ST. LOUIS -- All the Cardinals asked of youngsters Michael Wacha on Saturday and Joe Kelly the day before was to sling enough pebbles to give the offense time to find some way, somehow to steal a few runs on the pitching Goliaths that Los Angeles threw at them this weekend.
With Zack Greinke in Game 1 and Clayton Kershaw in Game 2, the Dodgers strode into the National League championship series with two of the finest pitchers in the land.
The tandem aces individually had more Cy Young awards than the two Cardinals' starters had playoff starts combined coming into this October.
Runs would be scarce, scoreless innings a necessity. All the young guns had to do was keep pace with the best one-two pitching punch in the league. In the word of one Cardinals player, the assignment given their young guns was "almost unfair."
To which team, he did not say.
Wacha outdueled and outlasted Kershaw in the Cardinals' 1-0 victory Saturday at Busch Stadium to muscle the Cardinals to a controlling 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series for the league pennant.
Jon Jay provided the lone run, with a sacrifice fly in the fifth inning. It was about all the offense Kershaw allowed.
Kershaw (1-1) held the Cardinals to two hits and no earned runs in six innings, but Wacha (2-0) kept pace, just as Kelly did with Greinke the night before. The Dodgers had bigger names with broader resumes, but the Cardinals' kids had better results.
"Some guys get starry-eyed when they pitch against big names," ace Adam Wainwright said. "Other guys out there say, 'OK, I'm up for the challenge.' It seems to me that our guys are up for the challenge."
Said outfielder Matt Holliday: "It's remarkable, but not surprising."
Wacha's 6 2/3 scoreless innings were the bulk of a game that saw 26 of the Cardinals' 27 outs recorded by a rookie. Closer Trevor Rosenthal, a rookie, struck out all three batters he faced in the ninth inning to preserve the one-run victory and send the series to Dodgers Stadium, where Game 3 will be Monday.
The Cardinals arrived in LA late Saturday night with the two-games-to-none lead and 19-game-winner Wainwright yet to throw a pitch in the series.
The Cardinals won both games within an 18-hour span this weekend. The two teams played the third-longest game in NLCS history on Friday night until Carlos Beltran's RBI single in the 13th ended it with a 3-2 Cardinals win early Saturday morning. Runs remained at a premium that afternoon as the Dodgers tumbled into a 19-inning scoreless streak that is still active. Neither Greinke nor Kershaw failed to live up to their billing. They combined to allow six hits in 14 innings and hold the Cardinals to a .136 average.
The offense for the Cardinals has been three RBIs from Beltran and a sacrifice fly. Subtract Beltran's hits from the weekend, and the Cardinals batted .119 (seven-for-59).
Or, as Holliday called the offense, "pretty much nonexistent."
But it's been enough because of the pitchers.
Wacha, 22, was a sophomore at Texas A&M when 25-year-old Kershaw won his Cy Young Award. This past season Kershaw built a case for his second Cy Young with a league-best 1.83 ERA in 236 innings. He had this past summer more innings than the Cardinals' games 1 and 2 starters had in a major-league rotation -- in their careers.
Less than 17 months removed from his final collegiate pitch, Wacha has been this October's comet, the young arm dazzling amongst the stars. He came one out shy of a no-hitter in his final regular-season start and continued the pace in the postseason. In his last three starts, Wacha has thrown 24 2/3 innings and allowed seven hits and one earned run while striking out 27. In the postseason, he's thrown two games with at least eight strikeouts and on earned run in 14 innings.
He is the second Cardinals starter to throw back-to-back postseason games with at least eight strikeouts and no more than one earned run. Bob Gibson last did it in the 1968 World Series.
"You know who you're up against on the other side coming in," said Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter. "But these guys, like Michael, have proven that they like this atmosphere, this stage. There's no question it's challenging because of their age, their inexperience, but then you look at their makeup. ... They're not looking ?... to see what's going on because it's pretty cool. They're sticking their heads in this thing. They're wanting to be the main part of it."
It took Matt Carpenter trying to force a play in the sixth inning to give Wacha his first true test of the playoffs. He hadn't allowed a runner in scoring position with less than two outs in weeks -- weeks -- until Carpenter's throw to second base for a forceout went wild and allowed Kershaw and Carl Crawford to reach third and second, respectively, with no outs.
He coaxed an infield fly from Mark Ellis and then loaded the bases by walking Adrian Gonzalez. The Dodgers' depleted lineup lacked an enforcer for such a move because No. 3 hitter Hanley Ramirez was a late scratch because of bruised ribs. Kelly hit him with a fastball Friday.
With the bases loaded and one out, Wacha struck out Yasiel Puig on a full-count, 94-mph fastball, and the got Juan Uribe swinging to end the inning and preserve the 1-0 lead.
"I was definitely amped up to get out of that jam," Wacha said. "I haven't had to pitch out of too many jams like that. Every game I've pitched in these past three starts have been close games. It helped me out in a way to stay locked-in all game."
It was not the poise expected often from a 22-year-old.
"We expect it from our 22-year-old," infielder Daniel Descalso said.
Carpenter hit the first pitch he saw in the first inning for a leadoff triple. But Kershaw stranded him there by retiring Beltran, Holliday and Yadier Molina in order. Kershaw got a double play to erase a walk as the 2 hour, 40-minute raced along as the teams combined for only three baserunners until the fifth inning. David Freese opened the bottom of the inning with a double into the corner against Kershaw. A passed ball moved him to third. Jay found redemption all within one plate appearance to bring Freese home.
Having failed to deliver a needed a bunt and misplaying a single into a triple on Friday night, Jay said he had "a bad overall game." With Freese at third, Jay whiffed on a bunt attempt to bring him home. On a two-strike slider from Kershaw, Jay lifted a fly ball to left fielder Crawford. The meek throw was late and off line, allowing Freese to score.
The Dodgers threatened in the seventh when two wild pitches from lefty Kevin Siegrist put Nick Punto at third base. Siegrist's entrance into the game had helped chase Kershaw from it for a pinch-hitter. Siegrist got a fly ball to end the seventh, one of 13 scoreless innings thrown by the Cardinals in this series that includes a rookie.
The Cardinals have scored only four runs in the series.
Wacha and Kelly have allowed only two.
The third 1-0 victory in Cardinals' postseason history assures that, at worst, the Cardinals will play one more game at Busch Stadium. They will either return for the World Series or looking to finish the NLCS. The last team to rally from an 0-2 deficit in the NLCS was the 1985 Cardinals. They did so against the Dodgers.
"It's a spot we really haven't been in before," Descalso said. "These are two hard-fought games against two of the best pitchers in the game, and we'll take a win any way we can get it in those games. We did just enough in these games. We barely had more offense than they did. But it was just enough."
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