ST. LOUIS -- It was more than a little bit scary -- terrifying at times, to be perfectly honest -- but it still counts. The Cardinals took control of the National League Championship Series with a harrowing 4-3 victory over the Brewers on Wednesday night. St. Louis is now two wins from its third trip to the World Series in eight years.
Somehow, for much of the night, it almost felt as though the home team was trailing. Cards hitters struggled to turn baserunners into runs, constantly leaving that sinking feeling that eventually the missed opportunities would turn costly. Chris Carpenter never found his command, was on the ropes repeatedly, and was done after five innings. And yet it counted just as much as Monday night's blowout at Miller Park.
That's because an early outburst against Yovani Gallardo and a dazzling bullpen performance were sufficient for a team on a roll. The Cardinals won for the 28th time in their last 40 games, dating back to late August, and now hold a lead that may be more commanding than it appears. In Major League history, teams that hold a 2-1 lead in a best-of-seven series have gone on to win the series 87 out of 125 times (69.6 percent).
If the measure of a good team is the number of ways it has to win, the Cards are certainly measuring up these days. On Wednesday, they did it the hard way.
"We've won games in several different ways, and that's one reason why we're here," said Lance Berkman. "We have a good team. Tonight was really the bullpen's night to shine, and they did an outstanding job."
A four-run first-inning rally, highlighted by three doubles and aided by some shaky outfield defense, set the ballpark shaking and appeared to have the Redbirds on their way. It was 2-0 before the first out as the Cardinals batted around. Then it got interesting, and never ceased to be that way.
Rafael Furcal led off with a single and took second on a wild pitch. Jon Jay doubled on a ball that Mark Kotsay muffed in center, and Albert Pujols doubled to make it 2-0. After two walks and a double play, it was 3-0, and David Freese's double off Corey Hart's glove in right delivered the fourth and final run.
"Give those guys credit," said Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun. "The ball Albert hit wasn't even a strike and 'Yo' responded really well. He kept us in the game."
While Carpenter was the winning pitcher, he was also the least effective man to take the mound for the Redbirds in a heartburn-inducing victory. Four Cardinals relievers combined to get the last 12 outs in order as the home team made the early lead stand.
"As good as you can do," manager Tony La Russa said of his relievers. "Get 12 outs against that offense. It's not going to work very often that you can put four zeros against their offense. Each guy came in and really stepped up. I thought they were really aggressive, they threw good strikes and didn't fall behind."
Carpenter, coming off arguably the game of his career, was not sharp from the beginning. Handed a 4-0 first-inning lead, he saw that advantage halved in the next inning and was clinging to a one-run margin by the end of the third. He fought his way through two more innings to qualify for the win, but that was it.
The former Cy Young Award winner just couldn't locate much of anything. Despite full rest, he looked more like the pitcher who scuffled on three days' rest in Game 2 of the Cardinals' Division Series than the one who overwhelmed the Phillies in Game 5.
Carpenter was good enough, though, pitching around six hits and three walks to avoid giving up the early lead. His fifth-inning strikeout of Rickie Weeks with two on, following an intentional walk to Prince Fielder, was one of the biggest outs of the game. Carpenter's seventh postseason win tied him with franchise legend Bob Gibson, though of course Gibson amassed all of those in the World Series.
"It was a battle all night long," Carpenter said. "My stuff was OK, but these guys worked me hard. They put great at-bats. I'd get ahead, they'd take close pitches, take tough pitches and get themselves back in counts. All night long, it was a battle."
Once Carpenter gave way to the Cards' relievers, the game was over, though no one knew it at the time. The kiddie corps bullpen turned in what may have been its finest outing yet in an excellent postseason.
Fernando Salas stabilized things with a three-up, three-down sixth, settling a few nerves in the stands at Busch and reprising his role in Carpenter's Game 2 NLDS start. Rookie Lance Lynn got pinch-hitter Nyjer Morgan and the top three men in the Milwaukee order, including MVP candidate Braun. With one out in the eighth, Marc Rzepczynski fanned Prince Fielder, and Motte got the final four outs.
A group that was reviled by fans earlier in the season is now receiving hosannas.
"When you're struggling a little bit, you feel it," Lynn said. "When you're doing good, you feel it. Tonight I went in there and got my four outs, and out of there and on to the next guy. That's how it's been in the second half. Everyone goes in there and does their job and you call the next guy to do his job."
They probably should have had more to work with, but the Cards' offense was inefficient after the first. St. Louis put a man on base in each of the first seven innings, and stranded at least one in each of the first six. Cardinals batters hit into three double plays.
And, still ... It was good enough. The early runs were enough. Carpenter did enough in his five innings. The bullpen provided the starring role that it needed to. And the Cards took a 2-1 lead in the NLCS.
Even if it was frightening.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.