ST. LOUIS -- It's not really the formula you'd draw up for winning games, but it keeps working. Then again, you could say the same about the Cardinals' entire season: They haven't done it the conventional way, but they keep getting closer to their goal.
The now-familiar combination of an early lead, a few innings of survival from the starting pitcher and brilliant relief work added up to another Cards win on Friday night, and St. Louis is now on the brink of baseball's biggest stage. The Cardinals beat the Brewers, 7-1, at Busch Stadium to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series.
The series heads back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Sunday and, if necessary, a seventh game on Monday. If the Redbirds win either of those games, they'll be World Series-bound with the 18th pennant in franchise history.
A team that spent the bulk of the last two months of the season relying on help from other clubs now has the simplest of paths in front of it. Win one game -- just one out of two, at that -- and play for the World Series championship.
"Our whole goal at the beginning of the year was to be in the World Series," said rookie reliever Lance Lynn, "and we were able to put it together at the end to give us this opportunity. We never lost faith. It didn't matter how many games we were back, we knew we had a chance and we just kept fighting."
When they head to Milwaukee on Saturday, the Cardinals will board a flight having won their most recent game for the 16th straight time. The last time they didn't have a "happy flight" was Aug. 3, when they left Miller Park following an ugly 10-5 loss.
Dating back to late August, when they were 10 1/2 games out in the NL Wild Card race, the Cards have gone 29-13. They're 12-11 on the year against Milwaukee, including 5-6 at Miller Park. For most clubs, playing the Brewers in Milwaukee is daunting. For the Redbirds, it's a significant task but far from an overwhelming one.
Teams taking a 3-2 lead on the road for the last two games of a seven-game series have won the series 26 out of 43 times in Major League history, including seven out of 10 times in the NLCS. The last time the Cardinals were in the NLCS, they took a 3-2 lead to the Mets, lost Game 6 and finished off the series in seven.
A Cards offense that had slumbered a bit in the previous two games returned to life on Friday against former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, jumping to a 4-0 lead after four innings. The right-hander was repeatedly betrayed by his defense, but he also found himself up against a very good lineup on a good night, allowing five runs (two earned) over 5 2/3 innings. Overall, Cardinals hitters managed 10 hits and five walks and scored in four innings. The Brewers committed four errors.
"I don't know if we gave it to them; they swung the bats, too," said Milwaukee's Jerry Hairston Jr. "[Jaime] Garcia pitched well for them, and their bullpen pitched well, too. We would have liked to play better defensively, but it didn't happen. ... [The Cardinals] won the game tonight. Don't take anything away from them."
Garcia breezed through four innings before getting into trouble in the fifth. In a reversal from the series' first game in Milwaukee, manager Tony La Russa moved aggressively to get his young starter out of the game. The St. Louis bullpen then did what it's been doing for the better part of 2 1/2 months, shutting down the dangerous Brewers offense to finish off the win.
No Cardinals starter has recorded an out in the sixth inning of the series. It hasn't been a problem so far, as the bullpen has racked up out after out.
"We feel comfortable," said Octavio Dotel, who retired Ryan Braun in the fifth. "We feel that we can do the job. We feel that we've got enough talent to get through and try to get those guys out of balance. You've got to understand, they've got an unbelievably tough lineup. Milwaukee, they've got a tough lineup. And we're looking forward to having a little bit better luck than them."
The Cards tried to do something similar a night earlier, but it's a lot easier with five runs than with two, and they lost by a 4-2 count. On Friday, they hit Greinke fairly hard but also benefited from a very porous Brewers defense, turning those four errors into three unearned runs.
The biggest actually came with Garcia at the plate. With two outs, runners on second and third and a 1-0 lead in the second, Garcia hit a ball right at Hairston at third. Hairston muffed it, two runs scored and St. Louis was in command. The fourth run also came courtesy of Garcia's bat, as he rapped an RBI groundout after the Cards sacrificed in front of him.
Soon after, Garcia was done. Three singles in a four-batter span chased him in the fifth, and Dotel got the critical strikeout of Braun to escape the jam. It was never really scary again.
"[Dotel] is good, man," Braun said. "He was a dominant closer in this league for a long time. This time of year, you're supposed to face good guys."
Lynn, Marc Rzepczynski and Jason Motte all pitched shutout relief over the second half of the game, and the Cardinals' improbable run took one step forward. They send Edwin Jackson to the mound against Shaun Marcum in Game 6, and failing that, they have ace Chris Carpenter in Game 7.
"We're just trying to win," said Matt Holliday. "Tony's trying to do whatever he can to win if the spot calls for it ... our bullpen's been incredible. They've really fit into roles and it's been fun to watch. You like your starters to go deep, but when you have a bullpen that's as deep as ours, you've got that option."
The Cards have gotten to this point the hard way, and they're winning games the hard way. As long as they keep winning, though, no one will care.
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.