So many of the elements that have propelled the Cardinals up the standings and back into playoff position were on display in Tuesday's 5-2 win over the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
There was the wave of two-out runs and flashes of power, this time in the form of two-run homers from Yadier Molina and Marcell Ozuna. Those timely hits complemented another gutsy performance from a rookie starter, more dazzling defense from Kolten Wong and lockdown work from a bullpen that showed off yet another new, formidable look.
It's a formula that has produced a Major League-leading 16 wins in August as the Cardinals have elbowed their way past every team that once sat ahead of them in the National League Wild Card standings. The Cards now own a half-game advantage over the Brewers in that race, and they continue to close the gap in the NL Central. The Cubs' lead, which was nine games over the Cardinals on July 26, is down to 2 1/2.
"I don't think this clubhouse ever thought it was out of sight," interim manager Mike Shildt said.
This run of eight straight series wins is the team's longest since its 100-win 2015 season. And it's no coincidence that the surge began the day the organization dismantled its bullpen. Jordan Hicks and Bud Norris kept their spots, but around them, roles shifted and faces changed.
Those tweaks continued into Tuesday, when the Cardinals debuted Luke Weaver and Carlos Martinez as relievers. Representing two-fifths of the clubs' Opening Day rotation, the pair bridged a four-inning start from Daniel Poncedeleon to Norris, who notched his 26th save. It was Martinez's first relief appearance since 2015 and just the fifth of Weaver's career.
"I think it's a big thing, especially guys who can adapt in different situations," said Weaver, who was bumped from the rotation after his last start. "Having a guy or a couple guys out there just to eat those innings up in the middle and get to the back end of the bullpen for those guys on the team, just try to keep the game close. It's different for us, but we're adjusting."
Martinez, who walked two and allowed a hit in 1 1/3 innings, wasn't his sharpest in his return from the disabled list. But his presence out of the 'pen gives Shildt another versatile arm to deploy in any number of situations. That was especially key on Tuesday, as the Cardinals were without late-inning arms Dakota Hudson and Hicks.
The night also ended with everyone relieved that Joc Pederson's 110-mph line drive, which struck Martinez on the right side of his sternum, left nothing more than a red mark. Martinez fell to the ground and needed to be checked on by the medical staff, but he was able to walk off the field shortly after Matt Carpenter turned the comebacker into the final out of the eighth.
X-rays on Martinez came back negative.
"I couldn't breathe, and everything started to go black," said Martinez. "I took a couple of breaths, and after that, like a minute [later], it was better."
• C-Mart takes 110-mph liner to torso in return
Poncedeleon, making his first start since twirling seven no-hit innings on July 23, sidestepped trouble all night. He stranded six runners over four innings and the only run he allowed was on a bases-loaded hit by pitch. Weaver piggybacked Poncedeleon with 2 1/3 innings and picked up the victory.
"It speaks well of all of these guys that they are team-first guys," Shildt said. "The reality is there is a team full of people, and it doesn't always go your way. These guys get that. The pitchers are getting it, the position players are getting it, and they are just doing what they can when they can and they are hungry for it."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
After wiggling out of a bases-loaded, one-out mess with only one run allowed in the second, Poncedeleon navigated through additional trouble in his final inning. With runners in scoring position and no outs in the fourth, Poncedeleon struck out Puig and then thought he had a forceout at home on James Dozier's grounder to third. When the ball was ruled foul, Poncedeleon lost his cool. Jose Martinez calmed him down, and when play continued, Poncedeleon retired Dozier with a strikeout.
"I just let the game get the best of me, and I wore my emotions on my sleeves," Poncedeleon said. "But I do like the ways I was able to pitch through the jams. I just wish I was a little more professional. Every pitch I threw I put all of my heart into it."
A Pederson flyout ended the inning and preserved a two-run Cards lead.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
After saving a run with a stellar defensive play in the series opener, Wong stunned even himself with one of the most dazzling defensive plays of the Cardinals' season. Wong ranged to the shortstop side of second base, stopped a grounder from Justin Turner, picked it up, and, from the grass, side-armed a throw as he tumbled to the ground. The 60.9-mph throw went 117 feet to first base and beat Turner to register the first out of the ninth inning.
"You can count on your hand, at least I can, the number of plays you've seen that are any better than that," Shildt said. "I'm having a hard time recalling right now what they might be. That's just a Gold Glove-caliber play is what that is."
• Wong's stunning play steals show in Hollywood
The Cardinals have homered in 14 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the Majors and two shy of the season-high mark set by the Phillies. The Cards also lead the Majors with 56 home runs in the seventh inning or later.
HE SAID IT
"That was stressful. A little bit of fun, but a lot of stress in that game." -- Poncedeleon
Jack Flaherty will become the third consecutive rookie pitcher the Cardinals will start in this series when he takes the mound at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday at 9:10 p.m. CT. Like Poncedeleon, Flaherty is a Southern California native. The right-hander has won each of his last three starts and has recorded at least seven strikeouts in six consecutive outings. He will face off against Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler.