals’ final chances came and went — including the would-be rally in the ninth against Jansen — it was easy to imagine the Cardinals of 2006 or 2011 — or even the 2012 division series — pulling something out of thin air, some game-winning, pennant-clinching miracle, then heading back to St. Louis to rest up for the World Series.
But this is 2013, and the Cardinals are discovering what everyone else learned long ago from playing them: The last one is the hardest to lock down.